I could pick Phaedra out of a police lineup from the back of her head alone. I guess that’s true about a lot of people I know but that hair is something special. It’s her defining characteristic. The girders of her Phaedraness. The thing. Even Stacey would agree with me on that and that pretty much never happens.
Anyway, the lineup. I’d jaw with the cops, sipping coffee, one leg propped up on the desk, happy I’d done a good job, been helpful. It wouldn’t be until I got home that I’d feel bad I didn’t do her a solid, just shrug my shoulders and say, “sorry fellas, I can’t remember. I was drunk.” I guess I’m always looking for easy praise. Phaedra would never throw anyone under the bus. Even defending some dirtbag wife-beater, she’d make the cops work for it. She’s cool like that.
I finally caught up to her on the 6th Street bridge. There was barely any traffic that early in the morning and I could hear the shfft shfft of her thighs rubbing against each other through her pink leggings. She must have just gotten her hair cut because it was clipped high and neat, her long bangs swept over in a traditional side part. I think she forgot her barrettes because the hair kept falling in front of her face. I wanted to call her Phantom of the Opera or Iron Mask, but the nicknames weren’t pithy enough. Too long and clunky. Phaedra definitely deserves better than that. She’s a smart girl.
“Hey,” I said, smiling big. I read in Cosmo that smiling makes you look more confident. “How’s it going?”
She pushed her hair, thin and split like an old shower curtain, back from her eyes. “Where’d you come from?”
“I was up late.”
“Hey so, Stacey says you got a big promotion.” I wiped a cold glob of snot from my nose. “Congratulations.” Phaedra pumped her thighs, barely dodging a plastic soda crate. “It’s bullshit. Doesn’t even pay more.” She lifted the waistband of her leggings over her hips and spit off the bridge. Her feet and hair bounced wildly out of synch. “I get a big office though.” “That’s cool.” “Not really. Everyone hates me because of it.” Phaedra’s smart but she has a really big chip on her shoulder. It’s weird because I don’t think she knows how to take it off and she can get prickly at the littlest thing. Those lovely buck teeth curl back and her mouth snaps like a coin purse. Pop. That’s when I realize I don’t know her as well as I think I do and when that happens I take a big step back and excuse myself to somewhere else. The largest chip went to law school. The other chip is up for grabs but I’d say it went to her daddy tattoos. She has a lot. Her arms and back are a full museum catalog on how much she hates her dad. It’s a regular field trip to the Getty, her body. Stacey would say I’m being an asshole but it’s true, she really hates her dad. Sure, lots of girls hate their dads (I wonder if more girls hate their dads than their moms. Cosmo should do a poll.) but I know she hates her dad a lot because she told me about it one night at The Lucky Monkey. Plus look at all those tattoos. Why else would someone have that many? Maybe it’s just a simple case of self-loathing but then we’re back to square one. Goo goo gaga daddy. Chicken and egg. I imagine Phaedra on a bitter Hartford morning waiting for the tattoo shop to open. The owner raises the metal shutters and she tosses her cigarette on the freezing sidewalk. “What’ll it be little lady?” the kindly shopkeeper asks, and she says, “I hate my fucking dad,” and the tattoo artist knows just the way to fix it like Mary Poppins with her umbrella. Ink in the skin. Ink under the skin. Daddy left just to be around forever. Weird how that works. Stacey would say I’m romanticizing it and she’d be right, I don’t think Phaedra hates her dad that much. But the cigarette part is real. Anyway, she beat me good in the charity race last year even with all that junk in her lungs.
“You and Stacey really hit the town last night. I’m impressed,” I said as we doubled back over the bridge toward the park.
Phaedra stopped to adjust her bra. “You know how we do,” she said, and leaned back, pulling the straps and wiggling her chest until the mesh tank top fell over her little tummy. I waited for a knowing look, a glance, but she kept running down the street. She’s a good lawyer.
Stacey came home pretty sloshed the night before. It was only ten but she had just come off a twenty-four hour shift, so she got a little more than she bargained for. We’d been fighting all week and she was ready for a girl’s night out. No broken dishes or black eyes or anything like that. For the twenty-first century couple it’s words and entrapment, two idiots stage reading from a worn Carver paperback. She was lovey-dovey at first - sexy grappling, slushy kisses - then the chemicals made their leap and our mouths started moving and wouldn’t stop. It was a skirmish, no big deal, friendly fire, no deaths. We made sure not to go to bed angry (thanks, Cosmo!) but I still couldn’t sleep and the anxiety over everything dogpiled me. Of course Phaedra and Stacey talked. Of course they talked about food and work and Doctor Who. Of course they talked about me. “I’m sorry,” Stacey murmured, before she rolled over to her side of the foxhole. “I needed to tell someone what you said.”
I couldn’t sleep, dreading another bout of day-long tete-a-tetes. I wanted to rip my face off and run naked, let the steam burst from my body. Eventually the cops would chase me down, yank me by the dick and throw me in the back of the squad car. Phaedra would do her lawyer stuff, bail me out, and we’d drink negronis all night at The Lucky Monkey. I’d complain about Stacey and we’d laugh, and I’d say it was ironic that we’re here now and Phaedra would say that’s probably not irony. I’m sure she’d be right. God I love smart girls. I could marry all of them.
We hugged when we got to the park. I carefully brushed the back of Phaedra’s hair with the tips of my fingers, scared a tattoo would leap out and bite my arm.
“Everything’s good?” she said, wide eyed.
“Oh yeah,” I lied, and went on about my new clients and the wedding.
She smiled and I smiled back but I knew she saw right through me, straight down to every rotting tendril. We stood a foot apart and I felt her warm body pull me in, like a steady current. I had an urge to apologize for myself but I swam it back, unsure of my constant need to confess.
Stacey and I are getting married next week and I can’t wait. I love her so much. I think she should cut her hair but she’d probably get mad if I suggested it - something about her dead cousin or her grandmother, I honestly can’t remember. She loves her long hair and so do I. It’s her thing and definitely not worth fighting over.
Collin is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara (Comparative Literature/Film Studies) and a former writing student at PCC. His book, “The Faithful,” a historical biography of Giuseppe Verdi was published in 2018 by The Mentoris Project. Collin is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at UC Riverside.