Lily and the Octopus(4)

Written By: Steven Rowley

“In you.”

“In the art of puppeteering.” I cross my arms protectively. “Of course in me. We went out a second time. And it was good.” This is stupid. I should be talking about the octopus, but I can’t think about the octopus. I can’t feed the panic. “But still, I didn’t know. If he was interested. In me. So, I thought when we say good night the second time, if he tries to kiss me, that’ll be some indication. And if he tries to hug me, I won’t break the hug first.” Pleased with that plan, I point to my head—like it’s more than just a hat rack. Then I realize perhaps the octopus is hiding on my head, heads being a place he seems to be fond of, and I give myself a top-to-bottom pat down. Jenny looks at me like I’m experiencing some sort of debilitating seizure, but forges ahead.

“Smart. Then you could see if the hug was a friendly hug or a romantic hug. So, what happened?”

“I broke the hug first.”

Jenny looks at me, disappointed.

Defensively: “Well, he didn’t break the hug, either, so we were just standing there like two stroke victims propping each other up!” The walls are now so dangerously close that I wonder if they will crush me or if I will be pressed into their buttery softness, creating a perfect mold of my form after I suffocate in clotted cream.

“That in itself should have told you something.” Jenny makes a doodle on her notepad, darkening the ed in my name to match the bolded T. She’s being paid to listen to me, and even she finds me boring. But it’s not her fault. Less than twenty-four hours since the arrival of our . . . cephalopod houseguest, I already recognize a trait we share: I, too, am hiding in plain sight. I am walking through life invisible, skulking like a failure, hoping few people notice me. I’ve been doing that since things went south with Jeffrey.

“I think you need to allow for the fact that some people have difficulty expressing themselves,” Jenny muses.

Jenny always employs the phrase some people when she’s talking about me. But once again, this is the wrong conclusion. This guy did not have problems expressing himself. I do not have problems expressing myself. This guy just didn’t know if he liked me, and that made me anxious. Even if it was my fault he didn’t know. Even if I was not letting myself be seen.

C is for cookie, that’s good enough for meeee. Cookie cookie cookie starts with C.

I filter her analysis through the voice of my preferred, imaginary therapist and he comes up with sharper advice: It has only been two dates. Why do I need to know how this guy feels about me? Why does everything have to be settled? Do I even know if I like him? I mean, beyond his looks? I have to be better about living in the not knowing.

And suddenly it’s not about dating, it’s about the octopus. I have to be better about living in the not knowing.

Friday Evening

June in Los Angeles is the opposite of June everywhere else. Here, it means only one thing: gloom. The sun disappears behind clouds and fog and smog and haze and doesn’t reappear for weeks. Normally, I like it. Normally, I’m fine with it being the price we pay to have sunshine the rest of the year. But tonight there’s no sunset, and it bothers me.

Trent calls and proposes dinner and I say no, but Trent doesn’t take no for an answer, so I say yes to save us from going twelve rounds. I feel bad about leaving Lily for even another hour, but I also know I need to talk to someone, and if it’s not going to be Jenny it might as well be Trent. He knows how to get through to me and always has, ever since we met on our first day of college in Boston. He was a loud Texan and I was a quiet Mainer and I was immediately captivated by his southern charm, much as he was fascinated with my northern chill. It was a friendship that worked from the moment he knocked on the door of my dorm room and asked if I wanted to walk to 7-Eleven for cigarettes; he was the Ferris Bueller to my Cameron Frye.

From the time we were twenty-two, Trent would tell me not to worry. He said it was all going to happen for us when we were twenty-nine. Bad breakup? Who cares. Dead-end job? It wasn’t a waste of time. Any other stress? Why waste even a moment caring—it was all going to happen when we were twenty-nine. I questioned him at first. Why twenty-nine? Why not twenty-eight? And then I started to panic. What if it didn’t happen for me until I was thirty-one? I didn’t know how to use swear words correctly until the seventh grade, or what the Internet was until 1995. I worried about falling behind. Still, the bravado of the statement, and the confidence with which he delivered it, eventually made me a believer. I never bothered to ask what “it” was—the it that was going to happen for us. I’m not confident he entirely knew.

And then, in the very waning hours of my twenty-ninth year, I found Lily. The day before my thirtieth birthday.

Trent is already inside the restaurant when I get there. It’s our usual place. We like it because when you order a martini it comes in a chilled martini glass, and then, when you’re halfway through the drink, they bring you a fresh chilled martini glass for the rest of it. They even transfer the drink for you and bring you fresh olives. Astonishing, right? Service.

“Hi, friend. I ordered you a martini,” he says.

“Thanks. Do you have the other thing?”

“Teddy,” he says, scolding me for even thinking he might have forgotten. He slides a single Valium across the table. I put the pill into my mouth, chewing it slightly before I press it under my tongue. It works faster if you press it under your tongue. Trent gives me a minute to make it happen.

Steven Rowley's Books