Natural Bridge, Spring 2001
I. The Yard Sale
The Ray Bans went for five dollars to a man named Juan. Hundred percent profit. I’d found them on a trip to New York one time—scooped them up off the sidewalk, shiny and igneous as black lava scarabs. They made me look like a beetle, which was why I was selling them. They suited Juan’s face a good deal better than they suited mine, and they also suited the face of the guy Juan came with, Mike. I had to tell Mike they were already spoken for by Juan. Maybe they could share. I’d thought Mike and Juan were lovers, until Juan said he could see from my belongings I’d be good to sit by the beach and drink coffee with. I was selling mostly clothes, shiny clothes and sequined clothes, jeans that were too tight for me and leotard tops, high heels and mules. I also had some appliances and trinkets and lots of decorative items Hal and I had picked up for under a dollar in Mexico. Juan asked for my phone number.
“Juan, you don’t do it like that,” Mike said.
“Yeah?” Juan asked. He seemed to look up to Mike. Mike wore overalls with paint stains on them and drove a truck with tools and sheets of carpet and weatherstripping dangling over the tailgate.
“Better you give her your number.”
“Better,” I said.
“Oh,” Juan said, but sounding a little unsure. He wrote out his number on the back of a card from an electrical shop, and handed it to me while he looked over to Mike. “You’ll call me then?” he asked me. “And we’ll have coffee?”
“Sure,” I said, meaning no.
There was another guy with Mike and Juan: Arturo. He was small and didn’t speak much English and spent the whole time picking through the clothes and ignoring Mike and Juan. When Mike and Juan walked back to the truck Arturo stayed behind, gesturing to me with a velvet scoopneck top and a size two miniskirt, both of which looked like they’d fit him. The top had been a gift but was ratty now. The skirt was a hand-me-down from a friend. “Five dollars,” I said. Mike and Juan were already pulling onto Beach Boulevard when Arturo handed me the money. Arturo didn’t seem to notice they were leaving without him, but after a while Mike and Juan swung back anyway. Arturo got in the truck, as if nobody gave much thought to the fact they’d almost forgotten their friend.
I watched the truck disappear into the horizon of white sky and ocean. A woman gave me a twenty for the microwave. A mean profit, just like the Ray Bans. The microwave had belonged to a former roommate who’d lifted several plates and pieces of furniture that weren’t hers when she moved. I’d never returned her call when she asked to come pick up the microwave. She let it slide, I guess.
Profits were just as high on the espresso maker, the black and white and the electric heater—from my father, a friend who thought I should watch the news at least, and Hal respectively. On those I made ten, fifteen and five dollars.
An old guy who drove up in a Cadillac was trying to get the toaster oven down from an asking price of five. It had come from my grandmother; she’d had it shipped new, from the department store. The man claimed it was defective because the face wouldn’t close flush.
“It’s broken!” he insisted. “It can’t be worth more than three!”
For a second I felt unethical, selling a defective toaster oven from my poor old grandmother. But she’d spent good money on all that shipping. And three dollars for a toaster oven, when you drive a big white Cadillac, seemed criminal. So I stuck to four.
“Honey,” his friend told him. She was a seventy-something blonde in leopard capri pants and mules. “You buy a new one, it’s thirty-five.”
“On a new one the door shuts!” the man said. He was opening the front and closing it again, opening it and closing it. Squeak. Squeak.
I set the toaster oven on a more level surface and the door shut fine. “Four dollars,” I repeated, wishing I’d stuck to five.
The woman picked through the clothes, holding an occasional jacket or shirt to the light by four fingernails and then sniffing before laying it down as if she’d seen a bedbug crawl out of it.
“You got any watches?” a man asked. “I collect watches. Watches is what I do.”
“Yeah,” I said, slowly. I was thinking. I had a Seiko upstairs in my jewelry box that had cost a hundred and fifty dollars and had been a gift from Hal, who wore an almost identical men’s version of the same watch, down to the boarskin band. The bands were soft, like the skin under my chin. Last time I’d seen Hal he was still wearing his Seiko. Mine, though, had broken someplace deep in the machinery. I’d worn it on my wrist, motionless, for several weeks, and then I took it to the watch shop. They said it wasn’t worth the cost of repair.
