Read an Excerpt
Novack / EVERYONE BUT YOU
The night I met Lola was the same night Floyd’s Used Cars seethed into an inferno. She leaned against a truck, picking pieces of cigarette filter from her tongue while firefighters ran past her, unleashing their coiled hoses and shouting to one another from under insulated coats and oxygen masks. The flames had already consumed the cars on the showroom floor, the chairs, and the rows of flakeboard desks before making an ascent, pushing through the roof and into the night air. Heavy plumes of smoke bloomed against the darkness. It was a dry August. The trees next to the car lot crackled and hissed. Brittle leaves ignited and then floated down around Lola like fireflies.
I felt the heat—intense, raw—I smelled the smoke adrift in the moonless sky, I sensed the possibilities. So when Lola drifted across the car lot to where I stood watching, when she breezily ran her hand over my crotch and said, “I’ve always loved a quick blaze, Lucius,” I said, “Yes.”
I guessed Lola was no more than twenty. In the firelight, her eyes appeared turquoise green, pale like smooth sea glass. Chunks of red hair framed her face and stopped short of her shoulders. Red hair on a girl sends me into a particular meltdown. Pleased with her self-assured groping of a stranger, pleased by my dick’s affirmative response, she smiled and then looked around, finally, at the burgeoning crowd, at the people who walked out from their monotonous half-double homes across the street. A gas tank exploded. Smoke mushroomed up into the air and seemed to reflect the illusion of everything: Nothing was substantial and nothing lasted. My hands crawled along Lola’s ribs. I kissed her neck—salty, hot from our proximity to the flames. A group of frat boys lingered behind Lola and me, their drink-induced laughter rising in the air as they gave each other high fives. One of the guys, a big, dumb jock, yelled, “Bring it on. Let’s see if you really got it in you.”
Lola seemed to be weighing her possibilities. She stopped my wandering hands for a moment, holding them briefly before letting them climb to her breasts. This acquiescence made most of the frat boys whoop and holler and curse in what amounted to a real scene, the kind of full-throttled force that said anything might happen on a night like this, when a fire blazes out of control and when the city is set to unpredictable motion. Lola searched my face for something familiar. I am not a bad-looking guy. I have a beer gut, yes, but my calves and arms are rock hard. I’ve been told by my old girlfriend, Sheila, that my dark eyelashes and blue eyes send women into a frenzy. I have two years of community college under my belt, and for someone twenty-six years old, I am aware, almost painfully so, of the larger world around me, which is more than I can say about the other guys I work with at Red Robin. I have a large Adam’s apple and am perhaps too tall and (short of the gut) lanky, but Lola was also tall, and slouchy. I considered this fortuitous at the time, a meeting of the heads, lips, and middles.
My name, by the way, is Harold.
Lola turned and stared off into the flames. Fire, it breathes, moves. Smoke suspended in the air above us, and seized my lungs. My eyes burned, watered. Sirens blazed. The windows of Floyd’s cracked and buckled. I swooned from the heat and from the close proximity of Lola. She said, “So you want a girlfriend, Lucius?”
“Not really,” I said. “Not on a full-time basis. But tonight we can pretend anything goes. Tonight I’ll be your Lucius. Tonight I already love you.” Lola looked at me strangely, and then I delighted in the burnt smell that radiated from her skin. She had small tits, but her T-shirt clung to them. She wore white shorts that showed off her legs and the rounded curve of her ass. You tell yourself it’s all about that—the ass, the tits, a certain measure of a girl that suggests she’ll be good in bed and not too much of a hassle, eating you out of house and home and taking over your bathroom, adding to the general thrust of entropy in your life. I said, “Who is Lucius, anyway?”
“I thought you said you’d be,” she told me. With a horrific boom, another gas tank exploded. Someone, I don’t know who, shouted for backup. I was not fanatical about cars—I rode a bicycle to work and told the guys at Red Robin that for Christ’s sake they should think about emissions—but a car on fire was still something to see. Metal covered by flames, paint crackling in the heat, and the effluvious vapor of oil and gas in the air caused an almost pleasant high.
