1st person POV, Maria.
The boyfriend barked at dogs.
When we met, I was in a vulnerable place coming from a bad one, and I wasn’t willing to go out with him anyplace that made me feel indebted. I refused dinner and an evening. But the boyfriend was really annoying, and he pestered me in an odd, extroverted way. He liked to call me Emily Dickinson. I liked Dickinson. so that didn’t bother me, but he kept bugging me to bake him cookies and I wouldn’t do it.
The problem was he really thought he was hilarious. He kept hiding giggles while he bothered me. There was something very innocent and sweet in him that combined with the fact that he really was not funny that got to me. I started smirking at him. He thought I liked his terrible jokes, and I didn’t. But I started laughing at how hard he laughed at his own jokes, and it’s really hard to scowl at someone when you’re snickering too.
“Come on. Go for a walk with me. Around the block. Two blocks if you’re into it. Our second date can be the park.” He wiggled his furry eyebrows.
“Fine!” I yelled. I’d said no so many times before that this sudden admission of defeat in the face of annoyance startled him, but he pounced, smirking as he took my hand. “But you have to stop being annoying!”
He looked me dead in the eye.
“I’m serious! Stop it!”
The boyfriend put his hands on my shoulders and looked deeper into my eyes.
“No. Not even close. We’re only going on this walk so I can annoy you more. Just wait. I got jokes.” He nodded emphatically, eyes-wide, and looked like he was about to break into snickers.
I started to whine and fake-cry.
“That’s the spirit!” He took my hand and pulled off, walking fast, and I had to run a few steps to catch up with him.
It was calm and relaxing. Once half a block from work he slowed down and made conversation. He did most of the talking, which was fine because he kept trying to get me to talk and I didn’t want to. He’d ask a leading question, and I would redirect it back to him where he’d take the hint.
The boyfriend, Ryan Clark, worked in the manufacture and quality control of high explosives. He’d been a demolitions expert in the Army and now monitored Quality Assurance. His degree was in Chemical Engineering. Ryan didn’t do much engineering at all.
“The quality checks are honestly pretty simple,” he said as we walked along. He still had my hand. I think he thought I might run off if he let go, which… but I couldn’t because he kept pulling me close so he could giggle at his own jokes at me.
“The thing about them is I absolutely have to do them for every batch, and every batch has to be documented perfectly. That perfection is the hard part. The tests aren’t hard. They’re time consuming but simple. Every piece of paper work must be perfect. Every batch must have a clear chain of custody.”
“You have high explosives next to a bakery?” I asked, a little befuddled. I wasn’t entirely sure if this was a joke or not, and had been playing along. I was starting to believe it wasn’t.
“Mm hmm.” He nodded. “Right now we have almost sixty grains.”
I looked at him. He wasn’t giggling. He had a terrible poker face.
“How much is that?”
He thought. “If it went off you might hear it. It would sound like a heavy book being dropped from waist high.”
“Would it kill you?”
“No. If all the samples were put together in on pile and you held it in a closed hand, it would probably blow your fingers off. Maybe not off-off, but you’d need surgery. If you did it in an open hand, you’d be okay if you didn’t get burned. Actually, the real problem would be the blasting cap. AnFo is so hard to set off you’d need a serious cap and accelerant to make it go, and that could hurt you. Obviously we don’t have any of those.”
“Oh. So when you say grains-” I paused and looked at him.
“I mean grains. An imaginary grain of barley is one grain, the unit, so we have about sixty grains of barley worth of explosives. About four grams.”
“Oh,” I said again.
“For comparison, a typical can of spray paint is about a hundred to a thousand times as explosive. Depending on how you measure it, of course. Spray paint is also more sensitive. You can set spray paint off in the oven.”
“Oh,” I said a third time.
He made it sound so reasonable. I didn’t entirely believe him because the boyfriend was an idiot, but I believed he believed it.
“Don’t you need permits for that?”
