Stephen is a member of the PraiseTheLord club—he has their bumper sticker on his Grand Prix—and so I know that he is off-limits. Untouchable or, at best, touchable above the belt. But that’s just it—I want to touch him. More specifically, I want to lick his cherry lips—lick them until they fuzz over with chap and fall off. He doesn’t suspect this of me, the girl he just so happens to bump into in the apartment complex laundry room every Wednesday night. I think it might send him into evangelical convulsions.
“You’re pathetic,” my roommate, Janet, says, watching me pull clean clothes off of hangers, top off two laundry baskets with Downey-fresh shirts.
I drop the baskets in our hallway and do a headstand against the wall. “I know I am. But at least you’re getting your laundry done for you.”
“You’re roommate of the year, Lucy, but you’re also kind of freaky.”
Janet doesn’t really get me. She’s got a long-distance boyfriend, Henri, spelled with an ‘i’ because he’s super-French, complete with the accent and an addiction to champignons. I happen to think Henri’s Frenchness makes him less attractive, more Manhattan asshole, but Janet loves it, soaks it up like a syrupy waffle.
“Why in the world do you stand on your head?”
I don’t answer Janet until I feel my feet start to numb up and my head gets tingly. “It’s inversion therapy. Seriously? You’ve never tried it?” I flip down off the wall, steady myself while blood surges out of my head like thermometer mercury. “It’s a yoga move, Janet. Promotes clear thinking.”
Janet laughs. “If only,” she says. “Maybe then you’d give up your fake boyfriend.”
When I get to the laundry room, I can see I’m a tad too late. Stephen’s gone already; his jeans/towel load is busy agitating. I invert and do a headstand right in front of the washing machine, watch the endless frothing of Tide bubbles. Stephen’s zippers and pant legs and washcloths dart up against the convex window. I think about the time I emptied the dryer for him, found a crumbled business card in the lint catcher—Stephen Gordon, Engineer. Maybe Janet’s right. Maybe I am losing it, stalking an evangelist engineer in a humid, hot, cramped laundry room. The thing is, Stephen is perfect—electric-white teeth, the smell of Listerine on his breath, hair the color of the fake lump of coal they sell at Spencer’s at Christmastime. Stephen is my future, I just know it. But still, staring at his spin cycle, I can’t but help to think that I’ve lost my beans. All for a guy who’s never even asked me my name.
The laundry room door opens after untold minutes into my headstand.
“I’m sorry, am I holding you up?”
It’s Stephen. Funny, looking at him upside-down, I can see that his sneakers are scuffed red with Carolina clay and his track pants are about an inch too short, likely over-dried on the high heat setting instead of permanent press. When I descend from my inversion and turn right side up, Stephen’s head looks kind of fuzzy to me, like I’m staring at him through cheesecloth. And then, everything fades to black.
When I wake up, there are bright sodium lights hovering above me. I’m in a hospital room, and I must be pumped full of something because I feel as if I’m suspended in a hammock. I can’t read the big ‘E’ on the eye chart on the wall, even though I know it’s an ‘E.’ Everyone knows it’s an ‘E.’
I look over to the voice; it’s Stephen. “Hi Spin Cycle,” I say.
“Hi Lucy.” Stephen walks over to me and grabs my hand, clamshells it in between his.
He is real. His hands are warm, like towels fresh out of the dryer.
“You know my name?”
Stephen smiles, all fluoride and Colgate poster boy-like. “Of course I do.”
When I think about this later, I’ll realize that I was wearing my tennis team polo shirt that night in the laundry room, the one that has loopy, purple embroidery that spells out my name on the front pocket. But Stephen, ever the southern gentleman, will not tell me this. He will tell me, instead, about how he, too, loves to do headstands. How it stimulates endorphins, makes him feel alive—reborn. How it reminds him of his childhood in Savannah, of monkey bars; how he never would let go of the bar until he saw stars. How he wonders if that’s what I saw, before I blacked out—a Milky Way of stars. How he wonders if I will be okay once I am upright. How he wonders who, exactly, I am.
Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Puerto del Sol, Necessary Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, The Indianola Review, and elsewhere. Michele lives in Tucson and is working on a creative nonfiction collection. www.michelefinnjohnson.com; @m_finn_johnson.