Paula could not find a lover because she looked like a toad. Her thin mouth made an unhappy equator across her moon-shaped face. Freckles dotted her wide nose and otherwise would have been cute, except they added to her unfortunate frogginess. She wanted a lover very much. She enjoyed kissing almost as much as she enjoyed drinking, and though she drank incessantly she had not been kissed in a very long time. Paula looked like a very sad toad.
Today her lips pulled down in an awful grimace, and she cried pollywog tears onto her new yellow dress. White lace ruffled at her arms and bosom. A lavender sash wrapped around her waist in a large bow. The lady at the garment store had tied it for her. The garment lady lent her lavender shoes, too, and Paula stood crying on the street corner in them. She resembled a sunflower wearing a violet, with a toad hiding between the petals.
Cars passed her and drivers stared, which made her weep in sobs and chokes. She thought of their destinations as happy, everyday places like the market, the post office, or grandmother’s house. She wanted to be one of them. She imagined herself in the next empty seat she saw, riding along to anywhere instead of crying pollywog tears in the garment lady’s lavender shoes.
Yesterday and for years before, Paula wore blue jeans. She didn’t like taking time to match shirts to skirts, choosing shoes and socks, only to do it all over again tomorrow. She felt comfortable in jeans and sneakers, and any old shirt. Blue jeans looked better as they got older, she thought. They hung well on her hips. Paula loved jeans.
Georgio did not.
Georgio worked in a record store for the discount. He wore his hair long and smelled like cologne and gasoline. He rode a nondescript motorcycle with only one seat. He had a few tattoos and drank almost as much as Paula, and never, ever, wore blue jeans.
A counter stood between them at the bar where they met. He complimented her hair, her freckles. That she resembled a toad did not seem to occur to him. She liked his cologne and told him so. She liked the way he smelled of gasoline, too, but did not tell him.
They drank scotch together. They drank dry scotch, complex scotch, smooth scotch, scotch neat, scotch on-the-rocks, with 7-Up and in rusty nails. They sipped it, shot it, ordered it, watched it poured, and drank it. They drank and drank, and many people began to worry about them until they saw that Paula and Georgio were inexhaustible, and decided to worry about themselves as the night dwindled, instead.
The scotch reddened their faces and their hands touched. They held hands. Paula was especially fond of holding hands. She especially liked holding Georgio’s hands, because Georgio had very large hands that looked like lily pads beneath her own. She laughed at Georgio’s jokes because he was funny, and looked into his eyes because they were pretty. Paula liked Georgio.
She said she liked blues records, and Georgio said anyone who knows anything likes blues records. Georgio said he liked ponytails with ribbons in them. Paula thought it very convenient because she had a ribbon around her ponytail, and told him so. Paula said she never went to church. Georgio said that was fine; once, he burned one down. Georgio said he loved green eyes. Paula had green eyes. She raised an eyebrow at him and smiled.
Georgio said pink was in fashion. Paula said it was too much. Georgio said he thought so, too. Paula said luxury cars were excessive. Georgio didn’t like them, either. Georgio scoffed at politics. Paula sniffed. Paula told Georgio about the corrosive properties of cola, and he stopped drinking it. Georgio said cell phones disgusted him. Paula, too. Paula had one anyway. Georgio, too. They called each other and talked on their phones, laughed, spilled their scotch. They smiled and looked at each other. They were the happiest couple in the bar. Paula croaked a delicate hiccup, and Georgio’s eyes flashed adoring blue. Then Georgio said:
“I hate girls who wear blue jeans all the time.”
Paula’s chest closed up and she sobered in a dizzying rush of confusion that left her disoriented. He had said he hated her. Her body stung with regret and self-revulsion. Georgio didn’t hate her! The denim burned against her legs, and her eyes welled.
“Me, too,” said Paula. “I hate blue jeans.”
Georgio’s hand softly caressed her chin. It seemed weighted to her chest. She pulled the long line of her mouth up at the corners and fooled him into thinking she felt happy. He raised his glass to hers and they celebrated youth, and young love. Paula’s stomach rolled guilt deep in her guts. He gazed on her and her eyes fluttered. Beneath the counter separating them her blue jeans huddled away from Georgio.
The whiskey went and closing time came. Georgio stood, arranging his pleather pants and grease-stained shirt, waiting for Paula to come. She hid her jeans beneath the counter and swallowed the lump in her throat. Perspiration like moss clung cold to her arms. Her smile waned as it grew wider.
She had to use the ladies’ room, she said. She’d meet him outside.
Georgio’s swagger looked and sounded like man as he left her. She watched him. Then she felt him waiting outside, imagined him taking her hand and leading her away from there. She detested her favorite blue jeans. An absurd desire to strip them off and go to him naked paddled among the reeds and pussy willows of her mind. Her agony frustrated her until the moon of her face beamed rosy and hot. She glowed from whiskey and Georgio, too.
Paula intended to leave through the back exit and create an excuse later, but what on earth would she say? If he did not hate her for wearing blue jeans, he would hate her for deserting him after a flawless night of scotch and shameless flirtation, for sure.
She felt him waiting. It hurt.
Fear attacked desire. The indecision annoyed her still more. Paula’s passions refused her anxieties any compromise, and her womanly will rebelled within her. She stood. All the other patrons had gone.
