Today you and I are sitting across from one another at a tiny table in a semi-dark Japanese restaurant around three o’clock in the afternoon. It’s winter. I admire your sweater, a forest green cable knit that underscores your curly red hair. We had recently become acquainted, quite by accident, and quickly, surprisingly, became good friends. It made me happy; I didn’t always make a good first impression. We discuss whether or not to order saké, and you say well what is this story you said you have to tell me, and I say well, it’s a story about an old boyfriend, a story that has finally achieved closure after many years, even though I thought it had been closed before. You say by all means, then, order the saké. We order warm saké and some crispy tofu.

So, I say, this was long before you knew me, obviously, but I was a supremely naïve college freshman, having just graduated from an all-girls’ Catholic high school. My father died when I was a senior, and I had to accept a full scholarship from a state college, even though I wanted desperately to go to Boston, where I had been accepted by a couple of prestigious schools. You nod. Your hands are cupped around the pretty saké bottle. Its two matching cups stand at the ready. On each one is painted a pale green lotus. We joke how it seems to Westerners that every Asian symbol means “good fortune”. We admit to our own ignorance.

Anyway, I go on, I was an English major at this not-so-sophisticated state school, and I took creative writing and I took art appreciation and I thought my head would blow off with the happiness of it all. It didn’t matter anymore that I was at the wrong school; it was all so exhilarating. I stayed in a little tiny room off-campus, because I couldn’t get my head around the idea of living in a dorm with a lot of other girls. I check to see if you still look interested. You do. The crispy tofu has arrived and you seem to be eating all of it. That’s fine. I love your appetite; it was one of the things that attracted me to you. I like women who like to eat, who don’t obsess about a few extra pounds. 

Early on, I say, I got involved with the campus literary magazine, and one of the boys there was a boy named Carroll, which is a weird name for a boy, I know, but it was a family name, and somehow it suited him. He was slender and blond, with a poor complexion, but an extraordinary smile. I soon found out that he was the exclusive boyfriend of a girl named Mary Jane who was in a lot of my classes. She was also slender and blond and sort of mysterious, almost scary. But she was funny and kind as well, and we became friends, and so I became friends with Carroll too.

You pour the lovely saké into our lovely little cups.

You toast with your cup; to you and your stories, you say, and I bow my gratitude and we drink. The warm wine is delicious. I go on, first warning you that I’m afraid this is getting a little long. You smile and hoist your cup again. I have all day, you say.

I fell in love with Carroll, I say. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know if he knew, and I didn’t know if Mary Jane knew. We were all so young and inexperienced. I could do nothing, of course. And nothing is what I did for a long time. Gradually, Mary Jane and Carroll began to drift apart, and Mary Jane went off to Wales for some kind of student exchange program. By that time, she and I were no longer very close, and since there was no email in those days, I did not hear from her while she was away.

Many months went by when suddenly she appeared at the college library reserve desk where I was working in the evenings. She was different. She was orange. Her beautiful pale skin had a definite orange tint, and when she reached across the desk to get her book, I could see that her fingernails were also the color of a summery orangeade. I had to ignore it of course. She was friendly and so was I, and we made small talk for a few minutes, and then she left. Then I did something I had never done before: I called Carroll. I’d found his number in the library files. I wasn’t sure if he and Mary Jane were still together, but I needed to find out what it happened to her. Carroll was home. I said, I just saw Mary Jane, and she is orange.

After a long pause he said, I know. I said what happened? He said she’d been on a crash diet and all she ate for a month and a half was carrots. Carotene, he said. I thought I was going to throw up. She didn’t need to be on a diet I said, and he said yeah. I said is that really, scientifically possible, and he said yes, he’d checked it out with a doctor. I said okay, I guess that explains it, see you around, and we said goodbye.

You pour me another saké. The waiter drifts by, and you order more, asking for “extra-large”.

I laugh.

About a year went by, during which, eventually, Carroll and I became lovers. Mostly what I remember is all the incredible awkwardness, and all the insane nervousness. We did care for one another, I’m sure of that, but we were both very young and we were both very screwed up. Every now and then the subject of Mary Jane would come up, and it became clear to me that he would always love her, maybe not as much as he loved me, but enough to cause me pain. I wondered if he kept in touch with her, but I was afraid to ask.

You say wait, did Mary Jane stay orange? Oh no, eventually she turned back to her old self, graduated, and moved away, I say. You ask, so she and Carroll were broken up for good? Yes, I say, they were. They went through the usual back-and-forth stuff that all breakups go through, but they did separate.

