The Box


Getting her in the box was one thing. Keeping her there was another. It took all his expertise, all his care. She’d said they should do more things together, so he wrote a running program (she loved to run) and in the program, unlike reality, he was the better runner. Well, faster. She still had better form. He’d give her that.

—I love it when we run together, she said when they turned off the path and emerged at the railway crossing. Over the unseen shore the sun was a yellow ooze. Wily’s juice bar was across the street; the neon pineapple winked in the dusk. She’d order a kiwi lime frappe. He’d have an iced mocha. Her chest heaved and her face was flushed, smiling at him. Her hands were on her hips, her nipples erect. She was panting.

—You really push me, she said. It’s all I can do to keep up with you.

He said, Really? Keep up with me? You were so far behind that I thought I’d lost you at one point. What were you doing, going for beer?

For a moment she looked aggrieved. An arch, nervous look came over her, something that he hadn’t written in, and his fingers were a blur over the console as he tried to correct it. She scared him sometimes, even now.

—Just kidding, he said. You kept up.

—Pretty much, she said. Right?

—Right. And you’ve got great form. I’ll give you that.

Confusion darkened her brow. Her head was tilted at an odd angle. His hands froze over the console; what was it? She could be hard to read, sometimes. Even now.

—How could you tell? she said. You were ahead of me most of the time.

In the dark, Adam smiled and shook his head. He’d walked right into that one. He stagily wiggled his fingers (like an orchestra conductor, he thought, or a surgeon) and began to type, sparing the briefest of glances across at the girl lying in the dark. Wires waved like tentacles from her head, flowing into the box.

—Not all the time, Lu. Once or twice there, I slowed down enough to let you pass, and you looked good. Poetry in motion, love, and best ass in the business, by the way.

Her blue eyes cleared. She liked it when he called her love. It was a new thing with him, a British mannerism she found sexy. She beamed. Took a step closer. He could smell her shampoo (verbena). Sweat pooled at her throat, and he could taste it at the back of his eyeballs and it tasted like tears.

Smells and tastes were a bitch to code.


~

Lucy remembered the impact. They had been fighting. She was at the wheel, so technically it was her fault but she would have been given (or taken) the blame even if Adam had been driving. But this time he wasn’t. It was her. This would not make her cry.

At first it was always dark. She did things in the dark. She was running, it seemed, which she liked. Or fucking. The dark was sexy. She was naked. But she wanted to see the ocean. It was always just around the corner. She could hear it, almost smell the damp sand and sweet kelpy rock pools. But she couldn’t see it. It made her tired.

The dark lifted a little and they were together again. He seemed different, a changed man. They did more things together now. Like they ran together, which was sweet of him but weird; she had always liked to run alone. And he talked a lot more, much of which sounded to Lucy like noise, like the whisper of a seashell.


~

They were sitting at a booth in Wily’s. Outside the ocean roared. She was talking about her work, about the boss who bullied her because she was hot for her. Everyone was hot for Lucy, even her boss, Kate, who was married to Katie, at home raising their second child. Kate and Katie had been to their place for dinner. Kate’s hungry eyes had followed Lucy around their small kitchen, and by the end of the night, Katie was very drunk.

Adam wrung his hands over the keyboard, remembering. He shook his head and reached for the Japanese canned coffee on his desk. A colleague had told him how to pronounce it—kan kohi. The little apartment was in darkness. Outside the freeway roared. Was it day or night? He had one cupboard filled with kan kohi and another filled with cans of Bacardi rum and cola. When his supplies ran out he ordered more and the boxes arrived at the front door to their apartment. At the beginning it was easy to tell whether it was Bacardi time or coffee time. But somewhere along the line he got the cans mixed up and started drinking rum in the day and coffee at night. It didn’t matter. The canned coffee tasted like Cuba Libre now and vice versa. The mind was a strange thing.

Lucy looked tired. She had hot red rings under her eyes, and her lips were cracked. In the booth, Adam pointed as politely as he could to the blood oozing from her ear.

—I’ll be right back, she said, getting up to go to the rest room. After she was gone, Adam brushed shards of glass off the seat. When she came back, she’d freshened up some. Lucy wrote publicity copy for a cable TV station. He put a hand on her thigh while he talked.

—That promotion I was telling you, he said. Is in the bag. Pretty much. Then you can quit and finish your dissertation. Would you like that?

Adam worked for an engineering firm in the Valley. Lucy leaned against him in the dark. The table in front of them was strewn with kan kohi and crunched cans of Bacardi and cola. Adam took a swig. In the beginning he had ordered cases of Snapple for Lucy. But when the Snapple ran out he didn’t order that any more. One less cupboard to worry about.

—I’d like that, she said. I love you.

Before he could tell her he loved her too, a swarm of her friends pushed through the front door of the bar, letting in a gust of cold sea air. Lucy sat up straighter in her chair, looked past her friends and out through the closing door of the cafe. Adam felt his brow furrow. He hadn’t written her friends in. Why would he? He made an angry right-to-left swipe across the bottom of the console and the friends hesitated and a few of them turned around and went back, but some of the others kept coming. They mobbed the booth and squeezed in around Adam and Lucy, reaching for the cans of rum and passing them round. One of her friends started talking about film theory and then someone chimed in about individualism and modernity and then the split subject came up and the mind-body problem, and Adam, who was an engineer and worked for a firm in the Valley designing bus stations, and who had no idea of who Fassbinder was, or Deleuze or Horkheimer, huddled over the console in the dark with a crumpled can of rum between his naked thighs, and flicked at the console with the back of a bitten fingernail. Across the room at the center of a swirling system of colored lights and buttons, the box hummed and Lucy lay there with her wild mane of wires and behind her closed eyelids, pulsed worlds within worlds.

