I met Angel Baby in a coffeehouse, in that part of town where there are always shadows stuck to the streetlights. It was a cold night; she and I were both still huddled and shivering, waiting at the end of the bar for our drinks. Never Too Latte was always dim, smoky, and full of the smells of percolating coffee and steaming milk. We both ordered Americanos—hers had a shot of caramel syrup, mine didn’t—and we mistakenly grabbed each other’s cups.
I winced. “Too sweet.”
“Bitter,” she replied. “This shit tastes like coffee!”
And that’s how we stopped being strangers. I could tell you how pretty she is. But that’s been done before. Saying she has blonde hair or blue eyes or bowed lips doesn’t actually tell you what she looks like; there’s a hundred thousand girls with blonde hair and blue eyes and bowed lips. But only one of them is Angel Baby. I could say that her eyes have a playground in them, and that’s what made me decide to love her as I handed her cup back to her, assuring her I didn’t have cooties.
I don’t know why I asked if I could sit with her, and I don’t know why she said yes. I suppose it doesn’t matter, the whys of all of it. I have always liked Never Too Latte in spite of its name, which, in my opinion, is trying too hard. I like it because it has that arty feel of the coffeehouses of the 90s, the way coffee places don’t feel too much anymore. Now, they’re all kind of slicked over; you can’t smoke inside most of them anymore; there’s nothing that makes you feel like you’re hanging out in someone’s gigantic living room that just happens to have an espresso bar at the front of it.
The tables are a mash-up of strange paintjobs and decoupage. Some tables have tarot cards on them; on the community bookshelf there’s even a book on how to read the tarot. There’s a few checkers boards, a corner with two tables and chess boards, and somewhere else there’s a game of Clue, with no pieces, that’s missing half the cards (you have to use sugar packets if you want to play, and know that Col. Mustard can never be the one that did it, since all cards referencing him seem to be gone). On Thursdays there’s open mic night, and you can hear all the acoustic hippie songs, angry spoken word or mumbled poetry you want. It’s a clientele of people that you just never seem to see during the daylight.
So I sat with her, and she lit the tea light at the table, and she’s talking, and I’m only sort of half-listening. I’m more just watching her mouth and how she talks. I’m watching the way the corners turn up when she laughs, or when I remember to talk back to her, I’m watching how she talks with her hands a lot and wondering if she’s Italian or from California. I’m noticing the way she blows smoke out her nostrils like a dragon and wondering if it hurts her sinuses to do that, if she does it to look cool, or if that’s just how she smokes.
She grabbed a tarot deck and did a three card reading on me, and I don’t even know what a three card reading is, or what any of the cards mean, but I cut the deck like she said to, and when she told me to ask a question, all I could think in my head was, Do you like me? But I didn’t ask that. I asked if I could keep my question private, and she said, “Yeah, that’s okay.”
She fanned the cards out for me and said, pick three and turn them over. I picked, turned them over, and she touched them in order and said, Past, Present, Future: Magician, Ace of Wands, and The Hanging Man.
“Is that good?”
“Well, sort of. I mean, only you know what you asked, so here’s what I can tell you from these cards, okay? The first card, your Past, is the Magician. See, the cards can go either way; the meanings can be positive or negative. The positive view on your past is confidence, potential, or individuality. So that means you’re a really strong personality, and you’ve probably led a really interesting life, right? It also represents new opportunities, so you could be moving into the next phase of your life.
“Now, the negative to it is that even though you value individuality, it means you can also be really insecure. You’ve got a lot of potential, but you can be lazy and not really follow through with things you start or ideas you have. You’ve got confidence, but that can sometimes make you cocky, you know, like maybe you rely on bluffing your way through things or thinking on your feet too much, right? Maybe you think you work best under pressure, but you’d really work just as well if you planned better.
“The Magician can also mean trickery or deception, coming towards you or from you, so that’s something to keep in mind when you interact with other people, you know, watch out for what they’re doing with you, but also watch what you’re doing with them, too.
“So that’s your Past. And the Present, that’s the Ace of Wands, and see how it’s upside down? Well, that means we’re going to focus more on the negatives of that card. Okay, well, the suit is Wands. Wands represents passion. Basically anything that burns inside you and you need to act on it. It could be love, or school, or work, you know, whatever you focus your energy into. So, the flip side to that is that whatever that focus is can be a drain on your passion, right? And Ace of Wands means a new passion. So maybe you’ve just found something, a religion, a person, started school, you’re reading a book that’s really opening you up, whatever. But since the card is inverted, and because you had the Magician before it, you have to be careful, okay? It’s not nearly as easy as you think it’s going to be, or that you’re used to it being. It’s going to require a lot more patience and planning on your part to really lock into it.
