Howling to No One in Particular

I drank an entire bottle of wine last night. My windows were open, and I could hear the neighbor’s dog barking. He sounded lonely. He howled and I howled back. I was smoking a thin spliff. You would have complained about the smell. You would have complained that I was using a mug as an ashtray. You would have taken a hit anyway. 

I’d gotten home late, driving alone, past big buildings and bright lights, blasting grunge cassettes out of my decrepit ’96 Subaru speaker system. No one texted me to ask where I was or if I could pick up another carton of milk from the tight aisles of Trader Joe’s.

I pulled into the driveway of my apartment complex, not really keeping track of time, sitting up against the plush car seat, until I remembered to turn the car off. By then it was dark out. The car door opened with a screech as I began my nightly routine of staggering up the stairs, glaring at the dying potted plants on my porch, fumbling with my keys, pushing open the front door, and tossing my corduroy book bag into the corner of my living room, before letting out a loud sigh. I thought about how badly I needed a cat. My typewriter sat tiredly on the kitchen counter where you used to chop tomatoes for salads and burgers, and my abused acoustic guitar rested against the sidearm of the couch where you used to prop up your crooked elbows while watching The Office, munching on blueberries or Vegetable Straws, laughing at the same joke that you’d heard a dozen times before.

I looked at myself in the mirror, my face tacked up on the wall next to our mutually agreed upon posters, trying to assess if I looked presentable enough to go out. There are a handful of bars within walking distance of my apartment but mostly they are filled with rich white parents, friend groups glued at the hip, and drunk old men desperate for human contact. While slightly further away, the bars beneath Sather Tower are more consistently filled with freshmen, excited just to be living in California, instead of sleeping between their Scooby Doo sheets back in Ohio. There, I could always find some loose-lipped long-haired freshman easily impressed by a girl with a nose ring and tattoos offering to buy her a beer or a tequila shot or whatever. 

I studied my own face and thought about the punk show on Gilman you’d bought us tickets for. The headliner, a small collection of college boys from Boston, played moody guitar riffs and snarled their upper lips into the microphones. We listened to their only EP on repeat while studying for finals last year. You’d curled your fingers into my hair and hummed along to their chorus while I read you lines from my essay on Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems. You’d offered to buy us drinks once we were inside the venue, surrounded by teenage boys banging their long greasy hair over their long greasy faces. I’d said sure and watched as you pushed through the black clothed crowd, letting the bartender flirt with you. A blonde with a tongue piercing asked me if she could bum a lighter. She took my zippo and lit a cigarette. I didn’t see you pushing back through the mess of testosterone, carefully holding two overflowing pints. She traced the black rose on my left arm and blew thick smoke above my hair. You’d scared her away with your eyes and she quickly disappeared, slipping behind a crowd of shirtless boys wearing cheap cologne. I’d considered searching for her after the show, trying to get her phone number or learn her name, but you’d held my hand tightly throughout the encore, and marched me right out the back door, long before the applause erupted throughout the room.

In the mirror I saw that I looked tired. Old. Straightening my collar and retousling my hair was no use, and even the thought of unzipping my rarely touched makeup bag to apply black eyeliner beneath my worn eyes seemed exhausting. Instead, I opened up a bottle of rosé and rolled a spliff, sticking a curly straw down the neck of the bottle and putting the flame of my zippo up to the end of the spliff before flipping myself off in the mirror and plopping down on the couch. The five-dollar couch you found on craigslist still smelled like grapefruit shampoo, but I hoped the wine would help dull my senses. After collapsing into the cushioned corner, I pulled off my Dr. Martens with the back of my feet, blowing smoke circles into the center of the living room, staring at the bedroom door, open just a crack. You used to call me to bed, after I’d gone through the liquor cabinet and my guitar covers were worse than usual (when we met I told you I wanted to be like Joan Jett, but you quickly discovered I was more Elliot Smith). I’d told you that I’d rather smoke spliffs and mindlessly use my typewriter than be followed around like a bloodhound through the night, with your constant silent requests to be held. I’d told you that I felt smothered, and that I wanted to be in charge of my own time.