“We have them. I’m a permitting officer. The permitting board-” and he paused to bark at a dog.
This is when I learned about the barking.
Ryan and I both worked in an industrial park that abutted a residential subdevelopment. I was an accountant at a Green Mountain Bakery. We have nine storefronts throughout Denver and Boulder, and made pastries, sweets, and cakes in front of the customers. Bulk bread, rolls, and all storefront baking sauces are made here. We come as close to farm to table baking as is possible, to the inclusion of specialized grain milling.
Grain milling presents explosive hazards. Some pastry flours are ground so fine they effectively atomize in air. They’re flammable and suspended in oxygen, can blow up. Thus we had some clean-room style facilities.
On the other end of bakeshop we have the business office. The owner works in a storefront in Lakewood, but most of us company wide mucky-mucks work here. I’m the Vice President of Finance; ie Accountant Number 2. I’ve got a little sign and a desk placard. I started at GMB as a store baker, went to to UC Denver on a GMB scholarship, and came back as an accountant. Ryan really wanted me to make him cookies. No.
I might’ve been willing to make him cookies if he wasn’t obviously asking just to be annoying. And if he could stop snickering. I wanted to grab his face.
Ryan met me during a meeting with the safety inspector. He works next door at HEM. Their signage doesn’t explain the acronym, and none of the address books do either. They never have big trucks go in or out, just a procession of old Hondas and the occasional Subaru. They have one Hazmat truck, and people I work with had seen it move. I hadn’t.
Across the parking lot are residential areas where we went for our walk, little houses with brown yards, some nice, some overgrown, and one with a big, bored dog. It barked. Ryan barked back. I looked at Ryan like he was an idiot.
He got down and roof-ed, three low, deep barks. The big dog barked back. Ryan replied. They had their little conversation, and the dog licked his crotch. Ryan got up and grinned at me.
“Okay, sweetie,” I said dryly.
Ryan reached out slowly and caught my hand again, then pulling me towards him. I didn’t help or fight. His other hand slipped around my back and squeezed. I felt his belt buckle against my stomach. I felt him let go of my hand and cup my hip. While I was deciding to play hard to get he kissed me anyway, and he had rough, hot lips.
“You taste like flour.” He giggled, breathing on my face.
“I work in a bakery.”
He kissed me again, very slowly, no tongue. Just the pressure of his lips on mine, his arms around me, and the body of him against me. Sometime along the way I’d closed my eyes and put my hands on his waist. He kissed me again.
I opened my eyes when he had pulled back, and he was stroking my face with the back of his index finger. He had soft blue eyes and a scratchy chin. His hair hung wild. It needed to be cut. I liked his face.
“Make me cookies,” he whispered.
He kissed me again. I closed my eyes to enjoy it.
“Cookies,” he whispered.
He kissed me again. I hadn’t opened my eyes in between, but this time I did.
“You can keep kissing me all you want, but I’m not making you cookies!” I said in a normal voice, and he pounced.
“Thanks! I think I will!”
“What? That is not what I- Hmpf.”
That hmpf was not a word. It was just a sound. I didn’t really mind. I repeated it later when we could talk.
“Go out with me tonight.”
I squinted at him. “Will you be annoying?”
“Yes.” He nodded enthusiastically. “Extremely.”
I tried to glower at him, but you really can’t do that while you’re being kissed by a pretty boy. They way he kept giggling to himself in smug little giggles was both innocent and hilarious, and I wound up smirking back. He took that as an invitation, and he wasn’t wrong.
We went out that night.
My girl downstairs decided no one was coming in for a while. I told Ryan that a few days to see how he would react. He had asked about movies, and I said I hadn’t seen any of the first Star Wars. There was the usual yelling about living under a rock. I rolled my eyes at him.
“Hold on. Before I make fun of you more, do you pointedly not watch them or just haven’t?”
“Just haven’t,” I replied.
“Do you want to? I have them. They are an essential part of Americana at this point.”
