Kate Imbach is a writer and documentary filmmaker from Venice, California. She has an MPA from Suffolk University, which is only one letter away from an MFA. Her most recent film, Partners, premiered at the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival. Her short fiction has been published in Passages North, Word Riot and Map Literary, among others.
A Short Story
By Kate Imbach
Ten years out of high school I sat in a crowded sports bar watching a football game by myself. I lived alone in a heavily mortgaged condo which kept on smelling new no matter how long I lived there, like paint and cold concrete and the absence of other people. Denver was as enchanting as a scale model of a city, trees and bicyclists and businessmen glued into place. The streets were wide and clean. There was no chaos. A stranger walked up to me and smiled, confident and tall, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, a beer in his hand. He needed a haircut. We were the same age. We figured out that we grew up in nearly identical suburbs miles and miles away from each other, extravagances of Colorado space between our childhoods, subdivisions, office parks, empty lots, tumbleweeds blowing across the highways.
“I went to a boy’s school. Trinity High School?” he asked, like he doubted its existence.
“I went to homecoming there one year.”
“What did you wear?” He leaned his elbow onto the bar and his chin into his hand and looked me right in the eye. Enormous flatscreen televisions flashed the blues of football across his face.
I lied. “I don’t remember.”
“I was there.” He leaned in, inspecting my face. “I remember you. I swear I tried to talk to you.”
“You did not.” I turned my face into my shoulder and remembered that night, a great disaster in low light, silver balloons, black streamers. Cold air blew in through the gym doors propped open with trashcans.
“You’re even prettier now.”
“Stop it.” I bit my lip to restrain a smile and pressed my knee against his underneath the bar.
All we had in common was the false camaraderie of facts, a city and an age. He could have been anyone. He pulled my barstool towards his body and kissed me. I kissed back hard. People around us hooted and pumped their fists. The Broncos were winning.
Trinity boys lost their virginities to spectacular women, spent winters self-possessedly skiing Vail and were destined for colleges on the faraway East Coast. They had important fathers with Colorado family fortunes, cattle and parking lots. The homecoming dance was the most important event of the year, when the boys paraded good-looking girls around the darkened basketball court like state fair show goats. It was not the type of event that I thought I would ever have the opportunity to attend until a night in my junior year of high school when my mother handed me the cordless phone and told me that Alex was on the phone. Alex was an unremarkable and charmless boy with a starved young body, his weight straggling to catch up with the length of his limbs. He lived on my street. I had to drive past his house every time I left mine. I was the only girl in his life.
“Hi Anna? I wanted to see if you would come to homecoming with me?” I could hear his hands sweating. “Homecoming at Trinity is really fun?”
It was like an invitation to the Oscars from a sex offender. It didn’t matter how much he revolted me, I would still get to walk down the red carpet. I said a nonchalant yes and shrieked when I hung up. My life was changed forever.
At school the next day I skipped through the hallway. I wore mascara for the first time. My strawberry lip-gloss sparkled. “Guess what?” I asked everyone, pointing my chin up, imperviously exposing my throat. I liked reminding the other girls at school that my life was bigger than theirs. I liked reminding them that I had been seen. I had always known that I deserved to be seen.
I prowled suburban malls for hours to find the right thing to wear. The implication of this search, that I had to find a dress because I had something to attend other than volleyball practice or geometry class, satisfied me deeply. I felt very fond of myself. Over a food court lunch of blue Slurpees I put my elbows on the plastic table and leaned my forehead into my fingertips. I looked out from underneath my hands and said to my girlfriends, “Maybe I’ll never find the perfect dress.” They gently encouraged me to keep shopping.
I found it in a cheap shop for teenagers where they sold body glitter and plastic-wrapped packets of earrings. The dress was a faux Chinese silk gown, with a high collar and a slit way up the side. I raced to try it on. It was a little too long and a little too tight. I pulled back the dusty dressing room curtain and looked in the mirror. I was stunning. I was an adult. I was a woman. I had a faint tint of blue food coloring on my lips, like I had been recently strangled.
Everything went wrong in my bathroom the night of the dance. I inexpertly curled my hair with a curling iron. I looked like a poodle after an accident at the groomer. I stomped in frustration. I stepped on a seam of the dress and ripped it open along the slit in its side. My dressing room hauteur faded in an instant. I was past my prime only weeks after it had started. I realized suddenly that the dress was trash, unfixable and unwearable, even before the tear. I was a stupid little girl playing dress up.
An hour before the limo arrived my mother found me sitting on the closed toilet lid, sobbing. “My whole life is ruined,” I said. She made me lay in the empty bathtub with a bag of frozen peas and carrots over my eyes. I had to wear an old black dress of hers, a shoddy trail of safety pins lining the zipper to hold it closed. She fixed my hair in the only style she knew how to do, the same bun I wore to church in kindergarten.
I called Jess the day after I met Nick at the sports bar. She answered with a domestic roar, a baby cried, another child babbled, a dog barked, water boiled. She put me on mute. A lone bicyclist pedaled past my window. She returned.
“Remember homecoming at Trinity?” I asked. She had gone with a football player who had the biceps and facial hair of a twenty-five-year-old.
“That’s one of my favorite memories of you!” She laughed in a burst and talked fast. “Your hair that night was tragic. And that horrible dress! You were so upset about it. Oh and we couldn’t find any booze, and we just sat in a construction site and you made out with that loser in the back of my Mitsubishi.”
