S e p t e m b e r   2 0 0 1

Guest Writer


A restless little spark
Scrabble
by Amy Nuttbrock

RICK. That's how she won the game: thirty-nine points for her strategically placed "K" on the deep red Triple Word Score.

Carmen had an affection for words. She liked the way they went together to form sentences, paragraphs, adoring messages, insults.

She had a collection of tiny magnets with words on them. In the mornings she would stand in front of the refrigerator, a bowl of soggy cereal in one hand, and arrange strange, nonsensical sentences. Scrabble was one of Carmen's favorite games.

Her other favorite game was trying to make her friend Mitchell laugh at her ridiculous jokes.

Mitchell peered at her now through narrowed, wry eyes, handling the stem of his wine glass as if he were feeling for imperfections. He had the most wonderful prominently veined arms. Carmen raised an eyebrow.

"You're crass." He sipped his gin and tonic through a grin.

"Not if I prick the heel of my foot on this tack that's been lying on your unswept floor."

Carmen picked up a bright yellow thumbtack that had been lying near her elbow and displayed it between thumb and index finger. Mitchell fought a smirk, but the corners of his neat mouth curled upward. Then he laughed in short, tripping guffaws.

Mitchell lived like an indolent kid, hoarding nearly everything. His apartment was busy and hard to negotiate. But it had a comfortable, lived-in quality. There were rap CDs and photography magazines with lively, abstract covers placed in uneven stacks all over the floor of his living room.

Brightly colored ceramic ashtrays collected spare change, paper clips or foiled squares of gum. He had photographs of people in lewd positions hung up as posters on his lumpy walls, and there were a lot of big frondy houseplants on his window ledges.

Carmen liked to sink into the mushy center cushion of his couch and look at his things. She felt comfortable here. It was the kind of earthy, familiar comfort that she associated with the scent of her own dirty hair when she hadn't washed it for a few days.

Carmen swirled the lettered tiles on the game board with one deft movement, messing up any chance for him to refute her victory. The game was over. She smiled and rubbed the lipstick smear off the rim of her glass. She did not notice Mitchell playfully tossing a wooden game piece in her direction.

It hit the curve of her chin and she still felt the dull impact moments later when they were gathering the game back into its box and emptying their glasses with sloppy gulps. Mitchell's cat, Frank, watched with alert interest from his perch on the arm of the couch. He flicked his sharp, gray tail.

Afterward, Carmen gave the Scrabble box a shove. It skidded across the floor and hit a
footstool. She pulled her knees to her chest and rested her chin on her kneecaps. Mitchell sprawled on the hardwood floor. He propped his narrow face upon his palms in an artful display and exhaled dramatically.

"Guess what?" he asked.

Carmen didn't immediately answer. She was inspecting the magazine business-reply card on which Mitchell had been meticulously keeping score. His handwriting had a maternal distinctness, swirly and exact. It reminded Carmen of her mother's signature in blue ink at the bottom of a doctor's note, excusing her from gym class in elementary school.

Mitchell pinched her arm. The pressure of his fingers startled her, even more drilling than his gaze; she nervously pushed the point of the yellow tack into the thick flesh of her thumb. A small bead of blood appeared on the surface.

"What?" said Carmen, hoping her voice sounded more indignant than it actually did. She sucked in the blood.

"You're so cute, I could squeeze you to death."

Carmen thought this was strange. Then she remembered the kitten she had when she was 10, and how she was often so excited by its fragile adorableness that she would scoop it up and gently nibble its ears until it squawked. Carmen tried to imagine Mitchell's arms around her like a python, but the picture was fuzzy and vague.

Carmen had been friends with Mitchell for almost a year. They met during an eight-week figure-drawing class, "Creative Anatomy," that was taught at the community college. The woman who ran the course, an aging hipster, appeared to have a great deal of internal energy. She was a restless little spark. Both her wrists were covered with thin, jangling bracelets.

Carmen was a mediocre artist, but she took the course because she'd been feeling out of touch and listless since she'd moved to Boston. Before that she'd lived in Chicago, an assistant to an obsessive-compulsive radio producer, whom she briefly dated, only to be dumped for a bossy, brooding intern.

