MIKE LEE - ALONE AGAIN, OR
Alone Again, Or
Katerina prepared with nervous, but determined energy. She opened her closet door, pulling out outfits and throwing them on the bed. Henry called as she shimmied into her skirt, triggering the answering machine. Katerina ignored the message. Whether he was a coward or a cad for not returning her desperate calls in the last several days, she neither cared nor tolerated his abandonment. Katerina concluded his behavior was not surprising. He grew from puppy to dog in the space of a hundred hours.
Katerina stared into the mirror. She tried to imagine Cinderella with a handsome prince waiting to be impressed, but actually lady-in-waiting for the Prom Queen, dateless stag without the antlers but positively, parent insistent photogenic gorgeous with Poloroids and Kodaks flashing, posing in the living room, fall in love with me fetching and dimpled pinching cheek charming. Her thinking behind sweet teenage smiles the extreme to which she went as a girl and if they all only knew the reason why.
Now, Katerina was twenty-three and feeling like quite the fool, with a failed boyfriend to break up with in an hour. Pretty, pretty princess, Cinderella pleats and pretty pumps kitty kat kisses and all, cum laude and halfway through my masters with Chlamydia that I got from him because my best friend fucked him on his birthday. Yes, cum laude, halfway through my masters, and dosed. Katerina ran her brush down, ignoring the split ends, and hoped she didn’t look like a whore again. Red lipstick, dry, thick on her mouth, and a pain in the ass to blot but she got it down in one try. She laid off the blush because she felt too old for it and light on the orange gold eyes shadow to bring out her hair, and make herself, and him, deceptively at ease when they met and nothing doing painting war paint on the nails since she felt he didn’t deserve that much attention.
Katerina, eighteen again, parting her blood red, wet lips, blowing toward the glass, affecting her best Debbie Harry. The eye shadow dark red with hints of silver, adding an Egyptian style frame past the lids with the eyeliner. Red blush applied, dusted, enhancing her cheeks, making Katerina feel like she didn’t have that cute cherubic face. Tonight, she was Debbie.
Katerina, twenty-three, pushed away from the mirror.
“I look like me, again,” she said, turning off the mirror light, resigned all that war paint was going to come off in Texas heat induced sweat and fucked over tears again, but made brave quoting Catullus: I am not quite keen, Caesar, to wish to pander to you, nor to know whether you are baleful or benign.
Henry never showed up, which in the main, she concluded, was better for both of them. Sad though, she thought, feeling she had held her end of the bargain. She had remained calm, emitting guardedly her anger, believing if she lost control, he’d disappear. She only wanted to say good-bye, with a firm voice expressing disapproval and humiliation, telling him how lacking he was, and politely appeal to his manhood, now drastically reduced, to pay her back for the prescription she now had to take.
Katerina waited for him, ordered another iced cappuccino. Drank it slowly, stirring the melting ice into a watery concoction and sucked it through her straw. It’s the money, really, she concluded. This theory left her feeling small, insignificant, but just as well, she reminded herself. It’s not like she had been here before.
Yes, she gathered him neither baleful nor benign, only a self-canceled arrival and Katerina hoped he endured burning penis for weeks to come. She went home, took a shower, and sat on the toilet for nearly an hour suffering painful, burning discharges. Afterward, she lay on the bed, annoyed she couldn’t go out. Her period was coming soon, and with this it was going to be a hellish week. She worried she would become sterile, her tubes shriveled dead, rotting from the inside out. The violation she felt from the situation angered her and later she got up and tried to call several times, but Henry had left his phone off the hook. Just as well, she thought, his soul is so dirty it managed to smudge mine.
She made mac and cheese, eating it out of the pan, before returning to bed. Katerina didn’t feel like reading, listening to music, or television, so she stared at the ceiling with the lights on until she finally fell asleep, waking up to run to the bathroom and endure more discharges. Then she couldn’t sleep so she searched for her emergency pack of cigarettes kept in her top dresser drawer, smoking several in succession while sitting on the outside steps in her crew shorts and tank top until the dawn arrived. When Katerina reentered the apartment, she remembered that he had called. She pressed the machine, and waited as the tape rewound. Hang up. Gutless. She decided against smashing the answering machine with her fist, and instead went against free clinic advice and brewed a pot of coffee.
Eighteen again, lying on the bed, with mother’s dress and shoes remaining on, snug but spoiled, makeup mud on her skin, pinched toes pointed to the sky, head turned toward the vanity basked in moonlight, Debbie Harry pouting back in perceptive appraisal, asking what happened to you tonight, taped crooked to the mirror, and I am dreaming and unsure of who I am, she replies.
Katerina reached into her shirt pocket, pulling out a cigarette. Sighing, she lit it and leaned back in her chair. She was exhausted—physically and morally. The dreadful, banal experiences of the week had stripped away all sentimentality and romance. What remained for her to think about, in any positive sense, was the present, and that was not very good, other than she was still in school. She mused that Henry was another example of living through a minor—and cheesy—Ragnarok, with Christian touches. The Gospel of John painted on a velvet canvas and sold alongside the Federale Nacional. That was what her relationship with the last boyfriend, the one she thought really might be it, had come down to.
Hiding behind a wall of forthrightness—yeah, that was it. Katerina believed it better to hope for the sun to rise somewhere tomorrow because it was a sure bet. That was a philosophy worth holding on to. There were occasions, however, when being a self-described outsider made her nervous about his sanity. The identity issues brewing, and no one there to speak to about them.
Katerina stared at the ceiling, comforted by the dull roar of the rain outside splattering against the window. It was another fall shower—heavier than the one the night before. This storm brought big drops of rain. One hitting your head was enough to soak your hair. It reminded her of simpler teenage years, back when she had her ideals and dreams wrapped in a velvet sheath.
