Wet Paint

Rebekah Matthews

I didn’t have a date to bring to my high school reunion, and my new meds had made me fat, but I made several other improvements in preparation: I asked for a title change at work that included the word “senior” in it; I bought a new black dress and new heels, the ones with the red bottoms. I even re-modeled my kitchen, and took a bunch of pictures on my phone. I was pretty sure I could impress people, at least initially, though I was less sure I could avoid embarrassing myself, later, with the open bar. Maybe if I was scared enough of what could happen, I thought, I’d be okay. 

***

When I got to the reunion, I forgot about so much, almost immediately. “Lindsaylou, Lindsaylou Who,” someone was calling to me, an old pet name, and my whole body buzzed with a familiar kind of warmth. It was my high school girlfriend, Freda, bounding towards me. The room changed to me. It got quieter. She was introducing me to her husband, an okay-looking man with a full head of hair. Seeing me was really the only reason she came, she told me, grabbing both my arms. I didn’t care if it was a lie, though I was strangely inclined to believe her. She told me I should sit at her table, and I did. 

During dinner, Freda talked about her children, obviously annoyed by them and in love with them: they were terrible at soccer, stood awkward and frozen in the field, but they refused to quit; they kept buying hamsters then losing them in the heating vents; they took selfies of themselves wearing Freda’s lipstick, so badly applied, here were the pictures. Two former math nerds sat with us, along with their wives. All of us were quiet, relieved we didn’t have to talk very much, entertained by Freda, who had always thrived on attention. Even her husband listened to her like we did, absorbed, as if he hadn’t already heard her story, countless times, about the overflowing toilet.

I finished my first glass of wine. Freda had stopped dying her hair black—it was a mousy brown now, with some gray—and she looked tired, but she still spoke in the rushed, emphatic sentences that had once hooked me and apparently still did. And there was a way she still scratched at her nose, a nervous tic, her finger exploring until she almost picked it before catching herself. I had teased her about that, I remembered.

Then dinner was over, the servers clearing away our plates, and Freda apologized for monopolizing the conversation. People began migrating, gradually, towards the bar. I willed myself to stay seated. I was still next to Freda, after all. One of the math nerds asked me—trying to be polite, funny—if I still wrote poems like I had in high school. I made a face. No way, I told him. They were so sad, the math nerd remembered. “No, they weren’t sad!” Freda said. “They were beautiful.” I joked our English teacher was too fond of Sylvia Plath, it had been a bad influence on me. The math nerd laughed, he hated that English teacher. 

Freda’s husband was starting to get bored, I noticed, his leg jumping up and down under the table, and I sensed Freda would need to leave soon. I should leave right after her, or maybe even before her, I thought. I drank another glass of wine as I tried to figure out how to best say goodbye, what excuse would be accepted, when I caught Freda staring at me. “What?” I asked.

“Shall I walk you to your car?” Freda asked me.

“Yes, please,” I said.

“Just you and me!” she said, hooking my arm. 

It was exactly like the time she had first kissed me when we were 16. She knew before I did, pushing me gently along, protecting something in me.  

***

Under a streetlight we sat on the hood of my car and shared our memories with each other like drugs. Freda remembered the mixtape I had made her with the angry girl bands who shouted most of their lyrics. “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood!” Freda sang, tentative at first. A former athlete passed us, walking with his wife to their car; he gave us a dirty look, which emboldened Freda, and she shouted louder, “I’VE GOT NEWS FOR YOU! SHE IS!”

“This is just like homecoming week,” I said. “Those football players hated you.”

“They did,” Freda said, pleased with herself. We were cold. She buttoned up her coat one button more, covering her chin. She said my shoes were pretty.

Our relationship had been good but dramatic. Whenever I had been upset or stressed, I wouldn’t go to school, stayed in bed, avoided her calls. Our biggest fights had been about her thinking she was a furry, which meant she felt like she had the spirit of some kind of specific breed of wolf. She started wearing a collar and once told me she wanted me to put her in my parents’ dog’s cage before we had sex. I did not show up to school for three days after that.

“Remember when we fought about you wearing that wolf tail on the bus?” I asked.

“I think so?” Freda said, her voice getting higher, solicitous. “What happened?”

“I said you should wear it under your coat but you insisted on pinning it to your jacket. The outside of your jacket. So everyone else saw.”

“Authenticity,” Freda nodded. “Wolves don’t hide their tails under their jackets.”

“Wolves don’t wear jackets!” 

Freda’s phone buzzed. Her husband was texting her, asking if she was going to come back inside soon. She rolled her eyes at me and put the phone back in her pocket. I asked her if she did the furry stuff with her husband, and she said yes, for a while, before they had kids. Now they were too tired to have regular sex, much less sex with costumes and props. “Did you totally hate all that stuff?” Freda asked me.

“I didn’t hate all of it,” I said. “When you would wag your butt, I liked that.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I thought that was cute.”

