Wood is Wood
by Jamey Genna
I had never tried sushi. Tom thought I should try it, so he took me to a Japanese restaurant where he knew the owner. We sat at a long counter. We were given a larger than usual helping and our coffees were comped. I knew the restaurant business, so I wasn’t impressed, but I was grateful. I thought I might like sushi if it wasn’t the only thing on the menu.
Tom had a sneaky way of looking at me. Sideways, with a slight grin on his face. He had dark hair, a small frame, tight hair, very intent blue eyes with small pupils. When he looked at me, I tried dilating my pupils to see if I could make them larger. To see if I could send a reverse signal to him. Try on his intensity.
Were we talking about my job or his?
Was he, did he say he was a shipbuilder? No, he reupholstered ships for a living. He’d been a down and out low-life drunk, the lowest kind, he said. Came from a wealthy family, a very wealthy family. His parents were through with him. Sent him to college. Set him up in the family business and all he did was abuse it. So, he lived on the street for a long time. He was proud of it. I pictured him lying in a gutter, drunk on vodka, unshaven. His blue pointed eyes rolling back in his eyelids. It was hard to imagine, but I knew he wanted me to. To feel his descent from beauty to horror. I didn’t know about his kind of survival skills. Where I grew up, we had a hole in the floor next to the toilet for several years and my dad drove a car we called a “beater.” I only knew about the importance of an education. I was a teacher—a middle school teacher. I was so scared my first day, my girlfriend had to give me a back pill the night before to put me to sleep.
Tom looked at me sideways, rolled his eyes under his lids. That’s not clean and sober, he told me, but I didn’t care, I was that scared.
We drove to his place in Newport.
It was on the edge of the ocean, in a shack, it used to be a garbage man’s shack, a trailer, but they’d moved the dump somewhere else to make way for beach renewal. He’d bought the place, moved in there after he started over, redid the inside. He used to sleep in there when he was homeless. He was sketchy on where and how he got his start-over money. I guessed I was supposed to imagine this, too.
This was our third date. On our second date, he’d bought me a plant for my new apartment. A big plant. He told me he could find me a place to get a nice couch for cheap. His idea of cheap was not less than a thousand. He talked about the importance of a good frame, but I thought, wood is wood. And wire holds a muffler on a truck. I told him I kind of liked sitting on the floor.
The shack was a trailer with paneling built up around it to make it look like a house. It was low to the ground. To get in, we had to drive through a large steel fence that he had to get out of the car to roll open. I told him he needed a fence door opener. Couldn’t he make that in his shipbuilding factory?
Reupholstery, he laughed.
On our first date, we’d gone out with a bunch of his fellowship friends to see a movie. It was a communal date. I didn’t know anybody, so I listened to them talk at dinner afterward. We went to Newport Beach to a mall restaurant. There was low lighting and expensive food that tasted prepackaged. I let the guys pay. I hadn’t received my first paycheck yet and was living off borrowed money from my own start-over fund.
Our second date is when he took me to his shipbuilding warehouse. There was a ship in there, with the benches all pulled out. There was all kinds of leather lying around and tubs of the round tacks used for furniture. He showed me his photo portfolio. Brown leather, white leather, red and blue leather, boat steering wheels covered in hole-punched leather with stylish cord wrapping. Then he told me it was really only a polyurethane product that looked as close to leather as it could get. It refracted the water. He liked to use two colors in a boat. There were lots of ship interiors in the pictures with his signature two colors inside them. Red with blue. Brown with white.
He had made the plans for the third date, too.
I asked him, “So we’re going to watch a movie?”
And he said, “Yeah, Blue Velvet. By David Lynch. Isabella Rosselini’s in it.”
I’d never heard of it. Of course I’d heard of David Lynch. You were supposed to have.
When he opened the door to his shack, a tall dalmation came running up to us. It had spots all over it. It had black-lined gums and a pink mouth. It was friendly in an overly weird way, pushing up between us, putting his nose in my crotch and then turning away with a dismal expression.
Tom’s place didn’t have air conditioning. It was hot in there. There were pictures of women bending over cars—two pictures, one over his bed and one over his table. His bed was large, but it still looked like a ship bunk—flat and rectangular and up high, like something you had to climb into. His kitchen was like a ship’s cabin, small with a counter that folded up and came down. The living room had a wall with a couch against it and a TV on a rolling cart and a sliding glass door that took up the whole end wall. I couldn’t see anything outside because it was dark out there and there was a tall metal fence interspersed with pickets around the building.
The movie started a love affair for me with Dennis Hopper, but it was too weird for me to get excited the way I imagined I was supposed to. The dog kept pushing up between us on the couch and Tom said it was hot and the dog had fleas and Tom took off his shirt. He kept slapping his back with his shirt. He said the fleas were biting him. He kept snapping orders at the dog to get away from us. He would say all of a sudden, “Get back.” Finally he put the dog outside. The dog didn’t bother me. I liked his interruption. Tom didn’t put his shirt back on. He had a nice chest, but it was bare.
Then the movie was over and Tom put his arms around me and started kissing me. He asked me if I wanted to stay over, but he surprised me, so I said I couldn’t yet.
He stopped kissing me and he wrapped his arms around my ribcage and said, “You have the largest ribcage on a woman I’ve ever met. You’re so big around.” I’m actually quite small, but I wasn’t offended. I wondered how small the women he’d dated were. I was a swimmer, if I’d been taller, I would have been in proportion. To me, he felt small. The men I knew had always been large and very tall, so I told him, “Well, you’ve got a really small chest area for a man. I feel like I could break you.” It wasn’t an insult, just an observation. I gave him a body shake just to show.
Then he asked me why I’d let him pay for dinner if it was just a friends thing and I said he seemed like he had the money. It was a joke, but he didn’t get my sense of humor.
He started to move around his ship-house really fast then, gathering up his shirt, saying he could give me a ride home. He said, “I think you were offended about what I said about your chest.” I started laughing because I wasn’t. He said, “That’s why you said that about mine.”
I didn’t know how to make things go right. I said, “I like you. I just don’t know how much yet.” He didn’t like that either. He called his dog back in and we left.
A week or so later, I figured out I’d left my glasses at his place. They were kind of new, black. I didn’t need them to see, but I could still use them when I was backing up.
Tom said, “You’ll have to come get them.”
Okay. I figured it out. So, I asked him would he mail them to me, but he wouldn’t. I told him I was sick, I had the flu. I did, but he said I’d have to come out to his worksite on a Wednesday or a Friday morning at ten. He said he’d taken them to his place and put them in a drawer there.
His shipbuilding place?
“Up-hol-stery shop!” he said very precisely. Apparently he was angry.
“It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention,” I said. “I just can’t remember that word.” He still wouldn’t mail them to me.
Ship reupholsterer, I kept repeating.