Neutral Ground

          I met Bianca just seconds before she almost sliced her thumb off. We were in Brooklyn’s Best in Carroll Gardens—she behind the deli counter, me in front—and I was getting a quarter pound of hard salami. It was around three in the afternoon and the place was almost empty. Besides us, there was a cashier up front—a woman wearing enough make-up to paint a barn—and a middle-aged male customer checking out the rack of snack cakes.
          Bianca was tall, frizzy-haired, with caramel skin and all business. She wasn’t one for small talk. I finally said—and I was serious, no line—“Haven’t I seen you on TV? That car commercial with the woman tap-dancing in the bed of the pickup truck?”
          This got her attention and she looked up at me from the slicer and instantaneously cursed loud enough to be heard throughout the store. “Motherfucker!”
          I watched her pull her right hand back, then quickly grab a roll of unwrapped paper towels from the prep area behind her.
          “You all right, hon?” the woman on the register called over.
          Bianca said nothing. She struggled with the paper towels, trying to shake them open with her left hand, which is when I saw the blood begin to ooze.
          The counter had a pass-through, a little door on a spring hinge, held closed by a throw bolt. I reached over, unlocked it, and zipped behind the counter.
          “Call 911!” I shouted to the cashier. “Get an ambulance!”
          Bianca was holding her hand over a slop sink as the blood continued to flow. I grabbed the paper towels, ripped them open, tore off a handful, took her hand and applied direct pressure. Her thumb was still attached, but she’d gone down to the bone.
          “You’ll be okay,” I told her as I replaced the blood-soaked paper towels with fresh ones. “Just relax.”
          “I wasn’t the one in the commercial,” she said calmly.
          The cashier, now close to panic, was giving directions on the phone. The guy by the snack cakes grabbed two fruit pies and left without paying. I looked at Bianca and she looked at me.
          “You probably don’t want the salami,” she said.

          I waited for her in the emergency room, which was okay; I didn’t have anything much else to do. I’d been discharged from the Air Force earlier that month, and as much as I wanted to get back home, I recognized this as maybe my only chance to travel around a bit. I’d driven from Minot Air Force Base where I’d been stationed my entire four years, stopping here, stopping there, popping in on guys I’d served with. George De Los Santos had been my roommate for almost a year, a guy as out of place in South Dakota as I was. He’d been discharged a couple of months before, moved back to his neighborhood, got himself a sixth-floor walk-up and a job assisting a veterinarian in Red Hook. He was at work all day and told me to stay as long as I wanted.
          After two days, it was all I wanted.
          I found Brooklyn to be a hellhole—too many people and too much concrete—the uncirculating July heat was stifling and tinged with urine. My plan was to say goodbye to George in the morning and be home in time to take my mom out to dinner someplace air-conditioned and candle-scented.
          “You waited?” Bianca said when she was finally released and found me sitting next to an ancient-looking woman holding a flowered dishtowel over her ear.
          I stood up. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
          The woman with the ear watched us like we were in a movie.
          “I should get back to work,” Bianca said.
          “You’ve got to be kidding,” I told her. “Let me buy you something to eat. Drive you someplace. I feel like this whole thing is my fault.”
          She hesitated, looked at her gauze-covered thumb, and sort of smiled at me for the first time.
          “I guess five stitches deserves something,” she said.

          We had pizza because Bianca didn’t think she could negotiate a knife and fork. During the meal, her boss called her cell phone—he’d been at the horse track all afternoon—and fired her for failure to follow correct safety procedure.
          “You want me to go in and talk to him?” I asked.
          “By talk, do you mean smack him around?” she asked.
          “Then don’t bother.”
          Bianca told me she wanted to be an actress, but she hated to audition.
          “Isn’t that like wanting to be a firefighter but hating ladders?” I asked.
          “I guess,” she said, as she scratched nervously at her neck. “It’s just that I have this thing about being judged.”
          We wound up in her apartment, a tiny place she shared with a girl who worked swing shift at some senior center. I didn’t try to get her into bed, although days later she informed me I could have, then added, “but that would have been it.” I asked her if she wanted to hang out the next day—it was a Saturday—but she said she needed to go job hunting. 
          “All day?”
          “Well, not all day.”
          “You have to eat sometime.”
          She smiled, and this time she showed teeth. “You’re what the Italian guys call a skutch,” she said. “I like that.”