Now, the Future card is The Hanging Man. See, even though he’s hanging, he’s not upset, right? And some coins fell out of his pockets or whatever. He’s hanging and he’s waiting for clarity, for some kind of revelation, and see, that works really well with the cards that you drew before for past and present. To get something, you have to give something, or at least let go of what you’re already holding so you have an empty hand to receive. It means, stop resisting, make some sacrifices, make yourself vulnerable, and you’ll get peace and direction and vision, and you’ll be able to plug into all that confidence and potential that you drew in the Magician card. So, what do you think?”
“I think you’re full of shit, Miss Cleo.”
“Fuck you. I’m good at this. You just don’t like what I said because it hits close to home, right?”
“I’m a Gemini, too, what do you make of that?”
“Two-faced. The Magician card. It all makes sense.”
“Bullshit. Tarot cards and the zodiac are vague generalizations of basic human archetypes.”
“I’m not Catholic either.”
“That’s a shame. Catholic Jesus is pretty hot.”
“You’re going to burn in hell for that.”
“Thought you weren’t Catholic?”
“But you were?”
“When I was a kid.”
“See, there’s only two kinds of Catholics: devout and fallen. Both of them don’t like the tarot or zodiac or numerology because it’s too much like their magic Jesus. You probably like Jung, though, because you’re still mad at God or whatever.”
“I take it you’re not Catholic?”
“Ha, I’m not as predictable as you. I’m one of the few, the proud, the fallen.”
By this time there was a pretty impressive pile of her cigarette butts—Parliament, with the filters recessed—hanging out in the ashtray. Our coffees were, respectively, cold dregs and long gone. The baristas were starting to wipe down empty tables and stack the chairs up. They’d put on Mother Love Bone to listen to while closing. Angel Baby collected our mugs and brought them to the register, then emptied her ashtray and brought that up to the register too. She took the tarot deck back to the community table.
“I used to be a barista,” she explained, as she wrapped up in her scarf and jacket.
“And what are you now?”
Outside, the temperature had dropped even more. There was a bitter wind that kept slapping Angel Baby’s hair into her lips and mouth. Even with both hands deep in my pockets, the cold still managed to get in and make my joints stiff. It was November, not really a good omen for the rest of the winter. We talked under the overhang for a few minutes before the lights went off inside, both of us shifting feet, stomping, anything to try to keep the blood flowing and stay a little bit warmer. The baristas, finally finished and ready to go home, turned off the neon coffee cup lighting the window.
“So, do you have insomnia?” she asked.
“Because it’s almost three. Are you tired? Do you work tomorrow morning, or whatever?”
“No,” I lied.
“Okay, well, I have insomnia, and I’m cold and not tired, and I don’t really know too many people, so I’ve been really happy that our coffees got mixed up because I got to talk to someone tonight instead of just reading or reading my own tarot, right? And I’m hungry. Want to go to The Grille and have breakfast?”
“I don’t think that breakfast happens at three.”
“You know you’re a pain with all that nit-picky language stuff, right? Whatever. If you want to join me, great. If not, well, I guess I’ll catch you around sometime.”
I have a long and rich history of my smart mouth getting me into positions I don’t want to be in. People that maybe would have liked me all of a sudden don’t because I don’t think before I talk. I just want to seem witty and say the first thing that pops into my head, and a lot of the time it comes out the wrong way. This was no exception. This girl that I had just met, that I already liked probably more than I should, was inviting me to go eat with her, and instead of being gracious and just accepting, I was dissecting her choice of words.
“Sorry. I’d love to have breakfast.”
“Good. Let’s go. I’m fucking freezing.”
The Grille is something of a city institution. It’s open 24 hours, like any diner worth a damn should be, and it also has terrible coffee and tattooed waitresses. It was built in the 40s sometime, and the inside décor hasn’t changed much over the years. The city’s vegans love it because it has a vegan club sandwich made with tofurkey, soy bacon, and veganrella cheese. The city’s carnivores love it because they have a loose meat sandwich that’s a real challenge to eat after the bars close and you’re good and drunk. I love it because it’s the only thing open after I get off work a lot of nights, so I’ve eaten just about everything on the menu, from the vegan T-Bird to the Messy Mike.
