Birds by Ben Gwin
I sign up for summer class at the community college so I can finally get my associates, and on the first day I see a girl who reminds me of my old babysitter. I sit in front of the girl, by the window and pretend to look at the traffic passing on Mountain View, but really I’m watching her reflection. Chapped pink lips. Tattoo edging up her collarbone. Hair everywhere and the color of daffodils, all drawn out faint and slippery over the glass.
The kid professor drones on about philosophy or sociology or scientology, while the lights flinch in the drop ceiling and I wonder if the girl knows I’m looking if I can’t see her eyes in the window.
After class she bums a cigarette off me, and I ask her if she was my babysitter ten years ago. She laughs and says no.
She fucks me for the first time in the abandoned Hollywood Video in the strip mall across the river. We break into the back room and go at it over a cold metal desk covered in paper trays and old logoed pens that we knock over and scatter across the torn up carpet, towards the fake palm tree in the corner. Her hair is dyed fire engine red then, and dirty, matted against her back, sweaty wet, and I still have my shirt on until half way through when she loses her grip on the desk and tumbles to the floor, and I pull off my shirt and go to her there. I stare at the plastic tree when I cum.
Back out amongst the rows of empty shelves we smoke coke and stare at blank TVs bolted high in mildewey corners. There’s a leak in the roof and a crack down one of the walls. She pulls on a pair of ripped jeans and a t-shirt, and talks about growing up somewhere I’ve never been.
“I’m not sure I liked it there anyway,” she says.
“What about here?”
Here is where I grew up. So much time spent driving around in small town circles with a beer between my legs and a couple friends in the back. And If I wanted to bore this girl to death, I could go on for days with stories soaked in nostalgia and petty crime and high school sports. But I don’t, so I don’t.
For a panicked second I forget her name.
Then I remember. Robin. Like Robin Williams, like Batman and Robin. Robin Hood. I still can’t tell what color her eyes are.
Robin says, “I don’t normally do this.”
I say, “I had eleven months clean once.”
Robin climbs up on an overturned shelf and starts ripping out wires from behind the TV. “I bet there’s a way to put on a movie somehow,” she says. “Tell me if you see anything.”
I nod but she can’t see me, and I look into that dead black screen and there’s this image. Split wires sparking over a puddle, and then everything around me looks like a big wobbly film negative, like scrambled porn, and those wires need connected to fix it. And I’m hung up on all these wires and blurred images. Hung up like I used to get on the windshield wipers on Dad’s truck when he took me for Gatorade after football practice. Those rides along the river before I got into real trouble. We listened to Bruce Springsteen, talked about the upcoming game and I watched the wipers, hoping they hit the space between the broken white line on the road when they slid down the windshield.
I tell Robin, “I think I want to get clean.”
She says, “I don’t,” and I say, “Not right this second.”
We have sex three and a half more times and leave at five in the morning. I’m worried about the state of my apartment, but I’ve got a tin on my nightstand filled with Valiums. A little weed. Half a bottle of Jacquin’s in the fridge. Sleep will come. We’ll wake up next to each other, and if we’re lucky, we won’t regret it till much later. But before all that we have to walk down the road and across the bridge to my apartment complex.
I skim my reflection off the top of a puddle with my foot. I ask Robin, “Will you to be my girlfriend?”
“That’s so cute. No one just asks like that anymore. Like let’s go steady,” she says. “You have your own place and a job, right?”
My shift at the restaurant is so far away I can feel it sneaking up behind me. “Yeah,” I say. “But I might call off tonight.”
Robin says, “Alright. Let’s go steady.”
We walk along the shoulder, towards the river. Before the bridge, there’s an empty split-level with gray siding and a pinwheel spinning in the flower bed. My babysitter always cut through the backyard, holding a stack of text books covered in brown paper. And when my sneakers hit the pavement, I remember the sound those books made when she thumped them down on the coffee table and smiled at my parents on their way out the door. Her yellow bangs and caked-on makeup. The black and white movies she made me watch. Breath like peppermint when she slid close on the couch, my knuckles scraping against her zipper before she grabbed my wrist and cocked it. Here, like this. The way she left me sleeping in front of the TV while she riffled through my drawers and found all that I’d hidden.
I take Robin’s hand. When she looks up, I notice her eyes are bright blue. Like Stella Blue, Blue Sky. All that faded blue ink on her chest.
“You never told me what the deal is with your tattoos,” I say.
Robin steps onto the curb by a patch of weeds, takes off her shirt. “This part,” she says, “the RIP with heart and cross, was for my friend Joanne. But then I had six more friends die within a month so instead of paying to get it filled in, I gave them all a bird. See, they’re flying out of my heart.”
She pulls her shirt back on, twists the end of her hair and chews on it. A bakery truck drives by. I steal a newspaper and shoot the rubber band into some hedges.
We continue down the road, past the gray house, and I want to ask Robin if she thinks about rainy windshields and wires and puddles. I bet that she does. But none of that has anything to do with daybreak over the river or this girl next to me. Those birds screaming towards her throat.
Ben Gwin’s work has appeared in Belt Magazine, Bridge Eight, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, and others. His forthcoming novel, CLEAN TIME: THE TRUE STORY OF RONALD REAGAN MIDDLETON (Burrow Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2014 Pressgang Prize. He lives in Pittsburgh with his daughter.