Wildcard Shorts

Wildcard Shorts

I tried writing a story about my girlfriend.

Sometimes I come up with the story before the title, sometimes it’s the other way around.

In this case, it was the other way around. I called it: “Should I Write About My Girlfriend?”

Thing was, I wasn’t certain I should: I was working through it.




My girlfriend flew home for Christmas. Honestly, it was a relief. Not that she was gone, but that I didn’t have to go with her. (And also that she was gone, a little.) She was gone for ten days. Mostly I just didn’t want to meet my girlfriend’s mother yet. My girlfriend’s mother sounded like my girlfriend on steroids.




Sometimes my girlfriend accuses me of being gay. It’s happened a few times.

I’ve fucked a bunch of men before, so it’s not from nowhere. But it pisses me off.

I tell her I like her more than any man I’ve ever known or will know and I mean it. I tell her this often. I ask her if isn’t satisfied, if somehow she thinks she can tell when we fuck that I want to fuck men instead of her, a beautiful woman.

She’s wrong about this all. History will vindicate me.

Anyway, she insists it isn’t a critique of our lovemaking. “I just spiral,” she says. She does. But I don’t blame her. Not entirely, at least.




Here’s what we say to each other:

“Flip over.”

“Ass in the air.”

“Let him in.” (Him being the cat.)

“Let him out.”

“I need your cock.”

“Are they dragging the rocks upstairs?” (Because once I said the upstairs neighbors had wrapped a bunch of rocks into a bandana, which they dragged along the floor to compete with us here below, noise-wise.)

“Today I will annoy you.”

“I can feel you throbbing.”

“Does that make sense?”

“You’re so hard.”

“I’m annoying you today.”

“You need to relax.”

“I am relaxed. I am so relaxed. I’m relaxing.”

“Why are you laughing at me, I’m not doing anything.”

“I like when we wake up at the same time. It nearly never happens.”

“Stop looking at your phone.”

“How do you know about the news before I do?”

“I’m going to go hang out in my car.”

“I’m going to sleep in my car.”

“I need to stop hanging out in my car, men in vans keep circling the block.”

“I need to leave.”

“I need to go home.”

“This is your home.”

“It’s not.”




I went to St. Vincent’s, a massive, dingy thrift store a half-mile north from my apartment with my friend Leah one day.

I shouldn’t have gone. She took forever looking through the racks. But I don’t blame her. It’s her prerogative.

I have to stop doing stuff, have to stop being so agreeable. I should really be bringing a book anywhere I go. Usually I do, but that day I forgot.

I did find one article of clothing for myself: nylon Adidas shorts, in blue and faded orange and much too large for me. I paid four dollars for them.

I never wore underwear and wouldn’t make that accommodation for my new find. Before I knew it, I was flashing everyone, every guest at my apartment, plus my roommate and my girlfriend, repeatedly. She called them my wildcard shorts. They were the most comfortable shorts I owned, despite the risks involved in my wearing them.




It was the first night my girlfriend had threatened to kill herself since college, more than five years ago.

My roommate was gone that night, thank God for that. I have a pathological, burning imperative to keep him from hearing us fight.

Probably because I could not bear the thought of someone I was close to saying: Leave her.

I also worried he would call the cops on us. My girlfriend was always yelling. She would scream. Sometimes I would, too, but usually I didn’t. If the cops ever came, I’d probably do okay at talking to them, but my girlfriend wouldn’t.

None of our neighbors ever called the police, either, no one in our neighborhood did.

And I think they hoped we would just kill each other already.




I suspect I won’t show my girlfriend this story or essay or whatever it is.

I know this is wrong, but the “process” is what’s keeping me alive, I think. And the thought that I could be appreciated without ever being looked at. I don’t much like being looked at.

I think I will eventually find an equilibrium between keeping my girlfriend happy—and she deserves to be happy, she deserves everything—and keeping myself alive.

Still: not quite there.

This year, I hope.




One night my roommate has his two bandmates over and they’re watching my television as I read standing up in the kitchen, as I’m wont to do. My girlfriend sits at the flimsy, wooden Ikea table set against the wall beneath the two best windows here. From where she sits, she can talk to me reading, hovering in the kitchen, and peek over her shoulder at the television.

She’s drawing a picture for me. I love it. It’s my Christmas present, but it isn’t done. (Christmas was two weeks ago now.) The piece depicts various sewers around the world, in Paris and Rio and Osaka and a few other places. She’s coloring it in now with the Prisma Color colored pencils I gave her for our anniversary a month and a half ago. My roommate and his friends ignore us. They laugh at something on the TV that isn’t funny.

