Tag Archives: story

Ashley Cowger

Ashley CowgerAshley Cowger is the author of the short story collection Peter Never Came, which was awarded the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals, and she is an Associate Editor for Bound Off. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Learn more at www.ashleycowger.com. 

 

Public Access

“I just thought you should know,” is what the woman says, her voice smug. “If I were you, I would want—” and then Lenny disconnects her.

May watches as the little red light on the camera goes dim. Carl must have signaled Mike to stop shooting.

“Sorry, May,” he says into May’s earpiece.

May offers a put-on smile and shrugs. “No biggie.” But she can see by the reaction of the crew that this is not the appropriate response. “I mean, it isn’t your fault, Carl.” May can feel little beads of sweat forming along her hairline. The lights seem abnormally strong today.

“Let’s, uh, why don’t we take a minute, huh? To regroup,” Carl says, not to May, but to the crew.

Mike leaves his post, walks swiftly toward the bathroom, and Melissa approaches May with that little bowl of face powder she always seems to have on the ready. “Touch up?”

May forces a smile. “Oh. Sure.”

Melissa swirls the giant brush around in the powder, then dabs it all over May’s face and neck. “What a bitch, huh?” Melissa says.

“Who?” May asks.

Melissa snorts. “Right.”

“Oh,” May says.

“Mahhhgaret,” Melissa says, taking on the caller’s faux British intonation. “You can just tell by the way she says her name she’s a bitch.”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to judge,” May says.

Melissa doesn’t seem to have heard. “I can’t believe she would call you on the show like that.”

“Melissa,” Carl says. He sounds like a stern father, like he means business.

Melissa, who is still of an age where a stern father means trouble, jumps.

“May looks fine. No more makeup.”

Melissa walks away without argument.

Carl leans in with his stale coffee breath, puts his lumpy hand on May’s shoulder and squeezes. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“’Cause if you need to take some time, we can just call it a day and pick up fresh next week. Show a rerun.”

May thinks about it for a moment, but shakes her head. And do what? she wants to ask Carl. Go home and face Sam? He probably knows she called. She probably told him. “I’m fine,” she tells Carl.

Carl squeezes her shoulder again, then lets go. “Show must go on, right?” He lifts his hand up, and for a second she thinks he’s going to hold it out for a high five. Thankfully, he just runs it through his thinning hair. “Soon as Mike gets back then, eh?”

“Sounds good,” May says. She crosses her legs and folds her hands neatly in her lap. She is wearing a yellow dress today, yellow with brown dots. She feels attractive, summery. Sam bought the dress for her last summer. It’s probably the only time he’s bought her a dress that she actually likes and fits well, both. He loves her in the dress, tells her every time she wears it. Wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off her, May knows, if it weren’t for Margaret, whose name May didn’t know before now.

It worked well that way, not knowing her name. She was just a shady figure in the background of their lives, one it was easy to pretend away. Sam had been so much happier these past few months, and May didn’t have to deal with his constant groping. She could make dinner now, brush her teeth, without him coming up behind her and nestling his dry lips into her sensitive skin. She didn’t have to come up with excuses anymore—headache, backache, exhaustion, arthritis pains. On top of that, Sam had been extra giving in other ways, out of guilt, May assumes. A few times, she’d suspected he suspected that she knew, but she played dumb and he bought it, and he would buy her a ridiculously expensive bouquet of flowers afterwards, or take her to dinner at Chez Pierre.

But now, all of that is over. Now she’s heard the woman’s voice. Now she knows her name: Mahhhgaret. Everybody on crew knows it, too. Everybody knows that May knows. Sam probably already knows, and if he doesn’t, he’ll find out soon enough. Her blissful life of feigned ignorance is over. And she doesn’t know what to do.

Mike comes back from the bathroom, a sheepish grin on his face, probably for having taken so long, which he always does.

“Everyone ready?” Carl asks.

Mike readjusts the focus on the camera and gives a thumbs-up.

“May?”

May nods.

“Let’s see some teeth, hon.”

Emily Kiernan

Emily Kiernan is the author of a novel, Great Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2014). She writes about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, the West, and places that aren’t the way she remembered them. Emily is a graduate of the MFA writing program at the California Institute of the Arts. Her short fiction has appeared in Pank, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, decomP, The Good Men Project, Dark Sky, Redivider, JMWW, and other journals. Her work has received mentions and awards from Unstuck Magazine, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Wigleaf Magazine, and others. She resides in Berkeley, California with her man and her dog.

 

Enola Gay

In the belly of the dark the bomb is dreaming. The bomb is dreaming about a woman in a brown dress. The bomb imagines her in fits and starts. It imagines her falling into rhythm with the fits and starts of the darkness that surrounds it, which is sometimes pierced with light. The darkness is jostled and pierced in a light rhythm. The jostling rolls the bomb lightly—but only lightly—against the mechanisms that hold it. As it rolls and jostles, the bomb imagines the woman in the brown dress singing out a little rhythm. She is singing out a little song, as if to soothe it, and it is soothed, rocking so very lightly in the mechanisms that hold it. The bomb does not know the woman who is singing, as it does not know anyone, least of all the men who built its mechanisms. The bomb does not know sorrow, but the look on the woman’s face is sorrow as she is singing, and the song is a sorrowful song about the little body that will not be soothed. The woman’s voice is rising and rising, never failing. In the woman’s face is sorrow about the men who built the mechanisms that hold her from her rising, and who built the unsoothable body she holds, unfailing. The bomb does not know that it is dreaming as it imagines rising up from the mechanisms. It knows the singing face of the woman, and where there were mechanisms there is a screaming, unsoothable body rising up and up and up. The bomb is rising up, and the woman’s face is looking up, away, and they are light and rising. In the jostling, rolling dark, they have never dreamt of falling.

Charlie Sterchi

Charlie Sterchi is an MA candidate in creative writing at Auburn University. He serves as an assistant editor at the Southern Humanities Review and Fiction Editor at Kudzu House Quarterly.

 

The Running Dog

Grandpa’s on suicide watch, but I’m not allowed to watch him anymore. Not by myself. Not after the incident involving his Buick, a smashed retaining wall, and the manually disengaged passenger side airbag. Grandpa’s on suicide watch, and here I am in the bosom of his creaking home, in his bedroom, by his window that looks out over the hills stacked one on another like the layers of dung and rotten cabbage in a compost heap, watching him with his breathing tubes and the shudder of his breathing machine; his pills and his bag of piss and his skin like spent wax paper; the smell of diarrhea and applesauce and the smell of vintage tweed from the open closet. I am not alone, but with my sister who’s brought her cello down from Maryland to watch us both and to join in our perspiring. Decades of daily use and nightly disuse have rendered the air conditioning busted.

“Does that thing have a quiet setting?” I say.

My sister says, “The breathing machine? Don’t be stupid.”

My sister wipes her brow with one of grandpa’s monogrammed paisley hankies.

“Sister,” I say. “Fetch me a drink, won’t you?”

“And leave you alone with grandfather?” she says. “I don’t think so.”

I look out the window and watch the dog running circles in the yard.

Grandpa says, “Cathy always told me, ‘Take what you can get, Johnny.’ So, I took what I got and I made an ice-cream of it.”

I don’t know what he’s talking about.

My sister says, “Very good, Grandfather.”

“Grandpa, you’re unintelligible,” says I, “and, oh, how those pills make you slobber.”

I receive a merry wink from the old man.

*****

I go downstairs and pour my own drink. On the other side of the kitchen window, which is open, the dog still runs, his tongue dragging across the dirt where he’s trod and he’s trod again.

Grandpa used to take the dog and me hunting. We’d shoot doves from behind the mulberry bushes. Then the dog would disappear into the scratching of the marsh reeds. We’d listen to the fading bustle of the dog. Often, all traces of the dog would disappear into the fog. We’d wait without exchanging a word, without stomping our boots to keep out the cold of morning, and I would wonder how we’d find all of those dead doves if the dog never came back. The dog always came back. Its name is something like Sally-Go-Home-Lucky VII or Cyrus of Westover. I don’t remember.

I become aware of my sister’s cello sliding down the banister. It’s playing something from Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, which opens up the air in these halls. It breaks up the curtains of dust, sends a breeze through the structure, and I inhale as if with the assistance of a brand new, third lung. I rattle the ice against the walls of my glass in a counterclockwise motion because it amuses me to do so.

I watch the dog for a while and I wonder if the dog will ever die, or if instead the dog will continue running circles in the yard, dragging its tongue and sniffing around for dead doves beyond the time at which my grandfather joins the soil and manifests in the pears from the tree by his waiting grave, beyond the time at which I, too, manifest as a sheet of tears dropping from the same pear tree to rot or to be eaten by deer, beyond the time at which the pear tree dies, and the deer die, and the dove marsh and its doves become no more than a film of dust on the earth’s fallow crust, beyond the time at which all else – the strip malls and the golf courses, the Taj Mahal and the Little Ceasar’s Pizza on Chapman Highway, all else – has fallen to the great yellowing gyre of the sky. It strikes me as probable that even in the second scenario the dog, having borne the weight of perpetuity, will cease to lick the dirt and will in turn be licked by the dirt.

Rahad Abir

Rahad AbirRahad Abir was born and bred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is a fiction writer. His short stories have appeared in The Penmen Review, Aerodrome and Toad Suck Review. His wining short story ‘‘I am in London’’ is appearing in an anthology from England. He has worked as journalist, university teacher and interpreter. Currently he is working on his first novel.   