Staring at the slightly open bedroom door I thought how sweet it was for anyone to care about anyone else’s sleep schedule.

I decided to stop thinking about you.

I decided to stay in. 

The TV snapped on with a touch to the overly-chunky remote. I pulled the curly straw out of the bottle and drank my wine the way Steve in Full House drinks milk, pressing my lips against the mouth of the bottle and chugging. As I drank I attempted to follow the live program racing across my vision, featuring twenty conventionally-attractive adult-children in swimwear gossiping about each other and slurping down cocktails poolside.

I’d spread sunscreen on your shoulders near the Ferris Wheel in Santa Cruz.

I’d splashed you with sea water on a beach in Alameda, after floating through blue-green water near the bay bridge.

I’d kissed you underneath a fake waterfall in an oversized luxury pool at a Maui resort.

I reminded myself to stop thinking about you, dropping ash onto the hardwood floor, perhaps just to spite you, before taking another hit, leaving my vision swimming. I concentrated on the host of the program, a mix between Michael Ealy and Taye Diggs, announcing that it was time for a couple, young and flannel-clad, to go into the “Truth Booth” and find out if the “Love Experts” had made them a “Perfect Match”.

I stuck the smoldering butt of the spliff between my lips and narrowed my eyes in disbelief. “MTV has Love Experts?” I asked aloud. In a drunken haze I felt my skin grow electric. “MTV has Love Experts,” I slurred. I pulled my moleskine journal out from my bookbag and began scribbling notes. This is the research I was able to record: 

Tell-Tale Signs That Two People are a Perfect Match According to MTV’s Love Experts:

  1. Perfect Matches stay up all night sharing secrets. One of them says, “I’ve never told anyone that before,” while the camera zooms in on a single slow-falling tear sliding down the other’s cheek. Melancholy music swells. (It reminded me of the time we lay next to each other on my unvacuumed carpet listening to Chet Baker records. You told me about the time your parents found flirtatious text messages between you and El Cerrito High’s Prom Queen. You told me that you’d packed your bags so quickly that you forgot your anxiety medication and toothbrush.) 
  2. When a song, some top billboard hit, comes on, one half of the Perfect Match says, “This is my jam!” and then the other says, “Holy shit same!” and then they make over-extended eye contact and squeal with unnecessary excitement in the talk booth. (It reminded me of the night you picked me up from that party that’d turned bad. I sat on the steps of a crumbling townhouse while the sun peeked its head above the skyline. You brought me hot coffee, clean jeans and the t-shirt I’d forgotten under your bed. The Cure’s Just Like Heaven came on the radio. We sang along to every word.) 
  3. Perfect Matches hold hands. Often. Most importantly when others are looking. (It reminded me of your family’s Christmas Eve Party. We held hands underneath the table while your Aunt Helen lamented about her limp green beans. Our hands sprang apart when your Uncle Gary asked us to pass him the gravy boat.) 
  4. Perfect Matches have loud declarative moments in the rain. One says, “I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE,” and the other says, “BUT I’M CRAZY ABOUT YOU!” and then they kiss as a pop song crescendos. (It reminded me of the time we got caught in a thunderstorm while walking back to your flat from our shared history seminar. You’d thrown your thick textbooks over your head and sprinted through the puddles. I’d watched you. I’d run after you. I’d caught your arm. I’d pulled you towards me.) 

As I eagerly worked on my list, I kept an eye on the TV. The flannel-clad couple marched into the Truth Booth, hand in hand. They were confident. They’d told each other secrets late at night, held hands in front of crowds, declared their love in the rain, and shared an interest in Lady Gaga. They stood in a dull shed, apparently the Truth Booth (far less spectacular looking than I was expecting) when suddenly, red lights shook the space. The words “Not a Perfect Match” ran like a news ticker underneath their headshots. The flannel-clad couple gasped. My jaw dropped open in disbelief.