“No more coffee for me tonight. I have to at least try and get some sleep.”
She ordered cocoa instead and didn’t even hesitate when the waitress asked if she wanted whipped cream. “There’s no point to ordering it if you’re not going to get the whipped cream!” she said, and the waitress smiled, and I did too because it was such an honest reaction that most girls have beaten out of them at early ages. She ordered hash browns, grits, and toast.
“I know. Three starches. Don’t lecture me. I got cheese in my grits. That’s dairy. That’s real food.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“But you thought it, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, you got me on that.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t say it just because it popped into your head. Maybe you’re learning from your reading.”
While we waited for our food, we talked about school, and books, and where she was from, Georgia. It explained the grits. I have seen grits on the menu of The Grille, and in college with friends, we ordered them as a dare. I’ve never understood the appeal of the mushy things, but apparently they take grits really seriously down south. I realize that the grits are on the menu to remind Southern transplants of the home that they miss.
“So, I have to ask. Why Angel Baby?”
“My real name’s Angelique. But you know, what kind of drama queen names their kid Angelique, right? And my daddy used to call me Angel Baby. Have you ever read Beloved? You know how Baby Suggs calls herself Baby Suggs so her husband will know it’s her if they ever meet up again? Well, if I ever run into my daddy, I want him to know it’s me, too.”
“What happened to your dad?”
“Ran off, you know, the usual. Deadbeat.”
“Do you miss him?”
“Wow, way to bring up a sore subject, man. No. I don’t miss him. But if I ever run into him again, I want him to know it’s me, so he knows why, when I start kicking his ass.”
“Don’t be. I guess I’m not really that mad, I mean, most people don’t even ask, right? They just kind of get uncomfortable and try not to mention it, and when they try too hard not to mention it, it’s like they’re mentioning it in all capital letters, you know?”
“You know, that’s kind of like a Johnny Cash song, in a weird way.”
“Hey, that’s pretty good! ‘My name is Angel Baby, how do you do? Now you gonna DIE!’”
I love that she didn’t stir the whipped cream into her cocoa. I love that she ate it with a spoon. I love that she’s not bothered by a little whipped cream, and that she’s not counting carbs, because she ordered three starches for a meal. When our food comes, I love that she doesn’t seem shy about eating it in front of me, the way most girls won’t eat in front of a guy they don’t know too well. They’ll just get salad instead of what they’re really hungry for. She mixes everything together. It’s really gross and cute at the same time. Ketchup and hot sauce all over the hash browns, then she scrapes the bowl of cheese grits onto the hash browns, and mixes it all up together. Breakfast is a project, her toast the transport medium for forkfuls of the strange concoction. I don’t realize that I’m staring in kind of a fascinated horror at her plate until she speaks.
“I know, gross, right, but I’ve eaten it this way since I was a kid. I just like what I like how I like it. It’s not as weird as it looks, promise. Want to try it?”
“Not just no, but HELL no.”
“You need to be more open minded. And for someone whose breakfast is not just a hot dog, but a hot dog that has a whole freaking garden and fluorescent relish on it, you should be the last person to judge my breakfast!”
“You mean your starch orgy.”
“Seriously? Is that a pickle on your hot dog?”
I loved that she could dish it as well as she could take it, that she refused to be embarrassed by her breakfast, and that she was secure enough to go after my sport peppers to see if they tasted good on her grits mash-up.
“You know you don’t have to eat those, right? You can just throw them at cars.”
“That’s mean. And wasteful. They’re pretty good, you know.”
I paid for her breakfast. She argued, but not that much. I think it must be part of being raised in the South. A local girl would never have actually let me go through with paying, but Angel Baby only protested a little bit before letting me pay.
“So, how early do you have to work?”
“Ha, I knew you were lying. You better get home; you can still get a couple of hours of sleep.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Go home, maybe have some tea, try to fall asleep, read a little bit, something boring. Maybe I’ll read House of Mirth. So where do you work?”
“Paines Printing. I know, lame. But I get to do some graphic design work there, too, and they let me run the big press, and I get to bind things and listen to music all day, so it could be worse.”
“You went to college for that?”
“No. I went to college to paint.”
“And this job was to buy you the time to paint, right? So do you paint?”
“That’s another story for another night.”
“One of those, huh?”