“Bar’s closed,” said the bartender.
Paula’s long, slow strides toward the door struck him stiff. He stopped wiping glasses to stare. Her thin red lips pursed in defiance and her eyes shone like sparkling emeralds. Dainty little freckles dotted her nose and cheekbones. Her jeans hung on her hips like the foil wrapper on a wine bottle. How had he failed to notice her before?
She went past the door and doorman, down the stairs. She stopped on the landing to remove her sneakers. She pushed down, stepped out of the blue jeans. She pulled away her shirt. With only her purse and underwear she went downstairs and out into the faltering light of streetlamps.
Georgio’s heart stopped. The drunken crowd outside sang and shouted. Had she not been looking right through him he would not have known her, blinded by skin and lace. She had an aura from the night mist glistening on her white neck and shoulders. He raised his open arms. She stood there. Then she went to him. She felt his calloused hands on her and thrilled. They kissed. Paula exploded inside. The street cheered. The last details Paula remembered were the cold, brisk air on her body and the scent of cologne and gasoline.
She woke up in his bed alone with the morning sun on her face. A foggy memory of his last kiss lingered.
“Goodbye — good morning,” he had said.
His apartment displayed very little. A dresser, a bed, a round table with two plain chairs and an ashtray with two smoked cigarettes in it. A tiny kitchen and a tiny bathroom. On the wall hung a portrait of Sandra Bernhard on Broadway. She sang in a negligee with her eyes closed and looked arguably irresistible.
Paula wanted breakfast. Barefoot on the kitchen tile, she found the refrigerator empty except for beer and a canister of imported Greek olives. She twisted it open and popped one in her mouth. With the joyful contentment of a poet she rolled it on her tongue, feeling its roundness against the inside of her lips. She sucked the oil from it and nibbled. With her front teeth she pared the flesh from the pit and chewed it, swallowing only when every vestige of firmness had been savored away. She walked naked to the garbage can and spat the seed into it with a smirk, turning on her heel.
The sun through the open drapes gladdened her. People walked by and saw her naked body. Realizing her clothes were still on the stairs at the bar, she laughed and laughed until she fell breathless onto the bed.
In the dresser she found a pair of grey wool slacks that fit her if she left the button undone and rolled the waist down. In the closet she found an assortment of grease-stained nylon shirts. She dressed, and to her indulgent delight discovered that the smell of cologne, gasoline, and man were on her like images on a photograph.
Barefoot and dressed in his clothes, Paula walked downtown. She passed an elderly couple holding hands and whistled a song, poorly. She kicked a pebble off the sidewalk with her toes. She sniffed the morning breeze and tasted the salt from the ocean. She clutched the collar of his shirt to her nose and smelled the Georgio mixed with Paula there. The morning seemed to last all day.
She had breakfast at the café, and afterward coffee ‘till noon. Then she had lunch, more coffee, and even borrowed a cigarette. It was her second cigarette. It tasted good with coffee.
Later as the sun proved the afternoon, she called Georgio at work and without effort convinced him to take her out. They’d go to the races, he told her. They’d bet small amounts on horses they would not speculate on. They’d have steak, and conversation, and most of all, scotch.
Paula felt unlike herself. She felt more like herself than ever before. She dove into her persona and discovered that, after all, she turned herself on.
She walked to the tailor’s.
A beautiful middle-aged lady embraced her there. She told Paula that yellow would bring out her eyes and go with her hair. She said there was a dress that, with some minor alterations, would grace her figure and accent her womanly curves. She showed it, and Paula agreed. She’d look really good. The price to finish it the same day was exorbitant. She paid.
When the dress was complete Paula needed shoes. The garment lady lent her lavender ones and gave her a lavender sash. She tied it for her in a pretty circle that clung to her middle in a dainty way, smiling at Paula’s shining face as the knot slipped tight and the ends fell into round, feminine loops. In the mirror she admired herself. She looked like a sunflower wearing violets.
Many people passed the garment lady’s storefront. Some of them eyed her with good things behind her eyes. Some had no eyes but for each other. Others seemed to have no eyes.
Paula stood at the street corner wondering what she would do until later, when a handsome pair of lovers walked by and paid her no attention. In the swamp of her welling disgust she watched them pass, and the sight of denim on a woman’s hips sickened her to death when the faint aroma of gasoline washed over her freckled nose a moment later.
Pollywog tears swam from her eyes. Her stubby fingers wiped her cheeks and felt clusters of tiny warts there. She clutched yellow fabric in her hands. The impulse to tear it away came with the memory of last night’s liberty and lust, making stillborn her infant self-love and stabbing shame deep into her thudding breast. Powerless against a flood of degradation she felt pressing from everywhere but within, she sank beneath the stagnant surface of her bog and withered. She shrank and receded inside as sorrow replaced all she knew once more, and the thought of herself made her shudder in revulsion. Her eyes narrowed and her teeth gnashed. Her nails cut into her palms as she wept.
Paula hated her yellow dress.
She hated that her yellow dress made her feel beautiful. Paula hated with the hate of a bride defiled. She hated with an innocent, poisonous purity. She hated with the hate of a prostitute placed on a pedestal to be adored.
Paula could not find a lover because she looked like a toad.
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