Tuesday Taco Night at Doc’s in Redondo—two for one—and all I can do is watch her eat, shoveling it in, those fried pieces of whitefish wrapped in cold flour tortillas, bite after bite washed down with too-sweet margarita and a look in her eyes like she’d rather be alone. I’m drinking an imported beer—not part of the happy hour special—picking at my side of slaw and wondering when she stopped pulling her hair into those tight ponytails that always looked good on her. Now it just hangs loose, chocolate brown falling along her shoulders, and she has to take a hand to brush the kinked strands out of her face after every bite, after every sip, and I can’t understand why she won’t pull it back, get it out of the way.
“Don’t you have a hair-tie or something?” I ask her.
She looks up at me and sits up straight in the booth and finishes her bite of taco. “What?”
“You’re getting your hair in your food.”
She sighs, takes a long drink of her margarita, leaving only the ice cube melt at the bottom. “It’s fine.”
“I literally just saw you pull a hair out of your mouth a minute ago,” I say. “Like you swallowed one of your own hairs. Isn’t that annoying?”
“Not particularly,” she says.
“All you need to do is just put it up or something. Real easy. You used to wear it up all the time.”
“And you used to tuck your shirts in, but you stopped and you don’t see me saying anything about it.”
“My shirts?” I take a bite of my taco. “I didn’t tuck my shirts in that often.”
“Every time we went out. Sometimes even when you’d come over. Had an array of belts you liked to show off.”
“I remember the belts, sure, but the shirts I don’t recall.”
“Well, I wouldn’t lie about it. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, does it? The hair doesn’t bother me, so just drop it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Alright.”
She digs back in and I down my beer as Jason Mraz’s “The Remedy” begins burping through the speakers, half of the place singing along and all I can do is regret buying that fedora a few months back that I’ve never worn. The hat she said I looked stupid in as soon as I tried it on for her at home.
“So,” she says clearing her throat and touching my forearm, fingers gliding along the dark hair. “I talked to Mike again. About the rent.”
I signal the waitress for another beer. “And?”
“He’s pretty adamant that if you’re going to live with us you should be chipping in.”
“I guess I just don’t understand why he cares, you know?”
She moves the hair out of her face, puts her hands in her lap. “Why wouldn’t he? It’s his place.”
“Yeah, but I live in your room. I mean, we live together, in your room.”
“And he doesn’t think it’s fair that you don’t pay anything.”
“I told you,” I say, stop. Think about how many times we’ve had this argument, navigating in my head to the best possible outcome. “I told you when my lease was up I could find my own place. It was just supposed to be for a little while and then you suggested just staying together. Like permanent.” I take a deep breath. “It was your idea.”
“I know. But that was in July and you still haven’t found a job.”
The waitress interrupts us, sets down the beer—all smiles—and pushes through our noticeable tension to ask us if we’d like another order of tacos. More drinks. Dessert, maybe. She eventually leaves, promising to bring the check, ready to turn our table over to people willing to spend more.
“I know,” she says, “but I’ve seen the way you spend your money. What you spend it on.”
“Are you kidding? Like what, a knickknack here and there? Not like I’m buying everyone shots when we go out. Not anymore.”
“But you shouldn’t even be going out. You bring in nothing right now. See, I told you when we started dating that finances were important to me. I don’t care how much money you make but you have to be smart with it. I want to see –,” she stops, catches herself.
“Want to see to what?”
She sighs. “I want to see you at least make an effort. Not just coast by.”
“And what, that’s what Mike thinks? You two just talk about how I’m mooching off you or something?”
“He likes you. He’s just protective. You know that.”
I take a drink, a big one, and hand her the bottle. She does the same. “Look, I already feel like a piece of shit for not having a job. I don’t like not having a job. There’s just not a lot out there.”
“Maybe you just need to do something part-time, then. Get something while you look for a big-time thing.”
“What, work at Pollo Loco with a Master’s degree? Yeah, that sounds like a great time.”
“I don’t need crazy chicken money. I just need more time. I know something’ll work out. It always does.”
“Except that it hasn’t.”
“I’m trying to think positive.”
“I’m trying to be realistic. I just don’t want this all to be a waste of time. I don’t want to be your babysitter.”
I nod my head—whatever’s playing is just a droned buzzing in my ears—and look around the room: Tiki decorations hanging from the wooden ceiling beams, vintage Hawaii travel posters in mismatched wooden frames along the walls, a wait-staff of young and beautiful women with long legs and thin waists and put-on faces talking to each other and flirting with the line cook that keeps poking his head out from the kitchen. Then I see another couple in a booth across the place, around our age, laughing and feeding each other pieces of tacos—he’s wearing a fedora and he looks great in it. I look back at her and she’s drinking my beer, downing it, and part of me wants to give up, admit that it’s not worth it, that whatever we used to have has been gone for some time but the words won’t come out. My brain just keeps on telling me I have to fight for it. That what I have here is a good thing. That I have nowhere else to go.
I touch her thigh, the skin not as soft and delicate as it used to be. “I promise I’ll go out tomorrow, start looking fresh. I saw a sign at Trader Joe’s, so maybe I’ll check that out.”
She sets the beer down, forces a smile. “Okay,” she says. “Alright.”
“And just tell Mike as soon as I get something I’ll gladly pay rent. I mean, I probably won’t be able to afford half of what you pay, but I’ll definitely give you something, okay? I’m happy to do my part here. I love you.”
The waitress interrupts us again, thanks us for coming and sets the check down in front of me and says she’ll take it up whenever we’re ready. I smile and slide it over and wait for her to finish my beer then pull out her wallet and plunk down her card.
“Thanks,” I say. “I’ll get us next time.”
“Yeah,” she says, quiet, her eyes affixed to the table, hand stroking her empty margarita glass stem.
Later we’re walking arm-in-arm along the strand, the night air sticky warm, and I ask her if she wants to sneak into a lifeguard stand and have sex. “To live a little,” I say in my sexiest voice.
“Sick,” she says dropping my arm and sighing. “People could see us.”
I look out at the beach, bonfires at intervals surrounded by friends and couples all drinking from liquor bottles and tallboys, laughing and living to the fullest, the sunset beyond painting the sky brilliantly in its red-orange blood like we’ve been transported to some dentist office photograph.
“It’s almost dark,” I say. “And no one would care.”
“It’s not worth it. Anyway, I have to work tomorrow. Early.”
“You think it doesn’t happen?”
“I’m not in the mood, alright?”
“Just trying to spice things up. Hard to be spicy with Mike always around.”
“Who says I want spice?”
“Fine,” I say pouting, and we walk another block before we turn back to head home, the silence filled with the sound of the waves licking the beach, never yielding, calling out to us in a tongue we no longer understand.