The Trouble with Liza Hatter
On the evening before his college graduation, Tristan Mackey walked into the campus library, probably with the notion of trying to steal or deface a book or two—he couldn’t seem to remember exactly now, but probably to do something of the sort, something to make him feel more like himselfand less like the other self, the one that seemed like a version of Tristan borrowed by other people in order to suit their own purposes. At any rate, he was bent on making some sort of trouble, probably because he was a little drunk already, and the library, because it was quiet and secret, offered the sort of trouble he seemed to be looking for, which was quiet and secret trouble, the kind of trouble that would only be known to himself, that would have no consequences outside of his own head, that wouldn’t keep him from graduating.
The trouble he found there was Liza Hatter, a girl from his political science class. He found her in the second-floor read ing area, wearing shorts and a sleeveless top that showed her long limbs to advantage, thumbing through the latest issue of Lucky magazine, bored, killing time, her flip-flop sandals click ing softly on the floor. Liza Hatter had a thing for him, Tristan happened to know, in the same way he almost always knew, was almost never wrong, almost never made a false move or assumption when it came to love, or sex, or however you wanted to refer to it, as if Tristan cared one way or another, the object generally being the same.
In Liza Hatter’s case, it hadn’t been difficult at all to figure out, the signs having been there from the first day of spring semester when he walked into the classroom, and readily apparent on the few occasions when he had run across her in the downtown bars of Moscow, Idaho, and readily apparent now, also, here in the library, the darting eyes and flickering lashes and the rising color in the neck and cheeks, particularly noticeable because Liza Hatter had a pale complexion inclined to a ruddiness that matched her auburn hair, and the nervous agitation of the fingers flipping the magazine pages, and the feet shuffling constantly in the sandals. Tristan had long ago noticed the signs, but he had up to now filed Liza Hatter away for future reference, labeled her as a girl who would do in a pinch, never feeling any urgency in connection with her due to a) her obvious and therefore not very interesting availabil ity, as it was always more gratifying to have to wade through a layer of subtle oppositions to get to the ultimate goal, and b) the fact that, from Tristan’s perspective, she lacked the one quality he valued most highly in the opposite sex, that being a pretty face. She was no dog, certainly, and in fact her high cheekbones and widely spaced greenish eyes and rather full lips and her svelteness and her prodigious height—she was easily five-ten, almost as tall as Tristan—qualified her as hot, a term which Tristan detested but also knew applied in this case, at least where other guys would be concerned. But not so much for Tristan, who found her looks a bit over-refined, a bit cold and aloof, very similar in fact to the pictures of the women in the magazine she thumbed through, and none of the women in the pictures met with his particular approval. No, he’d rather have a good, buxom country girl any day, which was a good thing when you’d grown up in Idaho, where there were plenty available. But as noted, the shorts and blouse Liza Hatter wore in the library accentuated the positive, and there wasn’t any other action around at the moment, the idea of stealing or defacing books having receded all of a sudden, and Tristan was definitely in a pinch.
He had moved out of his apartment in Moscow the week before, back to Garnet Lake, where he was renting a duplex with money he’d inherited from his grandfather, who, in Tristan’s view, had been a lunatic, full all the way up to his white hairline with patriotic zeal and religious nonsense, but who had also been filthy rich and very kind to him, so that he felt badly in his less charitable moments toward him. But now he was back in Moscow for one night only, by himself, having talked his parents and his two older sisters out of coming down for his graduation by threatening not to walk in the ceremony if they attended, claiming it was a waste of time and effort on their part, but for no better reason really than that he hoped to get laid one more time in Moscow before returning to his home town, where the selection of women was more limited and less interesting, although he hadn’t entirely admitted his motives to himself. But with the apartment unavailable, the apartment in which he’d had sex with so many girls that it had become almost embarrassing, more for the girls themselves than for him, because he had started to feel toward the end that they probably should have known better, he had no place to sleep for the night, and had either to crash in the car, fall back on the hospitality of one friend or another whom he didn’t really want to see, or find a girl to shack up with, which was, of course, Plan A. And Liza Hatter was looking like a good candidate.
It had taken virtually no coaxing whatsoever to get her out of the library, where she had come simply to escape the heat, an unusual heat for Idaho in the middle of May, and over to her apartment, where she drank margaritas and he drank beer. And it took only two margaritas to prompt from Liza Hatter the sort of confession that Tristan dreaded hearing—that she had been infatuated with him for months now, and not only that, but her roommates, too, who would both be so jealous when they found out, which, as it happened, they never would, or at least Tristan would soon come to hope not.
