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DREAMSCAPES FICTION

'Love - Nothing'
Malina Sarah Saval
She had it down cold, that thing that made people fawn all over you



She was all long hair, legs and breasts that stretched the front of her little white T-shirt. Dustin eyed her lustily. He volleyed to her, hard, and as he watched for her return, his eyes spread wide with unapologetic desire. Her blond curls whipped fervently back and forth with every emphatic backhand. As she bent her knees the flesh on her upper thighs tightened like the skin on an African bongo drum and her tight, pink tennis skirt bunched up at the waist. You could see the undulating, wave-like movement of Dustin’s chest as he struggled for breath, and the hairy nape of his thick pale neck turn crimson. I sat on the sidelines, cross-legged on a chipped, painted-green bench, invisible to them both, itching to be somewhere where I was noticed. Never mind that yesterday Dustin and I had sat in his ice-cold living room, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights, listening to Blues music while dreaming up titles to our future autobiographies: Lox, Lithium and Love (mine), Blow Jobs, Brisket and Bar Mitzvahs (his). Never mind that this morning we had whipped around town in my ’95 Honda making pit-stops at the post office to mail rent checks and Vons for salami and whole wheat bread so that later we could make sandwiches. Never mind that we were supposedly best friends. Here I was a ghost.

I gazed around. On the court across from us was a triad of elderly, wizened-faced women in shiny white gym suits that matched the color of their frosted cloud-colored hair. I ached to join them, for here I could not escape the feeling that I was rudely intruding. The tennis game had turned inexplicably coital. The girl bent low again, balancing the weight of her lithe body entirely on the balls of her feet, the scooped, crewneck of her T-shirt fanning slightly open, revealing a braless view of two buff demi-circles. Dustin tugged on his sweaty Adidas headband, his wavy hair bedraggled in Paul Mitchell-scented perspiration, smiling at me with his glazed-over eyes because only I knew the truth—he was madly in love with her.

Kayla, of course, was completely oblivious. She concentrated on bending her knees and carrying through with her swing, connecting with the ball on every attempt. Swing! Swoosh! Pop! She didn’t notice Dustin at all. She might as well have been swatting balls against a backboard. There was an intended hostility to Kayla’s aloofness, a calculated belligerent energy that was set to attract. She worked at it, that was easy to see. One doesn’t ignore people accidentally. This is not something that a person is born with. This takes nurturing, practice. I admired Kayla for it. I envied her ability. More than her perfectly sinewy physique and neck-snapping beauty, it was her inner strength I sought to emulate. She had it down cold, that thing that made people fawn all over you. It was clear to me then—being oblivious to other people’s affections was really what made them love you.

"Love-fifteen!" called out Dustin, his oozing enthusiasm over having lost the first point in the game to Kayla nauseatingly unctuous. He didn’t act so enthused when I whipped an ace past him. Never mind the fact that Kayla was the one serving so she should have been calling out the score. I wanted to whack Dustin on the side of the head with his second-hand Yonex to jolt him awake him from his sycophantic state. Desperation was an ugly thing.

It was Kayla’s serve. She arched her upper body backward and reached sky-high in a perfect vertical stretch to connect with the ball and smash it between the chalky white lines on Dustin’s side. He lurched forward, extended his racket and returned the ball with a top-sided spin. They began a steady volley. Their heavy breathing patterns were in perfect rhythmic sync. Dustin trotted around the court like a more youthful version of John MacEnroe, punctuating his fluid forehands with bilious grunts. Uhhhn! Ooooh! Ooomph! They did play well together, I had to admit, and as they smacked that little green felt ball back and forth across the court, I was overcome again with that same irritating sense of being somewhere where I didn’t belong.
"Thirty-love!"
"Thirty-fifteen!"
"Thirty-all!
"Forty-all!"
"My ad!"
"Game!" called Kayla. She swung victoriously around in circles, her arms outstretched in a wide V-shape, breasts mashed up against the flimsy, see-through cotton of her shirt. She raised her racket high up in the air as though it were the Olympic torch. "My win!"

I was tickled by Kayla’s victory. And equally mystified. How did Kayla do it? I’d never been able to play especially well with Dustin. Granted, I’d never been able to play especially well with anyone, for I suffered paralytic stage fright on the court. My palms would get moist and my already myopic vision would blur and I would see double and triple of everything. The net would meld into an inscrutable network of tightly wound lines and zigzags, its height constantly changing. Miraculously, I did well enough during tryouts to make the team during college, but was an absolute flop during inter-collegiate matches, leaving our tennis coach completely baffled. I logged more bench-warming hours during my one-year Varsity athletic career than I think any other student in the history of Cornell University.

