Bett, Talking


When I think of him, I remember the mirrors in his eyes, where anyone who stood in front of him seemed to live. I was in there for a time, too, off to the side and as if in the middle of moving out. But those mirrors were on his bedroom walls in Montauk, and we met in Amagansett, so let’s spool this back: I was pumping gas at the last filling station before Long Island’s final slip-sliding into the ocean, below those cliffs with the lighthouse on their backs. I was too old to be called a girl but liked the calling anyway, wearing denim overalls a bit snug for my butt, my name stitched in a blue rectangle just over my right tit. He wheeled up in his Karmann Ghia the color of a pomegranate ripped open, so that you see the pulp and the juice spilling out, its red a little tired of itself, wanting to be purple. I noticed him, first, because of his car, the top hunched down, wriggling in the wind, second, because of how he stared at what he would later say were the laburnum trees, their yellow petals coiling high behind the garage: he saw them as if looking were a way to listen for the jangle they ought to make, flowers in the shape of coins. Third, I knew him for what he was, the man whose music I’d grown my hair to, from when I really was a girl. On his CD covers, hulked over by his cohort with the halo fuzz around his face and the skimpy, candy-colored lips, he was framed in a vanishing he hadn’t known he’d longed to pull off. I was playing with the hose, jiggling the nozzle. He asked what happened to the e that should end my name. It will be there once I earn it, I said, and he answered that he’d like to help me with what the earning meant. He was watching my hair flit and waggle in the crack between my legs, saying that it reminded him of young mustard blooms he’d seen in France, on tour. He gave me his credit card, said that I could call him Petey, that we should ride out to Montauk tomorrow, when the sun flings itself into the water. I liked that image, and I followed it, for a while.

Bluff Road

What happened next I need to slow down, since everything sped up as I looked at it. Inside his car, as we trailed the S that Bluff Road makes on its push away from Amagansett, his right knee bumping against my left, his eyes like a windshield full of pictures that came and went, I thought how the beach, the ocean with late sun jumping into every wave, the privet-hedged houses were hurried into motion alongside us, though they stayed in their places, and we kept moving. A demo of a new CD twanged from the back speakers, he was going solo, and wanted to know what it was like for this girl, whose hair stretched past her knees, to pump gas. After college, everyone I knew stood in a carton that contained their lives, busy with one job, one man, one dog, each of them lasting until they stopped. I decided to try not doing for as long as I could stand up to it, to wait for when the not-ness would open out, on to something else. You’re the track I follow / even when you’re not there, Petey sang from the stereo, a chorus of South African-sounding men whooping behind his broad vowels. We were about to trace the curve around Napeague and its hump-like dunes, where I’d find a heron eyeing the bay, raising its white throat in one gurgle, then a croon, as if that tune could take the sun and shove it, now, below its outspread wings. We were about to drive up the dirt path to his house, all windows on rough grass, hung over the ocean. Everything began there, on the other side of that glass, even if I didn’t know what the beginning was.

Montauk Point at Night

We walked in under the pale wood tepee of his ceiling, and I was thinking how small Petey was. His toes, sneaker-free, were short, rounded, his fingernails squared off, the hands narrow but wide enough to strum and pluck from those guitars leaning on his dining room wall the songs that waited inside them, in a crowd, to come out. His housekeeper had lit a fire in the bedroom, its flames dipping and jumping against the grate. I heard them pop what he told me were their sixteenth note rhythms over his naked back, over his little ass, over my right hip. The skin warmed under his hand. I watched copies of Bett and Petey move close together on every mirrored wall, on his bed, where his eyes and hair were the color of dried peat, as if predicting his name. When he said that he’d dreamed of us lying here, on the covers, he kissed me like the brother I didn’t have. And when he whispered would I be his beard, I was about to say that facial hair didn’t interest me, when I saw everything he could be clear of: the demographics pitched to him by his record company, fan clubs wanting him married, kid-versions of himself circling his calves, or dating an equally famous woman, her gifts just shy of his, allowing her to fit the game and not outplay it. For a few years, I gave him the other way that he asked of me. In camera flares, in bias-cut dresses, I covered the men I mostly didn’t see, though I knew they had to be tall, dark-haired, and offer Petey a taking he yearned for. They never stayed long in the elsewhere I put them in my head, and they didn’t talk when they should have been quiet. All this became the not doing that showed me how to head out.

In southern Sweden, where the Baltic Sea wraps a y-shaped tail around the coast, I’m the woman who lives in this place because she doesn’t know it, who bikes to the village store, buys cheese, flat bread, and beer, riding on to a wide black lake that no one else seems to come to. Dusk starts to settle on the junipers. A buck and his doe nibble at the low berries, their blue like the light that huddles over the water. I’m the woman who never saw that Petey and his demographics were always coupled, even when we were alone in our many rooms, since their coupling made possible the life that was his. I’m in a country where I don’t hear his name. But, a few months from this moment, I’ll learn that he’s married a woman who sings twangy songs that sound like his, if you could listen to them with a single ear. She’s about to have his baby, I’ll read, though that stays a mystery I won’t trouble myself to solve. White moths flap among the junipers, wind bangs and jags their upper branches, and I’m the woman who moved out, who understands that every now escapes especially those who stop enough to recognize it, as it goes, the woman who adds this e, finally, to her name.

Juniper Berries

Bruce Bromley’s fiction was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize by Able Muse Review. He has performed his music throughout Europe and the US. His book, Making Figures: Reimagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us, was published by the Dalkey Archive Press in 2014. He is senior lecturer in expository writing at New York University, where he won the 2006 Golden Dozen Award for teaching excellence.