Kite Flying by Mark Putzi
IT’S NEARLY SUMMER break and you’ve grown accustomed to walking in the rain. It rains. You duck inside your favorite dinner bar and order your hot dog with the works, dill spear, Jacob Best. You finish your dinner and are about to leave for class, putting money for your bill and a generous tip on the table of your booth. On your way out you pass the bar and she’s there with a man you’ve never seen before. Her hand is over the kite. His hand is over her hand.
You walk quickly past, hoping she doesn’t see you. But halfway up the block and soaking wet, you think, “Why not go back?” and back you go. To ace this final in a Mickey Mouse American History course you’re taking about the Gilded Age, all you have to do is study. Class attendance isn’t mandatory: your texts are self-explanatory. There’s a girl who sits next to you. She aced the mid-term and you’re sure you can get her notes.
You’re belly up to the bar again and you greet her: your dream girl. She is unusually cordial, something you attribute to the presence of her guest. She introduces him as Alex, a name you’ve heard many times in connection with her, but you’d also heard that was over. From the proximity of their hands, you have your doubts.
Smiling, he offers you a handshake. You hate his guts, but shake his hand anyway because she’s expecting you to do so. His grip is hot, sweaty and very strong. But you meet his handshake squeeze for squeeze. You understand he can touch her anytime he wants, and that is the source of his power over you. You want to break his arm, but you smile when he explains as if it meant something that she has mentioned you.
You order another Jacob Best from the bartender and he looks at you like you’re a weirdo. But he takes your money without argument, fills a pilsner glass, and sets it down in front of you atop a cardboard coaster. As he walks away, you think, “You are right Mr. Bartender. I’m a weirdo.”
You tell her, “I like your new sweater.”
She says, “It’s not new. My sister gave it to me.”
You say, “Is that a kite?”
“Yes,” she says, “I’m afraid it’s not the best weather for kite flying.”
“Not unless you want to get soaked,” you say, and you drink half your beer. The man she’s with says something, and she looks at him. He lifts their hands, now fisted into a tight love knot, between their two chins. She looks into his eyes and he looks back.
You say, “I’ve never seen you here before.”
“We just stopped in because it was raining,” she says without turning her face.
“That’s nice,” you say.
She tells him she saw her mother for the first time in months over Spring Break. He nods, listens. They stare momentarily with a sort of yearning gaze into each other’s eyes. You feel dizzy, sick to your stomach, as if you had a hangover, as if the air in the room were like the air above a urinal. But when he goes to kiss her, she laughs and tells him to behave himself. She turns to you.
“I haven’t seen you much at work lately,” she says.
“Well I’m around,” you say. You don’t say, “I’m avoiding you.”
“Did you hear Student Employment Services is sponsoring a big tailgate party over the summer? It’s a sort of worker morale booster. Ten dollars. All the beer you can drink, dinner at the Union, and tickets to the Brewer game. You should go.”
You think, “What difference will it make if you’ll bring Alex or some other dumb…?”
A FEW DAYS later, you punch out at a quarter to three as usual. You hold in your hand the poster you stole from the third floor cafe while you were cleaning behind the bar. You know she leaves at three, so you avoid ever having to see her. But you see the door to the courtyard which leads to the lower-level parking structure has been blocked open with a chair. You investigate.
The weather is warm and beautiful for the first time in months. She has found a little patch of sunlight between the shadows of the high walls surrounding the courtyard. She’s moved a little bench away from its usual position against the wall into the patch of sunlight, and she’s sitting, wearing dark glasses, smiling. It appears she’s smiling at you.
“Getting your tan a little early?” you inquire as you approach.
“My tan is something I’m immensely proud of.”
“You should be. Last summer I saw you. You were beautiful.”
“Me and Zonker Harris.”