Dustin had a tendency to exasperate my social anxiety, both on and off the court. He sucked every ounce of confidence from my usually smooth forehand, and my backhand, well forget it. It wasn’t anything particular he did. Not on purpose anyway. It was just something he exuded, an all around feeling when I was with him that I wasn’t…that I wasn’t Kayla. He would talk about her incessantly, regardless of what we did—playing tennis, going to a movie, getting drunk— and we did a lot, making me feel somehow second rate, as though I were the consolation prize for her not loving him. "If only you would dye your hair blond," he repeatedly joked, only half-joking.

Why on earth then, you might ask, were Dustin and I were friends at all? I’ve often wondered the same. And if I could remember back to a time when we weren’t friends, I could probably offer you an answer. Truth is, I felt more akin to Dustin than to many—than to most— of my own blood relatives. We were soul mates, you see. Perhaps it was in some Freudian, borderline-incestuous, familial sense, but we were soul mates all the same. He made me laugh unlike any other. I packed his bags whenever we went on vacation. We had shared a six-hour flight to Boston together for Thanksgiving break, downing a battery of sedatives and Jack and Diets until Dustin was calling the stewardess "Waitress!" and the sour-faced wench threatened to revoke our future American Airlines flying privileges. We once spent a night in prison (don’t ask). Dustin and I had history behind us. Which is why, despite the fact that he often used me as a puss magnet when most of my girlfriends found his prosaic flirting tactics socially reprehensible-—"He’s an asshole," they would say—we remained thick as thieves. -His goal of course: To steal Kayla away from me.

But for Kayla it was different. Guys like Dustin didn’t make Kayla nervous. Guys with flippy hair and attitude and who tried really hard to impress the girls. Guys who wore cologne. And those bowling shirts with the pockets embroidered with forged names like Chip and Duke that Dustin and all the so-called "cool" kids in Hollywood were wearing, she just couldn’t stand them. She thought the whole scene detestable. Another reason that Dustin adored her.
"He tries so hard," Kayla once commented. "It’s almost as if he’s not a real person."

Kayla loathed the fact that there were people out there in the world, people like Dustin, who fawned all over her because of the way she looked, regardless of the fact that she paid them less attention than she would a mail solicitation for a new credit card. For most of her waking existence, she ignored Dustin. Why, if it weren’t for the fact that I had invited Kayla to play tennis with us, she would have never deigned to privilege Dustin with her distinguished company. It wasn’t that she was a snob. No, everybody else, they were the snobs. Kayla was the one who recognized superficiality in the world and was (my own psychological deduction of sorts) plagued by deep-seated feelings of guilt because she knew she was the object, and target, of this callow shallowness.

And so, as a small but significant act of rebellion, rather than rejoice with the Beautiful People of the World, Kayla sided instead with those not quite so genetically blessed. She understood that in many respects she was luckier than most, and that life would always be a little bit easier for her. So she turned society’s social standards on its collective head. She made a choice to support and defend and befriend the individuals upon whom positive attention was not showered. It was a game she played, a way to get back at anybody and everybody who placed a disproportionate importance on external attributes. Dustin, with all of his feeble attempts to impress Kayla, with his bottles of twenty-dollar salon shampoo and tubes of sticky hair gel, didn’t understand that this was exactly the reason why she hated him. Kayla was more likely to date the bespectacled captain of the math team than a guy like Dustin. Even Ryan Samuels, Creative Executive at Sony Pictures and Kayla’s six-figure-a-year fianceé, was an emaciated beanpole of a guy who ascribed to a style of nerdy chic—oversized cords, old-school sneakers, round horn-rimmed glasses. Ryan was all bones and angles and had residual facial acne from seventh grade. If you were a hunk you didn’t have a chance in hell with Kayla. Frankly, I think Kayla felt more akin to those gawky, clumsy souls of the universe, the math nerds, the chemistry club members. "I’m like a geek in the body of a porn star," she once confided to me, the only time I’d ever heard her make mention of her Barbie-esque measurements. She didn’t need to. I don’t think it occurred to her that her situation was anything of which to be proud. Mostly, I think, she considered her beauty a burden.
"I’ve lost more girlfriends because of the way I look then I’ve gained boyfriends," she once said to me.
Yes, life for a modern day Helen of Troy was not perfect. There were loads of social drawbacks to being beloved and coveted, but Kayla took them all in stride. She recognized the fact that a great deal of her appeal came from not knowing—or at least not acknowledging in public—how beautiful she actually was. She was never entitled to admit that she thought she was pretty. "What’s great about Kayla," Dustin would often gush, "is that she has no idea how hot she is." What he didn’t realize was that the reason Kayla had no idea how great looking she was was because the entire world kept telling her how great looking she was. Ironically, she would have had more confidence had there been a person or two who called her ugly.