Outside, it was that curious time of night where it’s not really night anymore and it isn’t quite morning, either. When I’m up, which I sometimes am, depending on the shift and kind of jobs we’ve gotten in that week, I really like this time. It’s quiet, you can still see stars, most of the drunken people have already gone home, there’s not many cars, and the asphalt has a twilight smell on it. Dew, maybe, or the end of the humidity from the day before. We programmed each other’s numbers into our phones, and I hailed her a cab. There was an awkward hug before she got inside. I watched the taillights of the cab grow smaller, then turn and disappear, before turning in the other direction and walking home. I passed by Never Too Latte again, forgiving it tonight for its pretentious name. I was turning the key in my lock when my phone started ringing.
“So, want me to cook you dinner tonight?”
“Technically it’s already tomorrow. Want me to cook you dinner? You can show me your paintings.”
“I’m not painting right now.”
“You don’t like food, then? Don’t you eat dinner?”
“I like food just fine.”
“Great. Text me your address. I’ll make you Southern food.”
“Is my kitchen going to smell like a fart?”
“If I do it right. I’ll probably get every pot you have dirty too, and then I’ll leave when they’re all in the sink. Sound good?”
“Except for you leaving me with all the dishes, yeah, it sounds great.”
“If you want to get off the hook with the dishes, you better rustle up a painting or two.”
“Sounds like blackmail.”
“Nope. Blackmail is for freebooting chiefs wanting protection from pillage.”
“Or girls threatening to blow up my kitchen if I don’t show them paintings.”
“Yeah, but how many blackmailers are going to come over and make you Brunswick Stew with corn dumplings?”
“Should I be scared?”
“No, because people up here don’t eat squirrel or rabbit. It’ll only have chicken and beef and vegetables in it.”
“Okay, deal. I’ll find a painting, so no leaving me with a sinkful of dishes, okay?”
“Okay. But I lie a lot. So I might leave the dishes anyway. Get some sleep, okay? Goodnight.”
I went to sleep feeling vaguely excited and weirded out. This kind of thing didn’t just happen to me, not anymore. I met girls, but usually at work, or at school, and sometimes we dated, but never for very long. I liked them well enough and they usually liked me a little bit more than well enough, but the relationships I’ve had have always been disparate. The ones that I had liked, or loved, never liked or loved me with that same intensity; the ones that loved me best bored me. Somewhere along the line I stopped picking the ones I thought I might like more.
That was around the time I stopped painting. Art school was a misery in the same way that girls were a misery. Passion does not equal talent. Passion without talent is successful in the same way that talent without passion is successful. But passion plus talent will get you a lecture class full of venomous critique. You end up workshopping all the love out of the craft and becoming a clinician of the thing you purport to love best. I fell into sleep grateful for the artless craft of pamphlet binding I’d be doing in the morning.
“Stu, do you know what Brunswick stew is?”
“Don’t rednecks eat that? I dunno, doesn’t that have rabbits or frogs in it, or something?”
“God. I hope not.”
“Why? You got a girlie from Alabama gonna make you some?”
“You better ask her make you a pecan pie. Or peach. Those are from Georgia, right? Oh! I know! Ask her for some boiled peanuts!”
“She might punch me, Stu.”
“I know, buddy. You probably deserve it, too.”
When I got off work, I went home and vacuumed. I never vacuum, not to have a girl over. I’m a take-it-or-leave-it kind of guy. Or at least I’ve become one. I pulled down the pots that my mom and various girlfriends had brought over and left, because I believed Angel Baby when she said she’d trash my kitchen. She didn’t knock on the door. She kicked it. Two arms full of groceries that she just wasn’t going to set down until she was in the kitchen. And that she wasn’t going to let me examine either, knowing that I feared Brunswick stew the same way I feared grits.
“You know it’s not redneck food, right?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Liar. You did not know that. You probably think I’m going to trick you into eating squirrel, don’t you?”
“OK, smarty pants, where, exactly, am I going to find a squirrel? Have you seen anyone selling squirrel meat? Or do you think I’m so backwoods that I’m going to grab one out of the tree outside and snap its neck?”
“Right. I promised the only meat would be chicken and beef and I don’t lie about food. Everything else, maybe, but not food.”
She seemed at home in the kitchen, seamlessly moving between pots and mixing bowls, finding the drawer where I kept the sharp knife, the spice cabinet. She’d brought her own cast-iron skillet, “You can’t keep it, it’s my cornbread pan. I decided on cornbread and not corn dumplings, and you still can’t keep the skillet.” Soon the kitchen smelled like what I imagined the South smells like, at least to Angel Baby. It smelled like home. I was still skeptical of the okra, but decided I’d give it a chance, since dessert was going to be something called a Dump Cake, which would have scared me, except that it seemed to involve fruit and soda and cinnamon.