You hesitate to sit beside her on the bench. Finally, she indicates a chair set at an angle in front of a picture window. Through the picture window, you see the darkened outlines of laboratory benches. You’ve been in that room only once in your lifetime. Atop the benches, you note the outlines of the small electronically operated potter’s wheels. The devices fascinated you that afternoon you mopped, but you dared not switch one on. You imagined the wet clay spinning between your fingers.
You fetch the chair, position it in front of her and sit. She takes off her dark glasses and looks directly into your eyes, but you look away. Graffiti on the walls.
She says, “I don’t know what I’m going to do after work with it so nice out. Finally after all that awful rain we have some nice weather. Beautiful kite flying weather. And the wind is nice and warm coming in off the Lake.”
You imagine a filled picnic basket, a checkered red and white table cloth spread out on the new grass.
You say, “It’s been eighteen years since I’ve flown a kite. The last time, I was six years old. I went with my older cousin Danny. It was at a park by my uncle’s house. It was so much fun I never wanted to go because I knew my dreary old parents would be playing cards with my dreary old uncle and aunt. But it got dark and the wind got cold. Finally, I couldn’t see the kite, and Danny took it down and we went home.”
She says, “Sounds like you had a good time.”
“Yes,” you say, “it was so long ago, I didn’t remember until just now how much fun it was.”
She asks, “What are you holding?”
“It’s a poster. I got it from the cafe upstairs. It says, ‘It’s Miller time at UWM.'”
She says, “You ought to make a kite out of it.”
You don’t say anything. She looks away from you and smiles. Her profile in the sunlight is like one of those Greek statues you’ve seen. You want to kiss her, forget about the kite flying. You want to make love to her on the checkered table cloth spread out over the grass with everyone you know watching you and cheering you both on. When she talks to you, she has this way of inciting your imagination. Once you told her you were in love with her and she almost cut herself with a bread knife. Then you quit working food service because she flirted with all the other men, sometimes right in front of your face, and it drove you crazy. But you’d set yourself up nice for next Fall by getting to know the guy in charge of janitorial.
After you quit you literally ached for her. You dreamt of her, thought you saw her on the street a number of times, but when you called to her, it was always someone else. You saw her your first day back as a janitor, and she ran away from you, because it was an hour and a half before the Union would be open to the public, and she assumed you were stalking her. “The letter,” you thought, and then you knew how wrong you’d been to try to explain things to her with so awkward a device. Since then there have been many painful chance meetings, most of which have not been chance on your part. The communication you’ve maintained with her has always been terrible. Now it’s the best opportunity you’ve had since she approached you at the dish tub back in food service.
She says, “It’s time for me to go back to work now. Too bad you only got to talk to me for three minutes.”
“Three minutes beats nothing,” you say.
She gets up and straightens her apron, standing right in front of you about a foot away. You follow her hands up and down the front of her apron as she cups her breasts, then passes her hands one after the other over her flat waist, over the round of her hips and down the front of her thighs. She turns her head askew and looks at you with a tight-lipped smile. It’s the look she gave the man in the bar the other day, but now you feel uncomfortable. Could this be different only because she is looking at you?
There is a patch of blueberry jelly staining her apron between her breasts. You would give your left arm to lick that blueberry jelly until all the flavor is gone. But you can’t touch her because you’re frozen.
Halfway to the door, she turns and looks at you with her arms crossed. It’s obvious she’s waiting. You see she’s angry. She wants you to ask to fly a kite with her. She finally turns and marches away with her fists clenched. She marches.
THE NEXT DAY you see her in the break room. She was not there when you punched out at three, or rather, you couldn’t tell because the door was closed and the window was too small to see all the way in back. But you note the light in the break room is turned on. The door to the courtyard is also closed, but you don’t expect her to be outside today because it’s raining again and cold. Braving the rain, you walk over the little bridge which spans the courtyard between the Union and Concomitas Hall, the political science building. Through a large picture window, you see clearly into the lit break room. A short blond man you recognize as her boss sits facing the window, talking to a woman with long blond hair, with her back to you. You run down a stairwell into the courtyard, but the door to the hallway is locked. You run back upstairs the way you just came, through the Union, down the big center stairwell you swept an hour earlier while a thousand students circled their way around you, all in a big hurry, presumably to get to class. Behind the concourse, you find the hallway which leads to the time clock and break room. Opening the door to the break room, you step inside. She sits facing her boss.