“You mean at your place?” I asked.
Ryan thought about that. “I mean, that’s where they are.”
It was time. “Ryan, I’m not going to your place for a long time. I am not even close to ready for that right now.”
“That’s fine. You don’t have to. But you know what you should do?” He wiggled his eyebrows at me.
I put my hand on his arm before he could say anything about baking. “Ryan, I’m serious. I’m not ready, and I’m not going anywhere that makes me feel like I should do anything before I’m ready. We’re not going to your place.”
“Are you ready for baking?”
“Fine! Look, Maria, that really isn’t a problem. If I know what’s going on, I can set my expectations accordingly. I want to see where this goes, so I’m not on a schedule.” He was trying not to smirk, but his face just did that. He looked serious for a moment. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” I replied, which was an interesting statement.
“Are you okay with the baking jokes?” he continued.
“They’re really annoying.”
He looked at me like I was the idiot. “Yeah. That’s why I make them.”
I sighed and put my hand over my face. “If I just bake you the damn cookies, will you shut up?”
“I’ll have too. I’ll be eating cookies.”
“Fine. You’re not coming to my place and I’m not going to yours, but I will make you cookies. Amazing ones. Ones that you will have to shut your big mouth to eat.”
“I accept your terms,” he said profoundly and shook my hand.
I was aware at the time that the baking-joke question was him trying to establish ground rules. I also wasn’t really annoyed. I was a little annoyed, but Ryan’s an annoying guy. I also knew that by submitting here, he was just going to keep going. I was okay with that.
I wasn’t okay with the other thing, and I wanted to see how he would take it.
I really didn’t mind baking either. I had been a baker. I worked at a bakery. But bakers make $12.75 an hour, and accountants make $30.
Upon obtaining boyfriendtonium, I promptly lost him for a week to Wyoming.
Ryan had to watch a series of deliveries to a job site, some form of mine. He explained one evening on the phone. Shipments went out in the morning around 0400 because they had to go by special roads.
“It’s hazmat,” he said on Monday evening. His voice sounded thin and grainy. I didn’t even have a good contact picture for him on my phone, so he was just a name, a green handset icon, and a voice. “We’re not allowed to drive HE through Denver, so we have to take allowed side roads. But the locals complain if they see an HE-hazmat truck on their roads, and then the zoning boards ban us from their roads, and we have to find a new route. Routes are a pain. Google doesn’t make HE-hazmat filters yet. So we go really early before anyone’s awake.”
“Is it dangerous?” I asked.
“No.” He sounded sleepy. “It’s AnFo. We have a little TNT this time, but not enough to matter. AnFo is the Snorlax of high explosives. TNT is not.”
“Oh.” I took my phone away from my ear and looked at the clock. It was eight thirty. He should go to sleep. “Do you need to go to bed?” I asked.
“I’m in bed. I’ll go to sleep when I hang up.”
He didn’t. He fell asleep on the phone, and I listened to him snore.
There is nothing less threatening than hearing someone snore. Ryan whistled when he snored, and when he inhaled, he tooted. Sometimes his heavy breathing broke up into burbles before stabilizing. I sat on my couch with the TV on mute and listened to him snore. Ryan wasn’t a frightening guy. He did all these things that sounded frightening, but I listened to him whistle in his sleep.
He didn’t call the next day. He texted but just a note. He called on Wednesday and fell asleep again. He said the job would be done by Friday.
On Saturday we went out again. He called me up in the morning. I hadn’t been waiting by the phone but I plugged it in by a window so I couldn’t keep taking it out of my pocket to check it. Then I found things do in that room. My apartment needed cleaning anyway, and I folded the laundry on the laundry-chair. That chair-laundry had been there before Ryan, and I laughed at myself when I noticed myself getting rid of it to waste time in case he called.
Still, it’s a pile of laundry on a chair. I wasn’t exactly dying for love yet.
He called around noon. “Hey, you. You busy?”
