When a girl is skinny, and calls you late at night, and you glance at the calendar, and it is four days before you are scheduled to get married, and the girl you are marrying is not the skinny girl but another girl, a girl who has already departed for the city where your wedding is to be held, it is your job, most probably, to hang up the phone.When you do not hang up the phone, you have not done your job. When you invite that skinny girl to your apartment, and then you jump into the shower so that you will be clean, taking special trouble to wash the parts that matter, and then you mess up your hair so that you will look as though you haven’t gone to any special trouble, then you are doing another job entirely.
She was a painter. Panos met her through a mutual friend. She had a boyfriend, who was twenty-two years older than she, and when Panos first spoke to her, he said that he thought that the age difference was an atrocity. “Like bombing Cambodia,” he said, convinced that this was a joke that she would not understand. She surprised him with a knowing laugh. They talked about his impending marriage, and about the week of freedom he had but doubted he’d use. She took out a Paper-Mate blue pen and used it to write his phone number on her hand. She wrote it strangely: not with numerals, but with letters “O” for 1, “T” for 2, “TH” for 3, “F,” “FI,” and so on.
“So that makes your number ‘Efstooth,’” she said.
“Hey,” Panos said. “That’s my street: Efstooth Avenue.”
“For that joke I award you this pen,” she said, handing it over ceremonially. “I’ll get it later.”
When she arrived at Panos’s apartment, “Efstooth” was still inked on her hand, but that was not the first thing he noticed. The first thing he noticed was that she was carrying a suitcase. It was small enough that she held it rather than setting it down, but large enough that it seemed to have winded her slightly on the way up to the third floor.
“Are you moving in?” he said. “I don’t know how my wife will feel about this.” She set the suitcase down on the floor, unzipped it, and flipped back the top. There were white packages there, white sheets, and when she unwrapped them they were her paintings. She spread them out on the floor of his apartment. There were ten of them, each one a small landscape with a single bird flying over a marsh and a single human figure in the foreground. They were slightly different shades, one reddish, one greenish, one dunnish, and so on, across a muted spectrum.
Panos looked at the paintings and asked polite questions about them that she answered smoothly. “I like to tell people that he’s trying to capture the bird,” she said. “I always feel hilarious saying that. But the bird’s not an unwitting victim. He sees the man. You can be sure about that.” When he asked if they were all pictures of the same scene, she said that she saw how he’d think so but that no, three of them were painted from actual photographs of her father hunting and the other seven were created from imagination. “My father left when I was a little girl,” she said. “I remember that he yelled a lot, and that he was mean to my mother, and that she was happier without him. But recently I have been looking for pictures of him. I found three and made up seven more. No one should have fewer than ten photographs of her father.”
They turned the TV on but turned the volume all the way down. They ordered pizza. She sat in a chair across the room from him, and announced that she hadn’t showered that morning, because the water in her apartment was too cold. Panos told her she was welcome to take a shower if she wanted. “We’ll see,” she said, and went around the apartment ticking her finger across the spine of books. “Lots of history books,” she said.
“Not mine,” Panos said.
“Oh,” she said. “Too bad. I love history books.” She was wearing tight stretch pants and a tight white shirt. It was obvious to Panos that she was the skinniest girl who had ever been in his apartment. She was not wearing a bra, which put her in the company of at least two other girls who had been in the apartment, neither of whom was the girl who was, in four days’ time, going to be his wife. His wife always wore a bra, and even three years into their relationship, she gave a little involuntary gasp of pleasure whenever he unclasped it. He figured that it was, at best, a reflex. The history books were hers.
The skinny girl came and stood right next to Panos. She planted her feet to make it clear that she was ready to address the issue.
“Well,” Panos said. “Here we are.”
“We are here,” she said. “No doubt about that.”
“It’s all in the way you say it,” he said. “‘Here we are’ is more loaded than ‘we are here.’”
“Is that what we are? Loaded?” she said. “Speaking of which, I’ll have more wine.” She shook her glass and sloshed out a few drops onto her shirt. “Shit,” she said.