“Okay,” I said finally. “I’ll be your boyfriend, and I’ll be this Lucius fellow, but only for the night.” I stayed as collected as I could, made it about what she wanted, what I wanted. I whispered to her. I said, “It’s mostly because you have great tits.”
“Please, Lucius,” she said, whispering back. “Call them breasts. And, please, call me Lola.”
At my apartment there was frantic motion as Lola breathed, “Yes.” I laid her across the bed and undressed her quickly, taking pleasure in the smoky heat that rose from her clothes and skin. Lola had an earthy smell—cumin, exotic spice—and her red hairs curled in wild, moist circles. A tattoo of a Phoenix rose up—wings spread, head twisted back—and stopped just below the mole on her belly button. I kissed every inch of her. I flipped her around to behold her, but she said wait and pulled out a condom from her purse. After that things moved so quickly I felt dizzy. The world accelerated and Lola was the reason for speed—Lola and the fire—and all I could think to do to slow down was hum the Ride of the Valkyries.
“You’re kidding me,” Lola said, laughing between squeals. I hummed more. Lola pulled from me, turned over, and then brought me close to her again. Afterward, she got up and made her way, naked, to the bathroom. The air felt hot and sticky with our sex, with everything about us that seemed to fill the small room.
I lived a few blocks from Floyd’s, on the first floor of a decaying building. Pipes leaked and clanged throughout the night because the landlord, some Indian guy named Gopald Dusvehma, didn’t, as he said, fix things that weren’t broken. It was a one-bedroom efficiency with a small kitchenette. The walls were painted the color of canned peas. I’d covered the ratty sofa with an afghan in an attempt to make things homier, but the place was really something of a shithole, and I knew it. Still, after sex, Lola stood naked, looked around, and then walked over to my bookshelf and took down a picture of my mother and father. She commented on my associate’s degree in English, tacked up on the wall. “Why didn’t you go all the way?” she asked, turning around to face me. Her nipples were rock hard, pointed like rubber nubs on a pencil. Her hip bones protruded slightly, in a pleasing way. Her body, I decided, was beautiful.
“School?” I said, shrugging. I got up, pulled on my jeans. A part of me was hoping she’d take this as a sign to leave. Nice and simple, I thought. In my experience, too much history, too much talk, and things start to go downhill. Soon she’d be asking about my parents. “I don’t know. Lazy, I guess. I got tired.”
“Interesting,” she said. She ran her hand over my collection of books. Then she placed her hands on her hips. “You know what I’m thinking?” she asked.
“I’m no mind reader.”
“I’m thinking that even in a shithole like this, Lucius, there are always possibilities.”
Did I love her then? I loved the look of her, the contours of her body—the two dimples above her ass, the line of her backbone, the unending supply of freckles that spotted her body. I could even say I loved the way the room felt with Lola in it, which is to say surprising, bright.
Lola came back to bed. She lay naked atop the covers. “Got any pot?”
“Hell, yes,” I told her.
“I figured,” she said. “I’m a very good judge of character.”
I pulled my stash of pot out from the bedside table. Lola flicked on the television and we smoked some dope together. I was pretty supportive of that shit, I’ll tell you—the strange, pleasant feeling that only dope can give, coupled with that sense of wonder and amazement and, yes, even love. Lola inhaled. She smiled widely. The pipes clanged. She said, “What is it with your pipes, anyway?”
“Gopald Dusvehma says they aren’t broken, so what’s the problem?”
Lola snorted. She couldn’t help it. She snorted again. When she stopped, we watched the Weather Channel, the swirls of precipitation that appeared on the Doppler radar. That was something to see.
She said, “That’s something else. Quite a fire, too. All those explosions.”
“It was good for me.”
“It was fate.”
“I don’t believe in fate.”
“You will,” she said. “After you’re done with me you will.”
“Oh, I’m sure I will.”
Lola slapped me gently before passing me the joint. She leaned back, yawned. “Listen, I need a place to crash,” she said. “Are you hearing me? Stop laughing, because this is a serious query. Lucius, listen, will you? I need a place to crash, and after I’ve sucked your dick, I think it’s the least you can do.”
