women and losers coffee shop

Jessi Terson

My dad always jokes that I can walk into a bar filled with ninety-nine decent men and one scumbag, and I’ll walk straight up to the scumbag. Call it my one magic power. If there’s a loser in the room, I will find him. And even worse, I’ll probably fall madly in love with him.

Most of my ex-boyfriends have been reduced to anecdotes over the years. Bitter stories told over too many beers at closing time. Like my very first boyfriend—now universally known as the “two-stroker.” Because two strokes into losing our virginity to each other, he had a vision of Christ. And, of course, immediately dumped my Jewish ass. Mid-coitus. Then there’s my physically abusive upstairs neighbor who still likes to flush his toilet when I’m taking a shower. As well as the homeless guy who spent all my money. There’s the gambler who started dating my best friend one week after I got out of the hospital. And the the one who told me he wanted to marry me when we were seventeen. But supposedly he pulled a knife on his mother and got shipped off to a behavioral detention center halfway across the country. Oh. And then there’s my most recent ex. I guess the fact that he had once murdered a man wasn’t enough of a warning sign.

Whenever my friends or family start shaking their heads, I tend to shrug my shoulders in retaliation. “What can I say? I suffer from l’appel du vide. You know, the call of the void? That inexplicable urge to jump off a cliff or jerk your steeling wheel to the left?” I usually try to be holding a glass of whiskey when I say this. And maybe wearing all black. “It’s just a bad case of existential angst. Or writer’s block. I’m bored, so I throw a stone into a pond and look for ripples.” Because really, why else would an attractive, intelligent girl waste her time on such losers?

All I know is when Vinny walked through my front door, I felt my heart shoot up to my mouth, so for a second, the size of my face must have doubled. Maybe it was only because I was still hungover and had forgotten to turn on the light switch, but his body almost blended in with the darkness. Like the slightly darker bruise of the new moon on a black sky. By the time he was past my threshold, I managed to recognize two shoulders. A torso. A slight spike at the top of his hair. But even two hours later, when we were sitting on my back porch with a bottle of shitty white wine, parts of him were still obscured. Like some child had hastily drawn him in with crayon. There was a moment when I almost reached out to touch him. But the thought of my arm going straight through his flesh made me stop. Of course it wasn’t that he was actually missing anything. His skin was as rosy as mine. From what I could tell, he had as many limbs as anyone else. It was just the way he carried his body. Like it was something he could fling off at any moment. Like he didn’t really need it. And the drunker we got, the more I wanted to throw off my own. To feel whatever it was inside me rush out like water.

Although I had exchanged pleasantries with Vinny whenever he came into my coffee shop, I didn’t really know him. I simply thought he was handsome. And eventually, I invited him over for a drink. Even now, I’m still not entirely sure why he decided to tell me his life story that first day we hung out alone. Maybe it was the three bottles of wine. Or the aria from Carmen that I put on the record player. All I know is that at some point, he confessed to his former drug habit. He told me about the time he took too much oxycontin and felt his soul leave his body. He told me about the gun he used to carry in his pocket whenever he picked up a stash. He even mentioned the time a man put a gun to his temple. But by that point, Vinny had been clean for over a year and no longer carried a weapon. So he killed the man with his hands.

And yet, for some reason, none of this frightened me. Like I knew it should have. How could I be frightened when his eyes were suddenly boring into me? Locking me to him? So for that one moment, I couldn’t have lost this world if I tried.

The next time I saw him, he made me dinner. He was a cook at one of the best Michelin-Star restaurants in the world. When I brought the first forkful of beef to my mouth, I still wasn’t sure if was eating my own heart. And later, when he kissed me, I thought perhaps I was sucking on his. Something finally solid. And surprisingly soft.