“I have extra T-shirts,” Panos said.
“I’ll just take this off,” she said, and did.
“Come here,” Panos said.
She sat on the couch and pushed up alongside him. They watched the TV, which was showing a strongman competition. A fat Swede was jogging down a short track, the chassis of a car held on his shoulders. “I really stink,” she said. Panos closed his eyes for research. She was right, in a way: it was the smell of young sweat, of a black flower blooming. She unbuttoned his shirt and laid her head on his chest.
“Now you’ve got me thinking about my father,” she said.
“I do?” Panos said. “How?”
“It’s not that hard to do.”
“I don’t think I like your tone,” he said.
“I’m sure you don’t,” she said. “No one ever does.” She squeezed his arm. “You know what my father did? Other than leave, I mean.” “And hunt.”
“And hunt. No, I mean what he did for work. He was trained as a lawyer but about a year before I was born he quit to work on a biography of his great-grandfather, who was a British intelligence agent who specialized in code breaking. Do you know about the Zimmermann Telegram?” Panos shook his head. She didn’t continue right away. He put his hand on her stomach, and then slipped a few fingers just inside the elastic band of her pants.
“Tell me,” Panos said.
“What?” she said after a while.
“Tell me about the telegram.”
“Oh,” she said. “Why? Are you really interested?” Panos nodded and let one finger drift a little lower. “Of course you are,” she said.
“Really,” Panos said. “Keep telling me about it.”
“Fine,” she said. “This telegram was sent from the German foreign secretary to the German ambassador in Mexico, and it announced that the Germans were going to support a Mexican attack on the southwestern United States. The British, including my great-greatgrandfather, cracked the code. When the telegram was verified, Wilson armed ships to defend against Germany, and a few days after that, we were at war. World War One.”
“You know, even though the history books aren’t mine, I managed to figure that out.”
“The code was a cryptogram. We cracked it partly because one of the top German spies, Wilhelm Wassmuss, had lost his codebook in Iran the year before. We picked that up and it helped with the Zimmermann Telegram.”
Now she didn’t like his tone. “We the British. We my great-greatgrandfather.” The strongman competition had ended, and now the TV was showing dirt bike racing. She got up to go to the bathroom, and when she came back she started to pack her paintings back into the suitcase. “What color would you say this is?” she said, holding up a canvas.
“And what about this one?”
“Right. But isn’t that ridiculous? Two colors that are so different, but they’re considered the same. It’s almost reason enough to become a painter, just to try to understand that. Colors are like a code, too.”
“Oh, yeah,” Panos said. “Finish the code story.”
“It was finished,” she said. “Finished enough. I was out of that and on to color. Blame your bathroom. It’s blue.”
“I didn’t pick that color.”
“It doesn’t look like your thing,” she said. “When are you getting married?”
“Sunday,” Panos said. “It’s strange. It seems like a million years away, and also like it’s going to happen the first time I let myself breathe.”
“You’re not breathing?”
“Not always well.”
“Is it because I stink?”
“It’s because I’m not sure what message I’ll be sending if I do. Maybe my true feelings will come through.”
“What are those true feelings? I assume they have something to do with the reason I’m here.” She had her chin tilted up now, and her words were falling into the space between them.
“That’s not a feeling. It’s the presence of two feelings at once.
What are the two?”
“Joy and fear? Happiness and hatred? Rightness and wrongness?”
“The most obvious kind of wrongness. Like maybe this isn’t the right choice. Like there are a million people to love, and how can I settle on one and be sure that I’m not a fool? I have met others. I
might meet others. What about Eskimos?”
“The Eskimos,” she said. “Of course.”
“Or the Finns or the Malays or all the other people I don’t even know about. Maybe I could be with one of them without ambivalence. Don’t you have these questions about your boyfriend?”
“He’s a quick story. He’s older, is big like you, has a beard, helps pay the rent on my painting studio, treats me with what we’ll say is kind contempt. That often does the trick for me, as it turns out.” She slipped a hand inside his shirt and hooked her leg over his. “Will you kiss me?”