Kayla’s confidence was never encouraged because everyone simply assumed she had an over abundance, which was not necessarily the case. Kayla could be hypercritical of her oft discussed and analyzed frame (which cut a perfect figure eight), and was practically obsessed with her twice-a-month facials (she had a tendency to break out around her chin just before and after her period), and she hated the size of her forehead, hiding it behind her chunky, blond bangs, which she also hated. On a deeper level, she also bemoaned the fact that she never completely figured out what it was she wanted to be when she grew up, and flitted aimlessly from job to job. But despite her self-criticism, she was not allowed to complain, for the common reaction was one of bitter resentment paired with flippant disbelief: "Puleeease, as if you really think you’re ugly." Kayla couldn’t win. She could neither express discontent nor admit to feeling beautiful. "But you are beautiful," I would often tell her. "Everybody thinks so." But by the way she shrugged and flicked her delicately thin wrist, I could tell she didn’t believe me. After all, when the whole world thinks you’re beautiful of what value can its praise possibly be?
"Do you want to play again?" Dustin asked Kayla. "A rematch? See if this time I can whip your butt?"
She ignored him.
"Do you want to play?" Kayla asked me, ever more loyal to her girl friends than the never-ending procession of imbecilic swains eager for her attention.
"No," I said, my voice infused with an urgency I prayed went undetected. I did not want to fill her Adidas sneakers, to take over her position, to be in any way compared to the guise of graceful loveliness she cut out there on the court. Dustin didn’t want me, and his expression proved it. The minute she asked the question his mouth drooped downward and his baby face fell slack. I didn’t hold it against him. On the contrary, this was my reaction, too. I wanted to stay clear away from Kayla on the court. In the classroom I could handle it (I was an ace when it came to book smarts), as well as at the dinner table (I had a certain gift for gab, and idle chit-chat was my forté). Why, there were even moments when judged on sheer outer beauty alone (my exotic swarthiness to her fresh-as-air blondness) I could have snagged the prize. I hated myself for this streak of jealousy. But how could I help it? This is what happens when for six whole years your personal attributes are picked apart and compared to that of your best friend. Everyone was compared to her: "You have prettier eyes, but as a package…", "You have a prettier face, but it’s her presence…", "You have a sweeter smile, but it’s her breasts…"

Yes, Kayla’s breasts were legendary. Two perfectly plump half-moons of flesh the size of organically grown grapefruits swinging on a sinewy frame that was disproportional—she had a twenty-two inch waist—in all the right places. Plastic surgeons stopped Kayla on the streets begging for her to sit for photographs and plaster of Paris moldings. Men were so intimidated by her Venus-like pulchritude they stopped me in bars begging me for her telephone number. Or her e-mail address. Or at least my number so that they could harass me until such time as I finally gave way and scored them a date—dinner, drinks, anything— with Kayla, Genetic Wonder Woman, Kayla, Queen of the Beauties.
That she was engaged to marry Ryan deterred none, Dustin included. In fact, when people discovered that she was officially off the proverbial market (you’d have to be blind to miss that three-carat diamond) it only made her hotter property to acquiesce. Since one of Kayla’s most endearing qualities was her incorrigible timidity, she could often not work up the courage to cut down these men directly, sending me instead as her rejection sentinel. I remember cavalcades of drunken, sweaty fraternity brothers that New Year’s Eve we all went to Cabo San Lucas. An entire row of balding mid-life crises at the Billy Joel concert. Kayla’s old boss. It was I who was sent to turn them down. These men in turn wound up resenting me, the bearer of bad news, as did Dustin, who blamed me, and me alone, for Kayla not loving him. "If you and Kayla weren’t such good friends, she would have given me a chance," he told me time and time and time again.

