Amy Beauty Rose
No one understands why we've been together two years, and that's because no one understands Amy like I do. She's brilliant, so brilliant that nothing goes fast enough for her, even though she finished school early and now she's the only woman at her engineering firm. That's a place where she has to be tough, and she can be. I never am, which is maybe why our band hasn't accomplished much. We've written some great songs, but we haven't gotten our tape to anyone important, and our drummer Eli quit for a while, and we haven't toured because I could never bear, even for a few days, to be away from Amy. I can't even remember what the world was like before I met her. I think I was lonely every day of my life.
When we're not together, everything seems lifeless and remote, like a black and white TV with the sound turned down. And then I see her, and it's like light through pink glass. I'm her best friend, and I guess I'm the only one who can see anything soft in her, a girl so strong and ambitious and not like a rose at all.
On a hot night near the end of August, a week after Amy's twenty-fourth birthday and two days after my twenty-first, we were playing at the same small bar we played at every Monday. Amy was supposed to come watch us, but she had some stuff to take care of at the office. In the end, I was still waiting after we'd finished and packed up all the equipment and the other guys in the band had gone home. I sat for a long time alone at the bar with my guitar in its case, watching some shaky old guy go around and drink up all the abandoned cocktails.
"My boss is such a perverted pig," she said.
I never know what to say when she talks about work. "Want a drink?" I said.
"He put me on another stupid project. I am never, ever going to get to do something worthwhile," she said. "My firm just got a big contract for a bridge construction project. Why can't I be in on that?"
I put my arm up to call for the bartender, but Amy held me back.
"Let's just go home. I mean, let's go back to your house," she said.
We took the subway back to where I live. It was hot inside my apartment, and then she put her arms around me and it was even hotter as I kissed her. Some sirens went by in the distance, spoiling kisses all over the neighborhood.
After a moment she went to brush her teeth and then I brushed mine, and by the time I came back she'd hung up her suit and was standing in her underwear, pink underwear. I put my arms around her and kissed her again, but I could tell she was thinking about something else.
"Hey," I said. "What's wrong?"
"I'm trying to figure out how to put up a bridge," she said.
I started tickling her. She squirmed a little in my arms, but I wouldn't let her go, and after a moment she forgot about the bridge and relaxed. It was summertime, and all the windows were open, and while I had her beneath me we could hear car radios playing reggae music and kids on the squeaky swings at the playground outside.
Afterwards, I remember lying back, feeling dumbly ecstatic, with the glare of a yellow light bulb in my eyes. I had this idea I could reach up and pull it out with my fingers. There was a breeze coming in the window, and time seemed to extend forever, and I thought about when I was a kid and I used to think there were sharks in the dark outside the subway cars. When I came to again, Amy was asleep, and I had to get up and turn off the light myself.
I work as a bicycle messenger. I deliver signs and stationary. Whenever I talk to my mother or my brothers, they start getting on my case to go back to college and get started on a real career, so I just avoid talking to them. All I ever cared about was making it big with the band and being with Amy.
I live in an apartment above Eli's garage, although it's not much more than a room with an old mattress in it. The garage is where our band rehearses, which is where we were on Tuesday night, trying to get one of my new songs into a range our singer Peter could handle. He's a good-looking guy, but he can't sing at all. Anyway, we finally figured out that his voice sounded just right if he sang into one of Eli's metal garbage cans, and that's what he was doing when the telephone rang.
Eli went inside to answer it. "Satan calling," he told me. "For you."
It was Amy. She was at work, but she was getting ready to go home. "Want to come over?" she said. "To my house, I mean. I have something to tell you."
I told her we were too busy, that we were working on a good song. I told her I'd come up later.
"Jim, I have to talk to you," she said. "Come over."
I told her that we had only gotten started practicing, that we could only get together three nights a week now that Peter had gotten a job, and that I would be up in a couple of hours anyway.
"In a couple of hours I have to start working on some preliminary drawings for the good news. So I have to tell you now," she said. "Come one, we'll celebrate. We'll go to bed before I have to get up and work. Come over now."
I knew if I turned her down after that, I'd never hear the end of it. I went back to the garage and told the other guys I had to go.