She wasn’t lying when she said she’d demolish the kitchen. It looked like Taz had hit the damn thing. She also wasn’t lying when she said Brunswick stew was good. I was worried about the butter beans and okra, but as it turns out, when everything is cooked together, it’s not as frightening as it sounds when you ask, so what’s in that, anyway? “So, did you hold up your end of the bargain?” she asked. “Because if you didn’t, it’s going to be a sucky night for you cleaning up.”
“Actually, now that you mention it, I did hold up my end of the bargain, so if I were you, I’d make myself at home at the sink.”
“I said I’d help, not do all the dishes. I did cook, after all, I didn’t see you doing anything except shoveling in food that you said you were afraid of.”
I cleared our plates and put them in the sink, buying myself a few more minutes before I showed her the paintings. For me, there’s more anxiety in letting someone see my canvases than letting them see my naked ass for the first time. In a lot of ways, college beat the passion out of me. The thing I loved best about myself going in, my ability to capture the nuance of the human for in oils, acrylics, watercolors, charcoals—leaving school, I no longer loved my ability. I left feeling played out, unoriginal, talentless, derivative, flat. The joy of art, of beauty, of the medium, or faces and anatomy, swooshes of pigment over stretched canvases…. I was told by peer after peer in studio art classes that my work had “been done before,” my teachers said. “It just doesn’t speak to me.” or “It seems a little, oh, I don’t know, crafty.”
“Trying to avoid the moment of truth, huh? I’m sure you’re a great painter. Just show me them.”
“How would you know I’m a good painter or not?”
“Hey, I went to college too, I know stuff! Also, you doodled all over your napkins at the coffee shop last night, and the doodles were pretty good, so if you’re pretty good when you’re just dicking around, you must be pretty great when you’re actually trying. And you hold your fork and knife like a paintbrush, so even if you’re not thinking about painting, I think you’re still thinking about painting.”
“Okay, most of the stuff I have was for my last studio class, so it’s not too big. But I have these four canvases that I never took to the class; I just did them for myself. They’re on the wall in my back room. I hung them. I never wanted the group to see these pieces because I still wanted to like them. Most of the stuff I did for class or in class, or took to class, I ended up hating, even if I liked it at first, because after everyone shared their brilliant insights, all I could hear was their big fat arrogant voices telling me my work was shit. Guys that didn’t know dick about actually painting, who just took smears of whatever and threw it up on the wall and then went on to say, “Oh this piece deals with the dichotomy of emotion in the postmodern man and his inhumanity to other men.” or “THIS IS MY RAGE!” Those guys’ opinions were worth more than mine was, and it always felt like the reason was I can actually paint. I can capture the human form and make it look like the person I’m painting—and in art school they teach you that’s a bad thing! These pretentious little fuckwits say: Vermeer, Botticelli, Chuck Close—hacks!”
“Little bitter there, huh?”
“Yeah, little bit.”
“You wanna show me these paintings, then? Promise I won’t say they’re derivative.”
I took her hand, gently, and led her to the doorway of the room that used to be my studio, and one day, afterwards, would be again. We stood there, the room dark, for just a moment, before she dropped my hand.
“You better be as good as you say you are, after all this build-up.”
“Angel Baby, this is gonna come off sounding really conceited, but I’m better than you think I am.”
“And you know what that sounds like, not to keep beating a dead horse? That sounds a whole lot like the Magician card you drew—talented but insecure, confidence sometimes getting mistaken for cockiness. Turn on the goddamn light already. I am ready to be wowed.”
I turned on the light and I could see the realization that I wasn’t just being cocky creep up her cheeks, like a blush and a tease. The work was a triptych—three canvases that related to each other, with one, smaller work beneath it, kind of the epilogue to the works above it.
“So what’s it called?”
“Jennifer in Three Movements.”
“But there’s four canvases—what’s the one underneath, then?”
“It’s an unconventional triptych. The one underneath is the epilogue.”
“Why’s the epilogue just a long empty room and door? Where’s Jennifer?”
“It’s an empty room because she left me.”
“Why’s she crying in the third one?”
“Because I cheated on her.”
“And the first two?”
“When we were still in love.”
