All sketches by Olivia Hinds
Rebecca Evanhoe received a BA in Chemistry from the University of Kansas and an MFA from the University of Florida’s program in creative writing. Rebecca’s work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, NOON, Gulf Coast, Parcel, and Beecher's.
My neighbor Jay and I lived in two apartments right above a bridal shop. Go through a side door, up a staircase, and at the top was a landing and our facing doors—his and mine. The whole setup was so small that we felt like siblings, a brother and a sister in a parental house: our bedroom-sized studio apartments, our dinky doors that locked but barely, with gaps at top and bottom, the shared landing covered in the same nubby, cheap carpet as the basements of our childhood homes. In one of our first conversations, we’d talked about the carpet, how familiar it felt, and we quickly fell into an intimate, domestic friendship.
On a Friday night, almost 11, Jay knocked and then came in. I always kept my door unlocked for him. I was lying on my bed. I’d not been out, not had anyone over. He sat in my only chair, put his feet on a milk-crate footrest.
“It’s not so great, my life right now,” he said.
“I’m too tired to do anything but listen, so just start talking.” The way his brain was wired, his stories came out strange, distilled—crosses between postcards and horoscopes.
He shouldered in to his story. He told me about his former girlfriend and the email she had sent, minutes ago. He had printed the email, held it in his hand. He’d talked about her many times before; he still loved her, this beautiful, wild girl.
“I’ve been shining my lovelight in her direction for months, trying to get her back.” Jay said. “And then this, from her. The message of a lifetime. First, she writes that she loves me like air, like the mountains. And then, she writes that her wounds are too deep to ever be with me again.” Jay consulted the paper as if it were still coming out of the printer; he watched it for new information.
When enough Jay-time passed, he said, “I feel like a kid who just got the soccer ball, and you know you’re about to get it right, and then your teacher’s like, ‘Come in! Recess is over!’ I feel psychedelic, I’m so upset. Like, my body is not my real body, I’ve got another, better body somewhere else.”
Jay gazed at the wall, and I could see that he was about to go into a fugue state, so I asked, “Will you get me a glass of milk?” I wanted some milk but wore only a T-shirt and underwear, covered by sheets from the bed. I didn’t want Jay to see my sturdy legs. “Please, Jay?” He nodded and went to my kitchen, came back with a mug.
“Here,” he said. “I’m going to ask you a favor. You have to say yes. Come have dinner with me and my dad tomorrow. At La Familia.” La Familia, the Kansas version of a Mexican restaurant, with the free chips and salsa, the two-pound burritos, the Velveeta-cheese dip.
I chugged the milk. I could’ve asked why he asked me to meet his dad, but I didn’t. Jay must’ve had some idea, in light of this recent email, about how it was all supposed to go, some idea about why it was important for his father to meet me, the neighbor, Jay’s not-his-type female friend: not raven-haired, not buxom, un-waiflike, eyelashes fine and short as peach fuzz. Jay was handsome with dark hair, blue eyes, a sharp straight nose and the kind of full lips that are fantastic on a man.
I said, “I’ll go. On one condition: you have to come with me to where I work.”
“Whoa. The grasssssslands,” he drew out.
Yes, the grasslands. I studied ecology and worked at a prairie-research station, showing up at six on summer mornings to sort bags of clipped grasses by species. Jay loved to hear me tell him the names: feather fingergrass, field sandbur, pinyon ricegrass, side-oats grama.
“Come with me,” I said. “On the weekends, no one’s there. We can go out to the pond.”
Jay laughed. He wasn’t faking this sudden joy, but I didn’t know where it came from. “So we’ll do it,” he said, “this tit for tat.” He stood up from the chair. “Tomorrow, breakfast? I have eggs, do you have eggs?”
I shook my head no.
“Good. I do. When I get up, I’ll knock. Eggs for us. On an English muffin? Do you have English muffins?” I did. I nodded.
“I’ve eggs, you’ve muffins. It’s a match. Sleep well, neighbor.” He left my apartment, closing my door tight and carefully, and then opened his own. His deadbolt scrape-clicked shut.
Jay knocked at my door again the next morning, a few short hours later. He held a carton of eggs. “You’ve got the better skillet,” he called to me as he entered the kitchen area. I heard him find the English muffins, the crinkling plastic. I leaped out of bed to pull on some jeans from the floor.
I stood in the kitchen doorway. Jay looked at me. “Holy fuck,” he said. “Jen,” he said, “ignore breakfast for now. Look, here’s coffee.” I knew, without looking, how I looked: bags under my red eyes and a dry, tired mouth. He handed me a cup of coffee. “Sit with me, tell me what’s what. Last night, I charged in here like a lizard and didn’t ask why you were so worn down. Tell me.” He led me back to my bed and I sat. “That other neighbor?” he asked, opening my blinds, tugging my window open a crack for fresh air.
