He put his head on my shoulder. I thought the gesture strangely sweet. "I won't lose you," he said. "But you better get in before you freeze to death."
I heated up my car and waited for him to get in his. He pulled out of the parking lot and signaled left, and I followed him past all the strip malls and fast food restaurants, the hamburger odor of a White Castle entering my car, making me wonder how anyone could eat there if it smelled so bad from such a distance.
He entered the parking area for a building of condos, and I felt a chill of excitement and fear pass through me, the same feeling I had when I was a little girl at the zoo, on the threshold of the Herpetarium. As much as I feared the snake and lizard exhibits, this was the only place in the whole damn zoo that offered any relief from the unrelenting Texas heat. I'd keep my eyes closed for most of it, only open enough to make my way through, until the interactive display at the end. There, each featured snake lay in a tank with buttons attached to the outside of it and a person could guess whether each was poisonous or not. If you hit the right button, the information about the snake's habitat would appear in red or green. If you were wrong, a buzzer would go off, letting you know that your mistake could have been fatal had you been in the wild. No matter how hard I tried, I almost always chose the wrong button. It got to the point where I was bewildered if I didn't hear the buzzing noise.
"Am I allowed to be here?" I asked. I didn't know if this building had specific rules about what spaces visitors could occupy. I could see my car being towed away, me being trapped without a ready escape.
"It won't hurt for tonight," Kevin said. He hit his key chain and his car made a beeping sound that startled me.
The lobby was warm and covered with pictures of jazz musicians. Each condo was named after one of them: the Ellington, the Armstrong, the Miles Suite. Kevin lived in the Parker. As he put the key into his door, I thought how every place is a mystery, even condos, which are designed to eliminate it.
"I'll take that," he said. I handed him my jacket and watched him put it in a hall closet. The living room was neat without much stuff, something I could appreciate until I saw a large glass box.
"I didn't know you could have snakes in a place like this," I said. "I thought it wasn't allowed when you lived around other people."
"You want to watch me feed him?" he asked. He pointed at a rat in a small metal cage. "It's his night."
"Lucky me," I said. I backed away from the cage as he unlatched the rat. "I can't watch this horror show."
"Don't be such a baby. It'll only take a minute," he said, as though he were administering a painful but necessary shot.
I heard an awful noise, like a scream and turned around.
"All over," he said.
"What was that noise?"
"It was the rat. Sometimes they scream right before they get eaten," Kevin said, neither amused nor upset by this.
I sat down and tried to focus on the blank television set, the way a dancer spots an object on the wall to keep from getting dizzy.
"You can hypnotize snakes, you know," he said. He traced a line on the glass top of the cage with his index finger. The snake followed, the bulge in his stomach about rat-sized. Kevin started to unlatch the cage again.
"You're not going to let that thing out, are you?"
"You have to let them crawl around on you, or they'll forget how to act around people. That's when they start to bite."
I looked at him with fear, so he closed the latch and explained that his pet wasn't poisonous, but did have a decoagulator in its fangs so that the only risk was bleeding a lot when bitten.
"That's a comfort," I said. "Do you have anything else to drink?" I was afraid my buzz would wear off, and I would want to run far away from Kevin and his awful snake.
He reached into his cabinet and pulled out a bottle of beautiful green liquid. I couldn't imagine what it might be.
"Try some of this," he said, pouring a small amount into a glass tumbler. "It's absinthe. Illegal here, but I have a buddy who had a case shipped from Belgium. If you drink enough of it, you'll hallucinate."
I didn't know if I should trust him, but I downed it and waited. I didn't see anything that wasn't there before.
"You warm enough?" Kevin asked. He had turned out the lights by the glass box and sat down on his couch. "I'm having a hard time controlling the temperature in here. It's really tough on him" -- He motioned to the beast, now at rest -- "because he doesn't have any internal regulatory device. He's sensitive to the slightest deviations in the atmosphere."
I concluded that this had all been a mistake, but that the roller coaster bar had clicked and I was going on this ride whether I liked it or not. I found my way to the bathroom. As I looked in the mirror, I heard music coming out of the other room. It sounded like "My Funny Valentine," a sad version, the best kind.
Kevin didn't have any toilet paper, just a bunch of coffee filters that sat on the back on the toilet seat, blooming like some kind of overgrown flower. I touched the counter and jumped from a small static shock. As I dug around in my purse for some make-up, my reflection quivered before me as if illuminated by candlelight instead of the ugly florescent ones set into the medicine cabinet.
"Are you okay?" Kevin yelled.
I nodded before I realized that he couldn't see me. "Give me a minute to pull myself together."
I found my lipstick and tried to draw a bow, but found myself going out of the lines. The more I tried to make it work, the bigger mess I made. I consoled myself that I had a kissed, pouty look that might be mistaken for sex appeal. Before putting everything away, I shocked myself again. I couldn't seem to stop.
"You look great," Kevin said. I knew how I looked: drunk, clownish, tired. I smiled anyway. It didn't take much.
After a few kisses on the couch, Kevin hauled me up by my hands and led me to the bedroom. I was glad to get away from the snake, but nervous as to what might happen next. My heart was beating fast, but I felt drowsy from all the drinks. It didn't seem like those two things could happen at the same time, but they were.
Michelle Spell of the Day
"You stop and then you go. You just go then." My brilliant wisdom to my friend Angela when we were stuck in a traffic jam in Ohio for a very long time
Drinking movie suggestion: Spider
Benedictions and Maledictions