Now she was marketing manager for a fashionable entertainment magazine on Beacon Street. In the evenings, she worked as a cocktail waitress at a popular restaurant, The Red Apple.

When she wasn't working, her private life consisted mainly of sitting on her bedroom floor, eating microwavable meals out of cardboard boxes and writing notes and long lists about what she was feeling or what she wanted to accomplish.

Sometimes she designed Web sites or wrote stories, but was usually too distracted to finish either. She mostly paced around her apartment and worried. She thought the drawing class would be the perfect thing to get her back on her feet. Plus, one of her more artsy acquaintances had once told her that she'd be good at drawing.

When Carmen first became aware of Mitchell, she thought he was vain and probably perverted. He was always touching his face and staring at people. She saw him read magazines with advertisements for sex toys. At the beginning of each class, he would pace the room, touch all the paintbrushes, and look at other peoples' artwork. His muttered comments were always the same: "That's different," or "If you can't do anything else with it, call it art."

But Carmen also noticed an open, exposed quality about him, like a wound she wanted both to protect and to pick at. She saw this when Mitchell leaned receptively into what the jangling instructor advised about drawing the human form: "Look at the shapes, not the person." This made Carmen feel sensitively towards him. Mitchell was also the better artist.

They did not speak until the second week of class, when a fat male model, wearing only a red beret, came into the room and assumed a regal pose on the center table. His thick, fleshy arms rested over his hairy, protruding stomach in satisfied resolution.

Carmen was embarrassed and kept drawing the man much thinner than he actually was. Mitchell leaned over her page.

"Who's that?" She was drawing the lines of the man's enormous knees.

Carmen whispered, "Fred Astaire, for God's sake."

She thought this sounded fatuous and sharper than she intended, but Mitchell seemed endeared. His endearment made her feel playful. In the following weeks he would come over to Carmen's desk, roll her pencils back and forth across the table, and provoke her into saying something witty or silly. He would ask her out for a drink. She wasn't sure if he was asking her out on a date. She would say she already had plans, then make flippant comments about desperate psychos. He was persistent.

"I know a place where the bartender can make cool sounds with glasses of beer and a spoon," he'd say. "We could go as friends."

Then one day she gave in.

Carmen went over to Mitchell's apartment after the last class. They drank gin and tonics out of wine glasses and listened to self-effacing pop songs on a battered Panasonic. They played Scrabble. Between games they laughed heartily and talked about passive-aggressive ex-lovers, the allure of foreign languages and the horrible lives of famous writers.

"Then she drove right off the cliff and into the Atlantic Ocean." Mitchell took a long, thoughtful sip of his drink. "I've never known a poet who wasn't depressed, crazy or doped up on drugs."

Mitchell was also a photographer. He showed her pictures of exotic birds taken during a trip to the Iguassu Falls in Brazil – emerald parrots and brilliant toucans, a jacana wading like a god-figure on the surface of the Iguaçú River.

Among these exceptional snapshots was a photograph of a blue jay, lean and arrogant, perched on the telephone line above Centre Street. Its head was cocked slightly to the left, as if to pose a question. Carmen flattened the corner of the picture that threatened to dog-ear.

"Why did you take a picture of this blue jay?" she asked.

Mitchell was busy rummaging through a counter drawer, pushing junk aside with a noisy clatter, looking for more things to show her.

"Because blue jays never stay," he said.

Carmen sometimes felt self-conscious around him, and she suspected that he, like many "artists," had some sort of extra-perceptual ability. She thought he noticed remote, unattractive qualities about her and was secretly judging her. But then he would bring out a picture of himself as a frighteningly thin, bespectacled boy-nerd.

One photo in particular caught her attention: An ill-proportioned 13-year-old Mitchell, shirtless, and showing off a severely skinned knee with three bright ribbons of blood running down his shin and into his shoe. He had acne and a bad haircut. But a proud, toothy grin stretched across his face as if to laugh in the face of adversity. Even at 13, Carmen recognized his intensely sharp, precocious gaze.

He did not try to stick his hands down her pants at the end of the evening. And so they were friends.

Carmen didn't acknowledge Mitchell as a potential crush until she and her close friend, Alex, were discussing the relationship at a stylish Indian restaurant on 4th Avenue. They picked at gloppy, pallid dishes of grilled chicken and vegetables. Carmen told her what Mitchell said about squeezing her to death.