“It’s not that,” I said. Jay was referring to our across-the-street neighbor. I’d been seeing him for a few weeks. The other neighbor came over every few days, and we drank together and slept together, pretending we wouldn’t rather be with other people.
I wanted to test Jay. I said, “You know how when you want something to happen, and you’re trying to will it to yourself, but you’re not sure if anyone’s getting your message?”
“That’s what I was saying last night! Shining a lovelight. Are you referring to my situation?”
“I am referring to you,” I said assertively, but Jay didn’t get my meaning. He didn’t listen, only heard what he meant reflected back to him.
On Saturday evening, Jay and I walked to La Familia to meet his father, a crinkly-eyed lawyer. He ordered one Velveeta yellow-cheese dip and one white-cheese dip, and just the dips alone were too much food for three.
“Jennifer, Jay said you are working too hard.” With a knife, Jay’s father smeared guacamole from a black plastic cup onto some chips. “Are you being sure to relax sometimes? I hope you don’t take offense to this, but you look very tired.” He meant this kindly, and I took it kindly.
“I’m trying to get good rest,” I said.
Jay stayed quiet through this conversation between his father and me. I wondered if he was watching me talk to his dad or if he was watching his dad talk to me, and what sort of messages Jay might be picking up from our exchange. I waited for some signal to tell me what we were all doing there, but the indicators weren’t coming. We were served skillets of food so hot they would’ve seared our flesh if we touched them. Later, the server came to clear them without asking if we wanted to take our leftovers. I thanked Jay’s father for the meal. We shook hands. “It’s been a pleasure,” he said. “You’re a lovely young woman. I’m glad Jay has such a nice neighbor.”
As Jay and I walked back to our apartments, I told him that I liked his dad.
“I’m glad he has a mental picture of you now,” he said. “I couldn’t quite explain you to him.”
I could tell from Jay’s tone that hearing this should make me feel singular, indescribable. Yet it was simpler and more insulting than that. I had been offered up as proof of my own identity, as an example of myself, because Jay hadn’t taken the time to consider what kind of person I might be. I imagined him sorting people like I sorted grasses: there were the expected ones, fescue, brome, and then there were strange, weedy exceptions to lay aside for someone else to classify.
When he asked if I wanted to come to his apartment for a beer, I said no and retreated into my own. Later that night, the other neighbor came over, we had some beers, and he stayed. When I got up Sunday morning to let the other neighbor out, like a cat or a dog, there was a note on my door from Jay: “Grasslands. Tonight? 11?”
Late Sunday night, Jay drove and I directed him down a highway north of town, through a maze of gravel roads to the research station. He parked his old Volvo at the end of the driveway, and we walked toward the Quonset where the golf carts were kept. I chose one of the newer, quieter ones, and Jay threw himself in beside me so that our shoulders touched.
“Take me where you will,” he announced.
We went along dirt tracks, slightly up and slightly down the rolling mounds of Kansas prairie. On the top of a hill, I stopped the cart. Crickets, cicadas, and other night bugs made k-k-k-k sounds. We peered at the sky.
“It’s so black,” Jay said. “Rarely in our lives do we experience such blackness.”
I waited for Jay to keep going, for one of his soliloquies, but he stopped. We sat there in our little cart. The grass was so high on all sides that it came up taller than the cart’s hood. I tried to will the golf cart to turn into a blanket.
“You’re quiet,” he said. “May I inquire after your state of mind?”
“Do you feel better about that email?”
Jay stared out for so long that I thought I’d made him angry. “I’m tired of throwing my desires down a well,” he said. “I’m done Captain Ahab-ing with her. I need a new object, an attainable object.”
We sat there, subject and object. I waited for further instruction.
He rapped the dashboard of the cart suddenly. “Let’s go skinny-dipping,” he said. “Back to the wild. You promised me a pond.”
I took the cart toward the pond. It wasn’t as scummy as most farm ponds, but I knew there were snakes in it. When I stopped the cart, Jay leaped out and ran toward the water, reaching behind his shoulder blades to pull his T-shirt over his head. He paused at the edge to undo his belt and dropped his shorts and underwear in a single motion. I could barely see him wade in, but I could see that his ass was small and.girlish.
“This water feels like milk, Jen. It’s so warm,” he called.
I took off my shirt, skirt, my sports bra, my stupid underwear. I put my hair up with a hair tie from my wrist. I walked slowly toward the pond. Were it light out, Jay could’ve seen my red face. “No horseplay,” I told him, wading in. The water did feel thick like milk. “No staying underwater too long, no diving under and pulling my leg.”