I ran upstairs to look in my jewelry box. Beside the Seiko lay a watch I’d bought for a dollar at a yard sale in San Francisco. It was silver and made by a fancy Swiss company from the forties, Elgin, and it was beautiful—with sleek hour and minute hands that had delicate arrows at their ends, raised numerals drawn in precise arabesque. The Elgin hadn’t worked when I’d bought it, and then one day it started ticking at the exact time it had stopped: two twenty-five. I started winding it every morning and wearing it, until at two twenty-five one afternoon it stopped. It did this a half-dozen times, starting mysteriously and stopping just as suddenly, always at the designated time, until finally it stopped for several months. I took it to a jeweler in Chinatown who fixed it for four dollars. After a week it stopped working again, and for several years now it had yet to start up.
There was a third watch, an imitation Armani. I could hear its motor reverberating inside the jewelry box. I’d bought it on a trip with Hal to Tijuana for three dollars. I never wore it, for no reason in particular other than that I preferred the Seiko and never got over thinking the Seiko would work. I scooped all three watches in my palm: the Elgin, cool and weighty as a silver dollar; the Seiko, soft against my skin; the Armani, humming like a trickstore handshake.
I ran downstairs and told the man that two watches weren’t working and I’d sell all three for fifty. He bought them, mumbling something about getting new batteries. No questions. Never asked: Did you try to fix them? I felt, well, a little bad.
I’d always understood that the point of a yard sale was not so much to make a profit as to recover the losses from a legacy of bad purchases. The thing with me, though, was that I had a constitutional distaste for spending more than five dollars at a time. I shopped at yard sales myself, accumulating small trinkets of little apparent value and acquiring the bare necessities for next to free. I had no matching plates, had never been to a department store to buy sheets or a bath mat. I made do, however often on the largesse of friends and family members and Hal, who’d observe some missing necessity and either buy me one or lend me one or bring me some serendipitous acquisition from a garbage heap or estate sale or 99-Cent Store.
Hal and I had been together on and off for ten years. We never lived in the same city. He was in Northern California, I in Southern. We commuted to see each other, sometimes more often than others, and a couple of times not for a year or two at a stretch. Lately it had been about once a month, and despite the disturbances of time and space between us, being with Hal was still the thing in the world that made me feel most myself. When we were apart, my life seemed a series of mundane tasks I muscled through to get to the other side. Toothbrushings and pharmacy shoppings and rice cookings; cage cleanings and animal feedings and data recordings. With Hal not there, I was a disembodied worker drone, a counter of ticks on the time clock leading to the day I’d see Hal and live. Hal was coming on Friday. For three weeks now, every day leading to Friday felt more real than the last, I more authentic, more a person in a body with skin that registered the warmth of touch, more a woman with breasts and nipples and a spot that felt warm someplace deep inside my thighs.
I sat at the yard sale in my folding chair, my cordless phone on the pavement by my side. A call rang in from Hal. “Hi,” he said. My turn. That was how Hal talked on the phone. No filler.
“Love, I just sold the Seiko,” I confessed. “Sorry.” The watch man was still in my driveway, scrutinizing the timer on the Mister Coffee. A woman was standing behind him staring at the machine because she’d already offered to buy it. His attention to the timer seemed to make her uncomfortable.
“Couldn’t you fix it?” Hal asked.
When Hal visited three weeks ago I’d asked him several times what time it was, and he finally gave me an exasperated look and asked what was wrong with the Seiko. He seemed shaken when he found out it was broken—not indignant, just surprised, as if the malfunction of a watch he believed to be reliable betrayed something fundamental in his apprehension of the world. “Mine still works,” he said. “It always works.”
The Sunday that he left I got a call from a man in New York I very much admired. He was the top primatologist in the psych department at Columbia University. Hal had just driven off; his face was still a figment in my mirrors, the outline of his body still sunken in my sofa. The primatologist was offering me a job I very much wanted, the best job I could imagine and the one I coveted more than any other in the world. I told him, Probably.
I called Hal and told him that everything about it was perfect except it put me farther from him.
Hal said I should take it. “What’s the difference between three thousand miles and five hundred?” he asked.
