The Feeling That Something Ain’t Right By: Mario Piumetti

This is the final installment of the Andrew Ursler story by Mario Piumetti. I really want to thank Mario for contributing a serial story to Arts Collide as I develop the site and try to make it what I really want it to be. Read the last story, Conversation in a Dark Truck here.

The Feeling That Something Ain’t Right

By: Mario Piumetti

It was Thursday, and Andrew hadn’t felt so nervous in a long time.  It was the night of his date with Charlotte.  They’d agreed to meet up after he finished with his tutoring appointments.  Charlotte went to the gym after she got off of work and warned Andrew ahead of time.
“I’m going to be all sweaty and gross for sure,” she said, but she also knew she’d be hungry after her workout and didn’t want to delay it.  Andrew assured her that she’d look like no matter what state she was in.  He was calm when he said that, but on the day of, he felt the exact opposite.  His students noticed his edge as he tried to shrug it off casually.  His last appointment ended at half pass seven.  He was the only one left and was ready to lock up the tutoring center as soon as the last student was picked up.  He hopped onto the freeway, exited Colorado Boulevard, and drove down the road for a bit until he came to Vroman’s where he parked in the lot behind.  Even though it was technically for patrons, he’d rarely seen that limitation enforced.
Andrew and Charlotte agreed to meet at a Mexican restaurant called La Fiesta Grande, which had the option of very affordable and delicious all-you-can-eat taco night.  Charlotte waited for him in a booth near the door.  She didn’t look as bad as she warned.  She rose out of her seat to give him a hug.
“How was work?” she asked.
“Long,” said Andrew.  “How was the workout?”
Charlotte sighed.  “Long.”
The waiter came around.  Charlotte asked for a strawberry margarita, while Andrew asked for a soda.  They took a few minutes to go over the menu.  She liked Andrew’s taco suggestion.  The waiter returned with their drinks, and after he got down their dinner order, she excused herself to use the restroom.  She returned looking fresher.  He wondered whether or not she had put on some lipstick, or it could have been the light of the restaurant playing tricks with his mind.
Andre felt anxiety going up his spine as his mind groped for a topic of conversation, anything to get them talking.  It was strange considering how easy conversation was for them last year when they were in their short relationship.  He finally went for the most obvious thing that would brighten Charlotte.
“How’s Lord Barks-a-Lot?”
“Cute,” said Charlotte.  “It’s been so cold in the morning lately that he curls up over the air vent on the floor when the heater’s on.  And because I have a mirror right next to it, he barks at his reflection like he’s meeting another dog.  It’s adorable.”
Andrew never had a dog, so he couldn’t speak to the affection that owners had for their pets.  But Lord Barks-a-Lot was close to Charlotte’s heart, so he smiled as she did.  They talked about work for a bit, which seemed to make him feel a little more awkward.  Work was a pretty standard path of conversation, but it was so mundane that Andrew wondered why people made such a habit of it.  When the talk turned to what currently annoyed them at work – the students that Andrew tutored, and the overpopulation of bosses that Charlotte had to report to – he suspected that human beings might have some deeply rooted need to punish themselves.  The arrival of their tacos gave temporary relief.  It was presented on a lazy Susan with about a dozen small bowls.  Andrew explained to Charlotte the contents of each one ranging from chicken to beef to salsa and guacamole.  One bowl had shredded lettuce.  Another had a pool of sour cream.  A third had Spanish rice shaped like a dome by a spoon used to pack it in.  The waiter brought each of them a container with four or five soft tortillas.
He spent most of the time trying to keep up with her as though they were in some sort of subconscious competition.  Each one tried to outdo the other.  Each one tried to find some new avenue down which the evening might go.  Sometimes the pauses were excusable such as when they needed to actually eat their meal.  Andrew was afraid he was losing Charlotte’s attention, but whenever he looked back at her, he saw that it never left.
They spent a little over an hour at dinner, and then walked around the corner to a coffee shop where she got tea and he a cup of hot chocolate.  There was an upper floor that he found quite comfortable, like the common room in his college dorm with an assortment of worn-in sofas and board games to amuse patrons, but she wanted to keep moving.  Target was down the street.  Charlotte wanted to get a sympathy card for one of her coworkers.
“His cat is dying,” she said.  “I feel bad about that.”
Andrew thought that a dying cat defeated the purpose of having nine lives.  They sipped their drinks as they crossed the street and entered Target.  The store had a huge array of cars options.  Birthday cards.  Get well cards.  Cards celebrating engagements and later marriages.  There were leftover holiday cards alongside the current Valentine’s Day cards.  There were even a few Thanksgiving cards addressed to the family from the pet.  Andrew didn’t know what to make of that at all.  How was a dog supposed to sign a card?
