“It’s just a little farther, I promise.” My neighbor Christina wears stained clothes and her ratty blond hair hangs in tangled clumps, like twisted tassels sprouting from her scalp. One limp arm swings back, revealing a cigarette clamped between two fingers.
My neighbor Christina is ten years old. I don’t know why I agreed to follow her, but I guess on that spring day, I didn’t have much else going on. Christina’s mother had a protruding jaw line and once enjoyed a wine cooler that she purchased from me with a handful of pennies and nickels. I told her to just take it, she was embarrassing herself. She only knew her daughter’s whereabouts when there were no soap operas to watch and no crack to smoke. That’s being generous, too.
Behind a row of townhouses in the complex we live in, there is a large field. On the right side of it sits the back of the office. That’s where the mailboxes are. None of this seems worthy of being dragged away from the Game Show Network. This was 1998, the year of digital cable.
I look around. I see trees. I see the apartment manager through her office window. I see a guy kicking a soccer ball on the field.
“What am I looking at?” I impatiently ask Christina, as she summons the boy on the field with one hand. He has red hair. He’s wearing Umbros and a hoodie. He’s running up the small crest to the edge of the parking lot where we’re waiting.
“This is the girl I was telling you about, Chad!” Christina proudly announces. I quickly understand where this is going.
He says he’s seen me around. I say I’ve never seen him once. He says he’s just graduated from Penn State and is living here in a furnished town home. “It’s one of the perks of the job I just got,” he explains.
I tell him I’m eighteen and a telemarketer. I tell him I live in a town home furnished by my mother. “Because I’m spoiled,” I explain. We laugh.
He asks me for my number. I tell him I don’t usually like red heads. But I give him my number. He calls me the next day and invites me over for dinner. I say yes, then feel overwhelmed by guilt.
I call my boss at Olan Mills. Gladys. She doubles as the mother hen of us telemarketers.
“It’s not cheating when your boyfriend is a crazy ass who treats you like crap,” Gladys yells into the phone. Someone takes the phone from her and shouts, “Go have dinner with him!”
No one likes my boyfriend Mike. I don’t like my boyfriend Mike. He leaves a very lasting first impression, like the taste that infiltrates your senses when your tongue accidentally drops down during a cavity fill. That bitter, tangy nightmare that makes your uvula curl up into itself and your eyes water. No one knows Chad yet but he’s got a flag-waving, confetti-sprinkling, horn-honking congregation in his corner. And he doesn’t even know it.
I’m not especially dressed up when I cross the parking lot that night. I’m not especially impressed by his corporate-furnished living space; it looks like remnants from the set of Golden Girls; vaguely comforting except for the fact that I don’t know the guy sitting across from me on a couch printed with giant pink water lilies. I’m not even especially impressed by the pasta with the watery sauce that makes a quiet squirt when he drops a heap of it in front of me, or the obligatory salad that accompanies it.
The conversation must not have been very savory either, over top plates of sub-par spaghetti, because all I remember is that he went to school for architecture. He tells me he sees me getting my mail every day and I guess this is my cue to bat my lashes and blush because, d’awwww — that boy has been paying me some attention, ya’ll. But I just kind of snort instead. His corporate-supplied dining room table is a plain wooden square with matching chairs. The backs of the chairs are made from that annoying basket-like netting, the stuff that’s so thin and flimsy, like those stupid slats of holy willow the churches give out like candy on Palm Sunday, that any regular person could probably punch their fist through it, the stuff that snags your good sweaters and you keep saying you’re going to get new chairs but you end up getting new sweaters instead.
I’m bored by him but not so much that I’d decline his offer of an after-dinner joint. We sit on the Blanche Deveroux-style couch, boxy and stiff, passing a joint between us. “Can I see your iguana?” he asks breathlessly. My marginal buzz convinces me he said “vagina,” and I can’t stop laughing.
My townhouse is full of cushiony furniture, a blue couch with bright pillows and a dining room table with loudly vibrant vinyl diner-style chairs. I’ve not once sat at that table and ate. My townhouse has fluorescent Slinkies dripping off the ceiling. They glow in the dark. My townhouse would make his Golden Girls cower and shade their eyes. I lead him up to the bedroom of my townhouse, a Crayola box regurgitated by Sid and Marty Kroft.
Templeton, my choleric iguana, looks irritable in his tank. “He doesn’t do much,” I say as we sit on the edge of my bed and watch. My bed is made with cherry-hued jersey sheets. I can remember that, but not Chad’s last name. The only thing I remember about Chad is the red hair and phony toothpaste commercial smile.
Chad asks if I want a massage. I say no, but he still tries kneading me between the shoulder blades with his knuckles.
I shrug him off.
Chad asks if he can kiss me. I say no, I think he should leave.
So he leaves and I contently spend the rest of the night watching sitcoms.
With only a parking lot separating us, Chad and I have a few inevitable run-ins. We’re polite. Sometimes we nod to each other from afar and then walk in opposite directions. Eventually, we just never see each other again.
I don’t mind red hair on boys anymore, but I’m not sure that Chad should get credit for that.