“No,” I replied. The chair laundry was mostly gone. I had taken it to the edge of defeat, but I was a merciful queen. I would let it live for now. “How do you feel?”
“Tired. Slept late. I was going to call you yesterday but fell asleep.”
“I sort of expected that.”
We had a silence.
“Want to shoot some pool?” he asked.
“Pool?” I repeated.
“Yeah. You said you don’t want to do anything that makes you feel like you owe me something, which is fine. There’s a pool hall by my apartment that has fifty cent games until five. The food’s not bad. It’s bar food, but this is Hippy central, so they’ve got a eight-lettuce salad and vegan options. God bless Denver, but I understand why my friends make fun of me for living here. Anyway, if you bring some quarters we can alternate games, so the most you’d ever owe me is a fifty cent game of pool.”
That was really not what I meant when I talked about owing him anything, but him remembering was nice. I asked the name of the place and looked it up. Alister’s Billiards. Fifty cent pool until five. Vegan and lo-carb options. Micro-brew draft.
“Are you going to stay awake?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get some coffee. I also slept like ten hours last night.”
If he’d gone to bed at eight, ten hours would have ended around six AM. Why was he calling me at noon?
I put on two sweaters and met him there. Alister’s Billiards was in a strip mall west of the city. It was outside Lakewood, almost in Golden. Before the mountains rose a line of shield hills, great brown slopes that rose to the west without any rounding. At the top they just stopped and fell. They were the little cousins of the Flatirons outside Boulder. I didn’t go that far. The mall was a concrete L with a parking lot in the center, more brown concrete impregnated with pea-gravel, and the mall itself was fake slatted with brown boards. Colorado had a lot of brown. The sky was thinking about raining, so I waited two minutes and walked towards the bottom end of the L where Ryan was glowering in some trees.
I stopped. He stood in a little end cap of a line of parking spaces where several scrub pins alerted drivers to the curbs. The curbs themselves differentiated driving lanes from parking lanes. Ryan frowned at nothing and made little faces. When I looked at him, he made little faces at me too.
“Ryan?” I asked.
“I’m waiting here because the woman ahead of me thinks I’m a serial killer.”
I stayed where I was. “What?”
“That one. See her?” he pointed at a woman walking quickly out of the parking area to the sidewalk. “She parked right next to me, and jumped out of her car when I was getting out. My key fob is dead, so I had to lock the door manually, which let her get ahead of me, but she’s a slow walker. I tried to cut left so I wasn’t walking right behind her, but you see the way the parking lot is designed to funnel people toward the Safeway? I wound up right behind her anyway, and she started doing that little power-walk half-running thing, so I said the hell with it and stopped in the tree. I’m getting rained on because she has little legs!”
Ryan scrunched his face up and pursed his lips. He was hamming it up for a laugh.
“Well, that was nice of you,” I told him. I looked at the woman entering the grocery store. “But she’s probably taller than I am, so her legs aren’t that little.”
“Yeah, they are.” Ryan snorted. He took my hand, and his fingers were warm and calloused. He had tons of tiny little scrapes over the pads on his hands.
“But her legs are longer than mine!”
“And your legs are tiny!” Ryan launched himself into speech. I could hear him get going, and there was just no stopping him. “They’re miniscule! You take two steps for every one of mine. I can’t wait for your birthday or Christmas when I can get you roller skates because I’ve got places to be!”
I looked levelly at him. Was he done? Nope.
“You know what I’m going to get you? One of those triangle ropes they use to tow water skiers on boats,” he answered his own question. “It’s gonna be great. I’ll be walking normally, and you can be following along behind on your roller skates, and you’ll say, ‘Ryan! Slow down!’ and I’ll say, ‘I’m walking!’ and you’ll say, ‘But you’re walking too fast!’ and I’ll say, ‘We’re being passed by a duck! A duck!’ That’s how it will go.”
We stepped out of the parking lot onto the sidewalk, and Ryan stopped. He leaned right up close to me and nodded emphatically. He had my hand so I couldn’t get away.