I saw him pretty often after that. He cooked me several more dinners. Once, he brought me a copy of Othello that he picked up at a used bookstore. Another time, he left me flowers outside my front door. We went to art galleries and looked at the scribbled drawings of men caught on fire and faces cut up into hundreds of little squares. We’d sit on the pier at the beach and watch the clouds of newly hatched fish pulled apart by the waves. We’d fall asleep in my bed listening to old records. On one of the few hot nights of the summer, we pushed my bed right up to the window. When we turned the fan on, the white gauze curtains billowed over us. A cloud of some new thing born into this world, undulating back and forth on a wave.

He read the short stories I wrote and taped the pictures I drew on his refrigerator. He introduced to me to his two best friends. He even said he wanted to introduce me to his mother. So how could I be prepared for the moment, a few months later at my birthday party, when he told me how he never really wanted me?

Of course, it was a little more complicated than that. He had started shooting up again. For a week, he disappeared completely. When he finally showed up at my door, his arms were punctured with tens of tiny red holes. Like some rabid insect had burrowed in and out of his flesh. Over and over again. His head tilted precariously to the side, as if at any moment it might fall off his neck. And this time, when he looked at me, he looked through me. So suddenly, it was like I was the one without a body.

He didn’t offer up much of an explanation. He just sat there, letting the breeze blow his shoulders back and forth. At one point, I brought my lips to the spot right below his elbows. As if I could cover the evidence with my mouth. Or maybe I only wanted to taste the worst of him. The way some people like whiskey for the burn.

Eventually, he stood up to leave. He kissed me one last time. As softly as that first night over dinner. And then he left.

I tried calling him a few times after that, just to see how he was doing. But his voice was always empty. As if he sat there, deflating each word with the prick of a needle. Not that he said much. From that point on, he had nothing to say. The man I knew was gone. And even though I don’t want to call him a loser, I know what my parents would say. I should have seen the warning signs. All the lampposts bright enough to attract a moth. Hell’s little lanterns.

A few months ago I was back at my parents’ house, burrowing through my old closet for any books I might want to bring back to my new apartment. I stumbled upon a tape recorder and a collection of tapes. Out of mild curiosity, I put one in. Suddenly, there was my ten-year-old voice speaking to my future self. This calm, gentle apparition told me that if I was still alive, she hoped I was okay. She told me I was beautiful. And special. And most importantly, that she loved me. To never ever forget how much she loved me. And that she would always be there, somewhere inside me, taking care of me. I took out the tape and moved some other boxes around. Behind them were the knives. They were dumped haphazardly in an old shoebox, like any other inconsequential thing. Some still brown with old blood.

I try not to think about her too much: That carved up little girl. But it’s not always easy. It’s not so much that she’s inside me. It’s more like I drag her around like a rag doll. A lifeless thing that’s awkward and inconvenient. Wherever I walk, I hear those cloth feet scraping the pavement behind me. A gentle reminder. A docile corpse.

Right now I am sitting on my back porch, drinking alone again. I take one bottle of antidepressants and stack it on top of another. So they form a tower. Nothing exactly visible from outer space. Or even an airplane. But still, something to knock over. If I choose to reach out my arm.

The phone rings and startles me out of my thoughts. It’s only my father. He asks me about the new guy I’m seeing. And if he’s a nice man…

When we hang up, I look behind me. She is still there, patiently waiting. I smile at her and hold out my hand to cover the white fossilized line protruding from her wrist. When she closes her eyes, I try to find the right words. The ones you might record onto a tape, if you wanted to remember those kind of things. “You can go away,” I offer. “I’m fine.”

When she doesn’t budge, I try to make a joke. “How many losers does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

She opens her eyes and stares. “Before or after you’ve smashed it?”

Jessi-TersonJessi Terson’s work has appeared in Rosebud Magazine, The Awakenings Review, and Anthem Journal. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence college with an M.F.A. in poetry. She lives in Chicago, Illinois. When she’s not working at The Kitchen Sink, a local coffee shop, she’s writing about all of the losers she’s dated.



Image credit: David Bleasdale on Flickr



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