Billy knew he had to break it off when they entered the nature center and her face didn’t light up. Although, really, he should’ve known from the damn start. Greta was nothing like the local girls he went with. Her fingernails were painted a rich-girl red. Her clothes were sleek as machetes. Billy stared into a woodsy aquarium. The bigger of the two frogs inside it, much bigger actually, a total monster, hopped toward the smaller one.
“You really like frogs, huh?” Greta said, almost accusingly.
“’Course I do,” he said. “But it ain’t that. I mean, I just wish they wouldn’t put the small one in with the big one. Frogs are cannibals, they eat each other sometimes.”
She narrowed her eyes evilly. “Can you blame them, though? Frog legs are so tasty.” Then, seeing his expression, “Oh, come on, lighten up.”
“Nah, I can’t,” he said. “That critter has as much right to life as the other.”
She took out a lipstick tube. “Sounds pretty personal,” she said, running the sticky red tip over her mouth. “Some big frog pick on you when you were a tadpole?”
“It ain’t personal,” he said, big-time annoyed, but also, okay, yeah, amused. The way she talked was a kick. It was one reason he had let it get to a third date. Another reason was the way she smelled. Her presence reeked, awesomely, of rich coconut oil.
“So sensitive,” she said. “Be assertive, why don’t you. Ask to separate them.”
“I already did! The staff blew me off. And you could be, like, more sensitive.”
She smirked. “I don’t know, though. Isn’t sensitive just another word for weak?”
Billy felt slugged. It was such a smart and nasty thing to say. None of the other girls he dated would ever say it. And probably it was even true. Feelings got you fucking nowhere. If he didn’t care, if he didn’t take things so hard, his life would be better. For one thing, he would’ve stuck with competitive boxing instead of quitting after losing an early match. For another, after his grandpa’s funeral, he would’ve washed his teary face instead of smashing the bathroom mirror. The flying shards! The scraping pain. More recently, and maybe above all, he would’ve stuck with junior college instead of dropping out after his slickster classmates giggled during his speech on farm life.
Greta flicked his arm. “Uh, Earth to Billy?” Frowning questioningly, she wiped her dark hair, long and thick and mesmerizing, and no doubt redone weekly at a fancy city salon, away from her face. “Where’d you go? You know I was just teasing, right?”
“Yeah, well. I got older brothers. I’ve had enough teasing for a lifetime.”
“Ah, brothers! The bully bullfrogs, I presume. Maybe you—”
“It ain’t gonna work, Greta,” he broke in. “Sorry, but I’m not like you.”
Her head darted. “What? Look, I already told you,” she practically yelled. “I was only teasing. Flirting, stupid! Obviously I’m sorry if your brothers picked on you.”
The front desk worker, a scrawny teenage boy, glanced over disapprovingly.
“They got theirs,” Billy said softly. “I learned to box and whooped ‘em all.”
“Yeah? Well, super!” Greta said, not softly. “Jesus! What’s your fucking deal? Why haven’t you taken me anywhere private? Don’t you want to be alone with me?”
“Listen, dang it!” Billy said, stirred and alarmed and corralling her away from the desk worker. “It’s my fault, right? When we met at the bar that night, I stupidly assumed that you lived in town. I mean, the girls I go out with are sweet, they like animals.”
“Oh, so I’m this cold-hearted slut?” Her nostrils flared. “You’ve misjudged me, Billy,” she whispered harshly. “But there’s no talking to you. So I’ll just get my coat.”
Billy went out into the musky autumn afternoon to wait by his truck. He watched as the wind blew leaves onto the center’s porch, dreaming of a world where the small creatures had the power to overthrow the big creatures and massacre them all. Why was there even small and big in the first place? What sick fuck had dreamed that shit up? Life seemed designed to make you feel like a scuzzy bastard. He’d had sex seven times and felt evil and overjoyed every time. He dug into his chaw pouch and stuffed a messy wad into his mouth, knowing that Greta would be disgusted as hell. Deal with it, cannibal lady! On the plus side, he had nice girls in the hopper, a fresh six pack in the basement fridge. Except he knew that all the handholding in the world, all the beers, wouldn’t lift this gloomy graveyard mood. Life was carnage. Love was life support. Chawing absently, spitting morosely, he heard a clatter from inside the center. The porch door swung open.
Greta rushed out. “I saved him!” she called, holding a frog triumphantly aloft.
Billy tensed up. What the hell? The scrawny teen appeared, grabbing at the small frog in Greta’s hands. She hit him pow in the face. Blood gushed. Tears drooled. Adult workers came out, comforting the teen and screaming at Greta. Nervous, excited, Billy got into his truck. Greta sailed down the steps, frog in hand, its green liquid-soft limbs flopping helplessly. Billy started the truck, put it in gear, and then reached over to open the door for Greta, who climbed in breathlessly, staring at him with crazed, caring eyes.