None. I could think of none. Other than 2500 miles.
Mrs. Mister Coffee handed me a five and swept the machine from under the watch man’s eyes. It seemed like Hal was silent on the phone, though it was hard to tell because I could barely hear—the cordless was too far from the phone base to provide a clear signal, and I was distracted because there were women picking through my clothes and men holding up jars of used hooks and porcelain repair and oxide gel to see if they still had value. I observed the watch man, tried to make out the impression of the Seiko through his pants leg.
I stood up and walked to where the watch man couldn’t hear. “The watch had something called a movement, and the movement was broken,” I whispered to Hal. “To make the movement move would cost more than the value of the watch.” I’d already told him this, but he’d never responded the first time. Sometimes important facts didn’t register with Hal. He was silent again now, as if this overlay of fact onto the truth as he perceived it confused him.
“Listen,” he said, changing the subject, “I’ve been thinking. I’m not coming next weekend.” No filler.
“It just doesn’t feel like it’s essential, to you.”
“But it is,” I said. “Just not coming?” I asked.
There was frequently something bothering Hal, a thin ring of bitterness enclosing his person, something never quite right. In his silence was the residue of this something wrong. He was often angry about something remote, something from a year ago, or five years ago, or just now but vague and underlying, nothing an apology could fix. Ambivalence had worked against our ever living in the same place, and if there was one thing at root of our inability to share in a day-to-day existence, it was probably this. The anger was hard to live around, for me. For him, there was always something more perfect, a dream of a day he wouldn’t feel angry.
“Not essential?” I asked.
“Maybe I could still come, but in a few weeks,” he said.
I felt a heat in the skin of my neck. Hal knew I was leaving in two weeks. Hal, when I met him, was strong. To back out now, equivocally, was weak, weak as a lie can be. “I’ll be in New York in a few weeks.”
“It’s far,” he said vaguely now. “You’re going far.”
When I first knew Hal, he was valiant about love. He was my hero, ready for the journey. On our first night together, we were paired on an innocuous drive from one place to another to gather with mutual friends at a bar. He suggested we stop at the cliffs and then told me he loved me. It wasn’t that he was merely interested in me or thought I was beautiful or wanted to sleep with me: In a single evening in my presence, he’d discovered he wanted to spend his life with me, never a day apart. When we went to his house he gripped me in his arms before he unlocked his door, and we had sex as soon as we stepped inside. It seemed essential. “Remember me,” he said before I drove back down south, “like a fingerprint on your forehead.”
Later, because love was sometimes hard, he withered inside his body. We had our first fight—about something so trivial it is the memory of the fight and not the substance that eats like acid for years to come. He told me then that this was why we couldn’t stay together. “This!” he said.
Proof! I thought. Sacre bleu!
“It should be harmonious,” he said. To clash was to be cosmically doomed. The quarrel was left where it was until next time, to sit behind us in the movie theater, a cruel little imp eating at our dream of beautiful love. Over ten years the dream shrank and Hal shrank with it, became smaller and meaner and less of a man, emasculated by disappointment.
“Maybe don’t come,” I said over the pops and whistles in the cordless. “Hal. Don’t come. Come, or don’t come. Not both.”
When the customers stopped coming, when Hal wasn’t coming, I packed my belongings into cardboard boxes and extra-large garbage bags. A last man stepped up to purchase a last-remaining item: my Golden Gate Bridge shakee. “Fifty cents,” I said, voice studied and flat.
He said, “Sure, ma cherie.” He said I looked like Mary in the Mary Tyler Moore Show and asked for my phone number, which I didn’t give him. He did, however, have full lips and brown eyes with lovely flecks of yellow and orange that gave his face a certain warmth. I said I’d take his number.
Upstairs, I emptied my new bills and change onto my counter. The coins clattered onto the tiles, several rolling into the sink and landing in the basket in the drain. I left them there to get wet. They would rust and turn sour like river waste, permeating the apartment with a thick smell, like civet musk: Fine.
That night I counted out the bills, and had seven hundred dollars plus a few fives and enough quarters and dimes to make a good dozen set of brass knuckles. I’d earned the deposit for a new apartment in Brooklyn. Or, I could mail the cash to Hal, a hundred-fifty for the watch at least, something for the trinkets. Or maybe not.
