Joyland

New York |

Where We Are Right Now

by Alexandra Kessler

edited by Michelle Lyn King

Ellis and Scott met at the bar of a southern barbecue restaurant on Seventy-Eighth street and second avenue. The place was called Brother Jimmy’s and it had a skee-ball machine. The editor of the magazine Ellis and Scott worked for had invited everybody from the office out for drinks. She chose that bar because she wanted to show how fun she could be. But she wasn’t having fun. She spent the night standing at the end of the bar clutching her vodka soda and taking Adderall pills from a bottle she kept in her purse. The bottle had a label on it that said Sealed For Your Protection. It was nice to know something wanted to keep you safe.

Ellis had been working for the magazine—an economics journal that focused on personal finance—for two years. She was hired because she was twenty-five and had a creative writing degree and the magazine needed a younger voice to bring in a more, as the editor called it, contemporary readership. Ellis wrote a column about dating on a budget. She had never actually experienced any of the ideas she wrote about, as she never got asked on dates. She had been working on a piece about birdwatching in Central Park the week the editor asked her to come out for drinks.The last time Ellis had been bird watching was on a middle school field trip. She saw nothing but diseased pigeons through plastic binoculars.

Scott had been in Manhattan for four months, transferred from the magazine’s Ft. Lauderdale office. He moved into a studio apartment off West Broadway on the night of his thirtieth birthday. He celebrated by eating an entire sausage pizza alone and squashing the cockroaches on his kitchen counter under his thumb. Scott wrote a column called “Strategic Thinking,” which was popular with retirees. It listed the many ways in which your identity could be thieved and how you could avoid this by never trusting anybody, ever. Whenever Scott was asked if he missed Florida, he said no. He knew that all identity theft started with self-deception.

Ellis and Scott wound up sitting next to each other at the bar. They were both trying to order another drink. Scott looked at her, touched her arm, introduced himself. They listened to the bartender’s conversation with three men in Brooks Brothers shirts who were asking her if she’d ever been to France.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Paris,” the bartender said. “I like that I wouldn't understand what anybody was saying.”

Scott bought Ellis a drink. He wouldn’t have spoken to her if she hadn’t been sitting right there, if it hadn’t been easy, but now he was grateful that he had. She was cute, with her dark hair and her buzz-flushed cheeks and quiet laugh, and she had thanked him twice when he paid for her vodka and cranberry. Other girls he’d met in the city seemed like they’d been hatched yesterday out of metal eggs, with no discernible signs of having been made by humans. Ellis just sat there pulling at her blouse and blinking, waiting for him to tell her things. She would bring her fingernails to her mouth and remind herself to stop before she took a bite, over and over. She was self-aware in a way that made Scott able to picture her as a child— he could tell that she had finger-painted, that she had maybe played lacrosse or lost her virginity in a sleeping bag. The thought made Scott semi-hard right there on his bar stool. He laid his jacket across his lap.

Scott told Ellis about growing up in Florida, about life without snow. About the time a palm frond speared his bedroom window in the middle of the night, broken glass on his bedsheets. Ellis liked that his high school had been across the street from a beach.

“It’s like you grew up in a vacation,” she said.

“Once they pulled a dead body out of the water,” he said. “Right up onto the sand. I saw it out my classroom window.”

“No.” Ellis said. “No way.”

“It’s true. This homeless guy everyone knew— you know those homeless guys everyone

knows?”

“Yes.”

“His name was Hammerhead. He looked like a hammerhead shark—that kind of stretched out face and far-apart eyes. He hung around the beach. He always had liquor. Nobody knew how he bought all that liquor, seeing as he was homeless.”

“If I was going to be homeless,” Ellis said, “I would want to be homeless on a beach.”

“So one day, everybody notices that Hammerhead hasn’t been around. He used to wait around outside the liquor store for my friends and I to give him money. He’d buy us our shit and we let him keep the change. But one day he wasn’t there, and then it became a couple of weeks. The owner of the liquor store said he got a bad feeling and called the police. This guy was always annoyed to have Hammerhead hanging around the store, but he still feels bad, right?”

“Sure,” Ellis said. “Sure, of course.”

“My dad was the chief of police. So he headed up everything. He printed missing posters on his own time. Nobody else cared, really, but he was so worried.”

“Wow,” said Ellis, signaling the bartender for another round. “I’ve never met a police officer before.” It was true. Her own father was a Park Avenue dentist who kept wanting to give her veneers. I’ll have those chompers filed down in minutes, he would tell her, I’ll paint them up pearly white. Do you know how many women would kill to get them for free? he’d say, I just want you to look like the best version of yourself.

The bartender came over to refresh their drinks. She smiled seductively at Scott, but he didn’t notice. Ellis felt a happy heat in her ears, like molecules popping.

“My father was always like that. He made everything a big deal,” Scott said.

“That’s a nice, though. It’s nice to feel things.”

