In Dreams of Old Girlfriends
Always some snag, serve detention or recite the periodic tables under polar ice, or maybe Vesuvius erupts at DQ and I have to save my girlfriend’s poodle, will I melt in lava or only get scorched, perfume everywhere if you count chlorine on swimsuits, and I do, or cordite romancing sagebrush, that lovely girl-smell of tennis sweat, I breathe it in, here’s the good news, now I can fly, here’s the bad, she left her wings under the south bleachers, always awful timing with old girlfriends, her dream horses pawing my pasture, yahoo, but I have algebra, or my happiness balloons riding shotgun in her Gremlin but she has to babysit, just once I wish her red ants would picnic with my black ants and mean it, which is to say, they love me, these old girlfriends, but from a distance, my fears and favorite words tumbling out at once, have you found the augury in my chimera, could you spangle my spectral topaz, that’s right, I’m pledging allegiance but always to a jasmine blouse or sour apple gum, never directly to pouty lips, and there’s great kissing potential in the air only she’s a pelican and I’m a crayfish, I’ll do anything for her, for them, cheat on the ACT, wear a tuba instead of a tuxedo, should I put girlfriend in all caps or only quotes, finally we step from the hot springs, time to change from freezing suits back to sweats, my car two miles away, is this really a first date, wind chill, hypothermia, so we stand back-to-back to doff and don, her staring at foothills, ready to bombinate the north star, and me all kowtow serene, doing anchorite hops among dying aspens, when she spoils it by saying can I trust you not to look, and I spoil it by saying I’m sorry my hotfooted cumulus I hate myself but yes you can.
Q & A: Decoy Boyfriend
Q: And this girl Marissa, just who was she afraid of?
A: Anyone who liked her, more specifically George Fix, a defensive end who could bench press a VW bug, which is what Marissa drove. His mother was Greek, his dad was a roto-rooter man. Think of George as a bird of prey snatching an innocent pigeon from the air.
Q: This was back in high school?
A: That’s right. I was poised to mow lawns all summer, and Marissa was poised to save drowning kids when she climbed her lifeguard tower, and the sun was poised to forever purge paleness from the vocabulary of her skin, and her body was poised to cause car crashes if you stared too long when she walked home.
Q: And you were a lot smarter than George?
A: If by smarter you mean not making moves on Marissa, then yes. That’s why she liked me. When I came up with DB, short for decoy boyfriend, she howled with laughter—my pet name the rest of the summer.
Q: What exactly made her tick?
A: Hard to say. She wanted to be Amazon bronze, but didn’t throw herself at guys. She was a cheerleader but had a head for math. Religious but a Sabbath breaker, anorexic but not about food. Always fighting to control something: who had the best tan, who could avoid the most dates. And she loved horses, I mean from faraway, watching them run.
Q: Did you ever get to hold her hand?
A: On lucky days when Georgie Porgie was on the prowl. She’d give me instructions, like we were in an acting class. “Pretend I just told you something romantic.” “Hold hands till the corner, then he can’t see us anymore.” Or maybe she’d snuggle into me and say, “Put your arm around me, like we’re going to make out, he’s watching from his Jeep.”
Q: And you went along?
A: Had to. I wanted to spend time with her, and that’s what decoy boyfriends do. It
was a lot like voodoo, only I was pushing pins into myself.
Q: And you didn’t mind?
A: Of course I minded but covered it up. I’d share my Carla woes and Zooey woes and Penelope Elizabeth Baxter woes, and ask for advice. All three girls were placebos. Once when George drove by on Marissa’s birthday, she said to me, “Touch my face.” So I did, my finger grazing her ear oh so lightly, like I wasn’t on fire, along her jaw, like it wasn’t a secret map, then under her chin, like electric tides weren’t lapping her lip. Then she laughed and said, “Okay, we’re safe now.” Only I never was.
Q: Were you afraid of him?
A: Intimidated—that’s what I’d call it. He couldn’t do anything too drastic because that would make Marissa hate him. Still, he had his ways. At a party, he “accidentally” bumped me down the stairs and into a couch, and a couple times he ran me off the sidewalk with his Jeep, only veering away at the last minute. He even egged my house, yolks dripping down our picture window like yellow blood. He left a note: “Better leve her a lone.”
Q: Did you drive Marissa places?
A: A few times, but I had to borrow my Mom’s station wagon to do it. We went on milkshake runs, and once caught a movie. Mostly I’d walk her home after work, or we’d jog at the outdoor track late at night. I remember the sprinklers, ka-chaw, ka-chaw, the big industrial ones, the way they notched forward, spraying fifty feet, cool water in pursuit, ka-chaw, then ti-ti-ti-ti, flipping back to start again. We dodged them like felons, but secretly I wanted to get hit.
Q: Did your stint as DB involve any public kissing?
A: Oodles of kissing—in my mind at least. Hello kisses, goodbye kisses, on-her-
doorstep kisses, in the station wagon, underwater, drawn-out Top Gun kisses on a certain path redolent with wild roses where you couldn’t tell the difference between moonlight and the Holy Ghost and the sky making an envelope around us and the crickets sawing our bodies in two.
Q: Did she ever thank you?
A: If “You saved me again” counts, then yes. Over and over. Always followed by “I owe you big time.” And once she gave me a plate of half-eaten brownies from a summer cheerleader camp. And she peeled my back.
Q: She what?
A: Over the Fourth I got this monster sunburn waterskiing. A week or so later, after the blisters, I started peeling like a mummy. When she saw me, she led me into her backyard. She had me take off my shirt and laid me out on her pink beach towel that smelled like coconuts and bananas and baby oil. Smelled like her in other words. My whole back was snake skin. I came apart in these long strips like when you put glue on your hand in first grade and let it dry. Snake babies, that’s what she called those papery shreds, and collected them in a little nest.
Q: Did she talk when she did it?
A: At first she did, a regular emergency room doc stitching up a patient, then just her hands moving across my back, like she was a blind woman reading a contoured map. Then she said, Just a sec, and ran inside, returning with a fresh-cut piece of aloe vera, which she held like a pencil. I mean who has aloe vera? I winced at the first touch. Next she made loops with that icy wand. I asked what she was writing. Wouldn’t you like to know, she said. My back felt gooey and cold but somehow clean.
Q: Did you ever tell her about your secret crush?
A: Not then and not now. I mean I was lying on her towel, and it was pink, and I was a secret message written in lemon juice. I tried putting on my shirt but she said wait till you dry. She took the snake babies between her hands, rubbed them into flecks, and blew. They lifted like dandelion seeds. I was waiting to dry, waiting for her to tell me when. My back was all signature, my back was about to disappear.
Lance Larsen, former poet laureate of Utah, has published five poetry collections, most recently What the Body Knows (Tampa 2018). He has received a number of awards, including a Pushcart Prize and an NEA fellowship. He raises hostas, bikes, and dabbles in aphorisms: “When climbing a new mountain, wear old shoes.”