There was a slip of paper wadded between some bills and the card from Juan: the number from the Monsieur Golden Gate Bridge. I started separating the nickels from the dimes on the counter, making piles on opposite ends for each. I left the quarters to collect in the middle, thinking of how without Hal I’d feel less alive every day leading up to Friday, and then I’d be nothing but my pelt, flattened and soggy-smelling from tears.
I called the Monsieur. Mark. I didn’t really hear what he said on the phone, but it felt good to listen to his voice. An ironic voice, full of questions and optimism.
“Mark,” I said, “would you like to come over some time?”
“Yes,” he said. “I would like that.”
“Next weekend,” I said. “I’m having another yard sale.”
IV. The Car
There was a car. It was a lovely car. Hal had bought it for me for two thousand dollars a year before. At the time the body was dinged and chipped and the engine was sluggish, but it was black and had character and felt durable on the road, which it was. It had survived twenty-four years already. My car was one year shy of a classic.
Two months after we bought it my car got rear ended. The car from behind hit me so hard the modules on the dash inside shifted a half foot towards the drivers seat. The body itself was sturdy, though, and the damage appeared only superficial. The insurance company disagreed. They said my car was totaled. They gave Hal and me cash back on the salvage value, which is insurance speak for the amount of money that would be left if you took the blue-book value of the car and subtracted the price the company could get selling it to a junkyard. That left us with fifteen hundred dollars. We took the car to my mechanic, who was an undocumented immigrant from Guadalajara. He said he could get every undocumented cousin and brother-in-law he knew to help fix it and clean up its dings and give it a new paint job. The car came back shiny and undinged, better, it seemed, than new. With immigrant labor this cost only a thousand. We took the five hundred and took a weekend trip through Baja.
On the way back from Baja, I noticed that the car kept pulling to the left, toward the ocean. Hal had been quietly upset since the accident, unwilling to accept the truism that a rearending is always the fault of the rearender. I felt implicated. Hal, however, expressed his annoyance in a manner so ethereal it seemed I could not assert my innocence. We drove in silence. I imagined that my car had a spirit, grown dark and pessimistic with the desire to drift seaward. It wanted to fling itself into the undertow, to experience its blackness.
Later, when I looked at the car from the front, it seemed like it was winking, and when I looked at it from the back, it had a smirk—a corner of smile uplifted. My car was surgically improved, but coiled deep in its backbone was a twist, mean and aching.
Now I wanted to sell it. I counted up the bodywork, the new paint job and the periodic lump-sum repair to fix the car’s twenty-five-year-old clutch or chassis or brakes. We’d invested nearly four thousand dollars in the car. I advertised it for, well, five thousand. Between the time we’d bought it and now it had, after all, graduated to a classic.
After the yard sale several people called about the car, and over the next week I entertained them in my driveway. I got car geeks, men in Doo-Wop outfits and men who drove to my house in spiffed-up models of the exact same car I was selling. “Been in an accident, huh?” one said after he drove it.
“Yeah,” I admitted.
“Can’t shake that,” he said. He didn’t buy it, but he asked me to a drink at the pier; I took his number.
The next guy divined the accident before he drove the car.
The other guys had more or less the same reaction, and then I got a girl. We went on a drive together. She spent a long time testing it on curves and then stopped near the freeway offramp and looked under the hood and asked technical questions that I didn’t understand. “Has it been in any accidents?” she asked.
It seemed like an honest question. “Nope,” I lied. I held my breath.
“I have forty-five hundred cash,” she said. Now she was holding her breath. “I’ll take the car today if you’ll knock the price down.”
I pretended to deliberate. “Okay,” I said after what seemed a long enough pause.
When we drove back the girl said she’d just moved from New York City. I told her I was moving there once I’d sold my life possessions. She asked me what for and I told her that I got a new job that was the best job ever and that I’d wanted more than any other job in the world. I named the department at Columbia and she said she knew someone there and threw out the name of the primatolgist.
“Oh,” I said. “ I know him.”