“Sometimes it was like I had two mothers.”

Ellis took another sip. She thought about how incredible this was, right where she and Scott were right now. That he was telling her all of this. They hadn’t even had that much to drink. Ellis counted backwards in her head: one drink before they started talking, one that he bought, and now this round. And he was drinking beer, not liquor. Deducing that Scott couldn’t possibly be drunk, Ellis let herself enjoy it. She let his words crawl into her.

“After a couple days the coast guard got a call from a shrimp boat off the coast. Turns out they had Hammerhead’s body tangled up in their trawler nets.”

“Oh no,” Ellis said.

“So the coast guards went out and brought the body right onto the beach across from my school. I remember we all just got up and stood by the windows and watched the whole thing. We called it a Floridian Matinee.”

Ellis touched his knee, and Scott looked down at her hand. She wanted to flutter back in time and be a girl in that high school class. When they dragged Hammerhead out of the sea, she would stand next to Scott and weave her thin, suntanned fingers though his. She would stroke his back, tell him not to be afraid. He would look from the carnage on the beach to her gold- dusted face and realize she was beautiful.

“I didn’t feel anything, really,” Scott said. “My dad hated that nobody knew how Hammerhead died. He said there’s nothing worse than being buried without a story. He paid for the funeral. He even made me go.”

The lights went on, and the bartender said it was time to go. In the light, Ellis could see the deep creases on the bartender’s face, the wrinkles between her eyebrows and her bracketed lips. Ellis liked seeing these flaws floodlit. She was with Scott, and the bartender would be left there alone with nothing but the buzz of fluorescents. Finally, Ellis was the one leaving someone behind.

Scott climbed off of his bar stool and put his jacket on. He took Ellis’s jacket off the back of her chair and held it open for her. Ellis slipped her arms into the maroon tweed and thought that she must do something right to bind Scott to her.

Ellis took Scott’s hand and lead him out onto the dark sidewalk. There was a narrow corner between a pile of garbage and the back entrance of a bagel shop, and this is where she kissed him. Scott saw her widening pupils up close and then kissed her back, this time curling his arm around her and pulling her closer.

In Ellis’s apartment, Scott looked at her bookshelves and the framed pictures on her windowsill while Ellis opened a bottle of wine in the kitchen. He liked that she had thick novels with paperback covers that were wrinkled and peeling. Though Scott never read novels himself, he felt that he should expect it of other people, especially women. He picked up a framed photograph of Ellis and who he assumed were her parents. They were standing on a snowy slope in a straight line, buckled into skis whose points were all angled in the same direction. Scott could tell that Ellis’ mother was pretty in a skinny, sharp way. Ellis’ father was waving to the camera with a black mittened hand, his eyes hidden behind tinted black ski goggles. Scott tried to imagine his own father skiing. He could picture his father’s bluish limbs waving as he barreled spastically down a mountain, craggy fingernails clutching at the air.

“That was in Tahoe,” Ellis said, walking over with the wine. Scott took the glass that she gave him. There was a faint lipstick stain on the rim, so he licked it off.

“That vacation was funny, actually,” said Ellis. “We were used to skiing in Vermont where it’s freezing. So we get to Tahoe all bundled up and it’s sixty-five degrees. There were girls skiing in bikini tops.”

“That’s something,” Scott said, smiling. They didn’t look like people who often made mistakes, so he liked that this one was documented.

“I hate skiing, though,” Ellis said. “It’s a lot of lugging stuff around,waiting on lines. And it’s not fun unless you're really talented or just not afraid of crashing.”

“Are you both?”

“I’m neither.”

Scott realized he was still holding the picture. He put it back on the windowsill.

“You want to sit down?” Ellis gestured to her sofa. It was thick brown leather, lined with decorative pillows. He moved one over, as not to sit on it, and he watched Ellis watch him, closely.

“This is a nice couch,” Scott said, running his fingertips over the cushion. “This is a real, adult couch.”

Ellis said thank you.

“It’s nice,” Scott said again. He reached out and put his wine glass on the coffee table, and Ellis did the same.

He turned to Ellis and put a hand on either side of her face. He kissed her, and she kissed him back. Soon he was straddling her, both of them topless but their pants and shoes still on. Ellis’ breasts were remarkably bigger than they seemed under her shirt and jacket. The surprise reminded Scott of being a child on the beach, when he would use a rock to crack open a shell only to find something pink and alive inside. Scott kept sucking hard on her right nipple. Ellis tried to relax but kept wondering if her left nipple was ugly, and if so, what there was to do about it.

“You’re so pretty,” he said, rubbing his face into her neck. Ellis beamed to herself and stroked the back of Scott’s head. This is why people bothered talking to each other at all, she thought, to hear these things outright.

“Have you ever had sex on this couch?” Scott asked.

Ellis pretended to have to think about it. The last time she had sex was the night after her college graduation with her roommate’s older brother who lived in San Diego and was married now.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Do you want to?”