We dog-paddled in little circles around each other. My nerves zinged, ratcheted up. Every leaf in the water felt like a snake. But I stayed in, waiting for one of Jay’s hands to find me, or for him to come toward me from across the water. I pictured us in the middle of the pond kissing.
None of that happened. Our circles stayed wide and clear of each other. Jay seemed relaxed, floating, looking up. Sometimes he flipped over to float facedown for a moment. We moved around like that until my fingers wrinkled, but I didn’t want to be the first one to call an end to our swimming.
“Come on, Jen,” Jay said finally, swimming toward the edge of the pond. I followed him out and felt the water line fall lower and lower: Tits. Belly. Hips. Upper thighs. Knees. We walked out of the pond side-by-side.
He pulled on his underwear and then looked at me. “Nice,” Jay said, nodding toward my form. “I like what you’ve got going on.”
Please say something else to me,I thought. Don’t let that be the only thing you say. I stood with my arms at my sides, forcing myself not to cover up with my hands, to keep being there naked so he had to keep being there with me while I was naked.
In his underwear, he squatted down in the grass, rubbing his T-shirt on his head to dry it. I stood without moving for so long, and he just rubbed his head over and over, the shirt’s cotton against the short bristles of his neck hair. He looked up at me.
“Jen? You look like you're about to kiss me.”
I nodded at him. Jay came to me, put a hand on my bare waist, and kissed me for two or three seconds. When it was over, Jay smiled a corner-of-the-mouth smile, released my waist. “You’re a good neighbor,” he said, and then he handed me my skirt.
In the Volvo on the way home, Jay asked if I was going to call the other neighbor. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m going to go home, go to sleep.” I knew that in a few hours, I’d be back at the grasslands for work. A biology grad would hand me a plastic trash bag full of damp grasses cut from a square of prairie at dawn. I’d sort them by kind in my meticulous way, observing their forms, tracing shapes of leaves and strands: the brome, the fescue, the dropseed, and the smaller pieces of mixed-in weeds, compass plant, daisy fleabane, bastard toad flax.
The next night, the other neighbor dropped me like a heavy shoe. “Well, it's like this. The whole you-and-me situation is getting in the way of me meeting other people.” I agreed. He left and I took a long shower and cried.
I was getting dressed when Jay knocked. “Neighbor? I heard sad sounds from your shower. You OK?” I let him in. “It's over with the other neighbor.”
“So why are you crying when you're off to greener pastures?” Jay said with his eyebrow raised, like he did when he knew he was making a joke.
“He ended it.”
We sat on my bed together. “He doesn't seem like a well-calibrated guy. He didn't seem that perceptive, yeah? Maybe you were too awkward for him?” Jay asked.
“You think I'm awkward?”
Jay laughed in a friendly way. “Well, you're kind of mystical in your awkwardness.”
“Tell me how you see me.” I waited for Jay to say I was beautifully stoic, or that I made him feel at peace, or that he found some aspect of me fascinating. I imagined our clothes peeling off like husks from corn.
“Really? OK. You're just so hard to describe. You're kind of unknowable. Being with you is like talking into a mirror. You listen and listen and you never say anything. But that's why I like hanging out with you. I can hear myself better. My mind is always going crazy, but you're like a… nothing person. In a zen kind of way.”
I didn't want to cry, but I did. “You're crying about the neighbor?” he asked and put his arm around me. I said I was.
A few months later, Jay moved away to Chicago. A nice woman moved into his apartment, a nurse who worked 14-hour days and then came back to the apartment to sleep. The grass-sorting job was only for the summer, and I needed cash. On campus I saw an ad posted in the art building, nude modeling for a group of life-drawing enthusiasts, an artist’s club that hired models to come sit for them on the weekends for 15 dollars an hour. I thought, I could do that. Or rather, I could bring myself to do that.
At these drawing sessions, I would drop my robe and stand on a little raised stage in the middle of a circle of tables, all facing me. On the slanted surfaces were charcoals and tablets ready to put my body to paper. In my first sessions, I would pose in such a way that I appeared to be listening or considering something, but eventually I abandoned all attempts to present myself as a whole person. By the third month of Saturdays, I would stretch out on the stage, neutral and empty. I was a grass to the artists, a blade to be studied and properly categorized by shape. When I put up a foot to lift myself onto the platform, I would think, I am simply this kind of thing.
Sometimes, an artist would hold a pencil in a fist out toward me, squinting past the pencil to my form to get proper perspective. I began to feel comforted by these people and their soft scratching. I came to love them because whatever I had, they were trying to capture what it was, to know it carefully.
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