 

Johnson Road

He knew it was simply unfair to go out on a date with his student’s mom. It involved risk too. But he said yes when she asked him. He was confused and fascinated and lost. The relationship was about three months of old, mostly talking and texting over the phone. Every evening he visited her home to tutor the second grade boy, and she hardly ever seemed to take any opportunity to talk to him then.  

On an early somnolent afternoon in July, he waited by Curzon Hall gate of Dhaka University, and his roving eyes fell upon every rickshaw and CNG auto-rickshaw (little semi-taxi) that appeared at the gate. He endeavored not to notice the beggars—either elderly or kiddies—who only walked up to the passengers at the very moment they reached their hands for wallets or purses to pay fares so that it’d be psychologically embarrassing for them to refuse their request for alms.

She turned up around half an hour late. A leg, so light-skinned, and then another, slipped out of a CNG auto rickshaw, he watched. A small woman, wearing a black sari, approached him with short steps. Four eyes met for a moment. A smug smile came out of her crimson lips. He smiled her back.

The dating spot on his mind—Curzon Hall pond—by that mid-afternoon, got almost full of people sitting by the pond’s edge. Fortunately, an unoccupied concrete bench was found.

‘‘You look gorgeous,’’ he said.

She gazed into his eyes.

‘‘Well—’’ he looked at her—her hair, her black dress, which she had put on for him. His eyes tried to read hers—her beautiful light eyes, twenty-seven-year-old olive skinned face, full crimson lips. Shortly, a naughty grin appeared on her face.

He remembered the same grin over that face, when one evening the young pretty mommy of his pupil brought a tray of snacks in the middle of their The Very Hungry Caterpillar studies; but whilst leaving the tray she, unlike the other days, looked into his eyes and grinned, ‘‘Have a nibble.’’ There was something else in that look, the way she grinned—everything thrilled him.

Later that night he received a ‘‘you’re so handsome’’ text on his phone from an unknown number. The following night the same text buzzed, at the same time. He called the sender, however, no one answered. Weeks after, one late night his call was received. But the receiver was completely silent. His voice turned impatient, ‘‘I know it’s you, it must be you; if you like me why’re you scared of talking to me?’’ And, that night, she spoke.

Later, he would imagine that it was not him, it was her who killed him, and he would remember the same grinning face with disgust, and curse himself, in the last and long five minutes of his life. He was a soft sort of guy—sentimental.

‘‘Why not we take a rickshaw ride instead?’’ she said, holding his arm.

He glanced at her, rolling his eyes from the water striders in pond. Her hand was soft and warm and real. He figured that she wanted more intimacy. Shortly, as two bums squashed into a rickshaw, the warmth of her body ran through his, but her face didn’t glow, changed no color. She asked if he was uncomfortable being with her because he’d not held her hand yet. He blushed, grasped her hand straightaway, and in a moment as her breast erratically touched the back of his arm, he trembled. He trembled again, after the dark fell, being with her in a CNG auto rickshaw, on the way home. This time he put his arm around her waist. For the first time in his twenty-two-year life, he couldn’t resist the temptation to rub a woman’s naked fat little tummy and she couldn’t stop drawing her face to his, and finally the lustful lips met, carefully escaping the driver’s eyes.

Beyond this intimacy, beyond this heading for home, beyond this purposeless rickshaw riding he bought her green coconut juice from a street vendor. While nibbling Chinese nuts he talked about his Hindu upbringing, his old family house, and his ties with relatives living in Kolkata, India. Likewise, he learned from her that she made up a story to her mother-in-law about her whereabouts this afternoon. What’s more, he learned about her unhappy relationship with her husband, whom at the time was working in Dubai. Although not being a devout Muslim, he, during the early months of their marriage pressured her wear a burka which she refused. He also learned about her first-and-only unsuccessful love affair (here she chuckled since the second attempt was turning out to be wonderful) before getting married.

Another late afternoon, they met at British Council on Fuller Road. Unlike the first day, he hired a rickshaw to Elephant Road, where he’d arranged to have use of his friend’s flat for an hour. During the rickshaw ride, he held her hand. Though, his hesitant hand tried to be convinced that the age difference between them was not evident. His roving eyes searched for any familiar eyes on street. Somehow, later, his fear would come true when a pair of eyes would fall upon them on Johnson Road, just for a moment, without his knowledge.

They met in a small shared flat, under a naked hundred-watt Philips bulb. On a yellowing, tatty bed-sheet. This happened again. While, another day, her mother-in-law was picking her son from school.

Traffic was always crazy and awfully slow on Old Dhaka narrow streets. To get out of it, some drove wherever it was possible to drive—lest it was the pavement or the opposite wrong route—resulting in more traffic. Being stuck in English road traffic for twenty minutes in a CNG auto-rickshaw, while heading back home together in one evening, he worried because she was running late. Glancing around he then remembered that Dhaka’s largest brothel once operated a block away, set up by the British. During his school days, as he passed the brothel street one day, many strange-behaving and odd-looking women of different ages, standing by the outside doors, waved at him. Laughed at him. He was both charmed and unnerved.

The CNG auto-rickshaw reached near the Judge Court on Johnson Road. Here he should have left. She grasped his hand tightly. He looked into her eyes. She blushed, and laughed, and said, ‘‘I love you.’’ He shuddered. Her lips moved, saying something. He slowly walked down the street, not knowing that this happened to be their last and final meeting.

A little later, he walked into the apartment for the tuition. The living room’s light wasn’t turned on, and instead of the little boy, the grandma emerged. She looked cranky and her voice sounded hysterical. ‘‘He’s not feeling good tonight, we’ll call you when he gets better.’’

The very next day he got a call. ‘‘You bastard Hindu, son of a bitch.’’ The unknown voice began swearing all at once. Before he could swallow the bubble of shock and say anything, the unknown voice apparently tried to grab him over the phone and shred him to pieces. They found out everything, must have seen them last evening, he feared. He went cold. Forgot to breathe. Sweating like a pig.

He never contacted her. He changed his mobile number the day after. For three weeks he mostly stayed home, telling others that his finals were coming. He worried about her, wished she wouldn’t have been in big trouble.

The air began to get dry from mid-November and there was a whiff of winter. Looking through the only window from his tiny room, he thought of her. Thought of a pair of crimson lips.

Two months after, in one night at about nine thirty, his mother told him that someone came to see him, waiting in the stairway. His heart sank when he saw the boy, who was member of a so-called street gang.

‘‘I’ve an urgent need to talk with you, can you come outside for a moment?’’ the boy said.

He scanned the boy’s face in the dimness of plaster falling old yellowish walls, glanced over his left shoulder down the stairs. The main door of this two-storey building, over a hundred-and-fifty years old, remained open till eleven at night. Two ground floor rooms were rented to a book-binding factory.   

‘‘What’s it about?’’ He asked, ‘‘Say here.’’

‘‘It’s private. Just come out for a minute, bro.’’

‘‘I got my finals, I’m busy.’’ And to his surprise he saw another boy climb the stairs. ‘‘OK—’’ he was about to close the door.

‘‘Bring him down,’’ a voice burst out, following the second boy.

The first boy grabbed his hand.

‘‘Leave him!’’ his mother screamed.

Momentarily, a small crowd gathered there. His mother, father and his younger sister managed to free him from their hands, obstructing the three guys from entering.

‘‘Do you want us to break into your house?’’ the man roared, ‘‘Bring him here now.’’

‘‘Tell me what happened,’’ the father repeatedly asked.

Crowds had already filled the stairway. ‘‘Your bloody son slept with a married Muslim woman,’’ someone blurted out, ‘‘Hand him over to us. We’ll figure this out’’

The news incited a sudden excitement in the crowd. He could feel this even shrinking into a corner of his room, locking the door well. Out there, there were overheated arguments, shouts, broken swearing at his father. The crowd threw bricks into their street-facing windows. Later, when everyone had left, he learned that they grabbed his old father. Slapped him. Ripped off his shirt. For a moment, a burning fire inside him wanted to take the big knife from kitchen and go after the scoundrels in the street.

But that night he neither opened his door nor went out nor went in front of his father. His mother cried. She swore at him sitting by his room’s door. Moaning how he put the whole family at risk. Why did God still keep her alive? To see all this disgrace? To see her husband beaten by young hooligans? If she knew this before, she’d have choked him to death when he was a little boy.

His best friend called and informed him that his student’s mom was in the hospital and fighting for life. She had become pregnant, taken drugs to abort the baby that resulted in nonstop bleeding. He also told him to stay safe. If possible to go into hiding somewhere for a few weeks.

It was not only about his safety, his father, and especially his sister should take care, too. Father in no way would agree on leaving the house vacant. The local commissioner had long been trying to evict them and grab the house. But above all, the reality was he had brought shame for his family. How could his father, an upright man, go out in the neighborhood now? Who’d want to marry his sister now? ‘‘Blood will have blood,’’ he shivered with fright. If he could, he’d have slipped away into a CNG auto-rickshaw by night and never be seen again.

With this thought, he jumped up out of his chair momentarily. He looked for something hurriedly in the closet. The second shelf from the top belonged to his sister. A long scarf came to his hand. His eyes watched the spinning ceiling fan. Spinning, round and round. Winter was not that intense in the old part of Dhaka. He made a loop at one end of the scarf. He turned off the fan and tied the other end around it. Then he wept.

