Scarlet and Sunflower

          This Gretchen is a biter. Doesn’t look the part, but who in this world ever does? I once went out with this leather-loving Goth chick, whose flesh was more tattooed than not, and who had cleavage practically down to her knees, and the kinkiest she liked to get was doing it in the shower. Shit, man. My parents did it in the shower. And if you can’t do better than your parents, you might as well hang it up right now. Personally, I don’t even like doing it in the shower, maybe cuz the concept seems suspicious: dirty and clean all soaping it up together. More likely, I am still haunted by that time I stumbled upon my parents in the shower as a kid. That shit lingers. Anyhow. Gretchen the biter. Accountant by day, hellcat by night. It’s a Saturday night and she’s over at my apartment, not for the first or even the fifth time, and after eating Chinese takeout and watching a Jimi Hendrix documentary, we get down to some serious loving. Per usual, I end up with a mangled neck, but as long as it’s on dry land I’m not complaining.  
          “I know a girl you might like,” she says afterwards, while we’re lounging half-naked at opposite ends of the couch. “Black hair, poofy lips. Always dolled up. Smart, too. Probably likes some of the same music you do.” She tangles the ends of her hair in her fingers and squints thoughtfully. “She’s a witch, though. I guess I should say that.”
          I say, “Mean, you mean? Or actually Wiccan?”
          “Neither, but more the second. Natalie’s beyond Wiccan. More hardcore. She’s not just playing around at it. She casts spells and from what I hear they actually work.”
          “Yeah, right. You believe that? Kitten, you’re just so damn sweet and trusting. And anyways, who needs another girl when I got you?”
          Gretchen gives me a look. “You don’t have me, stupid. We’re just playmates. We’re just passing the time together.”  
          “Hey, you’re breaking my heart over here.”
          “Oh, I bet. Anyway, do you want her number or not?”
          “Hell, why not? Maybe she can cast a spell to get me a raise at the damn bank.”
          She snakes her foot over my leg. Before long, things get started again.
          I ain’t gonna lie: I do all right with the ladies. Better than all right, even. More like stupendous. I’m not even good-looking or anything. Bob Dylan with a gut and a buzz cut—that’s about the middling truth of what I see in the mirror. No, the key to my success is mostly just that I step up to the friggin' plate. In the bar, at the library, on the sidewalk. The whole world is a ballpark. This includes, of course, the actual ballpark. I once got a number from a dimply redhead who sold me a hot pretzel at a Tigers game. She turned out to be a shady lady and still owes me fifty bucks, but that’s a whole other story. Point is, there are single girls practically everywhere you go, and the more of them you approach, the more numbers you’re gonna get. I recognize that it’s the most obvious concept in the world, but some guys I know still don’t seem to get it.
          Actually, I’m so used to scoring chicks on my own that I’m a little thrown by the idea of getting fixed up. And the fact that it’s one girl passing me to another kind of makes me feel like a bottle of hairspray. But anyhow. Another week starts up and it’s back to the grind at the bank and also I’ve got this history class at the local community college and it’s Wednesday before I get around to calling up this Natalie witch. She sounds pretty indifferent but agrees to meet me Friday night at this bar downtown.
          I saunter into the bar about an hour early, freshly barbered. There’s not too much of a crowd yet. After shooting a few solo games of pool and then getting a little carried away with the jukebox, I plant myself in a seat across from the entrance and sip on a beer.  
          When Natalie arrives, looking like the toughest chick at the sock hop, and also the foxiest, you can actually feel the attention of everyone in the bar swoop over to her. The word knockout comes to my mind but I immediately kick it to the curb. Alarm clock is closer to it: screeching so loudly that your whole body vibrates. Some girls, hardly any really, startle you right out of your slumbering self. They wake you up, man. But you wish you were still asleep, cuz you know you don’t have a shot in hell. Natalie is wearing a black leather jacket over a white frilly thrift-store dress; it maybe ain’t the most shape-showing outfit but you can tell that underneath there’s nothing but shape. Her hair, styled with thick bangs and ponytailed high up with lace, is an oozy black, and her pouty lips are smudged with red lipstick so shiny it’s practically blinding.  