          I phoned my mother later that day and postponed our dinner. I asked George if he wouldn’t mind me staying a few more days, which turned out to be two weeks. I saw Bianca every day. We went to Coney Island, the aquarium, and the Botanical Garden. We watched the Brooklyn Cyclones play baseball, and I bought myself a cap. We kissed on the subway where nobody seemed to care what we did, and we held hands even while her thumb was still healing. Bianca got called in for a couple of job interviews—including one on Staten Island where she borrowed my car and was gone most of the day—but otherwise we were pretty constant. She cooked for me one Sunday night—we drank white wine and ate macaroni and cheese in the kitchen while her roommate sat on the futon and fumed—and it was the most fun meal I’ve eaten since my sixth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese.
          The whole thing made Brooklyn slightly more tolerable. Not a lot, but a little.
          Days later, we were in Bianca’s tiny bedroom, squeezed together on her single bed, covered by a pale blue sheet. She told me her roommate was moving in with two other girls in Brooklyn Heights, and I suggested taking her place.
          But Bianca was hesitant. She needed the money for rent—not that I was loaded, but I had a little something saved—but she also had this thing about her parents.
          “Is it because I’m white?” I asked.
          “They’re not bigots,” she told me. “They’re Catholics.”
          “What if we got married?”
          “Be serious.” 
          “I’m serious as an earthquake,” I told her.
          Bianca went through the whole thing. “We hardly know one another,” and “It would never work out,” and “It’s probably just your dick talking.”
          “Come on, B,” I said. “When it’s right, it’s right.”
          “What about the black/white thing?” she said.
          “What about it?”
          “You’re the one who brought it up,” she said.
          I told her it didn’t bother me if it didn’t bother her. Twenty-first century male over here. Obama supporter.
          “You never told me you love me,” she said.
          “It’s obvious,” I said.
          She told me to go back to George’s and think about it, and if I was still serious in the morning to give her a call.
          In the morning, I gave her a call and told her I loved her. Later that day, I moved my stuff in.

          On Sunday we drove to Long Island to break it to Bianca’s folks over lunch on their patio. They were suburbanites, living in a planned community where your neighbor's opinion is coin of the realm. Daughter finishes four years at Brooklyn College—good. Daughter moves in with some ex-GI she met a couple of weeks ago—not good.
          Bianca announced the plan to her parents almost as soon as we walked in the door. Almost like, Hi. This is Luke. We’re thinking about getting married. I’m not pregnant.
          Her mother, Jacki, a high school math teacher, didn’t take it all that well. She was an imposing woman—“statuesque” was the word that came to mind—attractive and confident, but humorless. 
          “If this is a joke,” she said, “you’ll notice that I’m not rolling on the rug.”  
          I stood by, uncomfortable, then handed Bianca’s father the box of cannoli we’d bought before leaving Brooklyn. Douglas was instantly sympathetic and asked me if I needed coffee, or “something stronger.” I liked him right off. Bianca had obviously gotten her looks from the man: his soft features, his lean frame, his ready smile. He owned a small business installing seamless gutters, and I could tell—the moment his face brightened at the sight of her—that he was the kind of guy who would dive head-first into broken glass if he thought it would please his little girl.
          Jacki, as I said, was less than welcoming. She was one of those this-isn’t-the-way-things-are-done people. “Where’s the money coming from? Neither one of you has a job. I feared this would happen when you moved to the city.” 
          Lunch itself was a fairly benign probe—where I was from, what my plans were, whether I’d ever been in trouble—and before we left, Jacki pulled me aside and said, “Look. You seem like a nice enough person. My concern is that you’re just looking for somebody to take care of you.”
          “You’ll learn to love me,” I smiled.
          “Don’t count on it,” she said.
          Douglas came over and shook my hand. He’d packed sandwiches and soft drinks in a thermal bag for the ride home.
          “Take care of that,” he told Bianca, pointing at her still bandaged thumb. “Watch that it doesn’t get infected.
          Nobody said a word about our races not pairing up.