She rolled over to the other side of the bed and stared down at the manuscript pages lying on the carpet beside her. Katerina stared at the opening sentence. Too good to waste on third-rate garbage like this, she thought. Anyway, she figured that it would wind up getting cut at some point in the editorial process. Katerina always had a problem with being too literary, too goddamn intellectual for the local papers—that is, if she bothered to turn in her assignment. Some people, especially Professor Cummings and Peggy, considered Katerina a talented and effective writer and communicator. However, this translated to very little money and even less ego gratification. Katerina didn’t even bother with the pretensions of skillful angst. She went to class, helped Professor Cummings with grading, but mostly hung around the apartment, nauseated by life but willing to go along for the hell of it. Writing was not even on the level of a part-time job. Instead, it was at the nebulous stage between that and a hobby.
Sometimes Katerina realized she was too full of herself. Katerina behaved like a narrator, a passive character amid people she held in contempt; detached, unaware of the real feelings behind other people’s actions. She learned to slap her interpretations on situations like posters on the wall, gluing them carefully and walking away without figuring there was more to it than the easy obvious. Fortunately, Katerina maintained a balance of common sense, and was not excessive in her passions. Where what once was conventional had suddenly turned into extremism, Katerina paralleled the gray borderlines of belief. She retained that idiosyncratic doctrine of openness, a rarity in the modern age.
At 23, Katerina found nothing wrong with this terminal waiting room of life. There remained an amount of faith and hope—probably misplaced—left in her. She believed more patience and a dash of luck and she was out of here—likely to another level of ennui. Perhaps she had lost touch with herself. For the last five years, her life was one big party of characters. Though it made up for going nowhere, this party in her mind certainly had its faults. She resolved to be more understanding of her surroundings. She had to, now that she was learning she had the power to manipulate this small magic at her fingertips.
She began writing a novel, though got frustrated and quit a week later because it was all about Sherry, and it was half porn, half rage. Unadulterated, a totality fused into iron and toward the end she could go on no longer because she tired of typing with fists. She didn’t delete the file, felt like she needed to let the words simmer until she decided to return to it. Katerina had yet to. She did however write a short story about Bubbe’s childhood, imagined, living out in a country village instead of the workers’ flats of Vienna, but it came off as too fictive and false. It was an imagined Bubbe. If she had read it, she would have looked at Katerina like she was an idiot, and told her so. So Katerina rewrote the story and set it in MacGavin Heights, and wrote about her Dad and driving to the housing construction sites. After she was done, she printed out the story on her dot-matrix printer, carefully separated the roll into pages and pulled away the sprocket tabs. The following Saturday she drove to the Rothko Chapel and read it to herself while sitting on a bench in front of the purple triptych. For the first time since his death, Katerina felt she had accomplished something tangible she felt was worthy enough to show her father. She scrolled up the pages tightly, bending, crushing them in her hands while staring into the paintings in front of her. Katerina considered leaving the story behind as an offering to honor not just him, but all the dead she felt the responsibility to mourn, but she unraveled the papers, tearing off a small corner from the title page. She placed the shard of paper on the floor, knowing it would be swept up later, but felt satisfied that this would be there for him, at least for a little while. She left the chapel, not in tears for the first time since he died.
The next day, Katerina stood in front of the mirror, admiring herself. With her ensemble, she thought herself as rather comely, something she hadn’t thought since she was with Henry. Although a little self-conscious, Katerina believed herself momentarily impervious, though knowing any time the cracks would appear, and she would crumble. She stepped outside and tried to keep her feet from getting too wet in the rain. With one hand on the rail, she walked down the worn marble steps leading to the cracked sidewalk. She dropped off a letter to her parents in the mailbox downstairs. The afternoon sky was a shadowy gray, resembling the bottom of a well. To the fashionably dressed young woman making her way around the scattered puddles, the colorless day was invigorating. Her pink Lycra mini-skirt and green plastic raincoat would make an informal observer assume she was heavily influenced by television re-runs. She wore Ray Bans to avoid cursory detection from the usual suspects at the department. They also hid her bloodshot eyes. Slyly grinning, Katerina strutted to her car, swaying her hips in rhythm to the funk music blasting out of the Camaro parked nearby. Katerina shoved The Best of the Damned into the cassette deck. She was in a punk rock mood. The irony of it did not fail her.
She crossed the street, eliciting notice from a carload of fraternity boys cruising by in a blue Jeep Cherokee. Katerina cracked a smile, happy to be acknowledged. She returned the favor with another boisterous hip shake, feeling pretty again, attractive, getting in without cover charges and DPS waving me off with a warning; Bubbe’s zaftig strawberry blond, Candy-O record cover girl with baby doll lips, and cheeks to pinch, nice thighs and a rack for the lambs. Heels clicking, expensive Galleria sandals charge card at Neiman’s three and three quarters hourglass high; maybe I will do a Bettie Page hand on hip swivel and smile for you if you’re good about it and don’t whistle when you walk by me. If you don’t I remain eternal, that fantasy girl you saw in the coffee shop, pumping gas at the Sigmor station or crossing my legs on my metal stool in class babysitting you guys as a proctor for Professor Cummings’s exams. Don’t look at my legs crossed because sweetheart, you have to define in one paragraph the power elite as it developed in Tito’s Yugoslavia, and the professor really hates writing outside the margins and grades accordingly.
With the understanding I will fade into a vague memory at best, and forgotten entirely for most. I try not to dwell on that part of my fantasy, because really, I can be easily led, and therefore vulnerable, and I am one of those who get squished like a bug.
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