“Our families have been close for generations,” she said. “He’s like a father to me.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll tell him we met.” Only I wouldn’t, and I hoped she wouldn’t, and I thought about how your past sometimes chases you through time zones and continents and decades. I thought about how at my new job I’d be making a better salary than as a lab assistant and I wondered if I could never buy too low again, never sell too high again: never gouge for the simple thrill of making something on nothing.
V. The Beach
The surf comes in, washes everything away, comes in, washes everything away.
VI. The Yard Sale, Week Two
There was another pair of sunglasses, that a woman at work had given me. Simona and I had the remote kind of friendship that can grow from congenial to warm and then to hostile for no particular reason other than that one day the person decides she hates the context in which she met you, thereby implicating anyone associated with that place. During the warm stage, Simona told me to try on her sunglasses, which had lenses the size of oranges and white plastic frames, and she gave them to me because she thought I looked like Mary Tyler Moore in them. Mary Tyler Moore might have worn them in the Seventies, thinking it looked very Fifties.
A little boy with a basketball picked up the glasses and held them up to his mother. She tried them on. “Very Mary Tyler Moore,” I said. I took two dollars for them, thinking about how the last time I’d seen Simona she’d walked from one door of the coffee cubicle to the other pretending she’d never seen me.
A man with Princeton features picked up my painted menorah, wax-encrusted and faded. “What’s this?” he asked.
The kind of thing you don’t want if you can’t identify, I thought. “Candle holder,” I said. “Five dollars.”
He took it for four. New Testament discount.
A sculptor gave me seven dollars for a box of shells I’d collected from the beach; a lifeguard three for a T-square I’d found in the garbage. Mirrors and lamps and irons: all for sale, the detritus of my life and my friends’ and Hal’s laying on the small rectangle of concrete that was my driveway. A fireman held up a chipped ceramic espresso cup from Italy, the kind you couldn’t drink from because it had lead in the paint. I’d bought it, unchipped, at another yard sale for fifty cents, and used it to store tubes of free perfume samples. The samples were still inside it; their scent rose to me when the fireman lifted it to ask its price.
“Five dollars,” I said.
He stood a long time examining the yellow and green brushstrokes adorning its lip. “Does five dollars include the perfume?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“We had some big fires here a few years back,” he said, a non-sequitur. He seemed like he’d pay for the cup as long as he got the requisite attention in conversation, but I wasn’t sure I cared to give it.
“I know,” I said. The fire had been in the news for several weeks, though I hadn’t yet moved here. I took five dollars from a woman for a couch cushion I’d bought without the couch from the As Is room at Ikea, and another three from a woman who’d overheard the fireman ask about the perfume samples and had him dump them into her palm from the espresso cup. The fireman seemed like he was waiting for my driveway to empty, which, shortly, it did.
“The flames were huge,” he said. “Orange. Standing in the middle of them, I felt large. Like I could step on them.” His feet, and his frame, looked quite large all of a sudden. The driveway filled again. I was glad. And soon all the people remaining at the yard sale were men, and the only things for sale were women’s clothes, and another man was standing around examining washers and scraps of metal that had no value whatsoever except maybe they looked cool, and he seemed like he was waiting for the fireman to leave, and a Subaru pulled up, and out, finally, stepped Mark, holding his Golden Gate Bridge shakee.
“Hi Mark,” I said.
The fireman gave me five dollars and walked toward Beach Boulevard.
“You have a lot of women’s clothes and a lot of men at your yard sale,” Mark observed. “I mean, the clothes are doing their job, attracting men. But I don’t think the men are gonna buy them. Wanna pack it up?”
Mark helped me stuff the clothes into large black garbage bags and brought them upstairs while I talked to the stragglers of the male shoppers. “I looked in your freezer,” Mark said when he came down. “You learn a lot about a woman from her freezer. Most women, you know, keep some small indulgences in their freezer. A single Dove Bar or a Häagen Dazs with little spoonfuls pruned from the top. You have nothing. You have ice.”
I was a little cold, come to think of it, and pulled a sweater from the last bag of clothes.
Mark presented a little white deli bag with two bagels and said he was hungry, so we went upstairs to eat them. I sliced the bagels in half and put them in the broiler because I’d sold the toaster. I never ate toast anyway, and hadn’t had a bagel since the time in New York when I’d found the Ray Bans.