For our anniversary, she offered to wash me in the shower. She used to do this in college, when we first dated, and hadn’t done it since.

She exfoliates my skin, rinses out every fold of my body. It’s erotic and it isn’t, sexual but pretty far from sex.

(For her Christmas present, I stole her a half-crumbled brick from my boss’s shelf, upon which an affixed metal plaque reads THIS BRICK IS FROM JAMES DEAN’S HIGH SCHOOL, FAIRMOUNT, ND. If my boss ever finds this story, I’ll lose my job.)




After years of off-and-on, my girlfriend moved in with me and my roommate in September, into our two-bedroom apartment in a four-unit dump three blocks east of the USC medical campus. This was a bad idea. But the other options were only worse (they were: we break up, we live with my dad and stepmom, we remain “long-distance”).

The three of us all went to Mathews College together, in Mathews, OH. My roommate and my girlfriend had something of a rapport, at least. But they don’t anymore.

He was most grateful for the reduction in his rent. He plays in bands and lived off money from his mother until she cut him off. Now he’s studying at a coding boot camp so he can find a software engineering job. He “does math” on the mirror in his bedroom with a dry-erase marker like a freak. “For practice.”




My roommate makes fun of my girlfriend for not knowing what HBO is.

My roommate makes fun of my girlfriend for freaking out during a discussion over what could be considered the LA analogue to NYC dollar pizza.

My roommate makes fun of my girlfriend for talking to herself so much.




I worked until the 23rd and spent that day, a Friday, grey across the whole state, driving from LA to Arcata. The next day—as in, Christmas Eve—I’d set off late that night upon the less-than-four-hour drive up to Medford, where my mother and stepfather now lived. (On the entirely vacant highway that night, I’d make it in three.)

My friend Lin was in a grad program studying “Energy Technology.” That school used to be called Humboldt State University, hut now it was called California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. I hadn’t realized it was rechristened. Lin said everyone liked the old name better, even if the new one sounded more impressive.

I stayed at her apartment in Arcata on the night of the 23rd. Christmas Eve Eve, Lin called it. I got there late.

Lin had pretty much no one. Just some scattered friends from the Internet. I was one of them. Her family was gone. Her dad was dead, she didn’t speak to her mom. No siblings. I was happy to see her and she was happy to see me.

She knew it wasn’t romantic. Even my girlfriend did. Normally, I would have been mortified telling her I was spending the night alone in the abode of a close female friend, but I knew my girlfriend wouldn’t mind in this case, and I was right, she didn’t. (As much as I seemed to go for complicated women, Lin was a “bridge too far,” I’d said to my girlfriend once; shockingly, this reassured her.)

I arrived late and Lin and I drank gin that night and we both passed out on the filthy carpeted floor of her one-bedroom apartment’s capsule of a living room. We killed a whole bottle of Hendricks, as well as a twelve pack of Miller Lite, over four hours or so of our catching up.

The next day, Christmas Eve, she took me to a party after we spent the morning and afternoon convalescing in front of her ten-year-old plasma television. which was the most peace I’d known in the last three months, since my girlfriend had moved in with me and my roommate. We watched a movie called Throw Down and then a movie called Exiled. (Same director.)

The party was in a warehouse in Eureka. It wasn’t a “warehouse party,” though, just a small gathering, boozing among friends and plus-one’s amid the industrial operation Lin did some consulting work for, a tiny factory which processed thousands of gallons of weed vape juice each year, as well as “D8” extracted from hemp.

DJ, the cantankerous, 40-something wook who owned and operated the plant, had tasked Lin with finding low-cost ways to bring his energy bills down. “You’ll love this guy,” she told me as I drove us there and we listened to Lightning Bolt. We had to yell over the Lightning Bolt.

We parked on the street and slipped through a divide in the chain-link barbed-wire fence surrounding a trio of prefabricated steel warehouses.

“You sure it’s okay?”

“DJ cut this so I wouldn’t have to wake him up to unlock the gate.”

Why have a gate then? I thought.

The man who opened the door to the smallest of the warehouses, this DJ, immediately hugged Lin. Then he looked over at me and fell silent. “Do I know you?” he said finally. “I’m just not placing it.”

He did know me. Not anymore, but he did once.

I looked a lot different then. Because I was six years old. Because he was my first-grade teacher.

