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Two large white creatures are standing on an iceberg. One of them says, “I don’t know – I’m up, I’m down, I’m up again. My doctor says I’m a bipolar bear.”
That was the one he told Tacoma, when the meds and the cautious lifestyle started getting to her. Now, it was the first thing he thought of when he woke up, every morning.
“Shawn! Hey Shawn!”
That and the guys yelling outside. Their friend’s intercom didn’t work, so they shouted four stories’ worth, at all times of day or night, until their friend dropped his keys out the window.
“Shawn! Yo buddy!”
And fate would have it that they shared a name. Shawn peered through the blinds, in case he had to identify them in a police lineup. A set of keys whipped past the Washington flag, just missing George’s nose. But Shawn never saw them land, because there was life at the Kickstand Cafe.
The Kickstand had been under construction for months, its windows covered by butcher paper. A sign on the door announced the grand opening, but every two weeks the date was pushed back.
Lord knows, Shawn needed a reprieve. The Christian cafe was pulling out the big guns. First they went to 24 hours, seven days a week. They they brought in a crowd of beautiful young women from a Russian Orthodox church. They would sit around in tight dresses and leather jackets, chatting in their native tongue. Shawn started drinking iced mochas.
But now, the butcher paper was gone, and there were fresh lattes a mere hundred feet from his window! He was so excited, he forgot to shave. He stood at the entrance, running a hand over his stubble as he sized up the decor.
The interior had walls of scrubbed raw sienna, like a trendy Italian restaurant. The left and right windows offered blonde-wood counters fixed by exposed chromium bolts. The front counter cruised by like a small art-deco boat, wearing a crescent of silvery faux-marble. The back wall was capped by a crown of steel plate, spars of copper jutting upward like sun-rays.
Standing behind a man in a tall white cowboy hat, Shawn caught a glimpse of the counter girl, who was terribly typecast: several earrings, hoop over one eyebrow, and a stripe of sky-blue hair. The cowboy took his cappuccino and scooted left. Shawn’s pupils grew several sizes.
He returned when she got off work, and drove them to the end of Ruston Way. He walked her to his favorite bench, looking over the water to Vashon Island. He liked to sit here in the evening and imagine that the Puget Sound was his own cozy neighborhood, the houselights of the island coming on one at a time like evening stars. On sunny afternoons, you could look to the east, where a trick of depth perception made it look like the high-rise apartments were just across the street from Mt. Rainier.
Today, Tahoma was hiding her head under a blanket of smoky overcast. Wendy held her jacket collar to her neck, releasing a shy smile that seemed to make all the piercings disappear.
“God, Shawn. All those years of you trying to corrupt me. I should have let you! I was very well-trained, you know. My mom and all that shit about buying the cow. Did it ever occur to her that the cow likes being milked?”
All this sudden hedonism was hitting Shawn right in the funny bone. He envisioned a Holstein in a pink negligee and burst out laughing.
“What?” said Wendy.
“Hard to explain,” said Shawn, catching his breath. “Cows are naturally funny. Ducks, too. So how the hell did you end up a hundred feet from my apartment?”
“My cool cousin Laurel. She was working for an alternative weekly in Olympia and got tired of the slave wages, decided to open a cafe with her boyfriend. She came for a visit last month, about the same time I was picking all those meaningless fights with my parents. It’s hell being a preacher’s daughter, especially when you realize you don’t believe a fucking word of it. I figured if I was going to publicly go to hell, I should at least leave the county. Probably broke my parents’ hearts, but they have no idea how lucky they are.”
“So basically,” said Shawn. “You wore my poor agnostic prick to the nub, and all the while you were a closet heathen yourself?”
