Cob was taking her to the steak place. It's hit or miss, he always said, like maybe he didn't know that wasn't the best sort of endorsement. It's hit or miss! Like it was an excitement. You could get the best meal of your life, or you could drive home in silence with a film of blood and grease and creamed spinach coating your teeth, dreaming of Colgate. Cob was like that. His way of living on the edge. You wouldn't catch Cob windmilling out of an airplane, but you'd see him grin and bear it through a bout of food poisoning. Pumping his fist like a champ as he took his tiny, quick steps to the toilet. Skittering. That's how Dun always thought of Cob. Like a little mouse. Like a dead leaf. Well, the steak place was also loud, which suited Cob's purposes but not Dun's.
Dun took her pouf over the circuit of her face. Like there was a track starting at her forehead and inroading her cheeks, nose, upper lip, chin, then swooping around to the other side. Precise movements, every area thoroughly powdered. No higgledy-piggeldy pat pat pat for Dun. She stared into her eyes until the faint nagging to do the circuit over again just in case went away. She felt each speck of powder, poudre is what it said on the case, sink into her pores, old friends, sisters, really, and she felt better. More in control. Dun knew her face well. Better than anyone, but what kind of thought was that? Of course better than anyone. She had a high forehead and a widow's peak. A full bottom lip but a thinner upper. High cheekbones, her pride and joy. Green eyes but a shade too pale, like an overwashed sheet. All in all Dun's looks were nothing to make the men loosen their ties but nothing to make them run screaming for the hills either. Solid, was what a girlfriend in high school had called her. At the time it had stung. But now solid seemed better than all right.
Tonight she'd yell over the jowly old man banging away on the piano. She'd yell over the faint glaze that seemed to hold Cob in place, making him reachable but just barely. Force field is what she remembered the boys calling it in elementary school. Cob had a force field that protected him from... from what? Sex. Dun laughed, watched herself laugh. Cob, this ain't for me anymore. Isn't. She had to remember the isn't. If she said ain't that'd be too much rope for Cob. He'd pull her right back in. Ain't was how he talked. So, isn't, isn't, isn't. The poudre had settled into her eyelashes. She looked like a child playing makeup. She went to work on her mascara wand, dipping it into its pot of ink, stabbing really, until her wrist zinged a little bit and she knew it was ready. She pointed her chin at the mirror, opened her eyes wide. It wasn't her best face, she looked like her old Aunt June after her stroke, but no one was looking and it was necessary to hit every lash. You know, I don't mind your plain face, Cob had said once. As if to release her from the shackles of makeup. Dun had pretended she thought he meant her face was plain. She'd wanted a fight but Dun apologized, went out, and brought back an orchid. They was out of roses, he said. Holding the orchid by the neck. Too delicate a flower. Flaccid. Dun shut it in the small, dark pantry in her apartment, behind a jumbo bag of rice, because that was the only way to stop feeling like laughing and crying and setting fire to... well, the orchid was still in there.
Cob and Dun. It had a ring to it, you had to admit. You'd be amazed at what a woman can overlook. Who had said that to her? Her mother, maybe, holding her own wrists up to her nose like she used to. Gulping up her own smell, perfume that smelled like honeysuckle and exhaust. Dun had overlooked it all. Hit or miss. And for what? In sixth grade a boy asked her to meet him at the way back of the school parking lot. Dun knew what for. When the time came she hid in the girls' bathroom, in the handicap stall, helpless and splay-footed. Her terror had made a fist of her stomach, and an open hand of her rear. She had never emptied like that before and hadn't since. The boy never looked at her again, even when she tried to say the excuse she'd worked up. Mr. Newlin made me stay after class. The boy walked on like she hadn't said a thing. Before he turned the corner he yelled Make way! Dung coming through! She was Dung, not Dun, until high school. She had cursed herself. It had been her one chance to get the ball rolling. She watched carefully for other chances, she readied herself. Memorized the circuit of her face. Trained the ache to flood all the way to her fingertips. A house party where she got drunk enough to appear available, then woke up clothed and untouched at the foot of the couch, a small child standing over her eating a fistful of cheerios. A bonfire where a boy mistook her for his girlfriend. Hard to see what with the dark and the flames and the wine coolers, what luck. Leaned in and reared back just in time. Whoa, sorry, he said. I'm not, Dun said, and she'd been proud of that retort, but the boy jogged away with his head down. The only man in her hair class, who was married and had three kids already. I like to play, Dun told him one night when they were walking to their cars. She'd seen it in a movie. The man answered, No thanks, as easily as if she'd asked him if he'd like a piece of gum. Dun was marked as invisible in this life. Don't touch. Then Cob had skittered along. Came in for a haircut. Not too much off the top, now, he'd said, then laughed hard, since he was bald as a pearl up there. Tipped her a five on a ten-dollar haircut and left his card at her station. Well, Dun called. Laughed along with him even though it hurt her throat to do it. Held his hand in the movie theater even though their palms were oily from the chicken dinner he'd taken her to. Fake it 'til you make it, girl. Her mother again. They'd kissed plenty, always in the sedan, Cob's tongue turtling around her mouth, leaning over the arm rest, but his hands never moved through her hair, never strayed below her neck. Come in for coffee? Dun would ask. She didn't drink coffee and had none in the house. No, I don't believe I should, Cob would say. Exactly twenty minutes later her phone would ring, Cob calling to say goodnight.