She remembered another story, too. Several weeks before, she and Mitchell had stayed late at a vibrant club called the Lava Bar. They drank fluorescent tonics and danced to vibrating bass beats.

Mitchell chatted with a glittered, bleached-blond woman who used wide, distracting hand motions when she spoke. Later, he said the woman was totally crazy. While Mitchell jumped from one colorful conversation to the next, Carmen was busy gyrating on the dance floor and discussing vegetarian diets with a narrow-eyed man in red boots.

At 2 a.m., when the club closed, Carmen and Mitchell became part of the sticky mass of shiny, slack-jawed partiers who mumbled profanities and pushed through the front door. They reconvened on the sidewalk and linked arms. The bright street lamps accentuated their feeling of tipsiness, and Mitchell said, "You can spend the night at my place." He lived four blocks away.

And so Carmen spent the night in his large double bed, trying not to accidentally bump his leg or elbow.

"I fell asleep almost immediately," she said to Alex. "And the funny thing is that at about 7 a.m., I got up to go to the bathroom."

Carmen retold the story with a lilting, amused voice while arranging piles of rice on the perimeter of her plate. She continued.

"My intention was to get right back into bed and sleep in. But when I got back to the room, Mitchell leapt out of bed, turned on the lights and told me I'd better catch the next subway because he needed to get some sleep."

"So, he couldn't even sleep with you in the same bed?" asked Alex.

"I guess not." Carmen sat back in her chair.

"He was probably so nervous or frustrated – driving himself nuts because he didn't know how to lay a hand on you."

A thin-wristed man coughed at a table diagonal to theirs. He seemed to be disengaged from the fleshy woman who shared his table. She was wearing a loud orange scarf and carrying on in a giddy-fast voice. The restaurant was otherwise empty. The purple walls and dim lighting made the room seem cool and provocative. There were fierce, bronze animal statuettes on every table.

"He's got a crush on you." Alex was resolute, as if this were obvious. She split a potato with the side of her fork.

"That's impossible." But Carmen was flattered by the idea, and wondered if it might be true. A picture entered her mind of Mitchell's cheerful face, chin in his hands, saying the word "squeeze."

She couldn't remember if he had said it with quite the ardor that she was remembering now.

Mitchell couldn't get together the following weekend because he'd been commissioned to do a photo shoot for a book launch at a downtown convention hall. The next Saturday, they were both stretched, X-shaped, on the hardwood floor of Mitchell's humid apartment, eating honey-roasted cashew nuts out of Tupperware containers, and playing Scrabble.

Mitchell kept coming up with long words with Vs and Zs and worth a lot of points: ENDEAVOR and IDOLIZE. This time Carmen wasn't winning.

Mitchell couldn't stop talking about a gorgeous blonde editor he'd met at the launch. Apparently she'd written an article for a popular psychology magazine to which Carmen had been meaning to
subscribe. The article was about various defense mechanisms in urban American women. Mitchell mentioned the woman's narrow collarbones, freckles, nice hands.

He said she kept adjusting the frames of her smart-looking glasses. She clicked her tongue and made other cute little sounds with her mouth while she pondered the answers to Mitchell's slew of odd questions.

Carmen thought about how to win the game they were playing, while Mitchell told her these things with such force and inflection that tiny sprits of saliva projected from his mouth and reminded Carmen of an aerosol can of hair spray. She pushed Frank away when he butted his head under her armpit.

"She was a flirt, too," Mitchell said. "We would be talking, and she would lean against the wall and stick her hip out in a way that made her top come away from her skirt so that she'd be showing off her skin. What a picture!"

"Did you get her number?" Carmen asked, inspecting the letters on her tray.

Mitchell had a thing for teasing, thin-boned women in wire-rimmed spectacles. But he never had the guts to get romantically involved. Carmen guessed that he was probably shy.

"It's your turn." Mitchell said, ignoring her question.

"I already went. Eight points. T-W-I-T." Carmen picked her sock out from between her toes.

"Isn't that a slang?"