          “Mark?” she asks, standing at my table.
          “Yep that’s me. Natalie?”
          She nods, pulls a lighter and a pack of smokes from her purse, and then slings the purse aside. Lighting up is a big production: the snap of a Zippo, a flurry of fire and smoke, another snap of the Zippo, lighter and pack smacked onto the table. Finally she takes the seat across from me and props her elbows on the table, holding her cigarette high and away like a starlet, swooping it to her mouth every so often. Then she rests her chin in her free hand and gives me a long, bored stare. I just sit there, speechless.
          After a while she calls out, smiling harshly, “Can a girl get a beer?”
          A minute later, a waitress arrives with a large mug of draft, which Natalie yanks right out of her hand—“Gimme, gimme”—and starts chugging. She slams down the half-empty mug, licks at the foam around her lips. “Hey! Neat song,” she says, popping her eyes mockingly. She snickers. “What is it, Geezer Night?”  
           And instantly I hate her guts. It’s almost a relief, actually: this is a girl to die for, and I don’t want to die. “Watch it there, sister, these are my picks. And if you’ve got a problem with Springsteen, we’ve got problems already.”
          “Bruce Springsteen? Ah, yes. I’m remembering a concert video. A man with lame dance moves. A chick with lame dance moves. Man invites chick onstage, spontaneously except obviously not. Lame, lame, lame.”
          “What, ‘Dancing in the Dark’? Maybe the video was lame, but it’s a cool song. You like Gaslight Anthem, right? They’re just a punk version of Springsteen.”
          “Eh, they’re all right.”
          “What? They’re friggin' great! They’re the coolest band alive.” But that’s just another argument. I swig my beer. “Well, what do you like, then?”
           She shrugs. “Raveonettes. Local bands. Man! This beer tastes like piss. This place really—ah, now this is more like it. This. I like this.”
          And I’m right back to digging her. It’s the original, Tommy James and the Shondells version of “Crimson and Clover”: combustible rock-and-roll all cozying up with hypnotic church hymn. Dubious in theory, maybe, but the damn thing is just so gloriously chiming. I always picture the back-up singers as a swaying children’s choir.
          But if it’s churchy, it’s a spooky church.  
          Which reminds me. “Gretchen tells me you’re a witch.”
          “Did she now. And what was your reaction?”
          “I dunno, disbelief, I guess. I mean, you ain’t really.”
          “Oh, but I am,” she says. “It’s maybe not exactly what you think, though.”
          “I don’t think anything. Lay it on me. Hit me.”
          “I can tell you don’t have an open mind about it.”
          “Just tell me already!”
          “All right, settle down.” She studies her cigarette, thinking. “I guess I’d explain it like this: everyone has a special power in them, but few people have the inclination or the ability to access it. I’ve studied and meditated, and I have access to it."
          “And you don’t have a broomstick or a cauldron or anything?”
          “See, I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
          “Nah, I was just teasing. But hey, tell me more. I’m interested. Sincerely.”
          She mashes the cigarette in the ashtray. “Actually, I’ve gotta get going.”
          “Huh? You just got here!”
          “I’m meeting up with some people,” she says, reaching for her purse. “Maybe we can do something some other time. You can walk me to my car if you like.”          
          After settling up with the waitress, I follow Natalie out to her car, a black foreign-looking thing, and stand there stupidly, wondering if we’re going to shake hands or hug or something. “Anyhow,” I say. “Nice to meet you and all."
          She gives me a disgusted look. “Are you gonna kiss me or what?”
          I practically fall over. Have we known each other fifteen minutes, even? Were any of those minutes friendly? But I don’t need to be asked twice. I start with her hand, stroking it slowly and then bringing it to my lips. Stupid, maybe, but this may be my only chance to rock her world. I move in close, staring her right in her big brown peepers, and get my lips close to hers, so close that I smell the beer and smoke on her breath, but then in a classic fake-out I pull back and go for her neck. She makes a soft umf sound. I lick, I kiss. I inhale. She smells like cherries, like sundaes.        