"You're leaving?" Eli said.
"Something's wrong with Amy," I told him.
"I know something's wrong with Amy," said Eli.
"Get a pet that doesn't bite," Peter said.
They've always hated Amy because they think she's too smart. Eli told me once not to trust smart women, because they knew just how to make fun of you. I don't care. I can only talk to those guys about music, anyway.
When I got to the building, the doorman gave me a nasty look. He'd hated me ever since I coincidentally had to make some deliveries there and he realized I wasn't just a lawyer or something who wore a leather jacket for fun. Now he always calls upstairs to warn Amy I'm coming, and then I go up and let myself in with my key.
The apartment was freezing. Amy must have had the air conditioner on full blast. When I opened the door she was sitting at her desk wearing a red teddy, doing some kind of drafting work on her computer. She came over to kiss me, and even her skin was cold.
"Where have you been?" she said.
"The subway was slow," I said. "What's wrong?"
"It's okay," she said. "I did some work while I was waiting."
I sat down in front of the TV, and she brought me back a mug of beer with a slice of lime in it, like I like it. She sat on my lap, with her head on my shoulder. We sat for a long time like that. I had an idea for a song in my head, and I wondered when I could get up and write it down, since these things disappear from my head pretty quickly, but I didn't want to make Amy move so I could go get a pen. I kissed her ear, and her neck.
"I think I'm going to get a chance to work on the electrical systems project for the maintenance plant of this bridgeworks," she said.
"That's great news," I said.
"It's a huge project, and it's way above my level. But the guy who's in charge of the project, this guy Ed Silver, really likes me," she said. "He's so stupid. He calls me his geisha. He doesn't even know geishas come from Japan."
"He's just leering. He's just a dirty old man."
I took a gulp of my beer. It tasted sour.
"Anyway, I just told him I'd really like to work on the project, and that if he wanted to talk about it more, he could just call me at home like he calls the male engineers," she said. "I think he's going to give me a chance."
Amy was poking the lime down beneath the surface of my beer and watching it rise again.
"Why can't you just be a good engineer and get on the project that way?" I said.
"Because," she said, "hard work is getting me nowhere. Nowhere fast enough."
I stood up and left her in the chair, and I started walking around. I wondered if she was trying to put something over on me. In the end I sat down in another chair on the other side of the room and looked at the toes of my shoes. I realized I had forgotten the idea for the song.
"You don't like this guy, do you?"
"Oh, no, Jim. He's disgusting," she said. "He's so fat I can hear his footsteps coming at me halfway across the office."
Amy came over to the chair where I was sitting and she was trying to unbutton my shirt, but I just sat there stiffly, like my mom was taking me out of my snowsuit or something.
"Come on, honey," she said. "You like this stuff."
She took my hand and made me come with her to the bathroom, where she had towels all arranged and the tub full of floral-smelling bubbles. We got in and the water was warm, but I just sat there, uninspired. She started pushing me backwards in the tub, and I could feel her cold mouth on my neck.
I tried to sit up, but there wasn't room in the tub. The air was so cold my ears were stinging, and I felt like I'd been led into a flowerly marble, steel-jawed trap. I could have just gotten up and gotten out of there, but I would have been dripping wet, and freezing too.
"Are you okay?" she said.
She had the air conditioning on in that stupid luxury apartment, paid for by the job which was driving us both crazy, and it was too cold in the middle of summer.
"I can't have sex with the air conditioning on," I said finally. "It's too cold. There's no sweat."
She put her arms around my shoulders and held my face in her hands, and her fingers tasted like the limes she'd been cutting. I lifted her hand to my mouth and tasted all her fingers. I kissed her wrist and the palm of her hand. I was starting to feel a little better when the phone rang.
"Wait, I have to get it," she said. "It might be Ed Silver." She got out of the tub and got the phone before it rang five times, probably.
I waited for her for a little while, just sitting there looking at my legs underwater, and then finally I got out, too. In the living room I saw her standing by the phone, talking to her boss in the nude. I was lying in bed, shivering, when she finally came to find me.
"Are you okay, honey?" she said. I just pretended I was asleep.
