February 9, 2008


Out beyond the city of New Orleans, across the Mississippi River and past the shopping malls and strip malls and outlet malls, is a series of increasingly upscale gated communities. One of the newest is Westwood Village, which was open to anyone but because of its location and marketing was populated almost exclusively by the successful children of Vietnamese immigrants. The area had only recently been reclaimed; two years before it had all been swampland and dirtbike trails.

At one o’clock on a Sunday night, the entire development was quiet and dark and, because it was so far outside of the city, a few stars could even be seen in the sky over the unused golf course of the Village. In just a few hours, the doctors and lawyers and IT professionals would have make the commute into town and begin the sixty hour work weeks that paid for their houses, so they jealously clung to the last of their sleep.

There were only two lights on in the whole subdivision. One was at the guard shack by the front gate, where a retired policeman watched Cheaters on a small black & white television with the sound turned down, while he listened to a police scanner out of habit and nostalgia.

The other light was in a window on the top storey of the Huynh house, the largest and nicest home in Westwood Village. It was a pink gumdrop lamp, covered with both a white lampshade and an old silk scarf, and it sat on Litta'Bit’s nightstand casting a weak light on her and Robert as they lay beside each other on the bed.

Litta’Bit was on her back, with a pinch of hair between two of her fingers. She’d been staring at her dead ends, but now she seemed to be looking past them, towards the ceiling. Robert watched her face.

“What are you looking at?” he asked softly. He knew he’d have to be going home soon. He didn’t really have a curfew, but he didn’t want to give his mother a reason for giving him one. Besides, he started his summer studies at nine; Mondays were AP English.

The Huynh’s house was the centerpiece of Westwood Village; it lay at the end of the main avenue that all the other streets grew out of, and was in the center of a cul-de-sac. This meant that only a few people ever needed to drive by their house, and certainly not in the middle of the night. Robert hadn’t heard a car for hours; actually, after a little thought, he realized he couldn’t remember ever having heard a car pass by.

Earlier that night, Robert had driven around with his girlfriend and a reborn David in what they called Snoopy’s Head. From the side, Litta'Bit’s car—a boxy white SUV with black trim—sorta kinda resembled Snoopy in profile, so The Gang referred to it as Snoopy’s Head, though no one could remember who came up with the nickname.

It was good to see David, but Robert had wished he’d gotten to be alone with Litta'Bit more. So it was good being in her bed at the end of the night. Litta'Bit lived so far out of the city that her backyard butted up against the end of civilization…if you jumped her fence and kept walking, you could make it to the Gulf Of Mexico without seeing another human. In the dark and quiet of Westwood Village, he felt cocooned with her, floating through space in her pink and girlish room. The soft bass from her brother Jason’s room next door was as gentle and as slow as a mother’s heartbeat.

Robert was propped up on an elbow beside Litta’Bit, looking down at her as she twirled her hair and stared at the ceiling. They were mostly clothed, and Robert knew this was unlikely to change. As a consolation, he had his hand under her hoodie, resting flat on the soft midriff swell just under her belly button.

Litta’Bit blinked and looked over at him without moving her head. “You need to apologize to Emily.”

“What?” he said. “Why?”

“You know why.” She twirled her hair for a second, the curl at the end describing a soft circle.

Robert pushed himself up a bit higher. “I don’t regret saying any of that. In fact, I think I was more than justified in…”

Litta'Bit dropped her hair. “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it. You hurt her feelings.”

“You’ve talked to her?”

“Not since that night. But I know she’s hurt. The boy she loves had left town, maybe for the summer, maybe forever-”

“They’re coming back.”

“I know they are, but Jesus, Robert, this was the day they left, you know?”

“You want me to apologize to Michael, too? Maybe send him some flowers?”

“Don’t be a jerk, Michael can take care of himself. But Emily was-”

“Since when are you best friends with Bellecastle?”

