TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 3

Gasoline Caroline

 · Fiction

The year we bought the couch — when we finally had enough money saved to buy our first real couch, not a charity couch from our parents or a Goodwill futon — that year my husband died. He died unexpectedly. I don’t want you to start worrying. This is not a sad story or anything downtrodden and gloomy, a look-how-sad-I-am-and-isn’t-that-impressive story. I don’t like those stories; I wouldn’t tell one if I could avoid it, and I can avoid it. For example, I’m not going to tell you how he died. Firstly, it’s not important, and secondly, it’s sad the way he died and like I said.

In the days just after his death I lost the ability to fall asleep. For a little while, I didn’t notice. My soul was wearing waders and life was a swamp. One day, though, I went to lie down on the couch (not the bed, of course, I’m not a masochist now and I wasn’t then) and found that though my body hurt and my head hurt, though everything sagged and ached, I had lost the ability to fall asleep. I panicked.

At first I blamed it on his physical absence. I held his shirts in my face and his underwear and pulled his ties around my neck and lay down in them. When that didn’t work, I pulled his large white socks onto my hands like mittens and held them up into the hollows of my eyes, where I needed them. I lay down again. I put his toothbrush in my mouth and lay down with it jutting up like a thermometer. I lay awake.

The next day I went to Macy’s early in the morning and waited at the doors until they opened. I bought ten bottles of his cologne. It was called Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier. (Or, it is called Le Male by Jean Paul Gaultier. Verb tenses torture the grieving. He is dead, his cologne is not. Unjust.) It (comes) in a blue bottle that (is) shaped to look like a man’s torso. Just the torso.

I came home and sat on the steps of our building because I had forgotten my keys. I waited. It was not raining. It was a sunny day, a warm, cloudless day. I sat and waited for someone to come home and let me in. The person who came, eventually, hours later maybe or maybe not (life-as-swamp, remember), was Gasoline Caroline.

Should I describe her? Is that necessary? I assume everyone knows Gasoline Caroline and even if you don’t, you likely have a pretty good idea. If you said pink hair, yes, you are right, buffalo herd tattoos from armpit to hip bone, yes, skinny as a whip, yes, yes, so you know, and I don’t need to describe her. Beautiful, of course, in a very tight-skinned and strong-devil way. And you pronounce it so it rhymes. Gaso-Line Caro-Line, she so fine, Caro-Line Caro-Fine.

She stopped and put her hand on the top of my head and with her fingertips massaged my scalp. She nodded at my shopping bag.

“This,” she said, “Is this a bag of kittens? Hammers?”

Then she took the bag from my hands and rooted through it. She pulled one of the torso bottles from its box and sprayed it into the air, toward the street. She put her nose in the cloud. I started to cry.

“Smells like a man, oh, like a hell of a man,” said Gasoline Caroline. She went up the steps behind me, unlocked the door, and went in. She left the little blue bottle wedged in the door, so that when I stopped crying I could get up and follow her and go upstairs to my apartment, the door to which I had left ajar. And this is what I did. Then, I unscrewed and emptied one bottle of Le Male onto the couch, and then I lay down on the couch, and then I did not get up from the couch until the next day. I did not sleep. When I did get up, I went to the bathroom. (Grief had made my bowels sloppy, and even after I had finished, I remained sitting there on the toilet. It was so comfortable, even more comfortable than the couch. I felt as though I was accomplishing something by sitting there.)

When I was done in the bathroom, I remembered a rumor that if you dipped your hand in cologne and set it on fire, you’d be okay. I tried that standing over the stove. I was okay. You have to put it out very quickly. Have a dishtowel handy.