After it all, I felt kind of guilty for being such a jerk. When I was sure she was asleep, I put my arms around her and kissed her eyelids, and then I fell asleep too.
I thought about Amy all day at work; I almost got hit by a car once, when I was riding my bike through a crosswalk and thinking about her. I wanted to show her somehow how sorry I was about the night before. Taking her out to dinner seemed like a good way. I wasn't getting paid 'til Friday, but I knew I could borrow some money from my dispatcher. He's a fan of the band.
Amy said okay, although she had some more work she wanted to finish up. I was almost starving by the time she was ready to leave. We agreed to meet in front of the Mitropa restaurant, which is this old, cheap diner I'd heard had gotten trendy.
I saw her from a ways down the street, and she looked kind of strange. She was wearing a very short skirt and she seemed nervous, shifting from foot to foot.
"What's wrong?" I said.
"Nothing," she said, not looking at me.
I put my arm around her, sure she was still mad about the night before, and we walked into the restaurant and sat down. It really had gotten trendy; everyone was wearing funny hats and posing with cigarettes. Amy was more beautiful than any of them.
"You should go to a psychiatrist who only speaks French," I heard someone at the table next to next to us saying.
I ordered a big dinner, but I couldn't get Amy to order anything. Finally, I ordered something for her that I thought she'd like. Somebody around us was smoking a cigarette that smelled like flowers. Our beers came, then, and Amy wouldn't even touch hers. She was chewing on her lips, chewing off bits of lipstick and leaving colorless patches.
"Look," I told her, "I said I was sorry. What else do you want me to do?"
She was looking out the window. "I wasn't going to get on that project after all," she said, "so I made Ed Silver an offer, I made him a proposition, and now I'm on it." She looked right at me. "I'm second assistant engineer," she said.
"That's great," I said. "What was the proposition?"
"It's only a little sex with Ed Silver," she said.
I think I stopped breathing. The light in the room suddenly seemed incredibly strong. She was looking away from me, looking at her beer, looking at the table.
"He can't do this," I said.
"Yes, he can, and I can too," she said. "I want to get on this project and it's way above my level and they never put me on any good projects because I'm a woman. This is one way being a woman can actually help." She looked out the window. "I explained to him about the geishas being Japanese," she said.
The waitress brought our food and arranged it all over the table, and neither one of us reached for our forks. We just sat there. I was watching the ice melt in Amy's water glass, thinking about a hundred things at once.
"You have a boyfriend," I said. "Don't they know that?"
"Of course not. They don't care about my personal life."
I couldn't believe it. I told everyone I knew I was going out with Amy. I had her picture on the wall in the sign shop.
"You'd do it. You'd do it if it would make your band successful," she said. "Wouldn't you do it if it would make your band successful?"
"No way," I said. "Never."
"That's why your band will never be successful," she said.
"So what you're saying," I said, "is that you never loved me at all."
"That's not what I said," she said.
"If you're going to do this, then I never loved you either, " I said, and I was shaking. "If we're going to break up anyway, why don't we just break up now?"
"Break up?" she said.
Now I couldn't look at her either. I looked out the window, and I was surprised to find a trendy guy looking in. I thought for a second he was checking out Amy, and then realized he was using his reflection to fix his hair.
"Is that what you want? To break up?" she said, in a small voice.
"That's what I want," I said.
The waitress came by to ask if there was anything wrong with our food, which we hadn't touched. I just shook my head. Amy had her face in her hands.
When it was time to go home she kept walking with me and I couldn't tell her not to. We went back to my apartment over the garage. When we were inside she started kissing me, but it was suddenly like I had never felt anything for her at all. I let her get into bed with me but I didn't really care.
She was lying there and she opened her mouth like a little bird waiting for food, and I kissed her deep inside of it, tasting lips and teeth and tongue, and I was thinking, this may be the last time I'll ever kiss her like this.
Afterwards she said she wanted to go home, that she couldn't sleep there, but she stayed and kept crying when I was trying to sleep. Finally she got up and started stumbling around in the dark, looking for her clothes. She was nearly dressed when I finally turned on the light, and stood there staring at me, her hair all messy and her face ruined by tears.