When you opened the door, you heard their laughter, but now they’re both silent. You remember her boss was the one who pulled at her blouse at the dinner party you crashed. He wanted a better look between her breasts and you were outraged she didn’t mind. She did not look at him while he was doing this, but talked gleefully to another man who sat on the opposite side of her. Then her boss balled up the piece of paper he was holding in his left hand, the piece of paper with her phone number on it, and stuffed it down her blouse. She smiled at him, excused herself to go to the ladies’ room, undoubtedly to remove his little missive.
Now they’re talking again as if you’re not there, and you sit down across from them. You ask his name and he tells you and snickers. You aren’t quite sure he’s laughing at you, but from your perspective there’s nothing funny going on, so his laughter must involve you somehow. You comment on his neat appearance. One would think that as a baker, there would be at least some flour on his shirt, on the corners of his bushy mustache. She jumps right into your conversation.
She says, “Oh yes, remember that time you shaved it off and I said you looked so nice, and then I saw the stitches and felt so stupid? Here I was thinking you’d just done it for a change of pace and it turns out you’d cut your lip. How embarrassing.”
More embarrassing is the fact that you were standing right there when she said it. You also recall he came up to you the minute she left and told you flatly he was going to fuck her. He spoke to you as one man secretly boasting to another of a conquest.
He laughs and nervously you laugh along with him. From the look on his face, he remembers that day.
You take a chance and ask her, “How about a little kite flying?”
“Bad weather,” she says curtly, and he laughs very loudly and slaps his thigh. Again she has that look on her face, only this time it’s directed toward her boss. He looks into her eyes, leans toward him, props her chin on her fist.
The next several minutes are extremely hazy for you. You hear their voices, but what sticks in your mind is her laughter as he mentions her sitting on the edge of a bathtub biting the nail of her big toe. Finally he says, “My break’s over. Are you coming with me or do you want to stay with him?”
She says, “I’m coming with you.”
He gets up and she follows close behind him. At the door they pause, and he says, “I ought to get us some time off. This job is killing me. Boy I’ll tell you. Sometimes I swear I could use a wheelchair.”
She says, “Just order one and I’ll wheel you wherever you want to go.”
TWO WEEKS BEFORE the end of the semester you decide, since your work is nearly completed, you are going to take a break. You develop the habit of sitting in the break room from a quarter to three when you punch out until four-thirty when all the day-shift workers in the Union, students and Civil Service workers alike, have left. For the first few days of your occupation of the break room, employees you recognize from food service pass by the little window, grimace as they look inside and then disappear, either grumbling or laughing. Since the day you saw her with her boss you have not seen her in the break room or anywhere else. For the first time the idea strikes you, “Why not go into the bakery?” But you’re disgusted with the image of her and her boss side by side.
Was it a week ago or two weeks ago that you last saw her? You can’t be sure. You are sure when the semester’s over, you are going to work for your old man.
On the fourth afternoon of your vigil, you come to the door of the break room finding it open, and inside you see a man sitting by himself. You assume he works with her because he wears a white uniform with jelly smeared across the front of it. He’s not her boss, but you remember you saw this man eating lunch with her a month ago, when you briefly mentioned to her that all the sour cream she’d dabbed on top of her Mexican plate lunch added wasteful calories and fat grams. “Who cares?” she’d replied, “I love it!”
He sits and looks away from you with a sort of forced indifference. He’s very tall and appears more muscular than the men you’ve seen with her in the past. But you won’t let him interfere with what you perceive as an observance of your ritual.