“You’re just like me,” Mark said. “That’s exactly how I toast my bagels. In the broiler. Huh. We have a remarkable amount in common.”
I opened the broiler because I did know it’s very easy to burn bagels in the oven, and I retrieved them, lightly browned.
“Are they done?” Mark asked, looking at them, shaking his head, dissatisfied. “They’re not done, they should be dark brown.”
“I like mine light brown,” I said, replacing his in the broiler. He was looking through my closet.
“Nice clothes,” he was saying, whistling a little. “Love to see you in this.” He held a black dress against his shoulders from the hanger. It had a scoopneck and was made of clingy fabric that came just to his hips the way he was holding it.
We ate the bagels. Or, Mark ate his, and after I was finished with half of mine Mark asked if he could have my other half and I said sure. After, I got up to put the plates in the sink, resting them on top of the drain that still had the rusty coins from last week’s yard sale. I caught their scent, sour and thick. Mark followed behind me and waited for me to turn before he kissed me. He pressed his lips against mine and didn’t move, and I stood there feeling the thick flesh of his lips against mine. It was a strange way to kiss, motionless like that, but his skin felt soft, and good, and it was nice to hold still and think of nothing but lips.
“Let’s lie down,” Mark said after a minute, gesturing to the bed. “Would you like that?” he asked. “To lie down.”
“Sure,” I said, meaning I wasn’t sure.
As we were walking to the bed I noticed that a noise from outside that had sounded like a seagull thwacking oysters into rocks was actually a person, and that the person’s footsteps were now thumping up the steps to my door. I ran out the door without my shoes and met the person half way down the steps. It was a man. He was holding up the last garbage bag I’d left outside, only its contents were on the ground now, and in his other hand he had a few items that had been stuffed into it at the very bottom. “What’s this?” he asked. He was holding an embroidered purse.
“A purse,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “I mean, where’s it from?”
“Baja,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “I mean, what’s the significance behind the patterns in the embroidery. I mean, is there a story behind it?”
“None,” I said.
“Oh.” He held up a skirt. “What about this?”
“Fifteen dollars,” I said. “Twenty for the purse.”
“I mean a story.”
“Thirty-five for both.”
He handed me the cash.
“Sorry if I was bothering you or anything,” he said before he turned to walk down the stairs. “I mean it said yard sale on the sign at the corner. Where’s the skirt from?” he asked.
“L.A.,” I said, walking up the stairs.
“You’re just gonna leave the stuff out?” he shouted. He turned to the clothes in their heap on the pavement. I kept walking up the steps, pretending not to hear, and then I walked inside and watched him from the window upstairs. Behind him, the ocean looked blue and unreal, like a child’s painting. He stood on the pavement, staring at the pile of clothes. Then he lifted a black lace slip from the top and folded it over his arm, and then he left.
Mark was still lying on the bed, and suddenly I was feeling sleepy. I lay down next to him and let my body sink into the softness of his clothes, and for an hour or so we slept. When I woke up he was taking off my sweater.
“Can I take off your clothes?” he asked when he saw I was awake. “Would you like that?”
I moaned a little and didn’t really answer, but didn’t really stop him either, and soon I was naked and he was fucking me and for short moments I could feel my breasts, and my nipples, and my thighs, and if I closed my eyes I knew I had a body that was alive, somewhere, deep inside the blackness.
I fucked Mark every day for the next week, and then I didn’t want to fuck him anymore. I didn’t want to see him anymore. I didn’t want to see him for long enough to tell him I didn’t want to see him, and I didn’t want to talk to him for long enough to tell him I didn’t want to talk to him.
He called and called, but I didn’t pick up my phone. My phone rang and rang. And then I unplugged it. Then I packed it in the slim black suitcase that held my black scoopneck dress and the sweater nobody bought and a cigar box in which I’d sealed the new cash from the yard sales and my car. And I left.
On the plane, I stashed my bag in the overhead above my seat. We took off, and I watched the coastline recede to a thin line of green holding in the disk that was the ocean. The water was flat and silver, with little white lines for waves that looked like somebody drew them there. From somewhere up above, I thought I heard the faint ringing of my cordless. It kept ringing, and ringing—the sound of someone calling.