He stood on the top of the bed head, facing the loop-end that waited for his neck to embrace. He took it. Now, just a little jump, and everything would be over. A bit of smile crossed his lips. How would her baby look if it had survived? He wished he’d have believed in God. ‘‘Please, let there be another world after death,’’ he said. He imagined his hanging body from the ceiling fan; still, calm like the serene morning light. The light had slipped through the window, and in the middle of the room he was hanging; hanging by a long scarf. He took a long breath, and glanced at the wall clock. Seven to two in the morning. He gasped as the big thinnest red hand neared the last minute. When it was ten seconds to two, he counted every move of the red hand. ‘‘Fifty one, fifty two, fifty three, fifty four, fifty five…’’

Cyrille Fleischman

Translator’s Note on Cyrille Fleischman’s Work:

I fell in love with Fleischman’s work the first time I read it, probably twenty years ago, while perusing short story collections for possible use in my undergraduate French courses. I loved his light touch, unpretentious style, and the humorous compassion with which he treats his characters, who exhibit human foibles which we have all experienced. For me, they also brought to life the Jewish Marais, a neighborhood in which I had lived while doing research in Paris. Individually, Fleischman’s stories seem at first anecdotal; then suddenly, with a twist of a phrase, they rise to embrace the universal. When read collectively, themes of being and identity and their fragility emerge. One of the reasons that “M. Lekouved’s Revolt” appeals is that it is such a joyful affirmation of being. A great challenge in translating Fleischman’s work into English is maintaining the delicate humor, tenderness, and subtle depth; in other words not letting his stories become merely comic in translation.

 

Cyrille Fleischman (author) was born on February 3, 1941, in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, home to a large community of Ashkenazi Jews. Fleischman studied law, but while practicing, began writing short stories portraying Yiddish characters of the Marais in the 1950s. He published his first collection of short stories in 1987, but is best known for the three volumes centered on the neighborhood of the Saint-Paul metro station. The focus of his thirteen short story collections, like their author, would always remain in the Marais. Fleischman has been compared to Isaac Bashevis Singer, even Marc Chagall for his portrayal of Yiddish culture in the Marais. In 1995, he was awarded a Prix d’Académie by the French Academy, and in 2002, the Max Cukierman award for the promotion of Yiddish language and culture. He died in 2010 after a long illness.

 

Lynn Palermo (translator) is an associate professor of French at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. She has published the translation of another story by Cyrille Fleischman in World Literature Today (Sept/Oct 2010), as well as academic translations. She recently translated four academic essays for a special issue of Dada & Surrealism focusing on the Romanian surrealist movement (to appear in 2015). She is collaborating on a translation of one of Fleischman’s short story collections, while working solo on a novel by a contemporary French author and short stories by other writers of the Francophone world. Her research focuses on the literature, art, decorative arts, world’s fairs and cultural politics of period between the World Wars.

 

Monsieur Lekouved’s Revolt

Alexander Lekouved gave a big, friendly wave, as the waitress deposited two slices of meat on his plate, next to the mashed potatoes.

–Who are you saying hello to? asked the waitress, looking around, Nobody’s here yet at this hour.

–I’m greeting this veal roast!  I think it’s the same one as yesterday.  And the day before.  Maybe even last month.  I feel like we’re old friends by now.

The waitress shrugged and went back to the kitchen.

Alexander Lekouved had been taking all his meals at this restaurant since becoming a widower.  He always arrived around eleven-thirty, a habit that predated his retirement, when he used to eat lunch at home before traveling out to a suburb to tutor students in philosophy—students who had failed the high school graduation exam. And despite maintaining a friendly rapport with this waitress for weeks, he had just become her enemy. He acknowledged this without regret.

The waitress brought him the next course—fruit compote—which she practically threw onto the table, and before he could order coffee, she had already scribbled his bill on the paper tablecloth.  He had barely paid before she cleared the table, tossing the paper tablecloth into a big wastebasket over near the counter.  When he left, she did not say au revoir.

The weather was lovely.  Monsieur Lekouved slipped a hand into his vest pocket to check his watch.  Still not yet noon and the whole day stretched before him with nothing to do.  He breathed deeply in the breeze and decided to cross the street to a café with sidewalk terrace.

He would take his coffee there.

He chose a table, sat down, and stretched out his legs.  A waiter hurried over to him.  Since he was only ordering coffee, could monsieur please take a seat inside the restaurant?  At this hour, the terrace was reserved for customers ordering a meal.  

The waiter looked like one of Monsieur Lekouved’s former students, the type who repeated the last year of high school several times without ever graduating.  Lekouved tilted his head back to take a better look at him.

–Are you telling me that I have to sit inside when I prefer to have my coffee out here, on the terrace?

–Oui, said the waiter, growing annoyed and snapping the white cloth on his shoulder toward the front door, Inside!

Lekouved raised his hand for quiet.

–Tell the owner that I’d like to speak to him.

–Perhaps we should put our policy in writing, and have it stamped and notarized for you, snorted the waiter.  I’m telling you, the tables on the terrace are reserved for people having a meal.

–That’s the problem. I’ve already eaten.  Across the street.  So, just bring me a cup of coffee.

–I said, no!  Now move!  The waiter was downright aggressive.

Alexander Lekouved did, indeed, move.  He rose to his feet and grabbed the waiter’s right ear.  Slowly, calmly, he twisted it until the waiter tore himself from his grip.  Then Monsieur Lekouved sat back down.

–Bring me a coffee, please!

People passing on the sidewalk had stopped to stare.  The waiter rubbed his ear, stammering, “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it…”

Lekouved insisted gently, “A coffee, if you please.”  Then roared, “Bring me a coffee, or else I’ll take care of your other ear, too, the one that’s so big you could blow your nose on it!”

The waiter was thunderstruck. He retreated into the café to tell everyone sitting at the counter.  Five minutes later, the owner himself strode toward Lekouved, a cup of coffee in hand, which he set on the table in front of him.

–You had no right to…

–Yes, I certainly did have the right to! interrupted Lekouved.  Don’t you know the stipulations of the paragraph of the statute of the municipal law governing the sale of coffee on café terraces?

The owner argued no further.  This pain-in-the-neck might have connections down at city hall.  He just shrugged.

The people who had been watching the scene, wandered off.  Lekouved drank his coffee, glanced at the cash register receipt left by the owner, and left a few coins on the table.

He felt good.  He even had a revelation: it felt good to rebel!

He stood up, did a few calisthenics to get his blood circulating and, since this was a day of revolt, decided to go visit his brother-in-law who owned a clothing shop not far away.  Three years earlier, his wife’s brother had borrowed two candlesticks that he had never returned.  Alexander hadn’t needed them since his wife died.  He no longer hosted family reunions at the holidays, but still, that was no reason…

He walked slowly, deep in thought, but before he knew it, he was standing in front of his brother-in-law’s shop.  Which made him think maybe he should spruce up his wardrobe.  Upon entering the shop, the first words that flew out of his mouth were, “I stopped by to say hello and buy a few shirts.  At the same time, you can give me back those candlesticks you never returned.”

The brother-in-law, who had smiled upon seeing him, stiffened.

–What candlesticks?

–The two candlesticks that you borrowed from your sister, three years ago when she was still alive.

His brother-in-law laid his hand on Alexander’s shoulder.

–You mean the candlesticks that your wife had inherited from my mother?

–Of course!  I’m not talking about chandeliers from the Opera House!

The brother-in-law frowned.  “Forget it.  They’re a memory of my sister.”  He changed the subject.  “What kind of shirts are you looking for?  Solids?  Stripes?”

–I’m not sure if I understood you correctly, interrupted Lekouved.  Are you saying that you are not going to return my candlesticks?

Without even waiting for an answer, Lekouved went behind the counter, glanced up and down the rows of shirts organized by size, and calmly removed ten white shirts, size 39, and ten fancy vests.  Whatever he could reach.  Alexander Lekouved put the ten shirts and ten vests into two large plastic bags from a stack on the counter and walked out of the shop.  His brother-in-law, at first spellbound, chased after him out to the sidewalk.

–Where are you going with those?  You’ve got a fortune in clothes there, not even counting the shirts!

Alexander Lekouved stopped, his two plastic bags dangling.  “When you return my candlesticks, then maybe I’ll return the vests.  But I’m keeping the shirts!”

Lekouved left his dumbstruck brother-in-law standing on the sidewalk.  Happiness welled up inside him. As he walked away, several people nodded to him.  Acquaintances, probably, he wasn’t sure. He had done so much for this neighborhood!  Rendered service to so many people!  Before becoming a teacher in the suburbs, he’d worked in one or two private schools not far from here, he’d acted as secretary to a politician in the arrondissement, he’d been copy editor at a Yiddish publishing house.  He’d…he’d… above all, he’d been polite and affable.  Yet, in none of those capacities had he felt as much satisfaction as he did today.

With his two plastic sacks full of clothes, Alexander Lekouved strolled along, humming under his breath.  He wasn’t far from home, now.  He raised his eyes to the blue sky.  For a moment, he was tempted to give thanks.  But at his age, one no longer bothered to thank the heavens for so little.  He continued down the sidewalk in the sun, a little spring in his step.  At seventy-two years of age, Alexander Lekouved, retired school teacher, honorable but not honored, belated but enthusiastic rebel, felt that at last he was going to start having fun.

Eliana Osborn

Eliana Osborn is a mother of two, wife of one, who works part-time as an English professor at Arizona Western College. She is an essayist and fiction writer whose work has been featured in Blood and Thunder, Dash, Segullah, and many other journals. She has commercial work in venues including the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and many others. She’s at work on her first novel about the Chinese-Mexican population on the US-Mexico border.

 

Turning Japanese

When his mother became a Jehovah’s Witness she gave up her Buddhism, then everything about being Japanese. There were no more chopsticks in the house; macaroni in a blue box instead of soft formed squares of udon. Pictures of a blonde Jesus instead of an ancestral shrine. They wore shoes inside, sat on straight backed chairs at the dinner table.

