Evan McMurry graduated from Reed College and received his MFA from Texas State University-San Marcos. His fiction has appeared in more than a half-dozen journals, including Post Road and Euphony, and his reviews have been featured in Bookslut and elsewhere.
That Wasn’t Me
Stand-up bassist, Shelly typed into the prompt, six-ish feet tall, brown hair and beard, black-rimmed glasses, playing with The Self Portraits last night at Igor’s, staring at me the way I’ve never been stared at before. If this was you, email me.
Shelly shut her eyes and pressed submit. It was so unlike her to do something like post in Missed Connections (friends lamented she was too shy); she’d spent most of the day talking herself up to it, terrified someone she knew might spot the post and connect it to her. And of course it was nonsense to expect the bassist would actually read those things. What were the odds--
That was me, arrived a reply a few minutes later, and her pulse hastened. Drinks?
She met the man the next evening at an outdoor beer hall. “Paul,” announced the smooth-cheeked man with receding copper hair.
“You’re not the bassist,” Shelly said.
“But you’re beautiful.” He almost winked. “I’d stare at you the way you’ve never been stared at before.”
“Monster,” she said, grabbing her purse.
That was me, waited another email when she returned home.
Name a song you play, Shelly replied, and the response did indeed include a song from the band’s set list. But the man she met at a taqueria after work the next evening looked nothing like the bassist, soot-black coiled hair, stocky, a five-o’clock shadow falling across his face. “I found one of their albums online,” he said to account for his knowledge of The Self Portraits’ repertoire. “What does it matter? You’re Shelly, I’m Jeremy. What are you into?”
Three more emails waited for her when she stormed home. Tell me the key of the first song you played, Shelly instructed them, and was told F, A minor and B Flat major. She didn’t know the answer herself. She challenged them to name the brand of stand-up bass he played, got back real names of both bass manufacturers and local artisans, which she also discovered via quick search. Prove you’re you!!! she demanded. One sent a detailed description of the club. Another, his favorite bluegrass tunes. The third tired of the game and vanished.
Six more suitors awaited her the next morning. Shelly dared them all to provide singular, unknowable facts. A variety of improvised details soon overran her inbox. Some of them got off on the questions, delighting in elaborate backstories, little fictions posing as whole alternate biographies. Others asked why she was being so difficult, come on, they were nice guys. A few called her names, stuck-up bitch, cunt, worse. Finally she just told them to reply with a photo. Two stole an image from the band’s website; one attached a photo of the lead guitar player by mistake. A few didn’t bother but continued to ply her.
Shelly stopped answering; the responses eventually trickled off. For days she burned with private embarrassment, feared each man she met in line at the coffee shop or in the hallway of her apartment building had been behind one of the false responses, saw the bassist in any man with beard, mocking her. She vowed to never do anything like placing the ad again.
Then a new message appeared in her inbox: That Wasn’t Me. It continued in the body: But I am a stand-up bass player, and I do have brown hair and a beard and thick-rimmed glasses. Seems worth a shot?
They agreed to meet at a tejano bar the next afternoon. Shelly recognized him quickly; he did not look exactly like the bassist, but had been cast in the same mold; his hair was a bit bushier, his face protruded where the other’s had been sculpted; this one had loose jangly limbs, not the muscular forearms of the original. He introduced himself as Art. As they made awkward small talk his fingers poked walking basslines on the table, just as she’d imagined the other bassist doing when they finally met.
“Do you usually respond to messages for other people?” Shelly asked.
“My friend saw it and thought it was me,” Art told her. “He figured I’d filled in for a different band or something. He put me up to this.”
They watched his spindly fingers crawl along the wood. He was the first of the respondents who seemed as nervous as she’d been when she’d hit submit.
It turned out they lived nearby, had probably seen each other before at the local market or coffee shop. He’d spent summers near her hometown by the border working on an uncle’s ranch, knew how to ride horses; she hadn’t learned growing up, a regret; he promised to teach her. He was soft-spoken but affable where she had imagined her bassist dark and brooding, yet seemed all the more genuine for this. By the time they exchanged phone numbers the original bassist had taken a step back in Shelly’s memory.
She and Art met for ice cream a few days later, which they ate on a knoll by the lake. He kissed her, she kissed him back. On the third date she slept over at his place. Soon he was introducing her to his buddies at the bar, not quite calling her his girlfriend but clearly wanting to, conspicuously layering his lanky arm around her shoulders, bragging whether anybody was looking or not. When he left to buy another round his buddies confided in her that they’d never seen him happier.
Shelly never told him that she wasn’t sure the bassist had been staring at her, not even a little. He’d been facing her general direction as he’d methodically, almost passionlessly fretted his notes. But he might have been looking at a girlfriend one table back, or trying to catch the attention of the sound guy, or just gazing into the distance, seduced by the strut of his low end or even bored from its repetitive stroll. Shelly spent the set trying to convince herself he was looking at and not through her, that she was someone a guy like him would notice rather than the middle distance he would settle on. She tried to catch his eye nonchalantly; after their set she took forever to finish her beer to give him a chance to approach her. Finally she biked home, replaying her fantasy in a nasty loop, because she was lonely, because nobody in the world looked at her the way she’d wanted to believe the bassist had. The next day Shelly posted in the Missed Connections as she’d seen others toss coins into a mall fountain. She prayed nobody would catch her in the act of begging the universe.
After six months Art proposed. “I know I wasn’t who you were looking for,” he said, “but I hope I look at you the way he did.” Shelly shut her eyes and said yes. From then on the original bassist appeared irregularly in her darker visions, to tell her this life she’d bumbled into was a shadow of the one she’d wanted. Art would ask what was wrong as she squinted against his apparition, and she would linger in his gaze before lying like all the men who’d typed that was me had lied to her.