          On the drive back to the apartment, Bianca was teary. We were stuck in traffic on the Southern State, and despite my efforts to lighten the mood by patting her folded hands, she stared out her passenger window like a prisoner.
          “All I ever wanted to do is please her,” she said.
          “She’ll come around.”
          “She wants me to be her clone. Move to Long Island in the house next door. Well that’s never going to happen. I’m staying right where I am.”
          We were both silent. Bianca wiped her nose and sniffled, and I recognized our first potential bump on that everlasting expressway to happiness.
          “I don’t like Brooklyn,” I finally admitted.
          Bianca looked over at me like I’d just confessed I was a child molester, or a professional party clown.
          “I’m sorry,” I told her. “I guess I’m more a small town guy.”
          “You mean the country?” she said. I nodded. Bianca shook her head, returned to looking out her window at the unmoving cars next to us. “The country scares me,” she admitted. “I think ‘country’ and hear harmonicas and see shallow graves.”
          “We’re talking about modern New England,” I said. “Not the deep south in the nineteen-fifties.”
          “Same people, warmer clothes,” she said.

          Someone had broken into the apartment while we were gone. Drawers were pulled out, furniture overturned, medicine chest rummaged through, bedroom torn apart. He/She/They had taken the TV and some jewellery, Bianca’s iPod, a pair of my sneakers and an eight-dollar bottle of Chardonnay. There wasn’t much else of value, which may have been why whoever broke in decided to crap on the kitchen floor.
          “Should we call the police?” I asked.
          “Not in Brooklyn,” she told me.
          We spent the rest of the evening cleaning the place up, and around midnight I went out and brought back a six-pack. We sat at the freshly scrubbed kitchen table and ate Douglas’ sandwiches. Acting like a person of reason, I suggested that maybe our new lives together should unfold on neutral ground. Neither city nor country. A place close enough for her to pursue acting, a place far enough where I wouldn’t have to walk past mountains of bulging garbage bags or step over sleeping bums or worry about somebody dropping a deuce on my floor.           
          The discussion seemed to leave Bianca a bit more upbeat while it had the opposite effect on me. I was lying to her and I knew it. Neutral ground was not my true strategy. My true strategy went something like this: take Bianca up to New Hampshire, let her fall in love with the natural beauty of the White Mountains and the taste of undiluted maple syrup, trot her down to Boston to show her that a major city wasn’t all that far, introduce her to a tempo of life that, while not slow, was far from the sprinting greyhound pace she was surrounded by. There were restaurants she could work in, a college with a good-sized library, and a community theatre that I was sure would be thrilled to cast her in every summer production they did. After a couple of days she’d tell me how at home she felt, she’d suggest we settle there, and I’d act thrilled. Like the entire thing was her idea, her discovery.

          Jackson Notch is one of those “picture postcard” New Hampshire villages. You’ve got the little town square with a wooden-framed general store. A granite quarry just outside town. Rebuilt farmhouses and an 18th century textile mill. No crime aside from occasional public drunkenness in the summer, and a case or two of domestic violence when the snow begins to fall.
          We drove up in the middle of the week on the pretense of meeting my mother. I’d told my mom that I’d met the woman I wanted to marry, and she was no more surprised than if I had told her I bought a motorcycle or a collection of Enrico Caruso records.