He was forbidden from saying gaijin, even if it was true. By the time he left for college his middle name, Mori, was just an oddity from the past. His mother had dropped it and went by Kathy Morris.

His father was dead, his mother a math professor. He was stranded with straight black hair, student loans, and a neighbor who wanted him to join the Asian American Student Association. He made up excuses but she kept dropping by.

“This is how you network Nolan. You meet some people, spend time with them, then when you’re looking for a job after grad school you have connections. You can’t trust outsiders with your future—in AASA the alumni look out for us.”

The next week she brought some Japanese girls with her. One was short and round with bangs cut too short, leaving an inch of forehead above her glasses. Another was shorter still and wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.

Nolan raised his eyebrows, wondering how this group of three awkward Asians could possibly be the best and brightest, the thing that kept America running ahead of the rest of the world.

Mickey Mouse giggled when he said ohaiyo but wouldn’t explain why. Bad Bangs stuck out her hand formally and gave a surprisingly strong shake.

“Melissa Kazuko, glad to meet you.” She nodded and stood back at attention waiting for the interview to begin.

“So why don’t you want to join the association? I don’t get it.” Melissa stared right at him. He tried to keep her gaze but finally looked away and made busy work adjusting the band of his watch.

“No-lan,” his neighbor began in that disturbing southern drawl, “we need you. The dances are so bad right now, you don’t even know. Everyone told me college would be different, that boys wouldn’t be scared of smart girls. But there’s five times the number of girls as boys among us Asians. I had to dance with some Hmong guy for every slow song at homecoming. All he could talk about was his parents on some boat. Hello? This is supposed to be romantic?”

He considered what it would be like to date an Asian girl for once. Or even better, to be in a club with desperate women.

“I’ll do it.”

There was a stunned silence then Mickey Mouse giggled and covered her mouth. The neighbor smiled broadly while Melissa simply nodded her head, turned, and walked away.

Nolan felt a twinge in his groin and wondered if maybe he liked girls with bangs. He’d have to pay closer attention now that he had options.

Marie Mayhugh

MMayhughMarie Mayhugh is a writer and poet. She received a BA in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is an intern a BkMk Press in Kansas City. She is also a writing tutor at Longview Community College in Kansas City where she engages students with her love for the written word.

 

 

An Old Cowboy’s Dirge

Weston and his grandpa with dirty suede skin sat at the DMV. Weston’s eyes darted between his phone and the Now Serving digital system. The clerk behind the counter consistently announced the numbers over the speakerphone.

The old man leaned close to his grandson, who thumbed his phone.
You don’t need no license, the old man said. I got you a quarter horse.
I don’t have a quarter, Weston replied.
His sire’s New Ash.
I told you, I don’t have cash.
Name’s Blue Okie.
Okay.

The old man removed his hat and poked his grandson with its rim.
Say, you know I can pull my own teeth out, the old man said.
Please don’t, Weston said. He tucked his phone inside his right denim pocket.
Got your attention, the old man said. He snickered and patted Weston on the shoulder.
Weston slid his chair over.
It takes guts for a man to lose his teeth, the old man said, but more courage to wear falsies.

Weston hunched and rested his elbows on his knees. The old man put a cigarette between his lips and patted his fringe-leather jacket for his lighter. The clerk behind the counter called on him to notice the No Smoking sign. He sighed, crumpled the cigarette, and put its remnants in his pocket.

I thought you’d want to be a rugged man like me, the old man said. He lolled in his chair and spread his arms, an eagle’s wingspan, resting each arm on top of seat backs on either side. His shaved head flinched as it rolled back against the icy window.

Outside, a Dodge pickup, with the word Ranger branded on its side, parked. Two officers hurdled out of the truck and strolled into the DMV.

They ain’t Rangers, the old man boasted.
Weston shook his head. You don’t know what you’re talking about, he said.

Sure I do. That’s a truck, the old man said. Those men hold their steering wheel at the ten and two O’clock. Real rangers ride saddleback and steer their horse with reins. They keep fists parallel and thumbs near for best rein control, similar to the way you hold your phone some of the time.

Weston glimpsed at the old man.

If you knew anything about your great-great-granddaddy, the old man said, you’d know he was a real cowboy. Cowboys keep both reins in their lead hand that rests on their lap, but their other hand remains free.

Weston reclined back, pulled his denim jacket’s collar up, and slid his hands inside his pockets. But the old man was just getting warmed up.

You can’t lasso your target or fire your Colt from a car, the old man said, both hands have to be on the wheel. He moaned as if he begun a wail. It takes a man to ride a saddle. Cowboys knew their range and how to ramble the land. Show me any place on a map, and I’ll tell you how many strokes it’ll take to get there. Cowboys don’t need no GP, or whatever you call it, to find your way. We went solo.

That’s GPS, Weston said.

No GPS for me, the old man said, but maybe a girl pretty on her saddle.

Weston sighed. He flicked his floppy hair over his eyes. The clerk behind the counter called number twenty-six.

Maybe, if you walked like me, the old man said, you’d have hard soles. He pointed at his own right thumb. You see there, that’s a nice clean thumb from hitching rides cross-country. He rested his left foot on his right knee and began to tug at his boot. I’ll show you my feet, they’re blistered from travel.

Please don’t, Weston said. He drew his right hand out of his pocket with his phone, and began to single handedly tap it.

The old man fingered at his grandson’s phone. You see there, the old man said, you’re holding your phone in your lead hand, but your other hand remains in your left pocket. It ain’t free.

Weston didn’t respond, but checked the digital number on the board. Only a few people in the waiting area read or remained quiet.

Who you calling? The old man said.
I’m texting, Weston said.
Okay, who?
Rose.
Is she pretty like one?

Weston shrugged.

Hey, did you ever hear from your brother?
Yeah.
Well, how’s he getting along in Florida?
Fine.
Weston sighed.
I hear he’s got himself a Lassie from Tallahassee. The old man chuckled.

Weston shrugged.

The old man leaned back in his chair. He put on his hat, lowered its rim, and said, You want to be alone, but you’re just like your own. He slipped his hands inside his pockets.

Gordon Ball

Gordon Ball’s story is from a volume of short fiction, On Tokyo’s Edge: Gaijin Tales from Postwar Japan. He lives and teaches in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

 

The Breaking

It was Tokyo l950, before the end of the American Occupation. In the parents’ bedroom closet stood a Russian submachine gun, in the father’s dresser lay an unfirable German Luger, trigger melded into housing. Five hundred miles away raged the Korean War, the source, through multiple hands, of the Soviet weapon.

The boy had seen Russians once or twice from afar in the hotel across the street from his father’s office building. They were always men, and though in coats and ties and overcoats–even “western” hotel lobbies were cold–they seemed rougher, gruffer than other grownups: Americans of commerce and finance; French and Germans and British of many years’ experience in Eastern trade; wiseacre tieless young journalists just arrived from the States or Singapore or London; self-effacing Japanese in brisk, herring bone double breasted business suits who worked with–for–his father. “They are Russians,” someone would say. Their faces, with their heavy eyebrows, looked vaguely asiatic, like his father’s.

Sometimes after school the boy would play by himself at home, ten miles from Tokyo’s hotel and business center, in the shadowy side yard bordering their white stucco French colonial house. There, crepe myrtle trees and aucuba bushes abounded, making for his small frame a forest to stalk in. With his toy rifle he’d hunt enemy soldiers–the enemies being American–through the bushes and trees, and around the small tool shed adjoining them at one end. The Russians were not involved, but it excited him to imagine himself a Chinese Communist, calves wrapped in layer upon layer of cloth leggings as he’d seen in photographs.

At the same time, he’d draw pictures of American war heroes, celebrating their exploits and the numbers of Chinese and North Koreans they’d killed in a single encounter. He’d get this information daily on Armed Forces Radio. “Why don’t you draw something constructive?” his older brother, serious with horn-rimmed glasses, asked as he looked at the boy’s drawings.

The boy didn’t know the meaning of “constructive” nor of the shadows of branches he’d see on his pale wall at night, but the patterns frightened him. He was even more frightened one evening when he heard loud voices from his mother and father’s room, where Luger and machine-gun were stored. He didn’t know if the machine-gun had bullets but it was so heavy he couldn’t imagine anyone using such a thing–yet he knew they did every day in Korea.

“I’d rather be strangled than kept here,” he heard his mother wail at his father one evening. “I want to go back to Marietta!” Their door was open, but he was afraid to draw close. It was dark and the only light was broken by bony configurations of branches on the wall.

The next day two friends of his parents, Major Grimes and Mrs. Grimes, came to visit. She was carrot-haired and he had big ears that stuck out from the sides of his head, reminding the boy of Sad Sack in the stateside funnies they’d be able to get every once in a while.

Major Grimes and his wife lived in the U.S. Army compound at Pershing Heights. They brought him a gift for his birthday, a khaki U.S. Army overseas cap and various gold and blue and white insignia. “Where are you from, young man?” the Major asked.

“The world,” the boy responded.

“What do you like to eat?”

“Food,” he answered.

He behaved like that for several minutes before leaving the room, then after the guests were gone he overheard mother and father talking there, in the space between the white mantle and the large brown metallic gas stove from whose dusty white porcelain teeth blue flames flared. It was near the very spot where he’d lain on the carpet some evenings, staring at the pictures in a strange, large, heavy and musty book by a man named Hogarth. He’d taken it from the glass bookcase, and as he looked he’d wondered if those people with their intestines falling out were real. “I think he needs a spanking,” he heard his mother say.