Liza Hatter had in mind for the evening something she called “nesting,” which involved a trip to the grocery store to get more beer and margarita mix, and a trip to the video store to pick up movies. By the time she’d reached the part about “cuddling on the couch” Tristan had begun to grow bored, and he hated boredom more than anything else, probably because it was the state at which he arrived more often than not when he was with other people, because when it came right down to it he didn’t find people all that interesting, as they all seemed more or less to have the same kind of thoughts, perform the same sort of actions, very little variation occurring between the experience he had with one person or group of people and the next, and this was disturbing to him, because he was a con scientious person in the large ways and the deep ways if not in the small and everyday, and so wanted to think of himself as someone who tried to be helpful, someone who cared, even while he realized that he wasn’t very helpful and usually didn’t care, at least not until long after the fact, so that he passed up new opportunities for helping or caring due to his preoccupa tion with the missed opportunities of yesterday or the month before or last year. Right then, in fact, he was thinking about a girl named Kelly Ashton whom he had slept with last weekend at his parents’ lake house and never called afterward, which was more than a little puzzling to Tristan, since he had been in love with Kelly Ashton as far back as junior high. He mulled this one over, this surprising lack of feeling for Kelly Ashton, while Liza Hatter ticked off in an excited voice the potential choices of new releases on DVD, and in thinking of last week end Tristan’s mind got settled on the lake house for some reason, and a potential avenue for escaping his increasing boredom started to take shape, an avenue that seemed to offer the possibility of at least being able to tolerate the several-hour prelude to sex with Liza Hatter, and so he laid out to Liza this plan—grab a twelve-pack and make the three-hour trip to the lake house, spend the night there, come back the next morning for his graduation.
Thirty minutes later they were driving north on Highway 95 out of Moscow. It was from this point on, Tristan decided over and over again in the following weeks, that he had been home free. Of greater concern to him were the meeting at the library, the entry to and exit from her apartment, the stop at the convenience store for beer and snacks, although she hadn’t gone inside with him.
Of the trip to Garnet Lake Tristan had very little memory, a not uncommon problem for him since the events of that night, the very last event of which his mind dwelt on obsessively, so that the time following the event and the time preceding the event, the rest of his whole life, in other words, seemed to be shoved aside in either direction, like the waves that constituted a boat’s wake, until like those waves they had diffused and disappeared.
He remembered the familiar landscape better than the con versation. He remembered that Liza Hatter had begun to talk, and that he had begun not to listen, because to listen, to really pay attention, would have been to become that other self, the one that smiled and nodded, the one that seemed to be on loan to someone else, the one that had completed his four years of college education, the one that had tried for years to please his parents and succeeded very well in doing so, the one that had made him popular, admired, and envied by virtually everyone he’d been around every day for the last half-dozen years, so that he felt a huge chunk of his life had been used up by this other self on loan to these other people, answering their demands, giving pleasantry for pleasantry, joke for joke, sage advice for the asking, while the self he wanted to be and felt most com fortable with, the self that thought and acted boldly, erratically, somewhat dangerously on certain occasions, was a private self that had not gotten all it asked for, ever, and could seldom go about its business unhindered, and it was that self, there in the car, that tried to shake loose from Liza Hatter’s conversation, sought escape through the windows into the woods and the wheat fields, the fireworks stands and the casinos on the res ervations, the dusty streets and violent taverns of the reserva tion towns themselves, and then later, after it had turned dark, into a little game that this self liked to play, and in which Liza Hatter had joined to the best of Tristan’s recollection, a game that involved leaving the brights on and drinking from a whis key bottle, kept always under the seat for this purpose, each time another driver on the lonely highway flashed them, which was often enough that Tristan felt fairly dizzy by the time they pulled off the highway and onto the road to the lake house.
The details of the ten-mile drive from the turnoff to the lake house at Garfield Bay presented themselves to Tristan’s memory more clearly, as if in moving closer to the event things became sharper due to their proximity, like a kind of foreshad owing, or maybe just the opposite, that the event itself in its startling vividness had shone a light backward over the pre ceding hour. Even now, warming up for dart night at the 321, thinking about how Russell Harmon had been in the john for such a long time and what sort of drugs he had in his posses sion and whether he might be willing to share, because some thing like that might help him relax, he could recall the sight of the lake that night as they drove, visible through the cedar trees, sparkling with moonlight. He could recall also how the night had turned colder, how the wind curled in through the open window and helped to sober him as he took the wind ing turns, how from the stereo Mick Jagger had sneered his way through “Midnight Rambler.” And he could recall the con versation then, too, or not so much his own words, if there had been any, but Liza Hatter spilling out her life to him as she had been for the last three hours, poor dizzy Liza Hatter, dumber than a post, dumber even than Russell Harmon with his dart league and his score sheets and his puffed-up pride in his trivial abilities.
Liza Hatter, he recalled, had talked for several minutes about her plans to switch her major to veterinary science. She had already begun to take courses in preparation for the switch, and although she was sure she’d made the right decision because she just loved animals so much, she had been disturbed by a class in which her professor dissected a dog, and Tristan hadn’t felt much but disdain for her at the time, disdain for her squeamishness at the opening of the sternum and the exami nation of the viscera, disdain for her sentimentality and lack of professional rigor, for her teary-eyed assertion that “this was someone’s best friend, this was once someone’s little puppy.” It seemed pretty nigh hopeless for Liza Hatter ever to become a veterinarian, but he allowed her to believe in his sympathy and understanding even while he was starting to hate her a little. And yet this conversation came back to him now daily, hourly, with a kind of poignant irony.