“A duck, Maria. Not even a goose. A duck.”
Ladies and Gentlemen: the Boyfriend. I was in love with this man.
He added his other hand to the one holding mine already, I think to make absolutely sure I couldn’t get away. Ryan had things to say. He pulled me along the sidewalk and in the middle of his stream of babble pointed out that the entry to Alister’s was around the corner. The strip mall was actually two buildings, and between them was a narrow alley. The upright part was a little smaller than the cross part, but it was all Safeway, while the cross part had the pool hall, a barber shop, marijuana store, and a coffee shop. We walked along the front of the Safeway to the narrow alley and turned right, into a small concrete walkway. It was, of course, brown. There was a sign in Alister’s window, though, so I didn’t feel like I was about to be mugged.
The thing about Ryan was that I felt safe with him. He got really excited when he pulled me along, but he was careful not to yank my arm. He glanced back, pulling himself out of whatever stream of thought consumed him, to see how I was and caught a shopping cart that rolled towards me. Beyond that, Ryan would never hurt me. He never forced me to wear certain clothes or told me how to do my makeup. He wasn’t going to make me feel worthless or like less of a person.
Well, not figuratively like less of a person. Ryan thought short-girl jokes were really funny. REALLY funny.
Ryan was going to insult me eventually. I have a few deep insecurities I’m nowhere near ready to tell him about, and I knew Ryan was going to blunder into one chasing a joke like a dog chasing a rabbit. I just knew he wasn’t trying to be mean. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t looking forward to him starting to joke about sex.
Alister’s front door was not just down the dark hallway between the two buildings but actually around the corner, sort of in the back. They had a disability-access ramp as well as a walkway to three small stairs. Just before Ryan put his hand on the door, someone stuck his head out a tiny window high on the wall and yelled, “Wait, wait, wait!”
Ryan froze, hand inches from the doorknob. “What?”
“Can you wait for a bit?” replied the bald head out the tiny window.
“Ah.” Ryan uncertainly glanced at me, and I shrugged. I could wait. He stepped away from the door and down a stair so he could face the head at a better angle. “Yeah. Why? Are you closed or something?”
“No, they painted the inside of the door this morning, but the manager forgot to put the screws back in the door, so the handle was just held on with dried paint. Guess what?”
“Someone ripped the handle off?”
“Yeah. They’re screwing it back on now, and then they got to paint and tape again. It will only take a minute.”
“Take your time.” Having said this, he looked at me again, but I still didn’t mind. The head disappeared.
I stood where I was, and Ryan walked into me. He put his arms around my waist. Since I was up a stair, I was actually a little taller, so I said, “Hah!” and stretched my neck. I could see over his head. Ryan laughed and put his chin on my shoulder. He slumped, and the weight of him pressed me, even though he barely leaned.
“You smell nice,” he whispered into my ear.
“Thank you.” I probably smelled like laundry detergent and dryer sheets. Maybe a little like pine-scented Pledge. And cinnamon. “Is that a baking joke?”
“Hmm? Oh, no. You’re just warm. Smell nice. I was enjoying not being in Wyoming. Nice place. I’d rather be here.”
“This is nice,” I agreed.
“Yes,” he murmured and went still.
All boys, ALL boys, ever, are at their cutest when they’re silent and cuddly. That’s why they’re so adorable when they’re asleep. I was a little cold, but Ryan didn’t feel like he was about to move. I made fists inside my sleeves and wrapped my arms around him, and we stayed like that for a while.
We’d been dating for less than two weeks. A week of that he’d been in Wyoming. It was entirely too early to miss Ryan. I didn’t need him, he was only sometimes nice to be around, and I entirely had not missed him last week when he had been gone. I hadn’t missed him at all.
I squeezed him. Ryan squeezed me back. We stayed still, and a wind blew off the mountains, over Denver’s hills. It wasn’t cold, but it was coming.