I would walk from the stove to the bathroom to the couch. The couch was always damp. I tried to sleep. I could not. A pattern developed — couch, stove, toilet, couch, stove, toilet, couch — and continued. Sometimes I didn’t even have to use the toilet, but found it appropriate to sit there. I closed the bathroom door every time. I never locked it. I never had locked it, though. I was exhausted. My head ached and my eyes burned. At some point I thought that it might be easier to sleep if I removed my shoes, so I unlaced them but never quite got around to removing them. I was too tired to pull them off. But the unlacing of them felt nice and also like an accomplishment. Then I thought that maybe it would be easier to sleep if I turned a light on, like parents do for small children. I turned on a lamp, the standing lamp by the window. The effort of turning on the lamp reduced me to tears and I went to sit on the toilet again. (I should mention, because I haven’t before, that I only cried on the toilet. Never on the couch. I think I knew that if I started crying on the couch, I’d never stop. The toilet made me feel capable. In control. Unpleasant things experienced on/around/in the toilet always ended.)

I was exhausted.

Often there would come the sound of knocking at my door and it was always sad, thudding, metered knocking, serious knocking, the knocking of serious-faced visitors. I did not open the door, but instead felt angry at the knocking, glared at the door, and waited for it to stop and leave me alone. It always did, they always do, don’t they.

I was exhausted.

I sat on the couch. I played a little game. I pretended I was in a waiting room and at any moment sleep would poke its head around the corner of a hallway and call my name. Perhaps mispronouncing it just slightly. I would cock my head to one side, point inquisitively at myself and sleep would nod, smile, and beckon. Sorry about the wait, sleep would apologize, we’ve been very busy. Oh, good, you brought a book. Oh, yes, I’ve been meaning to read that. Sleep is a voracious reader — and a curious one. Sleep will read anything once.

As I was playing at waiting, the knocking came again, but this time it was different. It was not urgent knocking or serious knocking. This knocking was lazy. The knocking of someone who has brought you a doughnut but doesn’t mind if you’re not home because they sort of want to eat it themselves. (And really, they had bought it to eat themselves, but the only way they could justify buying it at the time was to say that it was for someone else.) It was that kind of knock, so I got up and I opened the door.

Gaso-Line Caro-Line, Caro-Line Caro-Fine. Say it right and her name is like a rhyme, a hopscotch song for children or a sea shanty for sailors, tasty and teasing and taunting. She is a jump rope name, a bouncing trampoline Caroline.

She was standing at my door with her knobby spine to me and she had her gasoline can at her feet. Each time Gasoline Caroline goes out in the night, she wears the same thing. Annapolis High football jersey number 41, gray cotton panties, big black firefighter boots. A thick streak of eye black under each eye. Obviously, too, the big red gasoline can.

She turned to me.

“You can come tonight, if you want,” she said. She was picking her nose very nicely with her thumb and forefinger. There was some evidence of a nosebleed on her face.

I didn’t, of course. I was far too busy lying on the couch and sitting on the toilet and setting my hand on fire and putting it out again.

* * *

I did improve.

For example, the day after Gasoline Caroline’s invitation, I was so much improved that I had completely removed both of my shoes and both of my socks and had considered one day, maybe one day soon, taking a shower.

The day after that, I put away all the shirts and ties and socks and underwear.

The day after that, I stopped sucking on his toothbrush.

The day after that, I lit my hand on fire for the last time.

The day after that, I started leaving the bathroom door open, sort of kind of hoping that Gasoline Caroline might come back and also this time maybe bring me some soup.

The day after that, I put on a clean pair of my own underwear and brushed my teeth.

The day after that, I had a bit of a relapse and spent most of the day crying on the toilet.

The day after that, though, I ate a bowl of dry cornflakes and drank a glass of orange juice.

The day after that, I took the shower. Then I ordered a large sausage pizza and ate it standing up in the center of the living room wrapped in a towel, holding the warm bottom of the box in the palm of one hand and a slice of pizza in the other.

The day after that, Gasoline Caroline came back and this time I said yes.

* * *

Everyone loves Gasoline Caroline. I’m not any different. I find what she does really remarkable. Shocking and horrible and extraordinarily risky, but remarkable. She is a singular and impressive human example. Of course I’ve thought of the possibility. One day, yes, it might be my car. I don’t care. None of us care. It’s worth it. You think we care about our cars? Losing our cars? Let me tell you. No. We do not care about our cars.

I stripped down to my underwear (blue and clean) and went to our bedroom to find a football jersey. He had never played football. He liked tennis. He watched soccer. I found a Brazil soccer jersey.