And Carroll and I stayed together quite a while, I go on, but then I think I began to understand a few more things than Carroll did.  He wanted us to move in together. I said no. I gave my reasons, but they just made him angry. He was angry a lot, but he always had a bunch of reasons for it, ranging from the war in Viet Nam to his overbearing mother. What I didn’t realize then is what I know now, that “angry” was going to be his modus operandi for many years to come, maybe forever.

I ask if you are getting bored, and you say no, not at all, this is a crazy wonderful story. Well, I say, it gets crazier. Carroll and I finally broke up, of course, and I think I heard from him once maybe five years ago by snail mail, and then not again until about a year ago when he found me on Facebook. By that time, I had mellowed out about the whole thing, and thought what could be the harm in saying yes, I’ll be your “friend”.

For a while it was okay; we established a loose style of communication that was based on shared political values and a love of animals, but then he began to write things on my page that disturbed me in one way or another. He clearly thought he had the right to act as if he had some special relationship with me, that he could say whatever he wanted, and when I reacted negatively, he would laugh it off, or make some bogus excuse. He was too “familiar”. I had to delete quite a few of his posts. This annoyed me very much, but I didn’t dwell on it. It didn’t seem important enough.

You say, oh God, I hope this isn’t going where it sounds like it’s going. I say no, this story isn’t all that dramatic. And don’t worry, he didn’t do anything dangerous. I’m fine.

Good, you say; I’m relieved. You hail the waiter and order two more appetizers. You laugh. You have to keep up your strength you say. When the food comes, we both eat ravenously. I’m getting tired of talking. Let’s take a break, I say; why don’t you talk for a while? But you say no, hurry up, I’m dying to know what happens.

It’s really a bit of an anticlimax I guess, I say. Just last week, when the queen of England died, I posted something about her and her corgis, about which I had, years ago, written a prize-winning poem, and people were reacting to it nicely when WHAM, a nasty angry response from Carroll shows up, saying things like “I don’t give a f—ing shit about this imperialistic rich old bag, blah, blah, blah.” It went on and on and on; it was horrible. I only read a few sentences before deleting it, but I thought it was spectacularly arrogant. I was outraged. I thought about what I should do, and, I don’t know, I guess I’m a fool, decided to give him one more chance. I thought about how everyone says you should give people a break because everyone is going through difficulties all the time, things you don’t know about. So, I sent him a private Facebook message saying please don’t post any more angry tirades on my page, it’s very upsetting. I said I was sorry he was so angry, but I didn’t want it on my page. And I even said thanks.

Five minutes later, I got a reply from Carroll. No need for you to feel sorry that I’m angry, he said; righteous anger is always appropriate. And then he said, “best regards to you and your husband and your cats.” Maddeningly condescending.

Oh my god, you say. Oh. My. God.

Right? No apology. No “oh, okay, I won’t do that again.” What a snide asshole. I immediately blocked him and everyone in his family whose names I could remember. I went into my phone contacts and blocked his email. Fortunately, I don’t think he’d ever had my phone number, but I googled for his, found it, and blocked that too, just in case. It felt wonderful. I should never have accepted his “friend” request to begin with, but I certainly should have blocked him long before this. I reach for the saké bottle, but it’s empty.

Wow, you say. Good for you. I love visualizing him suddenly realizing he’s been blocked and has no way to contact you. He must have been apoplectic. Good work, you say.

Thanks, I say. Thanks. Lesson learned. I knew you’d understand.

Absolutely, you say, pushing a long strand of shiny red hair out of your eyes. He wasn’t nearly that angry when I knew him. He was kind of sweet, actually. Until you stole him away from me, you say.

I just stare. Then I touch my face but it doesn’t seem to be there.

Yeah, you say. He was sweet, not angry. Not an asshole.

Oh, you add, I only stayed orange for a few weeks, in case you were wondering. I know how fascinated you are by people’s difficulties. Don’t worry, you say, I got help.

And oh, you go on. It’s not just the red hair, I had a nose job, and a boob job, and gained thirty pounds. Cool, huh?

The waiter brings our order of super-sized warm saké and you stand up, take the bottle off his tray, uncork it, and slowly, ceremoniously, pour it over my head. I sit there.

You put on your jacket and leave; you’re in no hurry. A flotilla of restaurant patrons and waiters forms next to my chair.

I ask for the bill.

Photo by Jakub Dziubak on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Diane Wald

Diane Wald is a poet and novelist who has published five chapbooks, four
full-length poetry collections, two novels, and more than 250 poems in
literary magazines. Her most recent books are The Warhol Pillows (poetry), Gillyflower *(novella), and My Famous Brain (novel). Her next novel, The
Bayrose Files, is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing.