“Flash Art” by Stephanie Austin
My counselor, Liz Jones, unbuttoned the cuff on her powder blue button-up shirt and rolled her sleeves back to reveal forearms covered in identical scars that made two criss-cross patterns like my mother’s knitting. I wanted to make a comment about feng shui so badly my throat began to burn. Liz was a pleasantly round woman with fat, red hands whose rings look like they’re a pinch away from cutting off her circulation. Her blonde hair was shiny, bobbed, and kept. I once thought about cutting my hair into a bob. It’s an adult thing to do. Chop off your hair. Give it a new style. Make yourself fancy. See if your mind follows. Last weekend, I streaked my hair with blue.
“I used to cut,” she said.
“Cutting is one thing I never got into,” I said.
She pushed her sleeves back, rebuttoned her cuffs. “Thank God for that. We’d be in a hell of a lot more trouble if you did,” she said in her heavy Southern accent.
If I pulled nothing else from her, I was to remember she was from the South. She used to be a sorority girl. Have I ever been in a sorority? No? Well, it’s full of peer pressure and self-esteem traps. And it’s expensive. And it’s something you never really recover from. And I’d have to spend my life going to reunion lunches. And did I really want something like that? I told her I dropped out of college. She told me I should have taken my education more seriously.
Her office was tucked away on the second story of a reconstructed downtown building, the side of which was slowly absorbing the words Eastmen Clothing. She had the inside remodeled to look like a cozy apartment, like you were supposed to be reminded of grandmothers and gum drops. She sat on a large mauve chair that made her look like she was a miniature. I occupied the couch. Every Wednesday afternoon, I reached for the same throw pillow. It was blue and silk and covered in cold, silver beads that I massaged until they warmed under my fingers.
She had a jar of old pennies on the table next to her. “For luck,” she’d said. The bookshelf was stocked with self-help books. Co-dependence. Overeating. Surrounded by this room and all the desire for answers inside of it, I felt overwhelmed. A living thing swirled in my chest. Anxiety. Fear. Awkwardness. Ineptitude. Panic. I wanted to get up and run. I wanted to hit something until my hand broke. Instead, I popped a piece of Nicorette in my mouth.
She wrote something. “I’m proud of you, Emily. How long has it been?”
“Four days? I thought it had been a few months.”
“Oh. I slipped last Sunday.”
“I forgot that I had quit.”
“Is something triggering your need to smoke right now?”
I shrugged. “It’s just a habit,” I said.
I turned the pillow over, but it was warm from being pressed against my lap. I moved the pillow all the time, always looking for the cold side. My head started running negative thoughts like an old film reel. I saw my stepfather, not being asked to prom, and my lack of ability to like any job I’ve ever had. Normal people are out with their college degrees drinking margaritas at happy hours. Occupying my anxiety is hour by hour, a full time job in itself.
“You have to start identifying triggers.” She wrote something on her pad. “Tell me about community service.”
I situate the Nicorette behind my gums on the left side of my mouth and wait for the area to numb up.
“It’s a nightmare,” I said.
“My narcissistic mother was a nightmare,” she said. “You’re cooking food for homeless people.”
“I’ve never actually cooked anything over there.”
Liz raised her eyebrow.
“I’m no innocent person, but there are people there who committed serious crimes,” I said. “But the guy who runs the place is cute, so at least I have something to look at while I’m slinging loaves of bread.”
That was supposed to be a joke. Not really. I mean, it was a joke but it can also be real. Her cell rang. She put one shiny nail to her lips. “Hi,” she said seductively, smiling into the phone. I knew it was a man on the other end. “Can you hold one moment?”
She put the phone to her chest and leaned over to me, motioning me to meet her in the space between us. “I have to take this.” She twirled her finger in the air and rolled her eyes. “In the meantime, think about the men you’ve chosen and how you got involved in your mess because of them, ok?”
And then, as if to make sure I totally got was she was saying, she mouthed crazy and pointed to the phone. I leaned my head back, looked at the crown molding on the ceiling and tried to make my mind go blank. The harder you try not to think, the more you think. Thinking is where you make fear. Fear is where you start blowing yourself up. Every time I drink or do drugs, I fall in love. Until the next morning when I wake up and think: there is no such thing as love. We’re all just getting by until we can’t anymore.
