Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter 22: Doing the Cha-Cha

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“Are you okay to talk about this?”

Molly’s couch affords a wonderful view of Mill Valley: the little bowl of the downtown area, the high ridges across the way, slivers of fog teasing the redwoods.

“I was afraid that I had broken the contract.”

“Okay, Jasmina. I appreciate that, but… Let’s say we’re in a court of law right now. I’m an attorney, and I have just asked you to describe the events of… the afternoon in question.”

“Okay. Counselor. Paul headed off for a meeting. He was being mysterious, so I assumed it was with you. I decided to make a nice big salad so I could leave some for Paul. Lettuce, cucumbers, red bell peppers and a can of sweet peas. The can had one of those pull-tops. I was having a hard time getting leverage, so I braced my thumb against the edge. When I yanked it open, the side of the lid cut my thumb, and… I started bleeding.”

“Okay,” says Molly. “Stop right there. Why were you worried about the contract? This sounds like a common accident.”

I look out the window. My eye lands on a tall white steeple. “I can’t trust my own mind. I thought maybe I had done it on purpose.”

Molly thinks about it. “Okay. What happened next?”

“I wrapped the cut with a towel. The sight of the blood was bringing on an impulse. I was getting fuzzy.”

“Okay. Hold on. You understand what was happening, right?”

“I think. But… tell me.”

“Okay. This would be like an alcoholic who mistakenly takes cough syrup that contains alcohol. The incident with the can activated some of the same endorphins and dopamines that you used to get when you self-injured on purpose. And the fuzziness was the same too, correct?”


“Okay. So what did you do next?”

“I sat down, stilled my limbs, fought the physical action. I focused on my conscious thoughts, did the breathing exercises. But still, things were speeding up: breath, heartbeat, the boiling pot. There was something else I had devised as a last resort: Plan F, Plan G. I headed for the basement.”

Molly shifts in her seat. “The basement?”

“That’s where Paul grows his pot. He keeps a pipe on his drying table. For… sampling.”


“Was that… all right?”

“Well, yes. I’d rather have you smoking than self-injuring. But you so totally didn’t hear that from me.”

“Anything you say here is held in complete confidence.”

“Okay. Smartass. So… why weren’t you in the basement when Paul found you?”

“Okay. This is where the – what do you call it? The fuzziness?”


“Yes! This is where the dissociation got really heavy. I moved the shelves, I undid the lock, and I just… couldn’t. It was like every little Satan in the world was in that basement. It felt like a dead end, and the pot kept boiling. For a moment – I confess – I thought of going ahead and doing it, just to have it over with. I took off the towel and looked at my thumb – and of course that just made it worse. I started to search my pockets – for anything, distractions, ideas, Plan J. In my sweatshirt I found a tube of paint. I squeezed it onto my fingers and pressed it to the wall, watching the loops and smears take shape like roads on a map. I spelled out the word BREATHE. A minute later, I remembered my cell phone and I called you.”

Molly walks toward the window, rubbing a spot on her thigh. “Where did the paint come from?”

“Anna gave me a set of acrylics. The day before, I thought it would be a good idea to carry one with me.”

She taps a pencil against her lips. “Good thing you did. This particular scenario had never occurred to me. Oh, and I completely trust you on the accidental cut. But don’t let it happen again.”

“I’m thinking not.”
She returns to her chair and crosses her legs. “One suggestion?”


“Next time? I’m thinking… blue.”


I have definitely made the right choice. I am simply not smooth enough to be relaxed with some non-Jasmina woman, so I got this wiry dude named Scott. Scott’s got strong hands, and his technique is on the level of a ninja-masseur. He seems to reach under my skin, isolating each of my knots and drawing out the fibers like Billy tuning his guitar. The man’s a freakin’ genius.

This is further evidence that I have been taking on stress, absorbing Jasmina’s issues as if they were my own. For one thing, I cannot seem to make a landing on Carter, Montana. The place is a virtual Brigadoon. After the grand Eureka of resurrecting Sass Hunter, I have come to a standstill. Lately, I just sit at the computer and run aground on the usual sandbars: Kelly’s Bakery, Coppertown Supplies. I feel like I’m letting Molly down, forcing her to wander a dark forest without a flashlight. Once a day, I take that card out of my wallet and stare at my encoded phone number.

Other stresses are more immediate. On a trip that was supposed to be a pleasure cruise, Jasmina is being aggressively quiet. There’s something brewing in there. Perhaps I am overthinking. Nobody can maintain that level of graciousness forever. Scott’s fingerwork settles me into a welcome semi-snooze.

The mud room offers three grave-like depressions, two of them filled with a substance resembling half-melted chocolate. I shuck my clothes and sink in. Yaz wraps herself in a towel, and then uses it to screen her body as she makes her descent. Bashful? Now? I pretend to find great fascination in the gray-green tiles until she’s done, then I turn to address her disembodied head.

“Have a good massage?”


“I don’t know if this stuff really does anything, but it is certainly a unique sensation."

“Explain to me how you’re affording this?”

“Ava got her distribution license this week. I made my first delivery – in broad daylight, no less – accepted her generous payment, and received a certificate for this weekend as Ava’s bonus.”

Ten seconds later, Jasmina blinks and says, “Okay.” I decide that it’s best if I shut up and soak.

Scientifically, I’m not buying the claims of mud-bath therapists. Except perhaps in the area of libido, because mine is raging. That and Jasmina’s continuing striptease. When she finishes a lengthy toilette and joins me in bed, I kiss her on the ear and trace a hand along her side. This brings nothing, so I kiss her neck. And… nothing.