Mr. Davidson was his name. David Davidson, so I could see why he’d ditched the David. He looked different now, too, it seemed to have been sort of a Matthew-Broderick-in-Election-to-Ted-Kaczynski-in-a-Hawaiian-shirt trajectory.

“I don’t think so,” I said, after a flat beat.

Everyone loved Mr. Davidson. I think he even won a District Teacher of the Year award a few years after I’d had him. Then he disappeared. I was too young to hear the scuttlebutt surrounding his departure. I asked my dad about it when I started writing this and he told me there were rumors of him becoming addicted to heroin, like Ryan Gosling in that movie.

“I can’t place it. What you say your name was?”

I told him, but I didn’t give him my last name, I wanted to keep any old bells from ringing too violently.

“Huh. It doesn’t matter.” He gave me a hug, too, he said any friend of Lin’s deserved one. His breath smelled like olive brine.

He told us we were a bit early and gave us an impromptu tour of his facility. Tubes running all over the place, into the floor and ceiling, into humming silver machines he’d ordered from Mainland China. He had to figure them out himself, they were on the cutting edge when he’d imported them a few years before, their instruction manuals all in Mandarin, with no English versions yet available online. Due to the nature of his business, he felt he couldn’t hire a translator. (He said he didn’t trust any kids from the university, other than Lin, and none of the faculty, either, “of course.”)

“Is it just you?” I asked.

“No, no. My wife, when she can. Two other dudes we pay under the table. After I figured out how everything worked, I realized any idiot could do this.”

Business was booming for my old instructor. His first embarkation into the trade was with a cartel-affiliated chemist in Garden Grove who taught him everything he knew; they were part of that outfit arrested in one of the largest marijuana busts in SoCal history, down in Anaheim in 2005.

He got off, though, and moved up here. (The chemist did not, he was rotting away in a Vacaville cell.)

He squeezed a special glove over his right hand and grabbed some dry ice from a freezer with it, cramming the misty rock of freeze into a spout atop one of the machines, an effect resembling that of a Spirit Halloween witch’s cauldron.

“For viscosity,” he said, like I knew what he meant. “If you ever want to work here for a summer, let me know. Always looking for anyone who’s less of an idiot than what I’ve got now.”

I thanked him and said I’d think about it.

“Good place to run away,” Mr. Davidson—DJ—said. “No one thinks to look up here. Other than DEA.”

After I had three drinks and enough THC for twelve people, more hippie/yuppie hybrids streamed in and I bid my goodbyes.

I hugged Lin. She stuffed a handwritten letter into my back pocket. I dreaded reading it. (I haven’t yet, still.)

I thanked DJ for having me. He still hadn’t figured out how he knew me, or if he did at all.

“Lin has my contact info. You can get it from her. I’m serious about the gig. Money’s not great, but it’s under the table, and it’s cheap as hell living here. I can help you find a good lease. She speaks really highly of you, you know.” I thanked him again and hit the road, shaken in a way I couldn’t name.

I figured I was lying after I told my former teacher that I’d think about taking his job offer, but I thought some more about it on the drive up to Medford. It was after ten now. The road was silent. I crashed through reams of fog. The surrounding trees swayed impatiently in increasing winds, but I couldn’t hear a thing, no howl, no movement, even with the windows open, like I’d driven into the eye of something. The only brightness at all came from my headlights, dim compared to those obnoxious LED ones most cars come equipped with these days.

I switched on Evil Empire by Rage Against the Machine to stay awake and in a waking dream I left LA in the depths of an early morning, after three, the only time I could virtually guarantee my girlfriend would remain asleep. I sprinted up the state in my car through heavy fog (just as I was now doing). I chucked my phone out from the driver’s side window somewhere in the Central Valley. I’d told no one. Didn’t even pack a bag. I’d sleep on Lin’s couch for a few weeks (things would stay platonic between us, I figured) as I started earning Mr. Davidson’s clandestine cash. Then I’d strike out on my own.

I came to and my phone informed me I was now in Oregon. It shook my hand and said, Welcome to Oregon! in that strange, half-erotic, robotic baby voice it sometimes slips into.




What else do we say to each other?

“You’re really not mad at me?”

“I can’t really be mad at you for compulsive behavior.”

“You’re right about that, ‘compulsive’ is the right word.”

“Sometimes I think you wear the wildcard shorts when you know we’ll fight. To cheer me up.”

“I don’t. I just like wearing them. It’s like I’m wearing nothing at all,” me doing a little Ned Flanders voice there.

“People keep following me.”

“People at the bus stop keep cursing me out.”