Litta'Bit rolled her eyes. “God, never mind.” She took up another lock of hair and began inspecting it intently. In the other room, the soft bass stopped suddenly. After a minute or two, there was the hushed sound of water flowing through pipes and the bass started up again with a different rhythm. Robert heard a train blow its whistle three times very far away, and he understood finally that it wasn’t a train, but a ship on the Mississippi River.

Robert whispered, “This is nice, just the two of us.”

He expected her to roll her eyes again, but to his surprise she sighed happily and settled back against his chest. “It is nice.”

They were quiet for a few minutes. Litta'Bit closed her eyes and lay against Robert’s chest. He slowly moved his hand off her stomach, sliding it higher and feeling Litta'Bit’s body tense slightly under the movement. His hand ran over her belly and up to her ribcage—delicate and small, as though carved with great precision by master craftsmen—before she pushed it back down to her midsection. She let go of his hand, but he kept moving it down lower and lower until she grabbed his wrist and threw it off of her.

She slid away from him a little. “You’re out of your mind. Grabbing my tit didn’t work so-” But Robert suddenly pulled her close, crushing her chest to his. He took her leg and pulled it up over his hips, then stared at her eyes. He meant to look passionate, but he knew he just looked crazed.

Litta'Bit’s body tightened under his grip as she pushed on his chest. “Get off of me, you goon,” she cried in a whisper, but with the very slightest hint of amusement in her voice. “You’re crushing me. God.”

Robert knew he’d made a mistake, and suddenly he couldn’t remember why he had thought this would work or what he’d wanted to accomplish. She was even giving him an out by attempting to laugh it off. But instead he pushed his mouth up to her ear. “What is wrong with you?” he whispered.

Litta'Bit pushed his hand off her leg. “What’s wrong with me? Classic.” She slid her leg off his hips, but Robert still held her against his chest. “I’m just not horny, okay? I’m not your hooker.”

“You’re never in the mood.” Robert sighed and let go of her. She scooted back a little and straightened herself out, but to his surprise she stayed in his arms. “Elizabeth, we haven’t done anything since before the Budds left. Since before school let out, really. I mean, not even on Prom night…”

“You’re still talking about that? I think I had alcohol poisoning, Robert…”

“It’s not just about that, though. You never call me, you never want to talk. We never hang out.”

“We hung out tonight!”

Robert sat up on the edge of the bed and rubbed his right eye. “No. You hung out with David while I drove Snoopy’s Head around.”

“That’s not fair. He’s my best friend, I hadn’t really seen him in three weeks.”

Robert didn’t say anything. He looked over and saw that one of Litta'Bit’s feet was laying beside his thigh. He put his hand over it, and pressed his thumb into the arch.

“Besides,” Litta'Bit said, a bit softer now, “didn’t we hang out earlier this week? Like on Wednesday?”

Pushing harder with his thumb, Robert turned a bit and placed her soft foot on his lap. “On Thursday, yeah. But only because David was still in mourning and you were lonely. Also, I mostly just sat right here and watched you play Grand Theft Auto.”

Litta'Bit scooted down in the bed and pushed her foot further into his hands. He was rubbing the top of her instep now. “You could have played if you wanted.” She groaned a little. “Could you…right, the heel. God.”

Litta'Bit had the disconcerting ability to articulate each of her toes, spreading them out like a tiny hand. It was unsettling and a little gross, but Robert never said anything. The one time he’d remarked on it, Litta'Bit had claimed it was because she did yoga and had better control over her muscles than other people, and in fact she found it weird and disgusting that other people couldn’t do it. (However, as far as Robert could tell, Litta'Bit had taken up and abandoned yoga over the course of three weeks during freshman year.)

“That’s perfect, just a little harder,” Litta'Bit sighed.

“You know, if you didn’t wear heels every single day…”

“Oh, please…” Robert didn’t have to look up at her face to know that Litta'Bit had just rolled her eyes at him. She did it a lot.