“I just…”


“Not ‘Sorry no.’ Just ‘no.’”


“Well, fuck.”

She turns over and glares at me. “What is your problem?”

My problem is not a problem at all. I’ve been rubbed and muddied and lubed up, and I am now in the mood to do something we usually enjoy. Is that a problem?”

“It’s my body. I’ll do with it what I want.”

“Well at least allow me to be disappointed.”

“No. Fuck you.”

“What the fuck is with you? You haven’t said twelve words all day and now you’re pissed at me?”


“Oh, that’s illuminating.”

She turns back over and mutters, “Asshole.”

I’m on my feet, pulling on my jeans. What does Molly call it, the boiling kettle? “I do not fucking deserve this. Jesus. Is there nothing I haven’t done for you this weekend? Princess?”

Again, nothing. The brick wall of Jasmina’s back.


I slam the wall, then I stare at my palm, the skin flushing red. Time to get the kettle away from the stove.

A half-hour later, I’m down to a simmer, sitting in the lobby with a glass of port. I seem to remember that Jasmina needs me, but I’m forgetting why. My feet are bare, but I’m betting the employees are used to various levels of undress. I think of Jasmina in the shower, mud drifting down her shoulder, coffee over cream. This is not helping. A retired couple sits across the room, reading magazines. The woman gives me a glance. No doubt her husband has once or twice found himself barefoot in a lobby, thinking, What the hell did I say?


Jasmina stands above me in a white bathrobe. Her face is scrubbed of makeup, tired but calm, as if the whole argument was a practical joke and she’s about to spring the punch line. She sits across from me.

“I’ve been trying all day not to tell you something.”

Try not telling you that Sass Hunter is alive.

“I can’t have sex. Medical reasons.”

“Is it… serious?”

“Yes and no.” She chews on a fingernail and holds up a hand like an Italian who’s been cut off in traffic. “Rrr! You see how this is? We’re so goddamn close, I’ve got nowhere to hide. I can’t even tolerate a little fib. And now I’ve set myself up. If I don’t tell you now, that withheld piece of information will sit between us like a slobbering dog. Couldn’t you be a little more… distant? Aloof?”

I’m in the middle of a laugh when she says, “I had an abortion.”

“Hang in there, Paul. I know what’s hitting you. The primal stuff. You, me, our genes doing the cha-cha, beautiful little atheist children who like popcorn and banned books. And yes, I hope we have a child someday. Now, make the adjustment, turn the knob, activate that delicious logic of yours and fill in the blanks for me…”


“Please, Paul. Help me out. Write my lines.”

“Umm. Beautiful young woman undergoing psychotherapy for self-injury. Not ready to raise children. Not ready for the chemical bath of pregnancy.”

Jasmina gives me the fluctuating smile, the one that could easily break into tears. She crosses the breach, lands on my lap and gives me a kiss. She tucks her head to my shoulder and stays there, her breath slowing with the minutes. I run a hand over her hair and catch a glimpse of the retired lady smiling at us. I hope she’s been here, too.

“What was it like?”

She stretches her arms toward the ceiling. “It was wonderful. Everybody in this fucking country wants you to believe that it’s an agonizing experience, even when you really want one. I go into this place. I meet with a counselor who asks me, in the most compassionate of terms, what it is that I truly want. Not what some jackass says on the evening news - what I want. Then she explains the procedure, step-by-step – a much simpler operation than most would have you believe. Afterwards, I sit in the recovery room with a college girl who offers me supportive chit-chat. I talk of dodging bullets and life-long commitments, how much I would have fucked that child up. When I walk outside, I just feel giddy. Walking on the moon. Is that too much? Am I just being a callous weirdo?”

I place a hand on her waist. “May I play amateur psychologist?”

“Why not? You’re already having an affair with mine.”

“Yeah yeah, sure sure. Seriously.”

She kisses me on the forehead. “Seriously.”

“One of the skewed motivations for self-injury is to re-establish possession of one’s own body. No?”

“Yes. Like, I’m going to cut this because it belongs to me.”

“Right. Well. Through the disastrous accident of a leaky condom – for which I duly apologize…”

“As you should.”

“…you have landed upon the ultimate opportunity for taking control over your own body. Thereby goes giddiness.”

She lays her head back against the chair and looks at me sideways, bringing to mind the adoring gaze of a Myrna Loy, a Claudette Colbert.

“I love you so much it hurts. Now, if we’re all okay, can we go back to our room and sleep together? Literally speaking?”

“You betcha.”

“And since you’re so all-fired randy, perhaps I will find some way of re-establishing possession of your penis.”

“Agreed. One thing, though? I am really sorry about slamming the wall. Resorting to physical action. You know…”

She thinks about it. “In what way did you slam the wall?”

“Um. With my… palm?”


“So I wouldn’t… hurt myself. Oh.”

“I’m the patient, honey. Not that I enjoyed your little explosion, but if that’s a way for you to dissipate your anger, go ahead. I’m kinda like an alcoholic who has to get used to being around people who drink.”


We puzzle ourselves out of our chair and stroll down the hall.

“There was a picketer in front of the clinic. Christian chick.”

“Oh joy.”

“She stepped in front of me. I guess she was going to talk me out of it.”


“Well, I didn’t mean to… I had a pretty good head of steam going…”


Jasmina smiles. “Clocked her. Like a linebacker over a Girl Scout.”

This mental image revisits me several times over the next few days, and does not fail to crack me up.

Photo by MJV

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