“I don’t have boots like that,” I said from the bedroom.

“Obviously,” said Gasoline Caroline. “Use what you have. All right, all right, all right.”

I put on my running sneakers. They were white. Asics with a silver stripe. I did not wear socks. I felt Amazonian. Nearly naked. Lithe. I wanted a spear. I jogged out to Gasoline Caroline and we went downstairs and out onto U Street. Our apartment building is right on the corner, at the intersection of U, 18th, and Florida. When we moved in we weren’t able to sleep because of the party-bar-drunk noises, the catcalling, the predawn retching sounds. We got used to it.

“How do we choose which one?” I asked.

“You don’t sit there and worry about strategy,” said Gasoline Caroline.

“Right, right,” I said. I was bouncing alongside her on my midsoles.

As we were walking, no one gave us a hard time because everyone knew Gasoline Caroline. Sometimes a dude would yell, more to the sky than to us, “Gaso-Liiiiiine Caro-Liiiiiine,” and we’d walk a little taller. We walked west to 18th Street, turned north, and started walking up the hill. The kids, coming out of the bars staggering and clinging to each other’s shoulders, smiled at us, gave us thumbs up and hollered encouraging things. The girls were beautiful and marred with lipstick. We, of course, were in our underwear. We, however, still had dignity. We had a giant can of gasoline and we had Gasoline Caroline and if there is dignity in this world it is all of it bundled into Gasoline Caroline.

“That’s our meat,” she said, and she pointed it out to me. It was a Jeep. An SUV, a Grand Cherokee Laredo, dark green. Not very old, either. Maybe two years. Still a baby.

Gasoline Caroline waited a second to look right and left, and then darted across the street. I followed her. I felt really fast in my sneakers and underwear. Really light. More people started pouring out of the bars and restaurants. I’m sure they’d seen us through the windows and shouted to each other that Gasoline Caroline was out. The SUV was parked in front of the Ethiopian restaurant, Meskerem. It was one of our favorite restaurants. They had a really good pea dish. (Have. He is dead, the pea dish is not.) He was a vegetarian, mostly.

Gasoline Caroline handed me the can. Then she climbed on top of the SUV and I handed the can to her. She rested it on the roof and leaned down to offer me a hand. It was easy to scramble up the side in my sneakers. She only had to pull me a little.

Standing on top, I looked out over the assembled crowd. I smiled at them. I smiled at Gasoline Caroline. She was solemn. She unscrewed the cap. She took the book of matches out from where she kept it in her bra, and handed it to me. She held the gasoline can over her head and she gave her cry, up to the night air, and then in big, sweeping throws, doused the car in the gasoline. I struck a match, Gasoline Caroline keened again, and I threw the match down. For a moment, half a moment, for a period of time too brief to be measured, the time it takes for the candle flame to extinguish when you pinch it between your fingertips, for this brief gasp of time we were illuminated standing together, and then we jumped off, twisting our knees and ankles, and ran, ran, ran, and ran.

We ran.

She disappeared from my side and I was running in the night all alone. I threw open doors, raced up stairs. I leaned against the door inside my apartment, panting and smelling the stink of the gasoline in my hair. I could not smell his scent, only the smell of the fire and me. The cologne-doused couch could not compete with my new smell. It stood like a gunslinger opposite me and stared me down in my underwear. I, sweaty back and palms flat against the closed door, stared back at the couch, who I thought had been my friend these past days but was, I saw, my sad and ugly enemy.

* * *

We had chosen the couch that all couches aspire one day to be! Our couch was lush and leather and brown — brown like spaded earth, brown like the soft underbelly of a baby Labrador, brown like his eyes, brown like my eyes, brown like the eyes of the child I had not wanted yet and now would never have, brown like the trunks of the great standing elms we had climbed as children together, brown like thick, gooey frosted cake, brown like all the colors of the world had melted in the fire and become this rich, rich, rich brown.

Brown!

Our couch. I kneeled before it like a supplicant. I put my head in its cushions as though they were a lap; I closed my eyes and slept like that, the sound of sirens like a lullaby.
 


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