Robert moved back a little and picked up her other foot, then pulled the sheet back down over her bare knees. He quietly rubbed her feet for a few minutes, and then a few more. He remembered reading somewhere that, after a fight, Amish husbands wouldn’t apologize in words but would meekly wash the feet of their wives. Wait, was it Amish? It was late, Robert couldn’t remember. Maybe it was just in a movie, actually.

“Of course,” he said softly, as he carefully squeezed each of her delicate toes, “you wouldn’t really call it playing Grand Theft Auto, would you?”

Litta'Bit didn’t say anything, and Robert continued rubbing her feet. He’d teased her about this before, and he knew that she was making her playful “mad kitten” face at him.

“I mean, all you really do is steal one car then drive around the city listening to the radio…”

Litta'Bit still didn’t say anything, and Robert smiled a little. Finally, he stole a look up at her face, expecting to see her still cutely glaring at him. But instead, he found her asleep with slightly parted lips. He smiled and continued massaging her arches.

After a few minutes, he gently placed both of her feet back on the bed and covered them with the sheet. Litta'Bit didn’t move, so he stood up and tucked his shirt back in carefully, then sat down at her vanity and adjusted his socks, which had gotten twisted around on the bed. He slipped on his black monkstraps.

Litta'Bit had hung his suit jacket up on a never-used hook behind her door. Her own clothes migrated from the laundry room to her loveseat, then from her body to the floor, all without ever approaching her closet. But whenever Robert visited, even if they were fighting, she was always careful with his clothes.

Robert slipped the jacket on and stepped in front of his girlfriend’s full-length mirror to adjust his cuffs and collar. He noticed his head was getting stubbly…he’d have to shave it the next day. His father and Uncle Tony, both legitimately bald, reacted with bemusement and horror to his shaved head, telling him he should enjoy his hair while it lasted, but Robert liked the look.

In the inside pocket of his suit jacket were his “driving glasses,” a pair of prescription-free lenses that Robert wore when driving at night. He claimed they cut down on glare from oncoming cars, but the truth was that Robert was a Young Black Male driving a new car through nice neighborhoods at night, which is pretty much a scientific formula for getting pulled over by the police. Not so much anymore—most of the NOPD knew his car by now, and who his father was—but it was a Sunday night in June and there were sure to be a lot of bored cops in the twenty miles between Litta'Bit and home. Wearing glasses seemed to help for some reason.

Robert sniffed at the sleeve of his jacket. David and Litta'Bit had been smoking pot at David’s house earlier that night, and though Robert had been careful to stay away from the smoke he had to be sure. Getting arrested for smelling like marijuana when he vehemently avoided drugs was an irony he wasn’t prepared to live through. He found Litta'Bit’s Febreze in the closet and gave himself a few squirts. Not that getting pulled over reeking of air freshener was any better, though…

Just as Robert was ready to go, Litta'Bit stirred and opened her eyes a little. “Why are you leaving?” she mumbled.

He chuckled and squatted down beside her. “Because you’re dead asleep.”

Litta'Bit didn’t answer right away, drifting off for a minute. “What time is it?” she whispered.

“Almost two,” Robert guessed.

Litta'Bit stirred a little, stretching inside of her clothes and opening her eyes just enough to see Robert by the side of the bed. “You and your glasses.”

“Yeah.” Robert reached out and took a lock of her hair between his fingers. He tried caressing it, but he noticed that in his hands it looked more like he was analyzing the hair for its scientific properties.

Litta'Bit was asleep again.

“Elizabeth, listen. I’m sorry about before…” he whispered, and she didn’t move. Why do I always do that? he thought to himself. I’d already apologized with my actions, why do I have to do it in words? “But baby, listen: if things aren’t going to change, if things are always going to be like this…then I need you to break up with me because I’m not strong enough to do it myself. And I am going out of my fucking mind.”

Litta'Bit didn’t move or wake up. Robert watched her sleep for a while, running her silky hair through his fingers. Then he turned off the little pink lamp and fled, ashamed, into the night.

Twelve >>>