The next day was Saturday and there was no school. The squat little tool shed that bordered the shadowy place with the acuba bushes and crepe myrtles had a sliding door with windows of translucent glass about a foot square. Inside were various old tools and contraptions he’d rummaged through before; this morning he slid open the door and took one of them, a small short-handled dusty axe with a dented blade. Then he slid the door closed and broke every window on it, and every window to its left and to its right. “I know this is wrong,” he said to himself, with every stroke.

Katrine Marie Guldager

Translator’s Note on Katrine Marie Guldager’s Work:

As an innate writer of poetry, Guldager’s prose fiction has a strong lyrical resonance of immense depth, while still retaining a simplicity and clarity that is characteristic of Danish fiction. In her autobiography Lysgrænsen [The Border of Light] (Gyldendal, 2007), Guldager writes that she was torn between becoming a psychoanalyst or an author, but during one of her many travels to Africa, which has had a strong influence on her poetic imagination, she realised that her fascination with the intricacies of family ties is best expressed in the language of literature.

Guldager’s short story, “Trafikulykke” [The Car Accident], is from her second collection of short stories, Kilimanjaro (Gyldendal, 2005). In an interview in the magazine Udvikling [Development] 1 Febr./Mar. 2013 about her writing and the significance of her three years in Zambia as a child, she remarks:

“We know very well that we cannot save the world. We turn off the TV, because we cannot bear to see the pain and suffering we see there. But how often can we continue to do this, without losing something of our own humanity? There is no definitive answer to this question, but this is the conflict I write about [in Kilimanjaro].”

All eleven stories in Kilimanjaro are independent, and set in Copenhagen and the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, yet they are connected by a subtle intertextuality in order to demonstrate the fragility of the arbitrary connections between our lives. 

 

Katrine Marie GuldaKatrine Marie Guldager, born in Hillerød north of Copenhagen in 1966, is one of Denmark’s most acclaimed authors, and has published several collections of poetry, short stories, children’s books and novels since the appearance of her poetic debut, Dagene Skifter hænder (The Days Change Hands), in 1994. She is a graduate of the renowned Writer’s School in Copenhagen and holds an Masters of Philosophy from Copenhagen University. Her works have been translated into Swedish, Norwegian, and German. Her first collection of short stories, København (Gyldendal, 2004) [Copenhagen, BookThug, Toronto] was published in English in 2011.

She is currently writing a family chronicle stretching from the Second World War to 2012–about a fictional family living in suburban Copenhagen. The first three volumes, Ulven [The Wolf] (2010), Lille Hjerte [Little Heart] (2012), and Den Nye Tid [New Times] (2013) have been published by Lindhardt & Ringhof (Egmont), Copenhagen, and the fourth volume Peter’s Død [Peter’s Death], is forthcoming in 2014. 

Van RooyenLindy Falk van Rooyen (translator) was born into a multi-lingual family (Danish/English/Afrikaans) in South Africa. She studied Law at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and worked as an attorney in Cape Town until she emigrated to Copenhagen in 1998. After living and working in Denmark as a commercial translator and legal liaison for four and a half years, she moved to Hamburg, Germany in 2002. She holds an LL.M in Commercial Law and an MA in Scandinavian and English Literature from the University of Hamburg. Her book on Virginia Woolf’s fiction, Mapping the Modern Mind: Virginia Woolf’s parodic approach to the art of fiction in ‘Jacob’s Room’ (Diplomica, 2011) is an adaptation of her MA thesis. She is a freelance writer and has been working as a literary translator since 2012.  

 

The Car Accident

If Kilimanjaro is Africa’s roof, then Dar es Salaam is its damp, teeming floor. A man and a woman drive past Ubungo and down into Dar es Salaam via Morogoro Road. There is a teeming crowd on the streets and a throng of boys who are trying to sell everything from ragdolls to automobile equipment. It is hot. The man and woman drive down United Nations Road and cross over Selander Bridge. The woman casts a wistful glance over the Indian Ocean that is lying in waiting like a serene queen. They stop on Haile Selassie, and the woman buys some flowers; the boy selling them has some difficulty in hiding his surprise. He hands over her change without looking up.

The man turns the car onto Haile Selassie. He is looking forward to getting home, feels the wind in his hair. He is driving too fast. At the junction of Haile Selassie and Chloe Road there are always a lot of people: people, who stop and shop; drivers, who stop and wait. The man is still driving too fast, and he doesn’t notice a woman about to cross the road approximately fifty meters farther ahead. The woman is carrying a little bundle in her arms. A bundle, which may very well be a child, but the man is oblivious.

The man breaks as hard as he can. The car swerves and very nearly rams into several other cars. People grab onto their neighbors, and jump for their lives. But the damage is done: The little bundle which the woman had been carrying has rolled under the car. People close in, people gather round the car; engulf it. Two men emerge from the mass. They talk to the man in Swahili, wave their arms in the air, and fish the bloodied bundle out from underneath the car. Now people emerge from everywhere. They swarm around the car from all sides, rest their hands on the hood; their eyes scour the car’s interior.

One woman cries out that the child has been killed, and the cry is planted from one mouth to another like an echo. The crowd isn’t agitated, yet. The man gets out of the car and walks over to the child with the intention to take responsibility for his actions. The question of money had just entered his mind, when his path is barred by the woman who had initiated the cry. She looks at him with eyes that seem to say: you’ve done enough harm already. The man wants to go over to the child, wants to see the woman who had held it in her arms. But the crowd won’t allow the guilty party to meet the victim; on the contrary, the victim is cordoned off.

Without knowing what prompts his sudden unease, he realizes that the mood is about to change, and he casts his eyes downwards; he doesn’t turn his back, but retreats to the car. The woman is still sitting inside. The further he retreats, the greater the crowd’s animosity. The man is like a foreign object that must be expelled from the body.

The man gets into the car, slams the door, and thinks that, perhaps, under the circumstances, it is best to drive home and call the police. The woman doesn’t say anything­–she is too shaken to say anything­–she has lost her power of reason. She doesn’t know what they should do. She just says:

Drive!”

 *****

They drive back to their home, hoot at the port, and leave the car standing with doors open wide. They discuss what should be done. Their maidservant is home, but they don’t notice she’s there. They cannot agree. The man wants to call the police and explain what has happened­–tell things the way they are­–but the woman is more cautious. Perhaps it’s the shock. Perhaps it’s best not to do anything: They must think about the consequences. The man cannot understand why she won’t take responsibility for their actions. They were, after all, driving too fast, way too fast. He should have seen them. He doesn’t know what he was thinking. The man is overwhelmed by emotion; he feels a lump rising in his throat. Was it really a child wrapped in the bundle? How can he live without knowing the truth?

The woman doesn’t say anything, and, in the interval she doesn’t speak, the man decides to call the police and lay all his cards on the table. He would like to explain that he had tried to help the injured party. He would have liked to drive the injured child to the hospital, but the crowd was so agitated that they wouldn’t let him anywhere near. He imagines explaining everything to a friendly policeman, but, before his call is answered, he puts the receiver down: His wife is right. If you involve the police, there’s no telling what the consequences would be.

  *****

It is the woman who suggests that she drive her own car back to the scene of the accident. She will try to find the woman with the child, ask her what she needs and offer compensation. Surely the sight of the man would merely give rise to hostility, but if it were the woman who tried to help? This would be best for all parties concerned. Perhaps they could call the police afterwards. First and foremost they should concentrate on finding the woman; find out what happened to the child.

The junction at Haile Selassie and Chloe Road exudes peace and quiet. The shopkeepers are standing in the doors of their shops and looking out onto the streets in anticipation of a good deal. Cars stop; people pile out of them and buy fruit. There is no hint of the accident that took place less than an hour ago. The sea is calm; the waves have flattened themselves out. The woman parks the car next to the taxi stand and walks down Haile Selassie to the place where the woman had sat with the bloodied bundle. Not a trace. She looks into the shopkeepers’ faces, tries to discern whether they recognize her, but the shopkeepers’ eyes mirror neither a white woman, nor a car accident. Confused, she walks over to the other side of Haile Selassie. Can that be? Is it really possible that a child can die here, at this junction­– less than an hour ago­–and every discernible trace of it is gone? The woman observes the shopkeepers who are stacking bananas, oranges, and coconuts in bags; she sees white people fishing in their bags for money; she sees tired drivers flipping open the daily papers. Life goes on as before.

The woman drives home to the man, hoots in front of the port, and drives into the carport. Before she gets out of the car, she glides her head into the nape of her neck, allows it to hang suspended there; she closes her eyes to ward off the incredulous sense of irreality. This morning, they had woken up peacefully in a hotel in Ruaha, tired from the Safari they had joined at dawn. Now everything had changed; now, they were the kind of folk who hit and ran. The woman goes into the house and explains to the man that everything was utterly peaceful on Haile Selassie. It seems as if everything was just an evil dream. The maidservant is listening from the kitchen. She can hear what the man and women are talking about, but she doesn’t dream of interfering. She doesn’t consider what would be the right thing to do at all. Even so, she feels a rising sense of disquiet. What if the man and woman don’t go to the police? Perhaps she should go to the junction and make some enquiries. Perhaps­ after the working day is done. 

Leslie Santikian

Leslie Santikan photoLeslie Santikian has an MFA in fiction from CSU, Fresno. Her work has appeared in the Santa Clara Review and San Joaquin Review. She lives in Fresno, where she teaches college composition and rhetoric and fiction in CSU, Fresno and Fresno City College.