We stood there, her seeing them for the first time, and me seeing them in a different light. I painted them the weekend that Jennifer left, two weeks after I graduated with a worthless degree in Studio Art. I’d been working at Paines all through college and didn’t really see any reason to leave. Jennifer and I had been together for my last year. She was one of the ones who loved me a little more than I loved her.
I couldn’t tell you why I cheated on her and was hoping that Angel Baby wouldn’t ask. She’d been sweet. She had a glow; it rubbed off on me when I was around her. She had a way of making monkey faces or fish faces at me when I went off on a rant about some asshole in studio seminar, defusing me and reducing me to fits of snickering, both at her willingness to look ridiculous and my own petty preoccupations. I stole that glow from Jennifer and pinned it to the canvases, preserving her three movements: joyful, sexy, miserable, and then her epilogue. Gone.
“You’re as good as you said you are.”
“You were bad to her, huh?”
“Still talk to her?”
“You should. And you’re not off the hook for dishes, either.”
I washed; she dried, because she said she hated the way that it felt to grab bits of waterlogged food. I didn’t argue because I wanted to kiss her and was glad she hadn’t pried more about Jennifer. We talked about books and painters and school. She was still in school, she went to UGa, she was a proud Bulldog, and was here this semester studying art history and architecture because she had some really specific job she wanted to do. I didn’t pay that much attention because I still wanted to kiss her and knew the evening was coming to a close after the dishes were done. There are a lot of things I should have paid a lot more attention to, with all my ex-girlfriends, and with Angel Baby too, but that realization was for another day. When all the dishes were done, dried, and stacked back in the places that I keep them, she set her skillet next to her purse.
“Can I look at the paintings again?”
“Sure. I want to look at them again, too.”
“Don’t you see them everyday?”
“I barely go in that room anymore. And they look different when you’re looking at them.”
“Maybe because you see better what you did wrong when another girl’s looking at the face of the girl that came before her.”
“Maybe. But you’re not my girl.”
“But you want me to be. And you’re going to try and kiss me. And if that works, you’re gonna try and get me to spend the night.”
“Assuming a lot, aren’t you?”
“Please. Come off it. Now you either admit that I’m right or you don’t get to try and kiss me. I never said I wasn’t going to kiss you, I just said I was expecting it. And seeing these paintings, seeing Jennifer, well, it gives me a better idea of what you’re like and what I can expect if I let you kiss me. I’m not saying no, I just want to have the right information. I hate bullshit. I’m a big girl. Daddy left me, remember? I know guys can be dicks. What I wanted to see was the first two parts of the painting, to see if what happens in the third and the epilogue is worth it.”
“I dunno yet. Kiss me. Let’s see.”
So we kissed. I want to say it was magical and perfect, but it wasn’t. I was nervous and our noses bumped and her teeth scraped my lip. I didn’t care. We kept kissing and got better at it. I tangled my fingers in her hair and pulled her mouth tighter over mine. The first kiss was nothing special, but the seventh kiss was the one that made me fall in love with her, knowing that I liked her more than she liked me, knowing that it was going to end badly, or soon, and that the lightness I felt in my head was going to last longer than the time we’d be in love. I didn’t care and kissed her an eighth time.
“I’m not sleeping with you tonight.”
“Okay. Can I walk you out and get you a cab?”
I wasn’t tired after she left. I stayed up thinking about the tarot reading she gave me, and my ex-girlfriends. I thought about school, how insecure it made me, when secretly I’d been cocky the whole four years, knowing that when it came down to really painting, the assholes in my classes were jealous, because they knew I could do something that they couldn’t.
I thought about how my anger and insecurity expressed itself toward my girlfriends—I thought of them all by name: Vicky, who I’d never loved, just wanted, and the one clumsy night in the painting union she’d slept with me on a drop cloth, never knowing I was a virgin. I thought of Lisa, who loved me, or thought she had, who made me coffee when I was studying and brownies after tests, whose tendernesses had turned me cruel. I thought about Bree with the mean voice, who I used to rid myself of all the traces of Lisa.
I thought about all the girls with rhyming names or stupid art school names like Butterfly or Gaz, girls who all bored me in the same way but I lusted after anyway. Those were the girls that saw me paint and wanted to break me, like a wild horse—the ones that in the morning challenged me to get rid of them. The ones that all seemed stunned when I did.
I thought of Jennifer, who I loved, but could not be faithful to, leaving in a tearful blitz and how still the door looked after she shut it. I never cried. Not that she left, not that I’d cheated, and not that I had never felt guilty.