“So sorry about that,” she said, referring to her caller, when she came back. She took in a breath. “Talk to me about the Food Center again. Give me some details.”
I began. “The walls are the color of mustard. There’s a girl that smells like Vienna sausages. The lines in the parking lot have faded, so no one knows where to park. Someone thought it was a good idea to paint the brick building white. I think mold is growing in the carpet in the main dining area. Jesus, who puts carpet in a dining area? It’s this horrid green color that looks like an infection. Everything is damp. It’s like an old basement.”
She’d been staring outside the window at a bird on the ledge. It looked at her through the glass, then flew off. She turned to me.
“Are you sleeping with this guy?”
“I’m not sleeping with him,” I said.
She jotted something else down. Then sighed. “You’re here because you’re addicted to love,” she said, “and now you’re lovesick. Love addiction is the worst kind of addiction. It’s the hardest to overcome.”
I think about the last conversation I had with my public defender. Judges like remorse, she’d said.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Liz.
I waited for her to write that. Patient is sorry. Patient is very fucking sorry.
Liz smiled at me like I was an insufferable child. “Honey, you never have to apologize to me.”
Outside, it was still light. It was late September, and summer was trying to leave, but the humidity—the kind that didn’t give a crap about anyone but itself—seemed desperate to hang on.
“Tell me,” she said. “This guy. What’s his story?”
Everyone at the Flagstaff Food Center had a story. Chet, who’s usually on dish duty, had taken his cousin’s car, but it was a joke, and his aunt and uncle were assholes, and cops were dicks, and he only likes to smoke pot sometimes, and now he has a record.
During the night-time kitchen floor mopping, I worked with a guy who told me about his wife he didn’t want to live with anymore, which meant cops came over a lot. Here, he said, look at my head. See that scar? My wife. She hit me with a broken bottle.
If I had to move anything heavy, I’d ask Ryan. Three years ago, he drove onto a sidewalk when he was drunk and hit a girl, put her in the hospital, took away her legs. His wife came in with their daughter some afternoons and sat in the back room—the kid’s room, a lot of purple and red—and they colored in her coloring books until it was time for him to leave.
Jacob, a short guy who I had laundry duty with on a regular basis, had a girlfriend whose family hated his guts. I get a lot of DUIs, he said. Maybe that’s why they don’t like you, I said. I know that’s why they don’t like me, he said.
Jim Taylor was my favorite. We peeled potatoes together. He was a great big, bald man shaped like a wine barrel with tattoos on his neck and face and arms. I watched the colors on his forearm pop every time he thrust the peeler; the green eye of the dragon on his elbow winked and the orange-red fire coming out of its nostrils hissed at me every two seconds. He was old enough to be my father.
His friend had a tattoo shop in Los Angeles, where Jim used to live. The tattoos were all custom, all unreproduceable. I have one, a bumble bee on my left hip. It was flash art, and it was eye level when I walked into the shop with my boyfriend at the time, and it was instant gratification. Everyone in the world who likes bees probably has one just like it.
Liz interrupted me. “You haven’t told me about the guy you like,” she said.
“I don’t like him. He’s just cute,” I said.
Brian was the manager. He signed the timesheets that I turn in to my probation officer. He was finishing up a degree in hotel and restaurant management at the university, which put him a year younger than me. He’s nice, and people respond to him. But I don’t even know his last name. He walked me around the Food Center the first day and said hello to everyone and everyone said hello back. That kind of true sincerity is hard to find. I watched him smile and make light-hearted small talk and tried to figure out a way to absorb some of his goodness. I wanted to tap on his shoulder, put my mouth on his mouth, and drink it all in.
Here’s the kitchen, Brian said. Here’s the ladies room. Here’s where we put the bread. Here’s where we put the day old pastries. Here’s the freezer. Here are the big cans of government issued stew.
Where do you keep the drugs? I asked.
Brian smiled. I liked that he smiled because I like guys who think I’m funny. As he walked away, he lifted an arm and swatted a banner that read “Celebrating 50 Years of Serving Flagstaff’s Most Valuable Community”.