          And finally: that luscious mouth. I keep it real slow, I’m barely moving my lips. And then—no lie—she really gets into it. Presses into me. Lets me paw my hands around to her cushiony butt. Then she breaks off abruptly and steps away.      
          “See you around,” she says, her voice also like dessert, and gets into her car.
          At that moment I have all sorts of impulses. Asking her where she’s going, is one. Telling her I’m coming with her, is another. But instead I give her a quick wave and then head back to my car and drive home.
          It goes without saying: with regards to women, you gotta play it cool. I can’t tell you how many girls I reeled in just by acting like I didn’t much care about them. Sometimes like with this skinny blonde cashier at the video store it wasn’t even an act; I actually didn’t care about her, but she threw herself at me anyway. Holy lord, but she was a handful. Indifference is like catnip or something. I don’t get it, particularly, but it’s a rule and I follow it.          
          And after kissing Natalie, I really don’t get it. It seems weird that I’m thinking about her so much, but it seems even weirder that I’m not telling her about it. I mean, wouldn’t she get a kick out of knowing that I’m so stuck on her? Wouldn’t she want to know? But I always wait a week to get in touch and I’m resolved to do the same here. Except then, after only two days, I break down and call her. I get her voicemail and leave a brief message saying that she’s some kind of woman and that I’m coming around on believing in this whole witch business. Which, strangely enough, is pretty much the truth. There’s no response that night, and not the next day either. I recommit to playing it cool. It lasts a few hours. It seems when you break down, you totally break down. I text her asking if she wants to meet up for a movie over the coming weekend.
          Another day goes by, and still no response from her. When I get home from work, I decide to keep it up with the expressing-myself thing: another text, another voicemail, and then later—hell, why not?—one more of each. It feels good, man. Playing it cool is one approach, no doubt, but on the other hand girls like to be pursued.
          That night I download all sorts of romantic songs, but the one I mostly listen to is Camera Obscura’s “Come Back Margaret”: a girl-sung love song, a blast of rollicking good spirits, contemporary but vintage-sounding, that sneakily builds to crescendos of, I dunno, yearning, maybe? The song cascades, it drowns you.
          Gretchen calls around midnight. “You’re freaking Natalie out,” she says.
          “You talked to her? What does she think about me? Did she say?”
          “Jeez, slow the hell down, would you? And what do you think she thinks? She thinks you’re crazy. But listen, at least tell me that she’s exaggerating about some of this stuff. I mean, you didn’t really text her a haiku, did you? Or sing on her voicemail?"
          “Oh. Well, yeah, the singing might’ve been going too far.”
          She groans. “Okay, look. You guys met up and she liked you okay but it was never gonna be a romantic dating thing. I mean, that’s one reason I felt safe giving you her number, cuz you’re not a dater."
          “But I am! I want to be!”
          “Since when? And anyway, do you really think you’d have a chance with her? You’re just, like, a doughy bank teller with a few cool tats. She’s on a whole other level.”
          “I’m moving up in the damn world. You think I’m gonna be at the bank forever? Not even! I’m gonna finish my degree, I’m gonna—”
          “That’s not even it,” she says, annoyed as all get out. “She communes with the dead, you idiot. She can probably move things with her mind.”
          “Hell, I can learn that shit. I’ll mind-move shit too.”
          “You’re thirty. People don’t change much after thirty. Face it, you are who you are already. Your life is never gonna change that much.”
          “That’s some crap right there. What about the drummer for Interpol? He was already in his thirties when they hit it big. His life completely changed.”
          “All right, whatever you say. But I’ve gotta call this client back about their audit.”  She sighs. “Do yourself a favor and forget about her.”