When I tasted salt, I realized I was crying. My shoulders were bobbing, and my head was too heavy for my neck. In my drunken state I truly believed I was crying was because of how aggressively I’d believed in the flannel-clad couple and their love. They’d never fought about what to watch on Netflix or yelled about empty milk cartons in the fridges. They’d never listened to each other sing off-key while cleaning the bathroom or suffered through terrible renditions of Dream On during long road trips in hot cars (truthfully though neither did I, you had a beautiful voice. I was the one to subject you to pitchy variations of Fleetwood Mac. But the point still stands). They’d fallen asleep in each other’s arms. They’d called each other silly pet names.

With you, I’d always been “Baby Bee.” You would call it out to me, on Sunday mornings when you’d been up for hours watching the sun rise and cooking waffles, when the gophers were sucking down our pea plants through dark brown soil, or when you couldn’t decide if a t-shirt went well with your light wash mom jeans. Baby Bee! Baby Bee! Baby Bee. The sound of it used to fill the apartment. 

Now a different sound took its place.

The flannel-clad couple gave each other a sad hug. I didn’t catch much of what they said over my loud gasps and shuddered sobs, but it was something about kissing other people in order to win money.

I’d told you I wanted to be single over breakfast. You’d been lying on the couch, flipping between pages of the the New York Times style section, and taking oversized bites from a bruised peach, while I stood at the kitchen counter pouring hot water into a French press and boredly leafing through the sports section, gearing up for another pitiful San Francisco football season. It was a Sunday and our only responsibility was laundry. I’d said it just like that, suddenly and without context: “I want to be single.” You’d looked up and stared at me, as if I’d said something trivial like, “I want to make pasta for dinner tonight.” I pictured you, lounging, juice dripping from your chin, as I stood at the same kitchen counter pouring gin into a coffee mug.

Then, I stood up from the counter quickly. Without knowing why, I slung a denim jacket around my shoulders and pushed myself out into the world. The cold air rushed past my body and I let myself breathe normally again for a few moments. I was too drunk to be trusted with my keys or my phone, so I left everything besides two twenty-dollar bills and my American Spirits scattered across my half-empty apartment. I hummed as I marched through the dark. It was nearly 11:00pm on a Tuesday and I felt safer on the busy street than in my quiet one bedroom. I lit a cigarette and smoked quietly, passing Solano Avenue, and then Gilman.

The congested streets reminded me of my grandfather’s congested lungs. He built my childhood home from the ground up. He constructed the foundation two years before he slabbed the pasty grout in between our granite countertops. His insides had filled up with cancerous tumors two days after I was born. He died while I was pulling glue from my chubby unwrinkled fingers, beaming in front of a papier-mâché model based on the house he’d built. Somewhere in my five-year-old brain I’d believed that building a model of the house he’d pieced together brick by brick would being me closer to him. ‘This house has been in my family for generations,’ I told my kindergarten class, my chest swelling with pride, partly because of my art skills, and partly because of my family history. I slept in the same bedroom that my mother used to, where she’d brushed her hair and sung along to records. We took the same walk down the same path to the same elementary school. She complained about the same family recipe leftovers at the same dining room table.

As I finished my cigarette, my family’s repetitive history reminded me of you. It seemed most things did. It reminded me of how you watched The Office every night, the series on a continuous loop in our apartment. You watched it before bed, while folding laundry or painting your nails. You knew every line. You would say them to yourself, “Well, well, well, how the turntables,” just before Michael Scott. For a moment, I thought that maybe I’d wanted to be single just to avoid watching The Office every night for the rest of my life, but then everything felt more complicated than that and I wasn’t in the mood to be any more introspective, so I flicked the cigarette butt onto the asphalt and pushed through two swinging doors into the dimly light bar. A Kung Fu movie was playing on a projector, and most of the drinkers were also gulfing down Mexican food from the taco truck that was always parked out front.  I scanned the room. As predicted, it was overpopulated by parents attempting to relive their Cal glory days in the same bar they’d spent the late 80’s playing shuffle board, binge drinking and avoiding finals.