They arrived at the lake house. They carried their things inside. He searched through his parents’ CD collection, which wasn’t much to shout about, and put a Ray Charles disc in the player, the old Ray Charles stuff from the time when he still wrote his own songs and hadn’t yet become a clown. He showed her around the house, listened to her ooh and aah at the view of the lake from the tall windows, a view which he could have appreciated more himself if he’d been in the house alone. They sat out on the deck and drank beer and Liza Hatter scooted in close to him and kissed him and he lit a cigarette, because he didn’t want to kiss her then, was still finding her slightly repugnant, even despite the perfume she’d dabbed on in the upstairs bathroom.
It was her idea to go skinny-dipping. He agreed reluctantly, bored, bored, bored with the predictability of the suggestion but agreeing to play along, and preparing himself already for the iciness of the water at this time of year, an iciness that he knew would surprise her and probably send her swimming frantically back to the dock as soon as she’d dived in, so that he could escape for a few minutes and swim out into the lake alone.
They stripped at the end of the dock. The moon was almost new, and even with the lights shining down on them from the house there was a swarm of stars. To left and right were the rocky cliffs of the cove, the pine trees rising up and up in the night air, whispering faintly in accompaniment to the music from the house. They were entirely alone, he and Liza Hatter, he had to keep reminding himself of that these days, that there were no houses close enough for anyone to see or hear. Liza Hatter stood before him naked, as if she were backlit on a thrust stage. The long legs, the auburn hair, the coy smile, the soft and rather dainty breasts, the thin line of dark pubic hair—again he found something unsatisfying about her looks, and wished he’d had the patience to wait around longer for someone else.
"You know what I like about you?" she said.
He told her no, he didn't.
"You’re so calm and quiet,” she said. “It makes me feel safe."
And that pleased him, because he had cultivated for a long time a calm and quiet outward appearance, all the way back to art class in junior high school when he sat next to Kelly Ashton, quiet then because he was too shy to talk and not much worth looking at, an exceedingly skinny kid with a mouthful of metal braces and a fairly bad case of acne, and Kelly Ashton had told him much the same thing one day that Liza Hatter had just told him now, that she liked how he was confident enough not to have to make noise all the time like the other guys, and right then he had decided that, if Kelly Ashton liked it, this calm and quiet thing was worth looking into, especially since he had the quiet part down already and could master the calm part over time.
So he was feeling a little more kindly toward Liza Hatter as he ambled toward the dock, unselfconscious of his body because he knew women liked it, and dove easily into the water, counting away the freezing seconds as he went underneath, saying to himself a thousand one a thousand two a thousand three as a way to get through the part where the cold went to the bone and then could start to work its way out again. When his head popped above the surface he heard a splash behind him, and then just seconds later a high squeal and Liza Hatter saying, “Oh my God oh my God, it’s freezing,” and he smiled, knowing he had been right, that she would retreat as fast as she could to the dock and probably run to the house for a towel. So he went under again, pulling with long strokes against the water, and he started thinking in Spanish, which he did occasionally—agua fria, agua negra—and when he came up he let out his breath and shook the hair from his eyes and started swimming in long strokes out into the lake, thinking lago oscuro, una noche de estrellas.
He could not recall hearing anything as he swam, nothing other than his own sounds and the music still audible over the water, Ray Charles singing faintly “A Fool for You,” and he allowed himself to enjoy the thin sliver of moon high in the sky and the way it was reflected in the tiny waves always just ahead of him, and he thought he could go on swimming like this for hours, though he was already numb under the water.
Then he heard her say, “Tristan.” And he heard her actually laugh a little, a nervous laugh, a shy laugh, as if she realized she’d been caught doing something stupid. He turned to her in the water, saw she had followed him all the way out, was maybe fifty feet or so behind him, the dock and the house a long way back, the cliffs of the cove actually closer on either side, he noticed quickly, because he knew what was wrong even before she said so, was already calculating the difficulty of paddling to the rocky bank with her arms around his neck. “Tristan,” she said again, with a desperate edge to her voice this time. “Tristan, I’m out too far. I can’t feel my legs.”
And quietly, calmly, he began swimming back to her. He came closer, closer, close enough to see her now clearly, and when he was within several feet of her, he stopped. He could see her try to come toward him, but she managed only a kind of rough, jerking motion, and she went in up to her forehead and then lifted her face again, choking and coughing. She man aged to say the word once more—“Tristan?”—the last thing she ever said to him. He was perhaps two arm-lengths away, treading water, watching her intently. Because something had happened to her face. The moonlight shone on her directly, and he could see the water in her dark hair and on her cheeks, and her mouth opened and closed in little gasps. Her green eyes were huge, almost glowing. In the black irises, he could see the white crescent of the moon. Very pretty, he thought. He could even love her, maybe, if she looked that way all the time. But then she went under the water, softly, and did not come up again.
Standing back on the dock, naked under the stars and shiv ering, he could still see her pretty face almost perfectly, as if it hovered near the moon.