I thought of Maddie, who I used to forget about Jennifer, except when I painted her, more times than just the three hanging on the wall. I thought about Claire, who told me one day I would know how it felt, and knew she wouldn’t be the one to make me feel it.
Then I thought about Angel Baby, and how she didn’t bullshit me, and wasn’t going to let me bullshit her, and wondered just what the hell I was looking for when I went to Never Too Latte at midnight on a Thursday anyway. She said I was passing through to the next phase, and maybe it was just coincidence, or maybe she was just good at reading people, or maybe there’s more to the cards than I gave credit to, but it really did feel like I was trying to break out of some kind of holding pattern, and I just didn’t know what it was or how to break it.
I felt guilty that night. I wish I could say that I cried, but I didn’t, that came later, but I did finally think about the pain that I’d caused Jennifer and how ugly my heart was when I cheated, and for a reason I couldn’t even remember. I felt bad about how shy Lisa was when we were together and how nasty I was when I dumped her. I felt bad for Maddie, who never understood the wrong I was doing to her when I used her body to have sex with Jennifer one last time. I understood what Claire had meant. She wasn’t talking about love that I’d feel. She meant how it felt to be out of control. I felt bad for myself, too, thinking of all these girls that had only tried to be nice to me, date me, love me, and that I just took from—I took sex, coffee, inspiration, study dates, laundry, joy. I’d had a lot of opportunities. I’d just been an asshole. But I had potential to be more.
Angel Baby and I dated for the rest of the semester. I knew she was going back to Georgia, and she knew I wasn’t going to go with her, and that I shouldn’t. We had three good months. I could tell you a lot of things that I finally paid attention to, a lot of things about those three months. I could tell you about her hands. They were unbelievably small, like a little kid’s hands, almost. There was her ridiculous way of eating. I still don’t know if everyone who’s from the South eats such bizarre things in such unconventional combinations, or if that’s just her.
There was the way that she argued with me about art criticism and annoyed me with her “No-I’M-right” attitude. There was the first night that we had sex, and the last one too. I cried when I saw her off at the airport and knew that trying to go with her would be forcing the issue. I learned a little bit about the tarot, because it really interested her. House of Mirth became our inside joke for when something was boring, or when we were just done arguing about whatever we were arguing about.
There were those moments, and a million others, that I’ve chronicled and archived and kept for myself in the private library of my own memories and paintings, all kinds of little moments, little things that opened me up and made me live up to my potential, most of the time. Which is not to say that I didn’t mess up a lot along the way, saying dickish things, getting jealous about the life she was going to have without me when she went back, trying to make her feel guilty about not wanting to compromise what she wanted to stay with me. I was learning. I still am.
Our last night we went to Never Too Latte for the last time, together, as a couple. We drank Americanos. She didn’t give me her iron skillet, but she did give me a small one of my own, so I could make cornbread, if I wanted to. I gave her a copy of House of Mirth, “just in case things get too exciting back home, you know, so you can calm things down and take it down a notch.”
She asked if I wanted her to read my cards again. I didn’t. But I did want to talk to her about that first reading, back when it was still cold outside, back when she was a stranger.
“So why you, Angel?”
“I’m your catalyst, I guess. I guess I was your Ace of Wands, but see, it wouldn’t have meant anything if you weren’t ready for it. So why me? I dunno, why not? Why anyone? We don’t decide stuff like that—that’s for God, or the cards, or fate, or whatever—chance, proximity, the will of the soul—who knows, really? I don’t know about you, but I’m just making it up as I go along. You get what you get for as long as you get it, and we got each other, for this little bit. It’s been good. But you know, you want to end it maybe wanting a little more, you know? You don’t want to go to Georgia, and I don’t want to stay here, so here’s where our roads split, right? But we’re both better off than we were, don’t you think?”
“Why were you out so late?”
“Trying to pick up an arrogant, lazy painter. You?”
“Hoping some girl with a funny accent would read my tarot cards. No really. Why were you out?”
“Because I had insomnia. And I didn’t have a copy of House of Mirth. I was hoping I could steal one from the bookshelf. Every coffee house has a copy of House of Mirth. Or Sense and Sensibility. Either one would have put me to sleep.”
“I came out because I couldn’t stand to be in my apartment.”
“And now you can, because you’re painting again.”
