When your boyfriend looks like Elvis Costello, you’d better be a new wave babe. I was the furthest thing from a new wave babe, and Rob knew it. Two years past high school, I still wore earth shoes, gray wool socks and tie-dyed wraparound skirts.
Nobody in Chicago dressed like that in 1979. I attracted a lot of unwanted attention. One night, at a pay phone in front of Hull House, two well-dressed yuppie businessmen gave me a once-over, then a twice-over. They gaped in wonderment at the album I was carrying. “Wow,” one of them said. “Best of Cream.”
Retro is a polite word for my vibe. I was a dork, too dense to keep up with trends. Still, I thought new wave guys were cute as hell. I spent hours at record stores near Belmont and Clark, staring with wistful longing at Costello’s expression of geek fury on the cover of “My Aim is True.”
Rob and I worked together at a Howard Street porn publishing outlet, located above an antique store. A long, wide stairwell led to the dark office I shared with several other young women. That stairwell freaked me out. Perhaps it was haunted, or perhaps I spent too many graveyard shifts talking on the phone to lonely men who wanted to buy lists of swingers for $25.00.
Rather, they shelled out $25.00 if they felt desperate and wanted to do more than masturbate. Rob had his own cubicle at the other end of the cavernous hallway. Hunched over his desk, he labored feverishly on essays that bore such titles as “50 Hot Pick-Up Spots in Chicago.”
Not surprisingly, most of the porno house employees liked to drink after work. We had forged a tight bond, one based on disgust and trauma. Our posse went to clubs like Neo and O’Banion’s. Everyone dressed for the scene except me. Though I was a few weeks shy of 21, the bartenders never checked my ID. They just shoved vodka tonics in my direction.
After bar time, my co-workers crashed at my apartment. I lived in a third-floor walkup with two roommates. Brenda worked in the porno house with me, and Jackie was usually asleep. Jackie owned Dan Fogelberg albums and was even more of a nerd than I was. She didn’t want to know what we were doing in the living room.
One morning, around 3:00 AM, I gazed at Rob’s prostrate form as he slumbered on my couch. The guy looked adorable. His glasses had fallen to the floor, and one of his angular legs protruded from an armrest. “I want him,” I told Brenda.
She shrugged. “Go for it.”
Rob had a crush on our co-worker, Astrid. Blond, six feet tall, and fluent in German, Astrid could have any man she wanted. Though she’d flirted with Rob, I could tell she didn’t take him seriously. Her boyfriend was a musician who planned to drive to New Orleans in an ancient station wagon that was sure to break down along the way. She’d join him there after she had saved enough cash.
Rob was mine for the duration. Our routine seldom varied. We got together for a movie or a walk. He read aloud from some ponderous screenplay he was writing. I feigned interest and tried not to fall asleep. He showed me the latest album he’d bought and spent an hour talking excitedly about Martha and the Muffins or the B-52s.
When our obligatory ritual ended, we had sex in my queen-sized bed. Rob’s saving grace was his endless fount of erotic energy. His wiry body moved quickly on my mattress.
Obviously, impermanence had been written into our arrangement from the start. After a couple of months, Rob’s disdain became evident. “Why do you dress like you’re about to head to Woodstock?” he demanded. “Don’t you have any other clothes?”
Astrid shopped for outfits at Fiorucci, a glamorous shop on the top floor of Water Tower Place. Their cheapest wares cost at least $25.00, more than I made in five hours. I’d seen her shell out a week’s salary for a sequined Marilyn Monroe tee-shirt.
Before Astrid left for New Orleans, she gave me the shirt and a couple pairs of her Calvin Klein jeans. She stressed this was meant as a loan, not a gift. Astrid planned to travel light and return to Chicago in the spring.
I received several postcards from her during the ensuing weeks, keeping me apprised of her progress as she rode to San Diego with her boyfriend, dumped his ass, went to San Francisco, hooked up with a European tourist and crashed with him on my friend Mike’s floor in Fremont. Rob seemed pretty dull by comparison.
I started seeing another man. Paul wore a black leather jacket and jeans with knee rips. Though he had an explosive temper and a drinking problem, he could really rock the Ramones look. At least, he rocked it from the neck down. Paul bore a strong facial resemblance to Pete Townshend, and he played a mean blues guitar, using his toilet paper spindle as a slide.
My new boyfriend was jealous of Rob, but I didn’t want to place all my bets on one guy. Besides, Paul didn’t own me. He had another, part-time girlfriend – Nikki, a pot dealer and bigwig in the Chicago chapter of the Communist Youth League. She called Paul a misogynist but couldn’t resist that jacket.
When Astrid returned to Chicago, Rob and I decided to throw a small party for her at my apartment. The boozy gathering devolved into a threesome on my kitchen floor. Eventually, we migrated to my bed. Astrid had started to fall for Rob, and he dug it. I felt like I wasn’t even in the room.
Next morning, we nursed our hangovers with leftover pizza and listened to Gary Numan’s new album, “The Pleasure Principle.” I had purchased it before the party, hoping to impress my cool friends.
Synthesizers droned endlessly as we chomped on bits of cold pepperoni. The music sounded gloomy and depressing, like a dirge. Each note pulsated into my brain and made my hangover worse.
“This record fits my mood exactly,” Astrid said.
Three days later, my phone rang in the middle of the night. “I want my jeans and tee-shirt back,” Astrid announced. I could hear Rob laughing in the background. “When can you bring them to me?”
I should have told Astrid to go to hell or someplace even worse. But I was a pushover, and I didn’t love Rob. I loved her. Astrid’s goddamned clothing wasn’t mine to keep, anyway. I felt like a pretender when I wore her Marilyn shirt, but I had grown fond of it. Her jeans fit me perfectly, which meant I was as skinny she was, although I loved to eat, and she didn’t.
Afterwards, I never heard from either of them again. I quit my job at the porno house and found a waitressing gig. Rob and Astrid got married a few months later. Word on the street claimed that the new wave couple didn’t get along. Rob liked to throw public tantrums, and Astrid spent most of her time doing damage control.
Meanwhile, I had my hands full with Paul, who threw tantrums every other day. Both men were Geminis. Did that have anything to do with it?
The 70s were over, and the 80s stretched ahead like a paper roll with question marks on it. I had ended up with Paul by default but wasn’t sure if I’d grabbed the better end of the bargain. At least the two of us liked the same music. That had to count for something.
The story behind the story:
I’ve lived in several states, but I’ll always consider myself a Chicago gal. My voice originated on its gritty streets. The people I met during my early adulthood will always be with me. I often re-visit my young adulthood through my stories, as those years left an indelible impression. Intensely emotional, confused yet purposeful, I careened through life, creating perpetual havoc. There was a beauty to all of it that superseded the chaos. “Somewhat More Than Zero” serves as one of my favorite snapshots of that time period. It captures my restless drive for experience, even at the expense of my self-esteem. Writing the story helped me understand the young woman who still lives inside me.
Leah Mueller is the author of ten prose and poetry books. Her most recent book, “The Destruction of Angels” (Anxiety Press) was published in October 2022. Leah’s work appears in Rattle, Nonbinary Review, Midway Journal, Citron Review, The Spectacle, Miracle Monocle, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, etc. She was a 2022 nominee for Best of the Net. Her flash piece, “Land of Eternal Thirst” is in the 2022 edition of Sonder Press’ Best Small Fictions anthology. Website: www.leahmueller.org.
Somewhat More Than Zero was first published in Talking Soup magazine.
Header Photo by Andretti Brown.