Brian whistled “Fire and Rain” sometimes when Jim was around, and Jim would roll his eyes but smile, which I loved. Brian had a sense of humor. He made people laugh. He was a person who could tease someone like Jim and get away with it. In prison, Jim was in a white-only gang.
You have to have people in prison, Jim said and left it there.
As mealtimes approached, the old kitchen moved like a musical number. There’s a surprising number of career criminals who know all the words to Top 40 pop songs. Jim always wore an off-white apron with a red drawing of a happy fat chef on the front. It said: I’m in the kitchen with Dinah. It was stained orange, like someone had spent a few hours one day rubbing in those little barbeque packets you get from McDonald’s.
You look like a butcher, I told him.
He didn’t do a very good job of pretending he wasn’t flattered.
“Jim, Brian, Jacob. Those are men’s names,” Liz interrupted again, checking off something in her notepad. “Do you have any girlfriends there?”
Why are you writing the names down? I wanted to ask. Instead I said, “Not many girls do service there. That’s the business.”
R.T.’s name rolled in my head like an angry mob, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about speaking it out loud. I felt simultaneously turned on and disgusted. He smelled like the outside heat, metallic and overdone. He came on just a little after me, walked with this super ridiculous sense of entitlement. Came late. Left early. His PO was always in looking for him. But he was tall and he flirted with me and sometimes that’s enough to decide it’s OK to let someone fuck you in the men’s bathroom when everyone else left for lunch. Jim doesn’t like R.T. because Jim is resentful of his old life, and since I liked and was starting to respect Jim as a person, I was pretty conflicted about the whole thing.
R.T. had shoulders like my ex-boyfriend’s shoulders, a little too big for his body, but attractive anyway. He’ll fit himself by the time he’s in his 30s. He has acne scarring along his jaw line and scraggly facial hair that always needed tending, but his eyes, green, were nice, and he had big hands, also nice, and he smoked. When we were finished, he’d pull up his pants and fix his hair in mirror and not look at me when he said to give it a few minutes before I followed him out. He was dirty and familiar and comforting, and I craved his absolute lack of concern and interest in me. If R.T. was in my head, then I wasn’t in my head.
“No,” I said to Liz. “Just those guys.”
Her phone rang a second time. She picked it up off the table and looked at it like she’d never seen it before. “Oh,” she said, then rolled her eyes again. “I have to take this. I’m sorry—I think he’s suicidal.”
I’ve never been good at confrontation, at telling people what I want or don’t want. I want to pay for my own fucked up shit. Not this guy on the phone’s fucked up shit.
Last Sunday, after the first bag of potatoes were peeled and washed, Jim took a knife and cut open the second. I put a piece of Nicorette in my mouth.
Do you have kids? Jim asked, taking a potato and giving it to me.
Me? No. I’m 22. What would I do with kids?
I thought about the condom in my back pocket, about the secret R.T. and I shared every day, about the overwhelming desire to feel consumed by another person, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes because that is long enough to take a break from your own head for awhile.
I have two girls, Jim said. They live in California with their mom and her husband.
Is he nice? I asked.
He’s a good guy. He’s better for them than me, I think.
I had a stepdad. He wasn’t better for anyone.
Jim looked at me briefly, and then picked up another potato.
What do you do for work? He wiped his forehead.
I’m between gigs, I said, setting the naked potato in the stack near the sink.
Drugs? he asked.
My next potato had eyes. I had to dig in and gouge them out, dropping the chunks on the floor. We’d sweep later.
It’s a horrible story, I said.
Of course it is, he said.
Was there a man involved? he asked.
There was always a man involved, I said. Always.
R.T. came into the kitchen looking for me. It was 12:30. We were past due.
You shouldn’t say yes to every stupid guy you meet, he said.
I used the potato peeler to point through the wall out to where I thought the mall might be. I shouldn’t buy expensive shit at the mall, either, but I lack self-control. A layer of potato skin fell off the peeler and landed on the floor. Jim went at a new potato like it was the end of the world. I hit people, he said. That’s why I’m here.
What about self-defense? You need that, I said.
He tapped the potato peeler against his temple and it made a rattling sound. This is how you defend yourself, he said. You’ll learn that.