 

 

 

An Old Fashioned Voice

I perform in a lounge in the Central Coast every Wednesday and weekend, a place constructed of wall-length windows that make it look like a transparent, breakable jewel box. Right now, I forget the words to a song. It’s old, from the 60s, and involves drinking brandy in the morning. I knew the words an hour ago. I rub a finger along the edge of Mike’s piano, and to make things extra hard on myself, try to remember what the brandy represents in the song—heartache? A way to stop sadness? I know the words to most songs by now, since my profession, last time I checked, is “singer.” I adjust the mike.

Outside these windows, the ocean churns, choked by clumps of seaweed and bright streaks of foam. If I look to the right, past eucalyptus and fragrant red dirt, I see the smoke that curls from the chimneys of the lounge’s adjoining hotel, the Highwoods Inn, where each room has a fireplace and logs to burn. A lot of couples honeymoon here. When I think about that, it reminds me that forgetting the words to a song isn’t the worse thing I could do. I could be married and stuck in a bedroom with someone when I really want to be alone.

Tonight, I’m not drunk, despite the fact that it’s Saturday and I’m sometimes drunk on Saturdays. Alcohol hasn’t yet sunk in, its sharp, clean scent wafting from my skin like an invisible fence, like a warning, similar to the way skunks use their smell to scare away predators. In other words, I look better than usual tonight. My hair, combed then curled with an iron, looks good. My dress with its strips of emerald fabric and sequins—a torn mermaid look—was like this when I bought it. Despite what Louis, the manager of the hotel and my boss, may think, I didn’t tear my dress while in a boozy rage before coming to work like I did with that white dress I loved last summer.

The smeared lipstick, though, is newer for me. It happened a few minutes ago, when I was making out in a bathroom stall with Jeff, a waiter seventeen years younger than my 41. We make out a lot: in the bathroom, in the kitchen when the cooks go home and turn off the lights. He plays the drums in a band and calls himself a musician, though I think he still has some growing to do. Jeff’s one of the few things in my life that’s both easy to start and easy to end. We made out for half an hour tonight, and then I walked out here, ready to “perform.” Ready to be on. I need a drink.

Mike catches me staring at the piano.

“About ready, Gabby?” he says, his voice amused. It tells me I don’t have a choice in my answer. His eyes are gentle, though. He’s always been good to me, Mike.

He’s been my piano player for a few years. We’ve been together so long—Gabby and Mike—that I know he checks his reflection in the mirror and smoothes his hair, still dark and thick despite his middle-aged years, before every performance. I like having him around because he doesn’t comment on my life, and talks music with me. A father figure, you could say, since my dad left and mom is dead. She’s been dead 10 months ago today. Pancreatic cancer. I remember the last time I held her hand in the hospice. It was as if her bones were strung together with air instead of skin, hollow like a bird’s.

“Yeah, I’m ready.” I do a little flourish with my hand, as if I were saying “ta-da” in a magic show. “Warm up the keys.”

Mike laughs. “Sure, kid.” He knows I’m good, even if I can’t remember the brandy song words right now. I’m a soprano, know all the good big band songs old people, or young ones who romanticize the past, like. I sing about moonlight or stardust, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” I know all the good songs. What I don’t always know is how sober I’ll be, but I’m working on it.

Despite what people—Mike, Jeff— try to make me believe, it’s not a simple thing to be an alcoholic. It’s not easy. I used to think I was a social drinker, before I got smart and accepted the truth. Two bottles of wine with dinner when I’m eating alone. Gin or vodka with tonic, scotch on the rocks in one of my mom’s aluminum cups from the 30s. Amaretto or sambuca when I want to pretend that alcohol isn’t a drug but a dessert, something I could drink with friends late into the night. This assumes I have people like this in my life, which I don’t. Just Mike and Jeff. And the audience. Songs aren’t people, though, and nothing new happens when I sing them.

With me, it’s the same information. Sometimes, I sit up in bed and all I want to do is carve open my chest and pour some alcohol inside. It’s humiliating, being so weak.

Talking and laughing, the sound of heels on the floors and booze being poured, hums all around me. It’s deafening.

I look at the clock: 8 p.m. Time to start. I want a gin and tonic to ease my throat into singing, but Mike’s watching. He’s been harder on me these past few months since I’ve stopped rehab. I’ll take a sip here and there, especially if someone cocky and handsome in the audience buys, but nothing serious. I need a paycheck to make rent, buy groceries. It’s not like Mom can give me money anymore.

Mike nods to me, his fingers hovering over the keys.

“Well hello, ladies and gentlemen,” I say to the crowd. I force my voice to sound husky—the opposite of frustrated.

I still can’t remember the words. In my head, I panic. My body feels sluggish.

Forget the brandy song, I tell myself. I’ll just start with something else.

I adjust the mike until it’s even with my mouth. Tonight’s crowd is a mixture of newly-wed or engaged couples (the Highwoods Inn boasts a reputation for elegant weddings and receptions); old patrons with old money to spend, a few out-of-town travelers, some of them families.

One of those families sits a few feet from me, and all of them have the glazed look of people used to getting what they want: a mom and dad, three girls of different ages. Two of the girls have a cocktail in front of them—a French Peach Bellini; a Kiwi Lemon-Drop, rimmed with sugar—so I assume they’re 21 or older. Still, I could be wrong. Most of the people who come here have money and are returning clientele, so the lounge doesn’t deny them, or their offspring, anything. Same for spouses, partners, etc.

The third girl with a cocktail holds a wine glass with either water or vodka, and crushed ice. Condensation runs down the sides, drips onto her dress like weak rain, leaving splotches.

“I’d like to begin with a love song,” I say. “It’s called ‘Time after Time’.”

As I sing, grasping the gangly body of my mike, I look towards the back of the room and see Jeff lowering a platter of buttermilk-batter calamari onto a table where three pristine old women sit, glasses in their hands. He’s wearing his black pants and pressed white shirt that creases in all the right places. His hair looks shorter; neat, clean. Did I tell him that I like men with short hair? I might have said something last week, when he was clearing dishes from tables and everyone was gone, and I leaned close to his ear and whispered “Hi.”

The song’s finished. People clap. I say the requisite couple of words—“Thank you”—and start another song, this one about being on a train and missing someone. It’s a tear-jerker with the right crowd, especially for those who’ve seen combat.

A couple sits close to each other in the front, near enough to throw things if they wanted to. Newlyweds—I’m sure of it. Their faces have the same dumb look, and they hold hands like they’ll evaporate if either one of them lets go. I smile at them so they don’t think it’s odd that I’m staring while I’m singing, and they smile back. Then I notice that the guy is no longer listening to me.

Instead, he rubs his nose against his wife’s neck, rubbing his lips all over the soft place behind her ear. The wife looks like she wants both their clothes gone and the varnished wood and glass and light from this room to melt into a bed, sheets, moonlight, darkness. I want a gin and tonic so much that I don’t know how I’m going to get through the next song.

I tell the audience I’m taking a break. The husband lifts his face long enough from his wife’s neck to call me over. My emerald dress sashays a little, but my body’s buzzing and uncomfortable. I don’t want to deal with this “please the customer” thing now. When do I ever want to deal with a “please the customer” thing?

“You were so great,” he said, reaching out to shake my hand. Not a bad looking man, kind of like a young William Shatner with darker skin. Muscles, too. I can tell.

“Oh yeah,” says his wife. “I really love these old songs.” I nod. She looks a good ten years younger than me, with one of those blonde bobs that almost no one can pull off, including her.

“Thanks so much” I say, my smile stretched tight. Their compliments and clean, grateful faces kill me. Customer kindness, even when sincere, is always patronizing. Thanks for wowing us with your old-fashioned voice! Thanks for being our night’s entertainment! Thanks for giving us the opportunity to applaud or not depending on our mood, thereby reasserting our power over your self-worth! My body’s buzzing again.

“So, when did you guys get married?” I say. I can feel Mike watching me, shaking his head in amusement at my attempt to be civil with this couple.

“Two days ago,” says the wife. She’s beaming. “Or, should I say, two nights ago?” She laughs low, and eases her hand into the crook of her husband’s arm. “We got married at night.”

“Aw.” I want to mean it. I do. Or not.

“Hello again. Would either of you like more champagne?” Jeff’s next to me, holding both his hands behind his back and standing straight. His voice is a wonderful tenor, a smooth, warm sound. He’s trying to act like the perfect waiter to make me laugh. I smile down at the floor, holding it in.

The couple says yes, and Jeff goes to the bar to get it. I have ten minutes left of my break, so I follow him.

“Well, that was nice,” I say.

“Better than you were.” He grins, leaning against the bar cut out of one giant redwood. He’s waiting for Tony, the bartender, to open a fresh bottle of champagne—the stuff with the nice label that slides down like water, too good to give you a hangover. “Even I could tell you didn’t want to talk to them.” He touches my waist with his hand, his touch so light that if I close my eyes, I almost wouldn’t believe I was feeling anything.

“How do you know? Maybe I did.”

“Did you?”

I shrug, tucking a curl behind my ear. “Not really.”

“Is anything wrong? You’re acting funny.” His eyes are bluish-green, like seaglass. They make me want to look at him more than I already do.

“No, I’m fine. Just tired I think.” I smooth my dress with my hands while Jeff watches, even though the fabric is wrinkled on purpose. It’s the look.

Jeff grabs the two glasses of fresh champagne and places them on his tray. “Well, just keep it real up there. Maybe we can do something after.” He runs his fingers down my waist to my thigh, touching it with his fingers before breaking away. The heat from his hand disappears instantly. “You know, I didn’t want to talk to them either. But it’s my job.” He sounds playful, but the implication pisses me off.