“I was trying so hard to believe, but the constant contradictions finally got to me. Hell, just look at the trial. Any idiot knows that the Romans would off a political dissident at the drop of a hat. They certainly wouldn’t put it to a vote of whatever Jews happened to be in court that day! But wouldn’t Paul and his copywriters be brilliant marketeers if they managed to blame the crucifixion, seventy years after the fact, on the very group that was most staunchly boycotting their new product? And simultaneously exonerate the Romans, who turned out to be their most lucrative target audience?”
“You, young lady, are Jimmy Swaggart’s worst nightmare.”
“So what about you? Are you doing okay out here?”
“Yeah. I’m playing in a blues band that is actually planning a tour...”
“I have a nice day job painting a house that never ends and... well... I’ve got a nice apartment.”
“Wait,” she said. “Go back. Fill in that empty space where you were going to mention the girl.”
Shawn laughed. “God, you’re good. Okay. Her name was Tacoma. Flaming bumper-sticker Christian girl.”
“Jesus! Did you not learn your lesson?”
“No. And it wouldn’t matter if I did. Might as well tell a meteor not to give in to the Earth’s gravity.”
She gazed at him with a wide grin.
“Poetry,” she said. “You loved her, didn’t you?”
“So why all the past tense?”
Shawn wrapped a knee with his fingers.
“Tough question. But I’ve got a theory. I think a successful relationship needs a few months when everything’s easy. That way, when you run into the bad spots, later on, you can reach back to that period as a kind of touchstone. Two months after we met, Tacoma went nuts.”
“But every woman’s entitled to an occas...”
“No-no,” said Shawn. "I mean that literally. She had an episode, she was taken to a mental health clinic, and diagnosed with bipolar syndrome. Her mom’s got it, too. The weird thing was, it only served to intensify my feelings. I wanted to battle the beast right alongside her.
“A few weeks later, when she was beginning to adjust, I told her I loved her. I said it whenever I saw her, simply because it was true, and I enjoyed saying it. I don’t think she believed me. I still haven’t figured it out, but I’m betting it goes back to her childhood. She was pretty much tossed around like a beach ball. It’s amazing she turned out as well as she did. But I think she associates the phrase ‘I love you’ with ‘I’ll be leaving you now.’”
“So, do you think she loved you?”
“She managed to say it a few times. But I knew, regardless. Just about everything she did...”
Wendy gazed out toward Vashon, where a container ship was making its way to the Tacoma port. She worried that she was prying, but she couldn’t stop.
“Tell me how it ended.”
“A friend of mine hooked us up with a yacht race in Bremerton. Not a speed race. They cover up all the clocks and try to hit certain spots at certain times, using only speed, wind and current. Tacoma and I were serving as monitors. They’d pass a certain landmark and yell out ‘Mark!” and we would write down the time. In return, we got a free lunch, free drinks and a trip on some rich guy’s yacht.”
“Sign me up!” said Wendy.
“I don’t know if they’d go for the blue hair.”
“I’ll wear a hat.”
“So where was I?”
“Right. So there we are, chugging past Blake Island... Seattle skyline.. brilliant May morning, chill wind ruffling our hair. We should be having the time of our lives, but instead we’re just miserable. Tacoma has had it with me loving her so much, and I’m tired of beating my head against a wall. Later, I’m driving us home, past that little bay at Port Orchard, and I look at Tacoma snoozing in the passenger seat, and I realize... we’re all done. She woke up when we turned onto Sixth Street, and we conducted our final negotiations on the way to her house. I haven’t seen her in two months.”
Wendy felt bad that she had taken Shawn down this path, and decided to make up for it.
“So. Would you like to go somewhere and fuck?”
That did make him feel better. At least, the thought of it.
“I don’t know. Why don’t you give me one of those Tonight Show kisses?”
Wendy straddled him on the bench, settling against his lap with a familiar belly-dancer twist, and delivered a fat showbiz smooch. When she came up for air, she could read her failure at a glance.
She sprawled on the bench, one hand still hooked around his neck.
“My lead guitarist is kinda cute.”
“Oh, thanks a lot!”
Photo by MJV