Driving to the airport takes forever when you’re going somewhere you want to be. You hit every red light, traffic is ridiculous, you get in the wrong lane, you can’t reach the parking ticket. Everything conspires to keep you from where you want to go for just one more second. When you’re driving away someone that you love and aren’t going to see again, everything speeds up. There’s not another car on the road, every light you pass through is green, the cab driver drank six Red Bulls and knows the spaghetti junction of the airport terminals like they’re old friends.
We checked her suitcase and I walked her as far as they’d let me. We had our last kiss in front of security and two dozen strangers. I let go of the last bits of pride, restraint, regrets. I let go of my sadness, too. It had no place between our lips. I felt my tears, hot and salty, on her cheeks and mine. I felt them surging up, like the ocean washing up seashells and taking back sand.
“Aw, baby, don’t cry. It’s ok. We’re just people. This isn’t a love story.”
She hugged me tight, slung her carry-on over her shoulder, and walked through the security checkpoint. She didn’t look back, and I didn’t expect her to; that was just her way. I thought about something I’d read in one of her many tarot books as I watched her back disappear: “We are like our represented cards, set adrift amongst the world, seeking our Final Outcomes.” I found her, and she found me, and we’d loved each other, flaws and all. That meant I could do it again. I could.
I had the cab drop me back off at Never Too Latte. I sat fiddling with the tarot deck before deciding to pull three cards for myself and see what they said: Hermit, Chariot, Justice. All of them right side up. The Hermit—introspection and clarity, shining a light on things that used to be confusing and mysterious. The Chariot—struggle, and a hard-won victory. Justice—balance through reason and adjustment. It was a reading that, thanks to her tutelage, I understood.
There’s a theory that time isn’t like beads on a thread, it’s not linear and fixed. I like that theory, because it means that all time exists in synchronicity. That every moment has already happened, is happening still, and will happen again. I like thinking that somewhere Angel Baby and I are strangers, somewhere else, we’re lovers, somewhere else she’s walking away from me—that all those moments are always happening.
I know that she won’t be back. Not to me or this city. There aren’t any peaches here; there aren’t fields of cotton or lazy accents. It’s always going to be too cold. I knew that when I got home, I was going to start sketching out another triptych. The first canvas would be Angel Baby in a barren landscape, wearing a robe, carrying a lantern. The second movement would be Angel Baby in a chariot, riding a wave of stars in the nighttime sky. The final scene would be her, blindfolded, on a throne. In one hand, an upright sword; in the other, the scales. There would be no epilogue. I would call it The Arcana of Angelique. There was one last thing to do for my final outcome. I flipped open my phone and scrolled down to Jennifer’s phone number, and hit Call.
“Hey, it’s me. Please don’t hang up. Can you meet me at Never Too Latte? I need to tell you something in person. Ok. Thanks. See you soon.”
I went to the bar and ordered an Americano. On a whim, I said, “Can you put half a shot of amaretto in that?” because maybe I need a little sweetness to temper the bitter.
Allie Marini Batts came here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and she’s ALL out of bubblegum. She is an alumna of New College of Florida, meaning she can explain deconstructionism, but cannot perform simple math. Her work has appeared in over 100 literary publications that her parents haven’t heard of. Her chapbook, “With This Ring” is a 2012 finalist for the Casey Shay Press annual Mary Ballard award. She lives in Tallahassee, because it has the best trees to climb, and conveniently, that’s where her husband lives, too. She is a research writer and is pursuing her MFA degree in Creative Writing through Antioch University Los Angeles….oh no! it’s getting away! To read more of her work and thoughts on “process,” visit www.kiddeternity.wordpress.com or to read her book reviews and literary blogging, visit Bookshelf Bombshells.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH ANGEL BABY:
“Angel Baby” caught our attention with its laid-back voice, superb sense of place, well-drawn characters–and charm. With a chance meeting between the two characters, author Allie Marini Batts has painted a time of change in the main character’s life and taken the reader along for the ride as the story unfolds in a natural and unassuming way.
From a craft aspect, this is first-person done in a way that we’re shown everything through the character’s eyes and experience instead of being told what he sees. Note the near absence of dialog tags, yet the voices are distinct enough that the reader knows who is speaking.
It was tempting when editing this to change it all to past tense instead of the mix of past and present tense in places, but on reflection, it felt right to break rules here. The occasional use of present tense pulls the reader closer to the main character, who’s caught up in the moment of their first meeting. And it’s interesting that we never hear his first name, usually one of our personal nits. Here the omission gives the piece more universality.