So now you don’t hit people, I said.
Now I count backwards, he said and winked.
He finished a potato and picked up a new one.
Did you know I know the secret to life? he asked.
I grinned. No, I said.
Patience. Humbleness, he said.
R.T. knocked some clean silverware on the ground. Everyone turned and looked at the clatter. He bent over, picked the forks and knives up, put them back on the counter, and checked his watch. I tongued the Nicorette out from behind my molar and tried to squeeze more peppery drug out of it. It was dead, so I spit it into a napkin and tossed it in the trash. Jim wore jeans that had spent the majority of their life under a car hood. I could see the places where he casually wiped a tool across his knee. A third peeler was sitting out and R.T. came over, picked it up, and tried to peel a potato with the wrong end.
I’m having trouble, R.T. said, ignoring Jim and looking at me.
You can’t get any skin off because you’re not using your thing the right way, I said by demonstrating the proper way to peel and trying to deflect the intense energy he was giving off.
Amazing, he said. You’re really good at that.
Potato peeling? It runs in my family. Generations and generations, I said. See this? Old world training right here.
Another potato layer landed on my shoe; I shook it off. I blew on the exposed metal like I was cleaning an old-fashioned watch.
I like the way you do that, he said, staring at me.
Jim had slowed down his peeling.
Don’t you have something else to do, man? Jim asked.
R.T. ignored him and picked up another potato even though the other one wasn’t done. Jim reached out and snatched the peeler away and slammed it on counter. R.T. looked hard for a moment, but in that moment he seemed to understand something, specifically, that Jim was bigger than him.
I’m going to the bathroom, R.T. said.
That guy is a piece of shit, Jim said, peeling again fast. He was peeling so hard he slipped and peeled the side of his finger.
Fuck, he yelled and then hurled the potato across the room. It hit the farthest wall with a sick, dead splat. At the sudden violence, I flinched. It was habit. I put my hands up in front of my face to protect it. Everyone stopped. Brian rushed in, but Jim acted like he didn’t notice. He picked up another potato and went right back to it like nothing had happened.
I’ll be back, I told him.
Where are you going? Jim asked.
To the bathroom, I said hesitantly.
Jim shook his head and turned his attention back to the potatoes. I passed Brian on my way out of the kitchen and didn’t look at him. When we were finished in the bathroom, R.T. didn’t even say anything about waiting, just opened the door and walked out while I was pulling on my shirt. I reached out and tried to close myself back in, and figured Jim, who’d been lingering in the hall with several loafs of bread probably saw us.
After community service, R.T. leaned against my car like a greaser from 1952. He wobbled toward me.
Let’s get shitty somewhere, he said. He reached out and put his hand in my hair.
I think you already got shitty somewhere, I said. Also, I’m not allowed to drink.
He shrugged, like it was no big deal and rules weren’t really rules, rather things to get past. I think the drug test my PO held over me was some sort of bullshit “help your own self” deal. But I haven’t had a drink in months.
He lit a cigarette and offered me one. And I didn’t think. I just took it because it was right in front of me. I sucked in on it and felt lightheaded and slightly delirious. The light on both sides of me seemed to get smaller and more manageable. R.T. kissed me, and he tasted like whiskey, old cigarettes, and poor choices. He wanted me again, and that was powerful. My brain ate it up, sent pleasant-filled chemicals into my vital organs, and I felt calm.
He deftly reached behind me and clasped my wrists together, then pushed me against my car. I struggled, only because I could see the Food Center lights out of the corner of my eye and worried Brian would see. I thought about the night I was arrested. I remembered being pushed against the police car, my ex-boyfriend on the ground with a cop straddling him to cuff him. My cop put me in the backseat of the car, his hand on my head very warm. There was a breeze then, a shift in the air, and the space between R.T. and me got bigger.
The street light above us flickered. Jim Taylor had pulled R.T. off me and was holding him by the shirt collar, fist balled up behind him, quivering, ready, but there was that hesitation, Jim was going to the place where he was supposed to go, the counting backward place. I saw him putting into practice all he’d learned in his rehabilitation.
Stay away from her, Jim told R.T. and let him go.
