restless little spark
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
"You're crass." He sipped his gin and tonic through
"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
"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
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
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
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
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?"
"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
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
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
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
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