“Do you promise?”

I promised, and Freda practically jumped off the car. She ducked her head, arched her back, and wagged her butt. When she turned back to me, her whole face had changed, like she wasn’t tired any more, like she was glowing on the inside, and something moved in me.

“Is it okay if I smoke?” I asked her, only a little self-conscious I had never gotten around to quitting like she likely had long ago. 

I talked while I smoked, my hands shaking. “It’s my secret,” I said, and when she looked excited, I added, “But not like a fun one.” Last month I had been in the psych ward for a few days, I told her. I hadn’t really told anyone yet. Everyone at work thought I was out sick with food poisoning. Freda watched me smoke and I tried to talk faster. I took more sleeping pills than I should have, I explained, I went to the hospital to make sure I was okay, then they sent me to a psych ward and they wouldn’t let me out. “It was such a weird place,” I said, a worse kind of remembering. “You couldn’t have shoelaces, or strings in your sweatshirt, or anything, because they thought you might hang yourself. The doctors thought you were lying about everything. You had to sleep in a room with another crazy person, with the door kept open, so the nurses could walk by and check on you.”

“That sounds scary,” Freda said. 

“I am glad to be out of there,” I said. “But now I wonder if I am a crazy person.”

“A crazy person?” Freda repeats. “I don’t know about that. You are Lindsaylou Who. To me, anyway.”

It was exactly what I had hoped to hear from her, I had known as soon as I had started confessing to her. But I felt guilty, because, despite what she had said, she looked worried.

“I didn’t want to kill myself,” I said truthfully. “I just wanted to not be alive for a while. Just for a couple days. I just wanted to sleep for a couple of days.”

“You were like that when we were together,” Freda said, slowly, remembering. “I used to think of you like a bear. Like how I was a wolf. You were a bear.”

What?” I asked, exploding in laughter and relief.

“Bears need to hibernate!” she said. “Sometimes you needed to hibernate, too. That’s why you slept so much when you got sad.”

“Freda,” I said. I was overwhelmed. I hugged her, and we held on for a while. She smelled different now, different perfume. Her husband was texting again, and I pulled away, stepped on my cigarette. We said goodbye, shared another quick hug. I got into my car, watching her walk away. She waved at me, and then she wagged her butt again. I laughed as I started the car.

At dinner we had promised we’d stay in touch. Driving back to the hotel, the city lights appeared on the horizon, blurry in their distance, becoming sharper with each mile, and I tried to think of something, anything, to text her. But all I came up with were our old memories, which were starting to turn back into what they had been before tonight: a few moments in the past that didn’t matter very much anymore.

***

Back home, a few days later, I went to the mall and bought myself a teddy bear. His fur was reddish brown, the same shade as my hair. I planned to display him in the living room—he could sit on the sofa, I thought; his striped purple bow tie would go nicely with the gray tones in the room—but every day I chickened out. I didn’t know what would happen if a friend or date came back to my place and sat down on the couch next to him. Maybe nobody would notice him or ask about him. But maybe they would. There were a lot of things I still didn’t know how to explain.

But on some nights, when I didn’t drink, when my day wasn’t too bad, I took the bear out of the closet and I put him next to me in bed while I tried to fall asleep without any pills.

I held him in my arms and I remembered the night Freda had first told me she was a furry. We were in her room, in her bed, making out, and she pulled away from me. In the dark she shared her secret with me. I freaked out, sat up, turned on the lights. I tried to listen to her as she explained what being a furry meant to her, what it might mean for our relationship, but my heart was pounding, panic filling my stomach.

“You’re saying I’m in love with a wolf?” I asked. I got out of her bed and I sat on the floor. I put my head in my hands. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” I said. “You’re not an animal. You’re a girl. This other stuff, it isn’t the person I know.”

Freda sat down next to me on the floor.

“There’s this painting I have of you in my head,” I said, beginning to cry. “It’s the most beautiful painting.”

“What does it look like?” she asked.

I closed my eyes. “It’s like one of those paintings where the shapes are kind of fuzzy. But bright colors. Your toenails you paint that bubblegum pink color. The black hairs you leave on the pillows. My mom holding my report card, happy because you’re a good influence on me.” I swallowed, I wanted to stop crying. “You showing me the big poster you made to protest all the money going to the football team. Your hands that I want inside of me all of the time.” I opened my eyes. Freda was picking at her nose. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know you’re not a painting.” 

“It’s okay,” Freda said. Her face was light and open. She leaned against me. “So maybe just make the painting a little bigger,” she suggested, and she really believed it could be as easy as that.

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Rebekah Matthews lives in Boston. Her stories have appeared in such publications as Wigleaf, Barrelhouse, and Maudlin House. Her novella, Hero Worship, was published by Vagabondage Press. Her website is http://rebekahmatthews.com and she tweets at @9dollarcandle