Ellis slid out from under him and crossed the room to turn the light off. Scott stood up and unbuckled his belt.

Things had been going well for a little while before Scott caught sight of the skiing picture on the windowsill. Though he could only see the outline of the frame in the dark, he knew what he was looking at. Scott’s fingers started to get lost inside thick black mittens, he could feel the pressure of snow goggles strapped around his head. He could see the hot sun glint off the cold mountain, feel the shifting under him. He didn’t like that she had done things he never had. He pulled away from Ellis and rolled over, rubbing at his eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” he mumbled. He turned over and slipped his arms around her.“It’s not you, I promise.”

“It’s okay,” Ellis said. She vibrated with panic. What had she done wrong? There was always something. But still, this felt different from the usual rejections. Still, she liked that he’d said sorry, that he was still affectionate. If it were up to her, she would always just cut straight to the afterwards, anyway. And it was good, because now she had him. It was always better for things to go a little wrong and not be the one whose fault it was. It was the best thing she could imagine.

“It’s okay,” She said again, her fingertips tapping along his jaw. “It happens.”

They lay on the couch like that for a few more minutes. Ellis counted back from ten and took a breath.

“I like you a lot, Scott,” she said, eyes closed.“I know it hasn’t been long but I feel so close to you.”

She felt Scott nod against her.

“I’m not just saying this. I never say this.”

“I know what you mean,” Scott said.

“We’re in a good place,” Ellis said. “I think we’re in a good place.”

She felt her heart steady itself, casting out its fibrous moorings and docking up against her ribcage. This is how it felt, she thought, to have something come of time spent with another person instead of letting the hours end in something awkward and polite and void of potential. Too many interactions seemed to spark a certainty before they hissed on the water, but this would be different, sustainable, and she had already made it different because she had been honest.

Scott felt the wine draining from his brain, leaving a snail’s trail of heaviness. He wished he had something to eat. He licked Ellis’ sweaty shoulder, lightly, for the salt.

“Can I tell you something?” he asked.

Ellis said of course he could.

“It’s a secret,” he told her.

Ellis rubbed her thigh against his, and said she liked secrets.

“I know what happened to Hammerhead.”

“The homeless guy?”

Ellis didn’t move, so Scott continued.

“I snuck out one night and met up with my buddies on the beach to drink. You know everyone does that, when they're young.”

“I know I did,” Ellis said. She hadn’t. The most she’d done in her youth was take small sips of Smirnoff Ice at high school parties, too nervous to even get buzzed enough to talk to people.

“We got trashed. It was a great time.”

“I always wished I was a boy,” Ellis said. “I wish I could just go somewhere and have a great time.”

“We were walking down the beach, right, just fucking around. And then we saw Hammerhead. He was fucked, just totally out of it. He was sitting on the beach singing to himself.We went up to him. I went first and they followed me. And then, I crouched down to him so we were nose-to-nose, basically. Hammerhead didn’t look up. It was like I wasn’t even there.”

Ellis wanted to be on that beach. She wanted to feel the sand under her feet. She wondered if there were whales in Florida, and if there were, could you hear their low bellows from the shoreline?

“I kept waving in Hammerhead’s face, but he kept looking right through me. It was the wildest thing. I started to think that he was the real one and that I wasn't there at all. You can only be ignored for so long before you lose it. I got scared.”

Scott told Ellis how he and his friends had each taken one of Hammerhead’s limbs and pulled him into the water. He told her how they swam out far into the channel, Hammerhead splayed out like a starfish. Scott told Ellis about how he had never felt so efficient, how it felt like every awkward edge of his body was smoothed into pieces that worked together and never hesitated. He told her how hard his friends all had to work to keep up with him, how hard they had to swim while he barely had to try. He explained to her that at some point, it had come over all of them that they had gone far enough, and they let go of Hammerhead, swimming back to shore as quickly as their boy-bodies could take them, never turning around to see if he floated away or sank.

Ellis could see Scott’s fingers white-knuckled around Hammerhead, who thrashed until he didn’t. She could see the moon leaking milk onto the wet heads of Scott and his friends as they crawled back onto the sand, like those prehistoric fish scientists said had climbed innocently out of the sea and grew into dinosaurs.

“It feels so good to tell you this. I never talk about this. I never talk about this because I want to try to keep feeling guilty about it. I think that’s important. And if I talk about it too much it won’t mean anything anymore.”

Ellis nodded. She understood how things seemed less important if you acted like they should be.

She felt Scott’s breath on her neck get heavier. His eyelids sank slowly shut and he moved closer to her.

“I’m so glad I met you,” he said.

Ellis could see past the photographs on the her windowsill and out into the night. She couldn’t see stars, because it was Manhattan. The sun would be out before she knew it— not gradually, but all at once. Morning light would flood the apartment like a dam had broken.

“I think we’re in a good place,” Ellis said. “Where we are right now, I think we’re okay.”