“Right.” My throat feels dry, like cracked earth. I ask Tony for a glass of water, and drink it in four swallows. I wipe my mouth, and gesture to the warm golden champagne in two crystal flutes, which Tony poured and put on Jeff’s tray. “Hey, sneak me a glass of that.”

He looks at me, then laughs, as if anything I just said surprised him. “Right, Gabby. I’ll give you champagne.”

“That’s the spirit,” I say. I sound like the woman in her 40s that I am. Like I’ve seen it all.

I walk back to the piano and the rest of the show.

The first time Jeff and I made out, we were in a stall. That’s the clearest memory I have. Arms, lips, and the small, confined space that felt oddly comforting.

He sat on the toilet in his waiter’s uniform while I straddled him in a black dress with diaphanous see-through sleeves. We’d locked the ladies room door so no one, not even the older women with their heavy perfume and propriety, would come in.

It was my first week working in lounge—about eight months ago, a time when I still wanted to give up drinking and rehab was an option.

He kissed my collarbone. I grabbed his hair as my legs clenched around him.

Part of me wanted to push him back, away from me, that I remember; but I needed something for the feeling that I was disappearing. That numbing feeling, the not drinking-cold. It was as if everything tangible about me—skin, bone, muscle, hair—was evaporating into a fine mist over my head. I’d only been sober a month.

Jeff kept my body there. He kept me in my skin.

I moved his face up from my chest and kissed him, my hands clutched around his face. Towards the end, I wanted to cry. The kisses weren’t working, and I knew what would.

 

My performance ends. The last song—“Moon River”—finished, I take a bow and let the applause surround me. It doesn’t come in a tide like it would in the movies, but at least there’s enough that I can feel it vibrate the air.

Mom used to love “Moon River.” It’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s fault. Mom was a romantic. She owned a used bookstore in Mountain View that she started with my dad, which she kept for 20 years after he left her. She watched Travel Channel, then planned trips for us to places like Tokyo and Croatia. She went antique shopping one day, and came back with a locket that had someone’s hair in it. She even wore the thing.

Sometimes when I drink, it’s like I’m telling her I’m trying to care about the world again. She’s dead and I’m still telling her things in my head.

I can’t start crying now.

Jeff walks by, so I grab his arm. Some patrons look at me.

“Hey,” I say. Under my eyes, my eyeliner feathers to the edge of my dark circles. I know what my liner does after a night of singing.

“Hey,” he says. I swallow.

“So we should—after we’re done here tonight. Do something.”

He looks at me like he did before, when I wanted the champagne: like he understands some, but not all, of the words I’m speaking and has to translate it all in his head before answering. Like he’s afraid of getting it wrong. “Uh, sure. Sounds good to me.”

“We can go out, find a place.” I lean closer. “We can be even more alone than we are right now.”

“Cool.”

He thinks I’m crazy, but I know what I’m saying. I leave him to the audience, then walk to the bar, where I ask Tony to pour me a gin and tonic. I fight to keep the brokenness out of my voice. A strained voice needs lubricant, so I’m getting it. Tony doesn’t need to know about strain: he can just take my money. I have twenties in my clutch.

“You’re sure?” asks Tony.

“Yes, please.”

I get the drink into my hands and sip, and a lushness falls over me. My skin feels extra smooth, like velvet.

“I’ve widened my repertoire, did you notice?” I say. My lips are rubber and can say anything. “Gershwin and Porter, Mancini.”

“That’s some good stuff. I was getting tired of the older tunes.”

I finish my drink then ask for another.

“Wait a bit, sweetheart. You know. Give it time.”

I slide a twenty on the counter, and my cheeks hot. It feels so good to have someone call me sweetheart that I fight the urge to cry all over again.

I want to grab the bottle from Tony’s hands and run in my stupid heels to the bathroom—no Jeff to kiss, no bodies or mess. Now I’m crying for real, and Tony freezes, not knowing what to do.

Mom called me sweetheart, at a time when my hair still curled on its own. I remember her taking me to Golden Gate Park for my fifth birthday, when she bought me a soft pretzel and let me ride the merry go round horse with rusted knobs of gold on its bridle. A band played in the park that day, and I sat in her lap on the grass, listening to drums and voices and trumpets, watching the people dressed in red and white stripes like candy. She called me sweetheart then. Be careful, sweetheart, walking with me to the playground. Riding down the slide’s hot metal. Getting ice cream. Ten months, and I still can’t let her be gone.

I’m having trouble breathing. “Oh God,” I say. Voices swirl around me—people talking to other people, glasses being clinked. I couldn’t care less if they exist or not. I reach into my clutch, dig another twenty from inside. “Tony, come on. I’m paying you double.” He hesitates, but eventually starts pouring, like I knew he would. Jeff’s probably behind me somewhere, watching my glamorous torch singer meltdown, the tray shaking in his hands.

Tony slides my gin and tonic to me without a sound.

I down this one, too. My fingertips melt into the wood.

“I need to tell Mike something,” I say, talking to no one in particular. I meant to say Jeff, but the names of the men in my life—father figure, fling—get jumbled. I don’t even know what I want to tell Jeff. But I need to talk while I’m drinking. I need to talk to someone and not be alone.

Jeff’s in the kitchen, I guess, because when I turn around, I don’t see him. I don’t feel lush anymore, or strong, or whatever I thought drinking would make me feel. My liner’s everywhere, streaked down my cheeks.

“Stay calm,” I say to myself. “Be cool.”

I fall onto a bar stool, but don’t quite make it. My body hits the ground, hard. I’m on my back.

I don’t care who sees me. Look at this, audience.

Ten months ago. Mom in the ground, a cold dead body. Mom, in the ground. It hurts too much to breathe.

I need to stay calm, so I picture all my bottles at home, pretty in their cart. I think of what I’ll do with them while playing some blues, and the thought overwhelms me. I want the idea of going home to be like Christmas morning, so I focus on the bottles. Christmas without candy or lights strung along the house, winking through trees. Christmas alone, the opposite of Christmas when I was little. Mom not there to make me go to bed early, making me wait for the good things I stayed up all night for.

Migara de Silva

Migara de Silva is a 25 year-old Barrister, educated in London but currently living in Sri Lanka, who dreams of living in Manhattan to write. She is in the process of trying to get her first novel published. Her interests include but are not limited to Manchester United, Louis de Berneires, the Rolling Stones, and being generally unencumbered. This is her first publication.

 

Of Fences-

There was a fence and it separated two lands. “Good fences make good neighbors”. I never understood that. There were two trees that grew on either side of the fence. They were the exact same tree except they were different trees. There was a house on either side of the fence. Sidath lived on one side and Maya lived on the other. They loved each other with a fire red. In short they were in love. They were at that place where everything is sexual and everything is a temporary madness. There were endless hoards of “I love you’s,” sighs like furnaces and pledges of death if the other should ever leave.

Then Sidath had to leave for a year to make his fortune. The goodbye was tender and the passion was intense like the sun. Off he went and Maya felt a pleasure in the amount of tears she cried. She was in love with him. She cried all day. And the next day. But the day after that she went back to trying to look pretty. “One must always look pretty while one is” she would say. She was as beautiful as the day is long, her limbs, also as long as the day is long glistened in the hot tropical sun. She did not want to be robbed of her youth.

She had many admirers. At first she wouldn’t even allow them to talk to her, she was in love. But eventually she yearned for compliments and breathlessness. So allowed them to visit her and bring her gifts. She never had the slightest intention of leaving Sidath for any of them, but what she thought of herself depended only on what everyone else thought. She needed to feel beautiful. It wasn’t enough to be beautiful. It never is. The men brought gifts and rumors of Sidath’s sexual escapades. Gradually they got to Maya. Even her best friends were talking about it. The village was alight with gossip. Her parents muttered in corners.

A year passed. Maya fell out of love. She married the richest man in the town. Sidath was unfortunate enough to come back on their wedding day. He moved into the house in which he had lived before he left. Maya’s house was demolished and replaced by a concrete monstrosity. The only thing that remained tying that land to the earth was that tree.

The years passed like flowing water. Sidath never married. Maya hated that tree. It reminded her of Sidath. She did not want to think of him. He slept with whores and he never denied it. But she also never asked him. They hadn’t spoken in 50 years even though the lived next to each other. “Good fences make good neighbors” and Maya’s husband had erected the best fence.

Maya could no longer bear the sight of that tree. While her husband was at the brothel she asked the servant boy to cut it down. It took him the best part of five hours to do it. The tree cried and screamed and then fell and splintered. The whole ground shook. As Maya’s tree fell so did Sidath’s. She looked up towards his house to see him standing on his doorstep, tears in his eyes. Maya’s heart broke.

“You were in love with me. Being in love is something any fool can do. As the saying goes, love is what is left when being in love has burnt away. You were in love with me but I love you. To me it was inconceivable that we should part and that’s why I never moved. Our roots, like these trees have become too entwined. There is no one without the other. It seems like you have discovered too late, what I always knew. This was one tree and not two.”

Robert Joe Stout

Bob StoutRobert Joe Stout’s books include The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives, “a rich chorus of voices, which produce not a song but an energetic discussion and argument about the soul of Mexico,” according to Publishers’ Weekly; Why Immigrants Come to America, the novels Miss Sally and Running Out the Hurt, and the poetry volume A Perfect Pitch. A graduate of Mexico City College (now the Universidad de las Americas) he has won national journalism awards for spot news writing and his fiction and poetry have been anthologized in a variety of publications, including New Southern Poets and Southwest.