          Ever since my dad took off when I was four, Mom considered marriage for suckers. Still, she and Bianca hit it off pretty well, and when she suggested staying overnight—even though she lived in a trailer that was barely big enough for one—Bianca agreed.
          On our second day there, after my mom had left for her job at Constitution State Bank, my buddy Andy McRay popped by. We’d started a rock band together in high school—The Montays—and Andy had since launched his own power-washing company called Tons-o-Suds. He invited us both out to lunch, but Bianca passed, saying she wanted to straighten up the mess we’d made—the sink filled with dishes, the pushed-aside furniture—before we pulled out.
          At Thrifty Pines Diner, Andy asked me two questions: If I was interested in working as one of his crew chiefs, and if sex with a black woman was as good as advertised. Me. The expert. A man most women politely passed up a second date with. I should have just kept my mouth shut, but I didn’t. I told him what most guys tell most other guys. That the sex was unbelievable. As far as the job offer—good money, even some medical benefits—I said I’d discuss it with Bianca and let him know.

          When I got back to the trailer, Bianca was all bubbly. She told me she’d gotten a call and that the job on Staten Island—some teacher’s assistant position—was hers if she wanted it. The money was “adequate,” and it was only a one-year contract, but it was neutral ground.
          “Staten Island?”
          “It’s like the country compared to Brooklyn,” she said. “People have lawns and play softball and ride the ferry. We can live close to the ocean.”
          I told her I’d been offered a little something better than just “adequate.” When I told her about Andy’s offer, her face tightened.
          “Not exactly neutral ground,” she said.
          “It’ll be temporary,” I assured her. “I’ll work until I make some money, and then we’ll hit the road with cash in our pockets.”
          She wanted to know how long that’d be. A few months—maybe half-a-year, I told her. She said no way was she going to sleep on a pull-out couch in a mobile home for that long. I told her I’d look around for something. She said this sounded like a no-win situation. Working to pay the rent. I assured her that I knew the area and how things worked, that there were always people looking for somebody to watch their places when summer ended, that the flatlanders would soon be looking for ski guides, that deals could be struck. This entire thing has a quicksand feel to it, she said.
          I tried to lighten the moment. I told her Andy had asked me what sex with a black woman was like, and I told him it was great.
          “You told him that?” she said.
          I smiled, nodded.
          “How dare you?” she said, then went into the bathroom and closed the door hard.

          That afternoon I drove out and picked up a copy of the Jackson Notch Weekly. The classified section contained all sorts of temporary housing opportunities, most of which involved simple maintenance or just keeping an eye peeled. I sat at the bar at The Jolly Time, nursed a beer, started phoning.
          The first couple of places I called were no longer available. Finally, I hit on something. It was a cottage in Byers, two towns over. The guy who answered the phone said yep, the place was still up. Living room with fireplace, sleeping loft, kitchenette, screened-in porch. He was leaving in six days to visit his son in Indiana. Planned to celebrate his 66th birthday and wouldn’t be back until the first week in September. He asked where I was from, and when I told him Jackson Notch, he said, “You’re out there,” a northern New England expression meaning you can’t be reached on foot. When I told him my name, he said—with evident suspicion—that it “didn’t ring a bell.”    
          He tested me further. Asked where I went to high school. What church I went to. Where I worked. When I told him I’d just gotten out of the Air Force a short time back, he didn’t thank me for my service. What he did say was it was a shame people had to leave the area in order to pick up bad habits.
          I tried to move him along by asking if we could see the cottage.
          “We?” he said.
          “My fiancé and I.”
          “Not a lot of room for two people.” 
          “We tend to stick close to one another,” I said.
          The old man finally told me that since the cottage was secluded, our best bet was to meet and he’d lead us there. He asked me if I knew where Double-Aught Donuts was, and we arranged to rendezvous there at eight the next morning.
          “How’ll I know you?” he asked.
          I told him I’d be wearing a Brooklyn Cyclones cap.