"Are you all right?" I said.
"I'm better off," she said, nearly choking. "I'm better off alone. That's the worst thing, that I'll always be better off alone." She pulled her sweater over her head. "I can get somewhere faster alone."
Now she was really crying, and there were tears running down her face like - Christ, like tears. I don't know. I kissed her, and her lips were dry from crying, and she slammed the door when she left. I knew I was supposed to go after her, but I didn't.
The morning after I broke up with Amy, it was raining. I just turned over and went back to sleep. I didn't care if I lost my job or not. There was a mouse rotting somewhere in the walls of my apartment.
We were supposed to practice that night. I got out of bed about an hour before Eli got home from work and made myself some rahmen noodles in his coffee percolator. I ate them out of an ashtray. I couldn't stop looking for her shadow along my wall.
I went out into the rain and started walking, walking anywhere. All Amy cared about was her job, I was thinking, and all I cared about was Amy and I wondered if that would ever change. I walked all over the city, up and down streets, getting wet down to my underwear because I didn't have an umbrella. A bum asked me for money so he could go someplace warm, and I gave him almost everything I had. I got stuck waiting at an intersection as three cop cars and a fire truck went by, and their sirens hurt my ears, and I thought, that's what this city's about. All the cars racing to get ahead of the other cars, screaming for everybody else to get out of their way, not caring who was in the other cars and where they might be going and if it might be just as important.
When the gay guy started getting touchy I went outside in the rain again, and I found myself going down into the subway station, the same one I used to get to Amy's house. It took a long time for a train to come. A foreign-looking lady shook out her umbrella all over me.
"Watch it!" I said.
"Zxybrxp," she said.
I rode uptown on the nighttime train, which was full of people with open wounds and big bottles of beer. I was thinking I might just walk past Amy's house, just to see if there was a light in her window. I tried to think about what she was doing, about how that very moment she was probably with Ed Silver, but I kept forgetting that and remembering how much I missed her. I'd walked so long and I felt so tired, and I knew I had no place to go except towards her. Then the feeling that I loved her started coming over me again, like a wave, like a blanket, and then it was like I lost any sense of reason, and would do anything to be with her, all over again.
But the doorman said she'd gone out for the night and she hadn't come home.
I left for work thinking that maybe everything I had just wasn't enough for her. I knew I never wanted a girlfriend again, and I was wondering if I could maybe find one that night among the girls who'd be coming to see us play Monday night.
We were short-handed at the sign shop that day, so I had to stay in and run the copy machines. All the colleges were starting classes and the shop was jammed with crabby smart kids. Way at the back of the crowd, I saw Amy.
She was trying to push her way to the front, but the press of people waving paper at me was too strong. Finally, she stood in line and worked her way slowly to the front.
"I didn't do it. Really, I didn't do it," she said. "I couldn't."
"I told Ed Silver yes and then I told him no. I'm so stupid. I make so many mistakes."
I took her hand, and I held it with her palm up to the sky, and I looked at her tiny, fingernails.
"I'm glad," I said.
The copy shop was so noisy, with so many people, I couldn't tell her anything. I couldn't tell her anything I would have wanted to tell her.
"Can't you help me?" said a girl next in line. "I'm in a big hurry."
"Jim," Amy said, "sometimes I feel like I won't. I won't ever."
"Won't ever what?" I said.
"Won't ever stop being stupid." Her voice was so small.
"I am first, I am first, I am first," the girl next in line said. "I have to someplace to get to."
"Amy, let's go home," I said.
I took the day off work, and we went up to the roof of Eli's house. I kissed her and made her stop crying. I kissed her and told her I still loved her as much as ever, though now that I knew how she loved me I probably loved her more.
She was still sleeping when I got up to go to our regular Monday night gig at the bar. I waited a long time in the subway station as all the trains arrived except mine. Watching all the subway cars go past, I thought, I could have chosen a girl in any one of them - there might be a girl in any one of those trains I could have fallen in love with. I thought about all the things I could have done and the songs I might have written and how things would have been different if I had. But I wasn't unhappy, not at all.