Then, I spied a big-hipped redhead perched at the bar top, her large oval glasses covering her freckled face, using a curly straw to drink her margarita. She was there with a gay couple composed of a bearded bear built like a linebacker and a small punk kid with an ear piercing and skull beanie. The boys were playing footsie under the bar while she absentmindedly sucked down tequila and eyed the projector screen, watching a Bruce Lee wannabe crush a wooden board with his open palm. I studied her for my in. Her small hands and long neck reminded me of you. God what didn’t? She was wearing a Smiths t-shirt. I’d listened to them briefly in high school. I felt confident that I could get through a few opening remarks about The Queen is Dead before asking about her Spotify playlists (can she add me? Of course I’d love to learn more about obscure Irish folk). I approached the bar, perfecting an opening comment about Morrisey in my head, when a sloppy drunk cut in front of me. His Grateful Dead t-shirt was stained and barely fit over his beer belly. He was swinging around a stein full of foaming lager and sloshing it onto the bar top in front of her. He opened with, “Hey girlie, you wanna to dance?”, not seeming to mind that there was no music or dance floor.

I was about to order a gin and tonic when the linebacker boyfriend stood up and distracted the bartender, “Hey pal, she’s not interested.” The man stood up, leaving his lager on the counter, and waving his hands around like windshield wipers, “Hey, hey, I don’t want any trouble, I’m just trying to find someone to talk to.” The linebacker raised one eyebrow, enough of a deterrent to send the drunk off, who walked away shaking his head and muttering, “I miss my wife,” under his breath.

Things went black for a few moments. The bartender repeated, “What can I get you?”, with a concerned look on her face, and I snapped back to reality. I slowly backed away from the bar, catching the redhead’s eyes for a brief moment, tender and sincere, before bursting back out the swinging doors, finding myself alone, in the dark, again.

No, I wasn’t alone.

The Grateful Dead fan had called himself an Uber and was attempting to connect with his driver, a middle-aged brunette with plump lips and frizzy hair, while I lit a cigarette. “Hi-a, how’s your night going?” he asked, stepping into the passenger seat of her dented Prius. His voice stung my ears. I threw up into the street as he wheeled away, presumably back to his empty apartment. I turned around and started walking back towards mine.

I smoked quietly and felt better than I had any right to feel. I found myself expecting to see you when I got home, asleep on the couch, with Jim and Pam eating pizza on the roof of Dunder Mifflin. In my confusion, I laughed, smoke forced out of my throat like gun powder.

I thought about when you complained about my smoking. “You’ll get lung cancer, like your grandfather,” you’d said, your bright face swimming in overwhelmed emotions. I’d told you to worry about yourself.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad to have someone else who cared about your internal organs. I wasn’t sure anymore, and I was too drunk to know.

I stumbled past shuttered shop windows, thinking about MTV and their Love Experts who had cracked the complexities of human attraction like a Rubik’s Cube. The thought made me feel calm. Without knowing how much time had passed I found myself marching up the stairs to my apartment, glaring at my dying potted plants and pushing open the front door, letting out a loud sigh. As I fell asleep on top of the quilt your grandmother had made us, still wearing my denim jacket and corduroy slacks, I howled into the empty bedroom. I was asleep before I could hear the neighbor’s dog howl back.   


Anita Levin is an essayist, poet, and fiction writer from San Francisco, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Lifted Brow, Lunch Ticket, Barnhouse, Hypertext and others. She has worked as a bookseller for an independent bookshop, a poetry editor for a literary journal, and she currently works in publishing.

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