          At Double-Aught Donuts the next morning, Bianca said the entire deal seemed creepy, so I asked if she wanted to stay in the car while I checked it out.
          “Will you crack a window open so I don’t suffocate?” she asked sarcastically.
          “Why the attitude?” I asked.
          She sighed. “It’s just that I have this weird feeling like things are getting away from me.”
          “Chill,” I told her. “We’ll go inside, we’ll meet the guy, we’ll go out and look at the place.”
          “That’s it?”
          “That’s it.”
          But in my mind I saw us packing boxes, moving in, cooking meals, dancing around like maniacs. It would be in that rustic cottage that she’d become a true New Englander. She’d learn to eat poutine and hasty pudding and fish on a bulkie. She’d cheer on UNH and brag about getting through the wicked cold winters. She’d become what some of the old-timers referred to as a “BRINE.” A Beauty Raised In New England.   
          It was a typically foggy morning and the place was packed with regulars—mostly men on their way to work. There were also the codgers, the retirees, the old men with little more to do than pump themselves full of caffeine and flirt unsuccessfully with the tired-looking waitress. They were huddled at tables and in the only two booths in the diner and seated at the wraparound counter. They stared at us when we entered, gossiped among themselves like junior high school girls, and continued to gawk long after we’d been seated and served.
          At our tiny table by the door, Bianca picked up on the unwanted attention before we’d finished our first cup of coffee.
          “He’s one of them,” she whispered.
          I told her I doubted it. The old man was simply a little late.
          “He’s in here and he’s checking us out and we evidently aren’t what he wants.”
          I smiled, shook my head.
          “Kiss me,” she said.
          “Right now. Right on the lips. Kiss me like we’re in Brooklyn.”
          “Probably not a good idea,” I said.
          “Why not?”
          “It’s just not something people up here do in public.”
          But the truth is, I was uncomfortable. I felt all those eyes on me and I wished I was here alone, or else with somebody else. Somebody not Bianca.
          “I don’t want to live here,” she said.
          “I told you. It’s only temporary.”
          “Let me be as clear as I can,” she said. “I don’t want to live here
   another second.”

          The old guy, never showed up, never made himself known.
          As we pulled out of the parking lot, the fog had started to lift.        
          “These places are a dime a dozen,” I told Bianca. “I’ll try and line something up for later this afternoon."
          She told me she wanted to go home.
          We were on 16A outside Bartlett when I pulled over to the shoulder.
          “You’re pissed off I didn’t kiss you back there,” I said. “How about if I kiss you right now?”
          I leaned over toward her, but Bianca turned her face and held up her still-bandaged hand. “I don’t want to be kissed,” she said. “I want to go home.”
          “You haven’t even given this place a chance,” I told her.
          “It’s not the place,” she said. “The place I could maybe get used to. It’s you.”
          I pulled back out on the road ready for the silent treatment.
          “Take me to Amtrak,” she said.
          “Bianca, come on. We can work on this.”
          “Take me to Amtrak or let me off here.”
          “You’ve got stuff back at the trailer.”
          “Send it,” she said. And then, in an act of defiance that infuriated me, she took out her phone, dialed a number, and told somebody on the other end that she was happy to accept their job offer.
          I figured she’d change her mind on the ride down to Dover, but she didn’t.

          At the Amtrak station, she found a train to Boston that left in an hour-and-a-half. From there, she could transfer and arrive in Penn Station in time for dinner. I told her I’d wait with her, but she said she’d rather I didn’t. Fine. At this point, I just wanted to be out of there myself.
          The last thing I said to her was, “Are you mad at me?” And the last thing she said to me was, “You can’t imagine.”
          I started missing her before I even got halfway back to my mom’s place. When I arrived, I opened a beer, gathered Bianca’s stuff, folded her clothes, packed it all into her soft-sided suitcase.
          Then I had a thought. Rather than ship the suitcase back, I could throw it in the trunk of my car, drive south, be standing on her front porch with it when she arrived later that night. It would be like stepping in a time machine, and we’d go upstairs, and fall into her tiny bed, and open a bottle of wine, and forget the past couple of days.
          If I’d had a few more beers I might have done that. But instead, I picked up the phone, called Andy, and told him I could start work immediately, even right this minute if he needed me.

Z.Z. Boone has fiction appearing or scheduled for New Ohio Review, The Potomac Review, 2 Bridges, Smokelong Quarterly, and other terrific places. He teaches writing at Western Connecticut State University and is currently working on a novel.