But Dustin was prone to absurd thought processes. He became infatuated with Kayla nearly six years ago when they worked for a blip of a time together at a movie trailer editing house. She was a secretary. He was a copywriter. Their friendship consisted of staff lunches at the Koo Koo Roo on Cahuenga and seasonal company gatherings. They had talked a few times and discovered a common zeal for gambling. Their favorite game was craps. One weekend Dustin asked her to Vegas. On a lark (this was pre-Ryan), she says yes. Not two minutes alone in their comp-ed hotel room (Dustin was a regular at Caesar’s Palace), Dustin tried to kiss her. That was the beginning of the end.
From what Dustin tells me Kayla gently explained that she "wasn’t ready to risk spoiling their air-tight friendship." From what Kayla tells me she practically barfed. Since that day Dustin has been obsessed. And his feelings have gone forever unrequited. And rather than admit to feeling emasculated and heartbroken and on occasion semi-delusional, he has chosen instead to blame me. I am his scapegoat.
I am the reason Kayla doesn’t love him.

Ironically enough, on some strange, girl-who-has-clearly-had-way-too-much-therapy level, I almost understood Dustin’s reasoning. After all, Dustin resented me in the same way that I sometimes (to my own shame and embarrassment) resented Kayla for being so…socially sought after. There was no correlation, and it was clearly not her fault. After all, Kayla’s only crime was being sexy and that every guy wanted her. It was a position that she a) never asked for, and b) didn’t even like. Quite frankly, it’s no position that I would ever like either. Who would want to go through life being judged by their exterior and their exterior alone? I was content enough being marginally cute and charmingly troubled.

Honestly, I sometimes despised people who didn’t take the time to recognize what was hidden behind those butter-colored bobbing ringlets and husky crescents of cream-colored flesh. But I would be lying if I said that befriending Kayla didn’t sometimes do a number on my own self-confidence. But that was my own fault, not hers. I was playing into the same level of superficiality that Kayla detested. And I hated myself for it.

Kayla never played an intentional part in making me feel like the flunkey female. She was, if not the best friend I’d ever had, then certainly one of the most dependable, most caring, most loving and most enjoyable to be around. What people didn’t know (and why I think she refused to give most men the time of day, punishing them for their ignorance) was that Kayla’s inside was infinitely more beautiful than her outside. She was the kind of girl who after seeing a homeless old woman on the street would run to an ATM and withdraw twenty dollars to give to her. She had, on more than one occasion, gone thirty miles out of her way to give me a lift when my original ride bailed. She was always loaning me money, buying me dinner, supporting me in my creative endeavors. Truth be told, we made a swell pair. She was the blonde, I was the brunette. I was the literary aficionado, she was the musical hip-hop genius. We both dressed in vintage Seventies’ style jeans and zip-front sweatshirts and flip-flops and drove two-door Honda Civics from 1995. We both loved foreign cinema and getting stoned and maxing out our Saks Fifth Avenue charge cards. When the world let us be, and didn’t offer physical distinctions, we were like two twin souls.

And here was Dustin, selfishly making efforts to make me feel inferior. It was his feeble attempt at bravado, I suppose. His only grasp at that kind of braggadocio men seek out their entire lives. This is how he thought he could win Kayla’s heart. Stupid fool, he had no idea how useless it all was. He had no idea that Kayla held him in such little regard. And he was working so hard to prove to himself, to her, to me, that he was someday going to get her. The love letters addressed to both Kayla and her fiancé. The bouquets of flowers on her birthday. The spying he did outside of their apartment on Saturday nights when Kayla and Ryan were no doubt ensconced naked within the folds of Egyptian cotton sheets.
"She’ll leave him eventually," Dustin would naively say.

What was most disturbing was that Dustin had yet to notice just how futile were his tactics. And impudent. Yes, Dustin’s insolence had taken on a life of its own. It was sad, really. But what can you do when you’ve known somebody for so long he seems like family? Recognize that his actions stem from self-loathing and forgive him? Forgive him and walk away? There would be a fight later, in private, of that I could be sure. I would accuse him of making me feel left out. He would crack a joke, buy me a beer, make it virtually impossible to stay angry. And that would be that. We’d been doing it for years. Despite the fact that we had tried to make a go of it romantically (a disastrously failed attempt) in the end we were like— brother and sister?—no, two friends who would forever hold having slept together high over one another’s heads.
Like blackmail.