I remembered Alex’s tongue idling inside my mouth, his determined fingers fiddling up my dress like he was looking for a light switch in the dark.
“It’s a favorite memory? I haven’t thought about it in years.”
She paused, a liar’s hesitation. “Oh, you were funny. That’s all.”
“I met a guy who went to Trinity last night. He says he remembers me from homecoming.”
“Yeah.” I stood at the window smirking, my head cocked to the side, my body in an empty room, fliting with nothing.
“I doubt it. You weren’t exactly memorable that night.” Only old friends are so clumsy with such sharp weapons. I said nothing. “Go for it anyway. I would. I haven’t had sex in a year. I don’t think John remembers me from five minutes ago.”
“That long?” I heard some kind of thud and a toddler’s wail.
“Oh shit. I have to go. There’s mac and cheese everywhere.”
I pictured her on her knees, wiping up the mess from the floor.
I met Nick for the second time for dinner at crowded sushi restaurant with dim lighting and a nervous waitress. He was kind to her. He ordered collaboratively. I laughed at his jokes. Everything was fine. After dinner he said, “We can get more drinks here, or I have beers at my house,” and tilted his head in the direction of the door.
We walked away from the restaurant and as we turned the corner and the streets became dark and private he grabbed the back of my neck and kissed me. We stumbled into his apartment and he pressed me against the wall, and then into his bed. He looked me in the eye. I looked away, letting my hair fall over my cheek, arching my back and sucking in my stomach, presenting myself at my best angle, empty and mostly obscured. He complimented me with vulgarities.
I thought of myself at sixteen years old on the night of homecoming, standing in my front hallway dressed like a pilgrim on a Sunday, my mother squinting to examine the puffiness in my eyes, placing her hands on my shoulders, forcing an unconvincing closed mouth smile and saying, “It’s not so bad, honey.” I remembered the doorbell ringing and my impulse to run out the back door, through the suburbs, up the mountains and down their ridges, until I was gone and unknown. I could have slapped that girl in the face.
A few weeks later Jess had her first overnight business trip since she had the second baby. John was the kind of father who was terrified to be alone with his children. We agreed that I would help him put them down, as parents like to say, as though bedtime is a matter of arranging the children correctly in space. I helped Jess with the kids at night many times before by holding her glass of wine and standing out of the way. I made faces and read stories to the children until they finally relented and fell asleep. John sent me out for beers. On my way back inside I opened two on the bottle opener that I helped him and Jess screw into the doorframe years before, back when we used to have beers on the porch. My hands full, the screen door slammed behind me and I flinched and waited, remembering the kids. The baby monitor stayed silent.
“Who is this new guy?” John asked, wiping some final kid-produced mess off his hands with a kitchen towel. He sat down on the couch. “Jess said you went to homecoming with him?”
I sat down next to him and handed him a beer. “No, we just went to homecoming at his school once when he was there.”
“I think I’ve heard about this homecoming,” he said, knowing he had. “Jess said it was a disaster.”
“Your hair, your dress, your date?” He smiled like he had been there himself.
“It didn’t go well, no.” I felt uncomfortable. The atmosphere aggravated my old war wound.
“Jess thinks it’s a story that’s so quintessentially you. It’s funny that you’ve found a guy who was there that night.” He patted me on the shoulder, as though I should be very pleased with myself with my success despite my handicap. “Do you like him?”
“Yeah. I think I do.” I took a drink of my beer. “What about that homecoming was so like me?”
“Your expectations were high and it didn’t go as you planned. You know how things have been for you.”
I stood up and walked to the kitchen to have something to do other than agree with him. They had so many nice little things in their tiny Denver bungalow, shelves sagging with sauce-splattered cookbooks, a pile of filmy baby bottles in the sink, cute vintage lamps haggled over at suburban flea markets.
I drank. John changed the subject. He was the type of Coloradan with ski goggle tan lines all winter and mud sprayed over his calves, hard as stones, all summer. Outdoorsy men always develop an asexual character, like if they could take Mother Nature to bed they wouldn’t need real women in their lives at all. He was attractive despite this preoccupation with the outdoors. The mountains always did have a way of carving handsomeness into a face where there was none.
We drank more. I touched my hair, laughed at his jokes and widened my eyes while he told me stories about hiking. I asked for the technical specifications of his kayak. On his way to the kitchen to get our fifth round, he put his hand on my knee. I looked at it. He didn’t move it. The baby monitor crackled. He stood up. I heard his steps on the sticky kitchen floor, the refrigerator door sucking open and closed, his rustling in a drawer for a bottle opener, the caps bouncing on the countertop. He sat down next to me and handed me a beer. I leaned back on the arm of the sofa and stretched my legs out. I put my feet on his lap. He wrapped a hand around each foot. We were drunk.
We fucked on the couch, as if doing it in their bed would have been worse. He moved too fast. He breathed too hard. He said the wrong things. It was over in a matter of minutes. It hardly felt like proving a point.
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder as I slumped down onto the floor, looking for my underwear.
“I’ve never thought about it before.” I squirmed out of his reach. “And I will never think about it again.”
“Hey.” He frowned, the dismay of the persecuted. “It has been a long time.”
“I can see why.”
I left him wounded on the couch, with his pants around his thighs. I went to the bathroom. I slammed the door on purpose, hoping to wake the baby. I stumbled and stubbed my toe on a potty training stepstool. I kicked it out of the way. I sat on the toilet and looked out the window at nothing but twelve inches of space and the brick wall of the house next door.