You sit down at a table and read from a book entitled The Universe of Force, by R.E. Martin. You’ve read a two-thousand word essay about Martin Eden over and over. Today, you’d intended to study a different part of your textbook. But he sits across from you, and you wonder what he’s thinking. You want to ask him what it’s like to sleep with your dream girl, but you cannot imagine anything more demoralizing than to verbalize such a question. You glance up from the book to find him staring at you. Instantly, your eyes fall back upon the printed page. You recite aloud from memory.
Martin had been a fighter since childhood, first physical (a notable brawler and amateur boxer), then intellectual, and he was proud of his strength and contemptuous of his weaknesses.
You continue silently to yourself. Ten minutes later, he gets up and leaves. You hear him murmuring something in the hallway. Then you hear the voice of an old women you recognize, the counter person from the cafeteria downstairs. She says, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your problem. He’ll have to face up to it.” He speaks again, but no matter how hard you try to listen, you can’t distinguish his words. His voice is too low. He seems to grumble, but then there’s also something the matter with your hearing. The old woman says, “No. She wants nothing to do with him. She likes you and that’s all there is to it. If I were you, I’d just ignore him. It’s none of his business anyway. Go out. Have a good time. You’re a lucky guy, you know. She’s very beautiful.”
IN THE LAST several days of your vigil, it gets easier to read in the break room. Nobody disturbs you. It’s as if the break room has become your private cell, something you have earned through persistence and because of the magnitude of your suffering. Sometimes workers laugh or whistle as you pass them in the hallway. You feel like a man being led to his execution. You focus upon the goal you have determined for yourself: to take over the break room as yours until the end of the semester.
You get all your homework done. You believe isolation is a small price to pay to “re-establish your manhood” as you tell yourself repeatedly.
A friend of yours who is rather stupid knows the situation from both sides because his job shuttles him between the third floor and the kitchen. At times during your absurd relationship with your dream girl, you have used him as a kind of speaking tube to the bakery, taking advantage of his gullibility and of his willingness to involve himself in practically any circumstance. However, since the start of your vigil, your good friend has remained abnormally distant. With only two days before finals, he at last confronts you. You are vacuuming the third floor cafe, when he pushes up next to you with a cart of clean plates and soup bowls. You shut off your vacuum, and discover him smiling agitatedly as he asks, “What did you do in the break room to that guy? Punch him out or something?”
“All I did was sit there and read a book? Is it a crime to be literate?”
He says, “No kidding! Wow! That’s fucking crazy! You wouldn’t believe down there what they been saying about you.”
Yes you would believe. And you tell him so.
YOUR GRADES are the best they’ve ever been. You average an A-minus across the board with no grade lower than a B-plus. At the post-final party for the class about the Gilded Age, you end up making out with the A student who sat next to you all semester. She offers her phone number, but you don’t call her. You work for your father over summer vacation. Just as you suspect, he goes broke after four weeks. But he promises to pay your rent through December, and you take the opportunity to leave your sick roommates, one of whom insists he has slept with your dream girl eight times, and move into an apartment by yourself. It’s merely chance your new apartment overlooks the Union from across the street.
One day while you lounge in the afternoon sun, beer in hand, you peer down from your ninth-floor balcony and see a large group of people congregated noisily around three tables which have been pulled from inside the cafeteria out onto the terrace. It’s unusual because it’s Summer Break and no one is at the university if they can help it. You look closer and see it’s the group from food service and then you remember the tailgate party. Sure enough you see her. Her back is turned. She sits alone and doesn’t appear to be talking to anyone. Is she waiting for you? You watch for half an hour. She turns several people away when they come up and try to talk to her. You decide to go for a long walk because you did not buy a ticket to the tailgate party.
IN THE FALL you’re broke because you didn’t find a job to replace the one you lost when your Old Man went broke again. Sure enough, rent is paid for: who knows where the money comes from, but it comes. Still, there’s food, clothing, Jacob Best. You beseech your old boss at the Union to take you back as a janitor. He says, “I can put you to work right away,” and you end up scrubbing the asbestos out of four-thousand ceiling tiles they’ve stripped down from above the kitchen.