“Sure,” Panos said. “But I’m not sure about more. I want to, but you know.”
“Now that’s ambivalence,” she said. After they kissed, she pulled her pants down far enough to show him that she wasn’t wearing any underwear. “Put your hands on my ass.”
“If you insist,” Panos said. “But I want you to know that I feel like
I could stop any time.”
“I’m flattered,” she said, her eyes narrowing.
“What I was going to say,” Panos said, “is that it’s like when a drunk driver thinks that he’s in control of his car.”
“Oh,” she said. “Maybe I am flattered. Well, do what you want, or don’t. Your hours are numbered anyway. I have told you so many state secrets that I’m going to have to kill you. Anyway, it’s not too long until morning. I’ll be gone soon.” They leaned into each other and she pretended to concentrate on the dirt bikes on TV.
The sky outside was already starting to change color, from black to a weaker shade of black. There wasn’t any blue in it yet. “There’s a bird out there,” Panos said. “I rarely actually see them at night.”
“The man sees the bird,” she said. “You can be sure about that.” She made birds with her hands and flew them up high so that her arms were stretching as far as they would go. She was so skinny that there was something painfully religious about that pose. It was a pose of appeal to something far beyond him. “Put your head back down on me,” she said, and he did. She stroked his neck, unbuttoned his pants, made circles with her fingers on his stomach, exhibited restraint. Taking off her clothes would have been as easy as asking.
How often are things as easy as asking?
At seven, it was time for her to go. Panos found her shirt and buttoned up his own. “Okay,” he said. “What’s the way to do this?” He hadn’t anticipated the need for any secrecy. He had planned to sneak her out at three in the morning or so. But now his neighbors were up, and many of them knew his wife, and he wasn’t sure what they would make of a strange skinny girl leaving his apartment early in the morning.
“I’ll go down and throw out the trash,” he said. “If I buzz on the buzzer, that means the coast is clear, so come downstairs quick. The door will lock behind you.”
“Okay,” she said. “Can you carry my suitcase along with a trash bag? That way I can get there fast. I won’t have to bump around on the stairs.”
“It’s like being a spy,” Panos said.
“It’s nothing like that,” she said. “I could tell you stories.”
Did Panos take her to breakfast? Not to take her would have been rude. But he did not pay. That would have been too conspiratorial, and too high-handed, both at once. Besides, he was not hungry, just intensely thirsty, enough so that he bought a half-gallon of orange juice from the corner store and drank it straight from the carton while he stood out on the sidewalk. She stopped in a coffee shop and ordered a toasted bagel; a bit of melted butter ran down her chin when she ate it. Her chin was slick with the butter. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue. At that moment, just at that precise moment, he wanted to invite her back up to his apartment and make all the mistakes he had avoided making. Instead he changed the subject, for the last time. “You forgot to get your pen back,” he said.
“You can keep it,” she said. “Remember me by it. That’s kind of nice, right, to remember someone by something totally anonymous? When you write with it, it’ll be like there’s an invisible ink message just under the real message.”
“What does it say?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she said. “It’s in Inuktitut.”
“What is that?”
“Look it up,” she said. “You have books. I’ve seen them. Okay:
“See you,” Panos said.
“Or not,” she said. “Probably not.”
“Well,” he said, “I hope you enjoyed your time on Efstooth
“You’re an idiot,” she said. When she leaned in to kiss him goodbye he smelled it again, the black flower blooming under her arm. He went back to his apartment and pulled out history books until he found a listing in the index for the Zimmermann Telegram. He read a few paragraphs that he didn’t understand. They might as well have been in Inuktitut. In the front of the book, on a flyleaf, his wife had signed her name. His wife, almost. He shut the book hard, like a trap. He was trying to capture his ambivalence or kill it. Three days later, he watched his wife sign her name again, on a marriage certificate, beneath a paragraph he understood completely. The ink and sky were blue.
by Ben Greenman