"Are you sure you don’t want to play?" Kayla asked again. "We could play together." She swung her racket playfully over her head and grabbed the strung face of it with her other arm, so that her elbows jutted out in two perfect triangles. I noticed a perfectly concentric pinkish scab on the underside of her upper arm.
I looked over at Dustin. His eyes welled over with a thin patina of desperation and discomfit. There was something impish and pathetic about the way his mouth slung downward. I almost felt a bit sorry for him. Deep down, he knew that he had lost not only the tennis game, but Kayla as well. He’d known it for a long time, but something inside him—masculine pride, debilitating hubris—refused to give up the fight. I won’t say that Dustin was psychotic and only one time did I accuse him of being so, but come to think of it, he never outright denied it.

But who was I to accuse anyone of being psychotic? For the truth was, I identified with Dustin. I knew first hand what it was like to pursue someone in a Sisyphusian sort of way. Maybe not in a romantic way, but I was forever struggling to make Dustin validate my existence, to make him idolize me in the same way he idolized Kayla. I wanted to be romanticized. I wanted Dustin to know, without me having to wave my hands repeatedly over my head like I was crying S.O.S, that I was there.

Dustin reminded me a little bit of myself, so naturally I was narcissistically nuts about him. Of course, it got me nowhere. But, like Dustin, I was incorrigible. Perhaps Kayla had pinned it down best when she once said, "The way Dustin feels about me is the same way you feel about Dustin." I wasn’t in full agreement—at least I could say that Dustin and I had fucked—but I would concede that both Dustin and I shared a habit of living in a potentially destructive dream world. And I loved Dustin. I did. There were times when I loved him so much that my heart warmed over and my loins thumped so wildly it sounded like a bomb was going off in my body. I’d get a contact buzz just being around him, almost as if the Jack and Diets he consumed like they were glasses of Perrier seeped through his skin and into the air that I breathed. I loved him so much I sometimes even hated him.
"Um…" I said, waiting for Dustin to pipe in, almost hoping he’d intercede Kayla’s efforts to switch playing partners. But he said nothing. Finally his lips stretched into a thin, despondent smile. I smiled back. And for a scant few seconds it became not about his futile quest for Kayla, but about us, about me and him. We both knew that we were heading towards a dramatic shift in our friendship. There was just no way for it to continue on its current path. Changes would have to be made. Dustin resented me for being friends with Kayla. He resented me for Kayla not loving him. He resented me for being so goddamn empathetic, for giving him all the Pavlovian reassurance that he required, for telling him again and again that he would find new love with someone else. But what Dustin resented the most was not that Kayla didn’t love him but that Kayla loved me. And I was sick of being resented. I had been caught in the middle of Dustin’s fruitless crusade to make Kayla love him for far too long. This futile love triangle was driving the both of us a bit batty.
It was time to get out.

I had two choices. I could play tennis with Kayla, as we did often, two or three days a week (I was working up my courage to perform before a crowd), or I could grant Dustin one final farewell match before Kayla went off and married Ryan. It wasn’t a hard decision. I had lost my desire to play anyway. And Dustin needed this more than I did.
"No," I finally said, hopping up from the bench. "You two keep playing. I’m going for a little run."
"Are you sure?" asked Kayla.
Dustin looked at me again.
"Uh huh," I said. "I’m sure."
I didn’t look to see Dustin’s reaction. I was brokenhearted enough as it was. Not about Dustin. Just about…Oh, I don’t know. I’m not convinced it takes anyone or anything to make a person feel empty. Emptiness lurks within us, and sometimes it needs no prompting at all. Sometimes it’s just there. And I knew that to escape that nagging void in the pit of my heart there was only one thing that I could do. I could physically leave the court and let Dustin and Kayla play.
And so I got up off that bench. And I jogged briskly across the courts, out the gate, and began my jogging route around the recreational park. As I set out, the three old women with their iridescent jogging suits turned to me and waved with floppy bejeweled wrists. I waved back. Kayla and Dustin had begun their next game. As I rounded the periphery of the courts I peeked through the mesh fencing and watched the ball being volleyed evenly back and forth. Then Kayla slammed it hard and it dropped with an energetic bounce on Dustin’s side.
"Love, nothing!" called out Kayla.
Again she had scored the first point.

© Malina Sarah Saval
E-mail: mssaval@aol.com

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