Charlotte scanned the shelves.  “Depressing.  Depressing.  Inappropriate.  Depressing and inappropriate.”
Andrew pointed out a crafty looking card with a lime green bow over a light brown banner, and said, “How ‘bout this one?”
She plucked it out and looked it over.  “It’s not really for cats.”
“No,” he said, “but it seems like a pretty decent one.  Maybe you can draw a little kitten in there, make it all feline, you know?”
She balanced the card in her hands and absentmindedly danced to a little hip-hop tune being played throughout the store.  She cast her vote in with Andrew and bought it.  Their drinks were drained as they left, and they tossed them into a trash bin and crossed the street back into the Vroman’s parking lot.  His truck hadn’t been ticketed.
“Where did you park?” Andrew asked.
“Over on Madison and Green,” she said.
Pasadena wasn’t a dangerous part of Los Angeles, but Andrew didn’t want her walking while he drove off into the night and gave her a lift.  Her Honda was the only car on Green.  He stopped on the other side of the road in front of a building with smooth cream-colored walls, and walked her across to her car.  It stood next to an angled tree in front of a smaller brick building that housed a dress shop.  The lights of the corner store blazed out into the night as a work crew readied a bakery.  The tree hid them from view.
“Thank you for dinner,” she said.  “I had a lot of fun.”
“Me too,” he said.
She leaned in for a hug.  Andrew’s cheek brushed against the side of her forehead.  The air was a mixture of odors: the smell of the bakery, and the onions from the restaurant that helped mask Charlotte’s own sweat.  The tree above smelled like roses and peppercorns, and nothing in the evening felt wrong.  He pulled away just enough to look her in the eye.  Charlotte smiled, and they leaned in towards each other for a kiss.  Her lips were electric.  Her arms wrapped around his neck exactly like they did the last time they kissed.  Andrew didn’t hear fireworks or shuttle launches.  All he heard was a light exhalation from Charlotte, and him telling her goodnight.  She smiled.  They kissed one more time, and then she left.
Andre was on cloud nine.  Nothing could go wrong.  But then, of course, things did.  He should have known it would happen over a phone call.  That was how it ended the last time.
“Hey, you want to get together Friday night?”
“Yes, I would like that,” said Charlotte, “but I don’t know if that’s a good idea.  I have fun when we spend time together, and I know how you feel about me, but I don’t want to lead you on.  After our kiss, I don’t feel any differently than I did last year.  I really wish I did, but I don’t want to string you along and waste your time, unless you are interested in just remaining platonic friends.”
This was bullshit.  Andrew put all the pieces together in his head and none of it added up.  His tongue flew off before he could catch it.
“So I’m doing some math,” he said, “and it’s kicking me left and right.  It’s simple adding and multiplying, but the answer is off.  Handsome plus funny plus gets your sense of humor plus sweet plus witty times thinks the world of you equals undesirable piece of shit.  Maybe I forgot to carry the Y somewhere.”  Andrew stopped for a moment.  He almost didn’t believe he said what he said.  “Hey, I didn’t mean to sound that venomous.”
“It’s okay, this once,” said Charlotte.  “I understand your feelings are hurt, but I don’t think of you as an undesirable piece of shit.  You may not believe this and it’s probably cold comfort, but I do wish I felt differently, I really do.  I don’t know what else to say except that I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I wish I felt differently too, and I wish I knew what that missing piece is.”  Mario’s head was still reeling, and he felt numb by the nonsense of it all.  “There’s just one thing bugging me for the last year: did I even have a shot to begin with, or was I just drinking Kool-Aid?”
“What do you mean?  After our very first date, I kept spending time with you because, first, I liked you and you liked me, and, second, I wanted to see if the chemistry stuff would happen in its own time.  Dating is a way to get to know someone better.  Had I not liked you, I wouldn’t have gone out with you to begin with.  Does that make sense?”
“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to piss you off.”
“It didn’t.  I just don’t know what you’re asking.  I’ll put it this way: I obviously liked you and found you attractive otherwise I wouldn’t have gone out with you or continued seeing you.  Does that answer your question?”
The next day, Andrew texted Charlotte that he accepted her point but still wanted to hang out with her.  Maybe he was trying to punish himself without really knowing it.  Charlotte answered that she was entertaining guests in the evening and had errands to run during the day.
“I’m just thinking that we might need to cool it for a bit.  Not forever, obviously, but maybe a few weeks?  What do you think?”
He didn’t think anything.  They never saw each other again.  He wanted to call her, but he didn’t know what he could have said that would make anything better.  Every answer that popped in his head sounded like it would make things worse.

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