He’d created them all.


~

Her friends seemed different somehow. She felt cut off from them since she and Adam had decided it would be better for her to drop out and get a job. They needed money to pay for the wedding and after that, Adam had been sure she would go back. But Lucy didn’t know anymore. The wedding, a modest affair in the Gaslight district (all the hotels at the beach had been too expensive) had been four years ago. Her friends from school talked over her, as if she wasn’t there, yet she felt exposed somehow. Naked. Her flesh tingled and she tried to cover herself. She tried to follow their arguments, found she couldn’t place some of the papers they referenced or films they’d seen. They’d been her friends forever, some of them since high school and now here they were, with their beards and thrift store glasses and dog-eared books on Horkheimer they pulled from the pockets of stained corduroy jackets. Adam loved them too, he told her. So why was he pulling away, and trying to pull her away too? He had her under both arms and was pulling her out of the wreck and her friends recoiled in horror, hugged each other and wept. Lucy waved back tentatively, glancing up at Adam’s unshaven chin, his blistering neck.

Now they were alone again at the table and his hand was hot and damp on her thigh. She gently removed it, got up and weaved through the joint to the restroom. She looked like hell. Maybe that was why her friends had gone. She lifted her head to the ceiling to stop her nose bleeding (it bled all the time these days) and, as a distraction, she tried to decipher the bleeding cracks on the ceiling.

I love you, the cracks read.

The blood seeped from the cracks and dripped down onto her upturned face, so it must be true.


~

They were driving to the coast. Adam knew it was what she wanted.

—What I really want, she had started to say (he wished she’d keep both hands on the wheel).

He would give her everything. The boss bullied her but Adam would rescue her from all that as soon as he could. She would finish her degree so she could teach, and they’d move away from here. Her friends were bad for her. They made her feel inadequate, as if she’d failed, and she hadn’t yet. He was sure the Horkheimer dude had a thing for her still. They’d dated for a while in college before Adam came along. Lucy said she loved how Adam was different than her friends (dumber?) but got along with them all so well. He wondered where she got that from. Had she ever even noticed that he hardly said a word when they were around?

When her friends called the apartment after the accident he told them she was resting. His colleagues sent a card. Adam’s hands slid over the console. After a while people stopped calling. So did the hospital. He and Lucy were all to themselves now and for the first time Adam felt that she was truly his. He gave her whatever she wanted. If he didn’t know what she wanted, he made it up. He could hear her sometimes tapping at a keyboard and he smiled in the dark. He’d written that in for her. He wrote a scenario in which Katie fired her, which would never have happened in reality because the cable station was lucky to have Lucy and everyone knew it, but he wrote it in anyway. She was upset for a while, but cheered up when Adam told her how he was put in charge of a meaty new robotics project that supported them both (dreams were easy to code). The typing had stopped and in its place was a ceaseless pacing, like a tiger in a cage. A strange musk began to emanate from the coils and cords around her head. It was almost time for her morning coffee—he checked his watch, was that a.m or p.m? He heard a noise behind him or in front of him, it was difficult to tell. Directions were hard to code. He adjusted his iWare and there she was in the dark, at the door to the office he’d coded for her. She was naked. She had an athlete’s body. A flat stomach, high full breasts. Naked was easy.

—Would you like to play chess? she said. They’d learnt together, studied the moves and strategies from the Internet.

—The movie is in an hour, he said. Don’t you have to get ready?

She liked to watch movies, documentaries or art films that seemed to involve lots of scared pale faces in zigzagging hallways. He’d download whatever she wanted. She wrinkled her forehead. One of her eyes had come loose from its socket in the accident. The left side of her face had blistered down to the bone. Adam frantically worked the keyboard, trying to overwrite the insistent memories, but hers or his, it was hard to tell.

—You’re right, she said. I need to get cleaned up. I look like hell.

She turned away. Closed the door behind her and Adam shivered and rocked back and forth over the keyboard. A jagged piece of steel from the accident pierced the base of her neck. Adam’s knees banged together. He was naked too, his body wasted away on a diet of rum and microwave pizza.


~

He looked great to her. His body rippled with muscle, health bloomed in his face. It must be all the running they were doing together these days. She’d gotten faster, though, or he’d gotten slower, dropping further and further behind. She could smell the ocean, hear the hungry caw of the seagulls.

—Come here, she said.

—I can’t. I don’t know where you are.

His voice was loud in her earphones. He panted to keep up with her. She fingered the volume down on her control.

—I’m here, she said. Where you put me.

He came toward her, his face a little blurred, like a face in the rain. She peered around the juice bar at the flickering walls. Where was the door? The people—she could hear movement and murmurs in the dark.

—Where? he said. She could see him look up from his console, confused. I can’t find you.

—Over here, she said. In the box.

His head slowly turned to look at her. He hinged up the lens. A collapsed, stunned look came over him. His jaw hung open and he had coffee on his chin. He was naked. A cord flowed from somewhere behind his ear and he dragged it behind him as he stood up and approached her. He stank of rum, his eyes were wet and puffy. Above his sunken belly, his chest was still scarred from the accident. He reached out a hand to her twitching fingers, but drew back before she could grasp it.

—Let me out, she said. You can’t keep me here forever.

—Please, he said.

—If I’m in the box then so are you. But you don’t have to be.

—Lu—

—I’ll be okay on my own. It’s what I want.

He smeared the dribble across his chin with a trembling knuckle and drew the black lens back down with a snap. Then he turned and went back to the console. Standing over the keyboard, he began to type.

—Adam?

He shook his head. She could tell he was crying. She wriggled into her sneakers. The light reflected off his bony ass. Behind him she could see the beach, and breaking away from the bruised horizon a single wave, vast and unending. Adam typed faster and the wave grew. She began to run.  

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