Starting OverMy contribution to Flash Fiction Friday for June 8, 2012. From the novel "Getting Off", by Lawrence Block, writing as Jill Jamison.
“Okay?”I looked at him. He looked back, his Red Sox ball cap slightly off center, the bill with a hard crease in it and a dark stain on the underside where he gripped it to adjust it. He smiled, or tried to, a subtle lift of his lip to go with the “okay”, an audiovisual presentation to get me to agree with him. He was cute, too cute, and that was the problem. The azure blue eyes, the half smile, the askew cap. I was supposed to agree, no argument, and let him make the decisions again.
“No. It’s not okay. Not again.”
The smile was gone and he looked away, down the street, maybe at the hotdog vendor at the corner, maybe the boy across the street, trying to balance on the fire hydrant, maybe at the young woman, my age, in the yellow sundress walking out of the bakery with a white bag. He paused for a moment more, and then turned toward me, the smile back, a little bigger this time.
“Come on, Karen. You know it will be fun. I promise.”
“There’s nothing fun about visiting your parents.”
“They really like you. And it’s my mom’s birthday. It’ll mean a lot to her if we come.”
“Save it. You can sell that shit to someone else.” I felt my body tense as I drew my arms across my chest.
“But they do.”
“They tolerate me. So they can see you. They don’t like me. Not them. Not your brother. Not any of them.”
“And if you really believe that, then we’ve got a real problem.”
I was the problem. A biracial woman who loved their son. The son of very traditional Italian Americans. There was no like when I saw them. There were questions, and sideways glances.
“They’ll come to love you like I do.”
“Yeah, when the dinosaurs roam the earth again. There’s no love when we visit them.”
“Yes there is. I can tell. And they ask about you every time I call …”
“’Are you still dating whatshername?’”
He paused, stuck in mid sentence. Long enough to know that I was close.
“They always say to say ‘hello’. That’s a start.”
“Or a no starter.”
"I’m taking a survey. May I ask you a few questions?”
Karen looked up from her book and saw the tall, thin man standing over her.
“It will only take a minute.” He smiled at her, arching his eyebrows.She stared at him for a moment, long enough to make him uncomfortable.
“I’m Justin, and you are …”
“What’s the survey about?”
He paused again. “It’s a class assignment.”
“Sociology. What’s the worst pick up line that you’ve ever heard?”
“Right now, this may be it.”
She watched Justin’s face go pale.
“Sit down.” She pushed her book bag to the side. “Ask your questions.”
He was tentative, sliding into the seat in the booth.
“Oh, yeah. So, what’s the worst pick up line you’ve heard?”
“Aren’t you going to write this down?”
Karen watched him fumble for a piece of paper from his jeans, and then started patting the same pockets again. He blushed. She slid a pen across the table.
“It helps to be prepared,” Karen said. She tried to suppress her smile.
“Well, you’re my first subject.’
“Or the first that’s been willing to talk to you tonight?”
The semester had just begun and the library was quiet. People were still easing into the routines after the holiday break. Karen had skipped the holidays with her parents, she had made a quick weekend visit to them, but preferred to stay at her apartment and read and study, and in her words “get a leg up on the next semester.”
“Okay, let’s quit with the bullshit Jason.”
“Justin.” He paused, looking hurt that she had forgotten his name. “Justin Gabarini.” He paused. “And you’re …?”
“Karen. So, if you were a vegetable, which one would you be?”
“It’s an easy question. Answer it.”
“Well, I like artichokes, especially the way my mother fixes them, and then there’s …”
“Vegetable. You. If you were a vegetable, which one would you be?” She looked at her watch. “You’ve got ten seconds.”
He frowned again. “Zucchini. Very versatile, sweet or savory, happy to be by itself. Or in a group. Inexpensive. Available year round. Tough, stores well.” He looked pleased. “You?”
“Eggplant. Tough on the outside, and you never know what you’ll find on the inside. Adaptable to anything, versatile, dismissed at times, disrespected at times. But always comes through at the end.”
“Sounds like you’ve thought about that one for a while.”
“That’s my pick up line.” She smiled. “Works all of the time.”
“I’d buy it.”
“You would? That little line?”
She reached over and took her pen out of his hands. “I’ll meet you for coffee, tomorrow, say seven thirty at the Coffee Shack, off the quad. Date?”
She stood and slung her book bag over her left shoulder.
“See you then.”
Justin sat at the booth until the library closed rerunning the conversation through his mind.
I sipped the dark roast, nearly tan with milk, and savored the flavor. Justin sat across from me, his thin fingers wrapped around the white coffee cup. He brought the cup to his lips and took a sip. A few bubbles of foam stayed on his upper lip. I wanted to reach across the table and wipe them away, to feel my finger rub against the stubble of beard on his face, to touch his face, to hold it in my hands.
“I don’t know if this is going to work,” I said, looking away, over his shoulder, to the barista at the back of the room.
“It’s been working fine. Or it has been. Until now. Right?”
His eyes searched mine, finely oscillating back and forth over my face. His face looked suddenly older, and worn, as if it had borne too many hardships.
“I think we need a break,” I said. I was surprised when the words came from my mouth. It wasn’t what I wanted to say, but what needed to be said. For once, maybe, my brain spoke instead of my heart.
“Look, Karen, we don’t need to decide right now. We’ll skip the trip to my parents. I’ll tell them something’s up, and we, I can’t make it.”
“Don’t start lying.”
“You’re more important to me.”
“Don’t say that.”
I stood and took a step toward him, resting a hand on his shoulder to prevent him from standing. I leaned over and hugged his neck, resting my cheek on the top of his head for a second.
I walked across the street and started home.