Patience, humbleness. All that works. We’re all allowed to be saved. I relaxed, breathed out.
Why? So you can fuck her? Fuck you, old man, R.T. yelled.
My face was hot; my hands were shaking.
Then it was over. There was a sound, flesh into cheek like an animal getting caught under a tire, and there was motion, R.T.’s body on the ground; Jim still holding his collar, still swinging. R.T. took it quietly. Maybe he was screaming in his head, asking someone unseen to help him, begging someone unseen to make it stop, feeling pathetic and weak for letting it happen again.
Brian, who had also run out, pulled Jim off R.T., and R.T. stood up quickly like he was in a fight and the ref was about to call him out. Jim shook Brian off, and started pacing and swearing, saying goddamn, goddamn, goddamn.
R.T. jogged off, like he’d been walking and tripped and had to move quickly to make it look like it’d been intentional.
Brian turned to Jim, then me, then back to Jim. He reached out for me, but I waved him off. I was fine. Fine. Jim sat on the curb and put his head in his hands. I touched my fingers to my lip and they came away watery and bloody. I didn’t remember cutting my lip. I wasn’t sure if R.T. had done it, or if I had done it to myself. Somewhere in the shuffle, I’d dropped the cigarette. I found it next to the tire of my car; it was still lit. I picked it up and finished it.
When Liz got off the phone, I told her about the cigarette, about how a guy handed it to me.
“Which guy? The one you like?”
I was losing patience with her. “I didn’t say I liked him.”
“OK, sorry. Technicality. The one you said was cute?”
“No, not him. Different guy.”
“A stranger?” She again looked at her notes. “New guy?”
“No, just a guy. I don’t know. A smoker. He gave me a cigarette.”
I took a deep breath, tried to find calm. It’s hard when there’s nothing to attach it to, when you only have yourself.
“And you smoked it?” she asked.
“Because it was there.”
“Not good enough.”
“Because I wanted it.”
“Because, honestly, it makes me feel good, and I like feeling good,” I said, almost angrily. “I have a right to feel good. I don’t feel good very often.”
I sat there with my arms crossed over the pillow, sulking. My fingers moved from one cold bead to the next, over and over, the repeated motion still soothing, still the only thing I knew to do, but the pillow was making my legs sweaty. It was time to flip it again. Her accent and her shiny nails and her whole office was making me crazy. Her self-help books and her phone, open, on her desk, like she was so needed, like she was such a fucking lifeline.
Liz folded her hands over her stomach. She leaned back in her large chair and closed her eyes. She sighed. “I smoked for 22 years, and I looked good smoking.” She laughed at herself. She laughed so much I wanted to slap her across the face and tell her she was being hysterical. “If the world was ending tomorrow, I’d go buy myself a pack of cigarettes and smoke them.”
“Yes, exactly,” I said, sitting up. “It’s amazing, right? It makes me happy, and I shouldn’t have to apologize for it.”
“But I quit. Do you know why? Because it’s filthy. It’s a disgusting, weak habit. It’s an addiction.” She stared, hard, like this wasn’t just some dumb self-congratulatory story about herself, rather some big grand finale of wisdom. “I bought a carton of cigarettes. I rented a hotel room for the weekend and smoked the entire carton. I didn’t eat. I drank water from the faucet. I stayed in that hotel room for two days and smoked my brains out. And, then boom. The weekend was over. I was done. When I checked out, I didn’t smoke anymore. Haven’t had a cigarette in five years.” She patted her belly. “Now I just eat too much.” She laughed again. “You have to want to quit.”
I spit the old Nicorette out in an old tissue I had in my pocket and put a new piece in.
“You think you want to quit,” she continued, “but you’re just moving the mud.”
She leaned forward as though she wanted to tell me a secret, but the over timer went off. Our session was over. I pulled my checkbook out of my purse.
“Big plans this weekend?” Liz asked as she accepted the check, which I hoped would clear.
“I’ll be at the Food Center,” I said. “Like always.”
My stomach rumbled, which reminded me to be hungry. My mouth tasted like old blood, like the rust-colored pennies turning green in that jar. I unfolded my arms and removed the warm pillow, which let my legs find cool space and breathe. Relief.