“Crash and burn,” I said, snickering. I was going to tell her all the reasons she couldn’t stay at my apartment. I was going to tell her I had a girlfriend, or tell her the place was infested, the latter of which was at least probably true. Instead I inhaled slowly and thought too long about all this, and Lola took that pause to be an affirmation. She lifted a long, thin leg, stared at her thigh, and stroked it. “Great,” she said. “It’s settled. I could use a new boyfriend, anyway. My last one turned out to be a real dud after everyone thought he was promising. The right people always end up being wrong.”
I exhaled. I passed her the joint. “And the wrong people?”
“Beats me,” she said. “I never tried one out before. Anyway, that’s part of the reason I need a place to crash—old boyfriends and the like who are jealous, practically lunatics, really. And stupid, Lucius. You have no idea how incredibly stupid some men can be. So just tonight, I’ll stay. Maybe a few days. Definitely not longer than a week, okay?”
The pot had made me mellow. “Lola,” I said. “Maybe we shouldn’t.”
“I’m harmless,” she told me. She held up an imaginary gun and squeezed the trigger. “Or do I look like Annie Oakley to you?”
“I don’t know,” I confessed.
“Look, it’s just that my last boyfriend was a real fucker, Lucius. He messed around with my best friend, my roommate,” she said. Her eyes narrowed. “She was a real fucker, too. I needed a change of pace after that, let me tell you. I needed a way out of that dorm room.”
My legs felt heavy, like doused wood. I wanted Lola to leave. When you tell yourself it’s about sex and the sheer presence of a girl, you don’t leave room for conversation in the equation because conversation is frequently a mood killer. You certainly don’t expect to hear about ex-lovers. It was all a bit alarming, but the alarm was still distant, like sirens making their way across the city. Danger is near, the sirens announce. You sense it, too, the faint alarm it stirs in you. But it’s not in your home, in your bed, your place isn’t in flames yet, and in that regard it’s still okay. I cupped my hands behind my head and stared at the watermarks that spotted the stucco ceiling like a huge question mark. “We were getting along, Lola,” I said.
She inhaled deeply, allowing herself time to calculate a response. “Good, then,” she said. “It’s settled. I’ll stay.”
Somewhere during the course of two hours she had gotten the upper hand. That much was clear. I said nothing. There were practical considerations to Lola entering my life so easily. Even Sheila, my last girlfriend, didn’t stay overnight on most nights we slept together, and certainly not even until a few weeks into things. This was Lola’s and my first meeting, our first fuck. There were modern-day discretionary boundaries, I felt, that were being quickly toppled, and I felt unnerved at the prospect of Lola spending the night in close proximity. If you give a girl enough leeway, she’ll take over like wildfire, like Sheila eventually did. It took only a few weeks before Sheila acted as though she owned me. What are you doing, Harold? Sheila would ask when she called from the office. Are you thinking about me? Have you thought about other women? Do you want to fuck someone else, Harold? Do you?
Et cetera. Sharing fluid was one thing, but sharing an apartment was an altogether different matter. What if Lola peed voluminously? Hung her clothes from the curtain rod? Lined the medicine cabinet with condoms and tampons? Worse, what if Lola was a lunatic? I hadn’t indulged the thought before that moment, but as the pot took a stronger hold over my thoughts I wondered: What if Lola was the one who set the fire? I had often heard that criminals hung around the scene, which made sense, and in Lola’s case certainly would have been true. Deviance of the criminal kind was definitely something I couldn’t handle in my life. This was what I thought in the amount of time it took Lola to hand me the joint, get up again, and go to the bathroom and pee voluminously.
When she came back, I said, “We were getting along so well, just with the impromptu fucking. Why go and ruin things?”
“The first Lucius said the exact same thing. What is it with Luciuses?” she asked, biting her lip. “I’ve got to try out a new name.”
“Not that it matters,” I said. “But my name is actually Harold.”
“Harold?” She made a face. Then she cackled. “That’s not much of name. It’s a little outdated.”
“It’s my mother’s father’s name.”
“Does that make it right? What, does your mother hate you or something?”
“You might not think so,” she told me. “But with a name like that I bet she does.”
From the Hardcover edition.