Cob was every woman's dream, or at least some other woman's dream. He was so polite you could bounce a quarter off him. Dun just wanted Cob to share his cob. She laughed again, watching herself in the mirror. Lined in black now, her green eyes glittered. Her dingy teeth looked white next to her coral lipstick. When she laughed naturally she looked younger, she'd have to remember that. She also looked mean, and she liked that, too.
The doorbell rang, bong-BONG-bong, followed by Cob's knock. He liked to cover all the bases. Dun couldn't get mad at it. She had the same urge. She had on one of her sateen blouses, the puce one, and a new pair of trousers she got at a store she was about ten years past aging out of. They flared at the knee until they were just ridiculous, almost skirt-like, at the ankles.
"Pants!" Cob said. Dun usually wore a dress, no panties, not that Cob would ever know that. Cob kissed her cheek and the palm of her hand like always. "You ready to get your steak on, madame?" He pronounced it my damn, and Dun was never sure if this was some kind of wordplay or if he truly didn't know how the word was said. He seemed to vibrate, Dun saw now. A slow vibration. A pulse.
"You had a few, Cob?" Dun asked. If alcohol had a color he'd be thinly lined in it. Maybe that was his force field, it occurred to Dun now.
"One or two," he answered, offering her his arm. He was himself, just slowed down a tick. Good, Dun thought. Lube him up, make it easier to let him go. She had come to think of Cob as her second chance, and now she was on the cusp of setting him free. She felt that laugh-cry-fire again. Forced herself to think of the poudre, the lashes, the perfect rouging, the smooth sateen blouse tucked in just so. Not a wrinkle in sight. She'd get another chance, she wasn't dead, for the love of. What matters to you, Dun? Who was that? Her pastor. No, a man she'd met online. No, a customer. Well, there were three chances right there. Three inroads. She was solid, looking for a solid. Oh, she was looking for a solid, all right.
"What's so funny?" Cob was putting her into the car, gentling the door into place.
"My earring tickled my neck," Dun said.
"Silly lady, I like that. I like that." Cob gentled the door shut, walked around front. He slipped a little but caught himself on the hood. She pretended she didn't see, pretended she was examining the peach polish on her pinky nail. In fact it had chipped, she could see it in the light from the streetlamp, a tiny flesh-colored diamond peeking through. A warning, it felt like.
"You nervous about something?" she asked Cob after he'd settled in and checked his mirrors. Did anyone else ever drive this car? she wanted to scream at him sometimes. Why check your mirrors over and over? But she had her poudre, so.
"Well, we'll just see about that," Cob answered. Well, Dun wasn't an idiot. He was planning on asking her something big tonight. The steak place, she should have known. He'd have the piano man play something he found romantic. The man would pound through it all wrong, like he was mad at the song, then look over at their table with a sour look on his face. She'd seen it happen to other couples but Cob never paid attention to the details. Then he'd... what? Get down on a knee? She'd never seen Cob get low like that. He had a perpetual stitch in his back. She'd have to help him up. Or he'd ask her to move in with him. She had never even seen his home, but she'd imagined it plenty of times. Sometimes it had bare walls so white they looked blue in the light. Sometimes she saw outdated decor, like framed tapestries in reds and browns, or a giant antique-looking clock looming over the couch. She could never live in a place like that. She felt angry, too, like how the piano man must feel up there taking requests all night long from customers who have the gall to think this is any kind of steak place, like this is any kind of actual piano. The piano man felt like a savior, an all-seeing, vengeful angel up on high. He'd know what to do.
"Cob," Dun said. She was channeling the piano man. He would not have time for this shit. "I do not want to go to the steak place."
"What now?" Cob asked. He was turning the dial on the radio, though it was turned down to almost nothing. Cob liked a lot of background noise, Dun realized. She could never. She held the disc of her compact in her hand, turning it over and over like a coin.
"Cob, I—" but Cob interrupted her, something he never did. What was he saying? He was saying how sorry he was, it seemed. He was saying Oh my God and I'm sorry over and over. Light was slicing through the windshield like he'd parked them inside a lighthouse. Dun felt her stomach whipping around inside her, trying to close into a fist but never getting a purchase. Oh, she nearly said. We are having an accident. She meant the car, though she'd peed a bit as well. Well, as long as she wasn't Dung. It took forever. She would use that phrase as she told the story. It took forever! I swear Christmas came and went twice before we ended up in that ditch. But that might be too whimsical to say, what with Cob not buckled in, what with the steering wheel wedged into his brow, his hands palm up in his lap like he was trying to catch his own dark blood. So what would she say, then? We were on our way to the steak place. Hit or miss. We got a hit, all right, she'd say gravely. But that made it seem too far away, like it didn't matter to her. The back tire whirred and whirred. She'd never used that word in her life, but it was the only word that fit. Her heart whirred like a wheel. Something felt smooshed in her foot, like her bones were a crumple of paper in the trash. Like I'd been crumpled up and tossed, she'd say. Her mind careened around, in and out of herself. Cob's broken head, Cob working a toothpick in and out of his gums, Cob in a tuxedo, she couldn't help imagining their wedding day despite herself. What was she wearing? White, I'll be in white. Like a ghost. No, like a bride, girl, it's only your foot. Who was that talking to her like that? Always she was too far away from herself, watching it all happen, invisible and untouched. Well, she still had her compact, snug in her hand. Even thought of handing it over to Cob, Look at your head, honey. In fact she couldn't remember a time without it. An item of comfort, the world made small, tamed in its mirror.
Lindsay Hunter is the author of the novel Ugly Girls and the story collections Don't Kiss Me and Daddy's. A new novel, Eat Only When Hungry, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the summer of 2017.