Sometimes Carmen didn't like Mitchell very much. He could be annoying. First of all, if she were having a meal with him, he would reach across the table and snatch a bright stem of broccoli or one of her steamed clams while she was trying to tell him one of her interesting embellishments.

During the week, Carmen would often send Mitchell long e-mails detailing funny stories about people acting weird on the subway. She would include personal thoughts about how a character in a film had depressed her because she was reminded of her mother, to whom she rarely spoke. If Carmen and Mitchell had plans pending, she would end her messages with a question about the time they should meet.

Sometimes these e-mails could take her almost an hour to compose because she had to read them several times and make sure she hadn't said anything stupid. Mitchell would usually reply an hour or so later with a quick note that never addressed her feelings: "Weird story! Meet me at the Blue Cat Cafe. 7:30. Wear those red flared pants. M."

Carmen was browsing Newbury Street after work, dodging heavily mascaraed urbanites and their expensive handbags. She thought about buying a new pair of aerodynamic tennis shoes, then decided she wasn't in the mood to chat with a pushy sales clerk and ducked into a video store instead.

The store was compact and stuffy. Its overcrowded shelves made the place visually overwhelming. A green-haired teen-ager leaned over the cashier's counter, reading a magazine and chewing gum.

Carmen was determined to rent the right movie, so she browsed the aisles carefully. It became a toss-up between a drama about a prostitute and an alcoholic, and a romantic comedy about a pair of gay men and the charming woman who falls in love with them both.

Carmen paced the aisles and looked at the airbrushed actors on the video boxes, hoping this would prompt a decision. It didn't. Her stomach was empty and acidic. A dull throb distracted her ability to make up her mind.

Then she saw one called Trust. The picture on the cover showed a sharply angled man sitting under the green lamp of an industrial-sized desk. He wore a look of intense concentration. Behind him was a spindly brunette, her eyebrow cocked in a typical look of coy seduction. She was holding a kitchen knife against one languid thigh. Carmen recognized it as one of Mitchell's favorite flicks.

"The cinematography is amazing!" he'd said. "I think it won an award."

Carmen read the description on the back of the box. Apparently, it was about a conflicted detective investigating a string of gruesome murders in a lowdown neighborhood. Once the detective discovers that the culprit is his best friend – a gum-popping cutie who waitresses at a local bar – he quickly falls in love and covers up her crimes.

It was a French film with English subtitles.

Carmen took the video to the counter and paid in exact change. The green-haired teen-ager slipped her a piece of hard candy and said, "Due back on Sunday."

It was only Wednesday. Carmen, excited by her find, left the video store in an elated mood.

When she got home, she heated herself a plate of leftover chicken stir-fry and laid on her plush living room couch to watch Trust. She only ate the chicken and pushed the rest of her meal aside. A warm, leisurely breeze came through the windows, rattled the blinds and pushed balls of lint across the floor.

Carmen thought the movie was ridiculous and predictable, but she enjoyed watching a particularly sweet love scene in which the good-looking detective is seduced by the sexy girl criminal and ends up giving her a bubble bath. This, of course, is right before she drowns him in the tub – his hands grasping for the rim in the final scene.

Carmen thought of Mitchell, and why he might like such an uninventive movie. Then an image of the cute criminal with her sly, suggestive grin focused into memory. The girl popped her gum arrogantly.

Carmen imagined pushing Mitchell's pretty face under the water of a full bathtub, bubbles everywhere, then letting him up to take short, quick, gasping breaths. He would grab onto the rim of the bathtub. She pictured him smiling triumphantly, like the 13-year-old Mitchell, with droplets of water sticking to his long eyelashes.

She fell asleep on the couch, peacefully.

Carmen rarely fell in love but, rather, fixated on people who seemed familiar to her and her life. Besides the obsessive-compulsive radio producer who used the same laundry detergent as her childhood babysitter, she'd dated a computer analyst who had the nervous habits of the high school boy who sat behind her in math class and stabbed her in the back with mechanical pencils.

More alarmingly, she once dated a man who reminded her of a mobster in one of her favorite true-crime paperbacks.