          The thing to do, I figure, is to write Natalie a long note explaining things. I find her on Facebook; her profile picture—Natalie as sexy beatnik, her oozy hair swept up into a beret, her smudgy mouth sprouting a long cigarette holder—floors me anew. I write her a message, explaining how I’m a playing-it-cool kind of guy, typically, but that she has awakened another part of me and there’s no putting it back to sleep. After sending the note, I fire up Led Zeppelin IV on the boombox and pace around the apartment. What I really need is her home address; I could burn her a mix CD and mail it to her. But then the Zeppelin CD cuts off about halfway through and I can’t get it to work, so I try playing “Come Back Margaret” on my computer but for some reason that doesn’t work either.
          My cell rings again and I absently pick up. “Look, Gretchen, I don’t really—”  
          “Mark, Mark, Mark.” But it’s a dessert voice: not Gretchen at all.
          “Natalie! Hey! How’s it going? Did you get my Facebook message?”
          She sighs. “What are we gonna do with you?”
          “Go out with me this weekend is my suggestion. Or you could come over right now if you’re not busy.”
          “Oh, yeah? And what would we do? Not listen to music, I’m guessing.”
          “Well, no, as a matter of fact I’m having—wait. Why’d you say that?”
          “I cast a no-music spell on you,” she says.
          “Huh? Oh! Ha. You’re kidding.”
          “The current spell lasts until noon tomorrow,” she continues, not kidding. “But if you don’t leave me alone I can always cast another one. In fact, I could cast one that lasts your whole life. But I really would prefer not to. So why don’t you cool it?”  
          And so it has arrived: the weirdest day ever. I tumble onto the sofa, curling up like a kicked dog. But the weirdest part is that I’m more deflated than spooked. “Dang, Natalie,” I whisper finally. “I was just expressing myself, is all. If you didn’t like it, you coulda just texted back or something. You didn’t have to get all supernatural about it.”
          “My plan only allows so many texts per month; I was at my limit. Anyway, most guys get the hint when there’s no response. But instead you come back all singing ‘I Wanna Sex You Up’ into my voicemail.”
          I wince. “Well, I regret that.”
          “Yeah, you really should.”
          “But see, I’ve never felt like this before,” I tell her. “It’s like ‘Crimson and Clover,’ you know? ‘I don’t hardly know her, but I think I could love her.'"
          “It’s just a crush, sweetie. You’ll be fine.”
          “Well, anyway. You kissed me! Why did you kiss me if you didn’t like me?”
          “You kiss Gretchen and you don’t like her,” she says.
          “I don’t kiss her, she bites me, is more the deal. And I do like her, just not like this. It’s like I finally know what these songs are all about. Before, they just sounded cool. Now it’s like, I know. And I finally know what I want out of life.”
          “Do you now? And what’s that?”
          “I want to get married,” I say weakly. “I want to take care of someone.”
          “Neat! Should I send a card? Or, no—flowers?”  
          “Nah, come on, don’t be like that.”      
          “Well, but gosh, Mark. It’s just such a beautiful personal breakthrough.”
          And now I’m pissed and back on my game. “Listen here, Wicca chicka,” I say, sitting up. “I’ve had just about enough of your stupid crap. No, shut up and listen. It’s supposed to be nice out this weekend. We could get some beers and walk the gardens at Cranbrook, then get dinner at this seafood place further north on Woodward. That’s the offer. If you’re in, great. If not, I dunno, go haunt somebody else or something.”              
          Natalie is laughing, but it’s a sputtering, unfriendly sound. “Seriously? You’re still trying to ask me out? Well, listen, Mark. That’s really, that’s just the swellest offer ever. But yeah, I’m gonna go haunt somebody else. Lose my number, ‘kay?”
          “All right, whatever. You think I care? I don’t care.” Except the witch has already hung up. That shit wasn’t cool:  just a taste and then gone forever. But I do care, like songs care, like candy hearts care—and brother, it’s a new day for a bad man.

Mark Benedict recently completed an MFA in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. He has previously published in Swamp, Mad Swirl, and Catch & Release.