“The woman at the Liquor Market told me she’s concerned for me.”

“The woman at the Liquor Market told me not to come back.”

“Send me your grocery list.”

“Send me your burrito order.”

“You can do whatever you want to me.”

“I want you to do whatever you want to me.”




On Christmas morning, right after I arrived, I realized I’d packed my wildcard shorts for my stay in Oregon. I hadn’t intended to. But my mom and stepdad’s house was heated so sternly, so unrelentingly, that I was forced to wear them anyway.

My girlfriend FaceTimed me at around two o’clock, just as we’d planned; it was five for her in New Jersey.

“I love you,” she said. I told her I loved her, too, looking up at her as I held the phone above myself lying flat on the bed.

She was all done up, she looked great, I knew she wasn’t going out later, it must have been just for our call.

“Wait. What are you wearing?” she asked.

I told her now wasn’t a good time for that.

“No, that’s not what I mean. I want to see something.”

I stretched my arms forward, holding my phone farther out above me, tilting it slightly to reveal more of myself.

“I knew it! Are you trying to flash your stepdad?”

“I didn’t even mean to pack them. But it’s like a furnace in here, I can’t wear jeans inside all day and I forgot anything else to sleep in.”

“Have you flashed them yet?”

I sighed so she could hear it. “Yeah.”

It was when I bent over to pull a present from under the tree.

My mother had screamed, my stepfather threw a blanket at me to cover up with. “Why are you wearing rags?” he’d said.

Later, in a text message—an hour before my call with my girlfriend, as I read my mother’s copy of Song of the Lark in the guest room—my stepfather said they were reconsidering whether I’d be welcome in his home for the rest of my three-day stay.

My mom talked him down, but we all hardly exchanged more than a dozen words in my remaining time there.




“Please don’t say that ever again,” I said. “Unless you actually mean it. And then I’ll take you to a hospital.”

I told her that if she said she wanted to kill herself and didn’t mean it (which she didn’t), then she was just saying it to try to hurt me.

And it worked!

I told her that if I told anyone else about this, they’d tell me to leave her.

“So. You should leave me, then,” she said, and she had a point.

“You’re the love of my life,” I said, knowing I had a point, too.

“You’re the love of my life,” she said.

“We can make this work,” I said.

“We need to make this work,” she said.




I deleted the Word Doc of the fledgling “Should I Write About My Girlfriend?”

The idea was that I’d write about her helping me buy a suit for a gig I had coming up. She went on a manic rant after I’d asked her to help me with it, about how what one wears is “the absolute most important thing about them upon any introduction.”

I told her I thought that was a bit much.

“No. It’s not! It tells the other person how they should feel about you. But more importantly, the clothes you wear are you telling yourself how you feel about yourself. They are a code you can only fully crack yourself. And other people see you trying to crack it and they act, and they judge, accordingly.”

I told her she was sounding a bit manic.

“Don’t you understand? Like how you like movies? That’s what clothes are like for me. An unending text.” She really said all this. I suggested she go back to school for fashion design, as I had a few times before. She said that wasn’t really the point.

I told her I was nervous for the gig—it could possibly lead to a much more pleasant and lucrative job than my current post, which I fully detested—so I’d appreciate if she could be a bit more relaxed when we looked for a suit, or else I might go myself.

She asked if that was a threat. I told her it wasn’t, but we both knew it sort of was.

Then I figured this could make great fodder for “Should I Write About My Girlfriend?” like the whore I am. It could even end up making the whole thing, or the vast majority of it. So far, I’d only written around 400 words, and re-written and re-written them.

But I was wrong. For some reason, that day, she was at her best. She was kind and observant and helpful and pleasant and playful. The diminutive saleswoman at the Men’s Warehouse in Monterey Park loved her.

When we got home afterward, I deleted the story scrap. Then I changed out of the jeans and the clean underwear I wore out of respect to the employees at the Monterey Park Men’s Warehouse and swapped into my wildcard shorts. I wanted to keep her mood up. Our mood.

It worked well enough. As I fried leftover rice in the kitchen, and she read Duras at the Ikea table, her usual spot, the wildcard shorts did their thing. (Our roommate was gone that evening and thank God for that.)

I said I was worried the hot oil would melt my balls off.

My girlfriend laughed the laugh she’d make when I used to kiss her neck back in school, the sweetest hum, slightly under her breath, only for me.



About the Author

Z.H. Gill lives in sunny Hollywood, CA, with his cat Hans.


Photo by Kinga Howard on Unsplash