He was always moping around the apartment with a moody mouth, kicking things if he thought they were in his way: telephone book, TV remote, a single shoe. If he lost something, he would stomp through the narrow hallway and shout, "Where's my goddam palm pilot?" or "Where did you put my mouthwash?" Then he would find it exactly where he had left it. He never apologized for shouting. Sometimes he would sit at one corner of the couch and read thin books about investment banking.

Carmen would do different things to get his attention.

She would walk around in her underwear and talk to herself loudly. She would run the dishwasher or turn on the radio. Sometimes she would just lay on her back next to him and poke him in the ribs or play with the hair on his bare legs. He would eventually get irritated.

"Godammit, Carmen, you're like a dog that jumps and licks everything." He would elongate the word "everything" with an exaggerated whine that he often used to make fun of her. She would feel a sharp pang of rejection, then walk into the kitchen to make toast with butter and sugar on it.

Mitchell didn't remind her of anyone she'd ever met, but when he touched her arm and watched her curiously when she spoke, she felt like she could fall in love with him.

Mitchell was sitting on the couch, fiddling with his camera the next time she came over to his apartment to hang out. He had an archaic Kodak given to him by his father, who had also been a photographer. He wiped the lens with a thin slip of paper, looked through it, wiped again.

Carmen sat across from him on the floor and reflexively thumbed through a magazine, not paying
attention to the pictures or words on the pages. Mitchell focused the camera on something outside the window, on the wall, on her.

"Hey, let me take a picture of you!"

She turned the magazine upside down on her lap, leaned back on her arms, and smiled a fake, seductive smile like the woman in Trust.

Carmen had never felt comfortable in front of the camera. But now she felt playful. She pretended she was in a movie.

"Ooooo." Mitchell clicked his camera, and moved to the left, closer.

Carmen began to unbutton her shirt and pull her arms out of the sleeves. She wasn't wearing anything underneath. She imagined her face smooth and easy, although she could feel that it was more strained. She wondered if Mitchell could see the tension at the corners of her mouth. Then she decided that it didn't really matter, and stretched her smile.

Mitchell fumbled with his camera and pulled it away from his face. His expression was a mixture of surprise and mild panic. Somewhere, below the surface of his stare, there was a slight mention of concern.

"Carmen! God, put your shirt back on. What are you doing?" Carmen's face registered a terrifying jumble of emotion, played out like a panoramic movie, rapidly stumbling from shock to fear to abashment.

She quickly pulled her shirt back on and held her collar together with a hard little fist.

Her feeling of embarrassment was so overwhelming that she wanted to chase it out like a destructive animal from a well-kept yard. She made a crumpled, repellent facial expression, directed inward.

"I have to go to the bathroom," Carmen mumbled.

She sat on the toilet, staring at the neurotic pattern of Mitchell's wallpaper. It was a system of alternating blue and navy diamonds with a tiny dot at each angle. This pattern was similar to the kitchen wallpaper in the house she lived in as a child. She picked her cuticles and traveled down a narrow path of memory.

She remembered a time when she was a pensive, melancholy teen-ager reading books about the mentally ill.

She had been sitting at the kitchen table, beading a necklace with dental floss, while her father furtively poured over his crossword puzzle. There was a rip in the knee of his brown slacks. Her mother leaned over the kitchen sink, scooping perfectly round balls of watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew with a special spoon she'd bought through a television commercial.

"What's a four-letter word beginning with I that means 'compulsive desire'?" Her father's voice was calm and monotone, like a very straight line. He scratched his elbow.

"Itch," Carmen had said triumphantly, pleased with herself.

"I wasn't talking to you!" Her father pounded the table top with his fist and his pencil went flying onto the floor.

Her mother turned to the sink and rinsed her hands. Carmen was so startled by her father's reaction that she felt as if she might cry, but didn't want to allow him the opportunity to say anything about her sensitivity. She picked up a small black bead and continued to string her necklace.

Now Carmen looked in the mirror, fixed her hair and rubbed the eyeliner smudges under her eyes.

I am a moron, she thought, and washed her hands several times before coming out of the bathroom.

When she stepped into the living room, Mitchell was on the floor pulling Scrabble out of its box and arranging the wooden trays and game pieces so they could play. Frank padded around her dirty, stockinged feet, asserting his affectionate, garbled meows.

There were letters everywhere. Carmen could not think of a single word.


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