At the end of the day you’re beat. For the first time in months, you go back to your favorite dinner bar, wondering if you’ll be recognized, if the waitresses and bartenders will remember your order. You walk in and you don’t know one person working there. You wonder if the place has changed hands. You realize there’s a quick turnover in college bars, but has it really been that long? You don’t think so. There’s a black man who’s a regular there, a mutual friend of yours and your dream girl’s. He sits beside you, asks, “Where you been hiding all this time?” You say you were not hiding.
He says, “I hear you’re working at the Union again. Why don’t you go see…?” and he mentions her name.
“Why?” you ask, “she wants nothing to do with me.”
“Why don’t you go to the bakery and find out?”
THE NEXT DAY you punch out fifteen minutes early and walk to the bakery: your mind is in a far-off land someplace and you are listening to Indian snake charmer music. You step inside the bakery and she is talking to the tall blond man you read in front of in the break room. You feel relieved to see the boss is gone. But you see the blond man off to the side.
She holds a pot in one hand, dipping batter into 9″ circular cake pans. She fills three pans out of seven, then goes to a stainless steel vat to dip out more batter. When she bends over the vat, you look at her ass. It’s perfect or at least what you conceptualize as perfect. In the cafeteria thousands of students every day eat her cake without ever knowing how perfect her ass is. (From this day forward, you will always look upon her cake with reverence. The way you eat her cake will be deserving of a ten-thousand word anthropological essay.) She turns, sees you, and almost drops her metal bowl.
“Hell,” you say, “how are you?”
“Fine,” she says. She does not look fine.
You try to tell her something. You tell her, “Those things that happened before. They’re in the past. They don’t matter.” This is not what you wanted to tell her.
She looks down and says, “I realize that.”
You say, “Let’s forget about what happened before. Let’s not even think about it.” And you cry in front of both of them because you know you’re not telling the truth. The tall blond man is so embarrassed with your crying, he goes behind the counter, turns his back and pretends he’s straightening a shelf.
She says, “Just don’t worry about it, O.K.?” Her voice is broken as if she’s in pain, and then there is a long interlude during which you hear only the ovens: A kind of humming noise.
After you’ve left, you realize you can never face her again.
OVER THE NEXT few weeks, you finally call the A student, date her and actually have sex with her several times before you dump her. You conclude you don’t love the A student and that sex isn’t nearly the big deal you assumed it would be. Frequently you see your dream girl in the hallway, but you never speak to her. Sometimes she is alone, sometimes with other women, or with the blond man, who seems now almost always to walk a step behind her. Once you see her at the dinner bar with the black man, and she looks up at you from across the room, but you don’t dare come near her. Finally, when you can’t stand it any longer, you detain your speaking tube in the cafe and announce your dream girl is a whore and a slut and you never want to speak to her again. You say you hate her. You admit you’ve considered killing her. You even joke about the time she met you in the courtyard, calling her “just a flirt” and mentioning how you laughed afterward that she had actually, for a change, paid attention to you. But you quickly cover up. “Of course she didn’t mean anything by it.”
About a week later you pass her in the hallway. Lately, she has adopted an expressionless glaze upon seeing you. Today however she scowls and hunches forward, an animal poised to attack.
You ask her as she passes by, “Are you alright?”
“Leave me alone!” she screams and continues down the hallway at a faster pace, walking stiffly. But then you see her pause, raise her hand to her face, and you hear her quietly weeping. You have an image in your mind of holding her. She weeps on your shoulder, and you tell her, “It’s all right. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s only love.” But her image is getting smaller and smaller as she resumes her passage down the hallway, and you realize she means nothing to you at all.
Once again you will have to wait until the end of the semester to get out of here.
Mark Putzi received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in 1990. He has published fiction and poetry, both in print and online, in the US and in many other countries. He lives in Milwaukee.