 

A Big and Wonderful Now

That Alison went alone to the women’s health center and told Yoshio afterwards shoved something unwanted into their relationship. Not that the relationship was clearly defined: Neither he nor she had given it a name or described themselves as belonging to it. Something sparked between them when they were introduced by a mutual friend and they made excuses to see each other afterwards. Yoshio went to hear her sing with a little jazz group entertaining in a hangout near the university campus; she made a point to be near the finish line when he completed the lake-to-lake half-marathon a week later. Conversations led to a dinner date and the dinner date to a night—and many nights afterwards—in her little north Austin rental. They became an “item,” happily involved in each other’s presence. Then despite their precautions, Alison missed her period. The visit to the women’s health center confirmed that she was pregnant.

And not for the first time. Alison’s daughter Lisa was eleven; Yoshio’s seven-year-old son lived in San Antonio with his ex-wife. He and Alison talked about their kids but not about a kid-to-be. That is until Alison, in her flat Midwestern way, confirmed, “Well the news is yes, I’m pregnant.”

Yoshio responded, slowly, by embracing her and received a cold and rather rigid response.

“So, what do we do?”

We. A term they used frequently in conjunction with meals, weekend trips, dancing. This was different. “So what do we do?” Alison repeated and Yoshio, instinctively, “What do you want to do?”

“Me? So it’s up to me?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You sure as shit did.”

Invariably that’s how their arguments began. And invariably Yoshio, the serious one, professional, security coordinator for the city of Austin’s government employees, reframed whatever they were arguing about to give Alison space to win small victories or gracefully give in. But having a baby—or getting an abortion—wasn’t about small victories and graciously giving in. Either way it was a life-changing event, one that could have disastrous consequences for their undefined relationship.

Yoshio didn’t like disastrous consequences—he’d seen too many of them—so he cajoled, “I asked because ultimately you have the right to choose. It’s your body—”

“That’s a cop out.”

“No. I want to be part of the decision. But I want to make sure that what we decide is best for you.”

“What if there’s no ‘best’?”

“In any situation there are better choices and choices not so good. We didn’t expect this but we have to deal with it. Decide—”

“Don’t lecture me! I’m not seventeen!”

“So what do we do?”

The retort flashing across Alison’s broad features made her recognize that he was repeating her phrase. Jerk! The word, mouthed but not audible, culminated in a snort of laughter. Head averted she groped for his embrace.

“We could go make love. I sure as hell can’t get more pregnant than I already am.”

Yoshio knew he had to be careful. Alison was the best thing that had happened to him since the initial months of his first marriage and he didn’t want to make a mistake. He knew it always was possible to make a mistake but he hated mistakes made out of stupidity, lack of investigation, lack of honesty.

Alison, instinctive, flippant, spontaneous and sometimes irrational, had retreated into exaggerated bluster to cover her evasions but hormonal changes already taking effect made her edgy, cross, inappropriately exuberant. Carefully Yoshio listed points he needed to make and noted them in his pocket agenda. Sunday’s was:

“It’s time to tell Lisa.”

“Tell her what?”

“That you’re pregnant.”

“That we don’t know what to do about it?”

“That we’re trying to decide and want her input.”

“Do we?”

“It might help.”

“Shit!” But with a you’re probably right sigh. “I’ll—we’ll,” she amended, “do it.”

Without looking up from her cell phone, “So you decided to tell me,” Lisa winced in her pre-teen that’s-all-we’re-having-for-dinner worldliness.

“It was that obvious?”

“Either that or the two of you were planning to assassinate Obama.”

Yoshio laughed. Alison cursed. Then grimaced, “So how many others know?”

None of them had that answer.

Next on Yoshio’s agenda was consulting a marriage and family therapist.

“So she can tell us what to do?”

“It’s a way of processing. A third party asking questions, sifting answers that we’re stumbling over.”

“I’m stumbling over,” Alison corrected but admitted she was a tumble of doubts, wishes and fear and agreed to a consultation.

The therapist, a pudgy fiftyish pipe smoker with an affable countenance but grumpy voice: “You’ve talked about it with each other? And these conversations? Can you describe them?”

They could and couldn’t. And they could and couldn’t articulate how either decision would affect them. Yoshio, carefully, explained that his main concern was for Alison, what either decision would mean to her.

“How can I know? There’s too many if’s! Twenty more years as a single mother?”

“We’d be togeth—”

“What if you leave me? What if he’s ugly? What if—?”

She stopped abruptly. “Well,” she turned to face Yoshio. “Japanese-Norwegian?”

“She could be devastatingly beautiful,” he replied.

Not that the decision was airtight. Alison fretted; Yoshio gritted his teeth. The future that for years had been short-term stretched towards eternity. “It’s not what either of us imagined,” he confided and Alison hiccupped, “What did we imagine?” When he didn’t answer, “Making love again tomorrow”—that and only that. A big and wonderful now! Now the present was a mere particle, incidental. Everything was future, exaggerated as the end of the first trimester passed and the decision became irrevocable. “Don’t expect me to babysit!” Lisa warned. Then, “It’ll be nice to have something besides stupid adults around the house.”

The house. They would need something larger than Alison’s little rental. A three-bedroom apartment. Yoshio calculated its impact. Despite a good salary and job security he’d be paying child support for ten more years. Travel, restaurant meals, spontaneous gifts would diminish. Alison fretted and pulled away. Arguments flared. Finally after cabernet sauvignon on lawn chairs in the little backyard, “You’re about to leave me, aren’t you?” Alison pouted.

“No, I want to be with you. For a long time.” Although it was two weeks before the date he’d marked on his agenda, “There’s something we need to talk about. Consider.”

Her what? was a mere whisper.

“Marriage.”

“What?” voice running up scales to a high b-flat.

“I want you to marry me.”

Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Inward gasps directed to herself not him. “Yos-Yoshi…” she spluttered, “I, I, but—” Her toe caught the leg of the lawn chair as she lunged to her feet and she stumbled, the wine from her glass gushing across Yoshio’s face. “No!” she wailed, lips twisted downwards and tears filling her eyes. “I, I, I…” Yoshio, laughing, daubed his cheeks, wiped his glasses and beckoned for her embrace. She stumbled into his grasp, spluttered coughing interrupting her attempt to laugh. Head against his neck she wiped her tears on the short sleeve of her dark cotton blouse and panted, “Okay, okay, Iloveyou, yes, but jesus it’s, I mean, so frigging much, a baby, marriage, I never—I mean, it’s, it’s—”

“Scary,” he finished for her.

“Shit yes. Yoshi, I don’t, see, we—we’re not talking tomorrow, next week, this is long-term stuff, I can’t even pict—”

“Maybe the therapist?”

“Shit! He’s not involved! This is me, you, the rest of our lives!”

Yoshio nodded. He’d already calculated the odds: Marriage gave a sort of stability—fragile perhaps, disruptive perhaps, but identity, a base. Remaining single with two kids to support: Intolerable. And detrimental to a career: Divorce and child support is one thing, divorce and support for two from different mothers indicated emotional instability. Emotionally unstable Yoshio was not.

“Besides there’s Lisa!”

“I could be a good fath—.”

“Yeah but she—!”

“We should ask her.”

Ohshit! He heard under her breath. And I haven’t said yes for Christ’s sake! But she assented—because, he knew, she’d put consideration for Lisa on the table and couldn’t back down.

Thumb running images across her cell phone screen Lisa listened to her mother’s abrupt and he’s talking I mean, wants us to get married… and shrugged.

“Should be better’n you going it alone.”

“Could you stand me as a father?” Yoshio interrupted what he could see was going to be Alison’s retaliatory thrust.

Thumb still moving, “Could be worse,” Lisa shrugged. Then, peering directly at Yoshi, “I just hope I do so well when it comes to having a man.” A quick glance at Alison, then back to the cell phone, “And if I do, unlike my mom, I’m going to realize how frigging lucky I am.”

She slammed the cell phone cover closed.

“Now any idea which of you is fixing supper? I’m hungry.”

“We’re ordering pizza,” Yoshio confirmed. “And maybe champagne for three.”

Mike Koenig

Mike Koenig received his MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He currently lives in Columbia, Maryland and works for Discovery Communications. His fiction can be seen in Phoebe, Quiddity, Clover, and The Tulane Review.

 

The Lost Ones

“There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with you,” Doctor Johnson said, looking up from his charts. “Medically speaking, you should be able to have a child.”

Emily was hoping this doctor, this expert, would be able to offer her some news about her condition. She had gotten used to the words seem and should. They were terrible words that offered no comfort because they came with no cure. No matter what the tests said, Emily knew, as any woman would, that three miscarriages don’t just happen. The situation wasn’t just unfortunate; it was scary. And without a definitive medical reason, her miscarriages were terrifying. Statements like: this is just one of those things, or the bad end of statistics didn’t give Emily any consolation. Neither did Dr. Johnson’s assurances that Emily was as capable of having a child as anyone else. She was a completely healthy twenty-nine-year-old woman with many child-rearing years left in her.

After the appointment Emily met her mother for lunch.

“Did he say anything different?” Emily’s mother, Lauren, asked after hearing about the appointment. “Anything helpful?”

“Not really. He said it’s a good sign that I’m able to get pregnant and that I should keep taking the fertility pills Dr. Kumar prescribed.”

Lauren shook her head. “This is just awful what they put you through. Just awful.”

“All we can do is keep trying,” Emily said, lifting her glass of water.

“What does Tom think?”

“About what?” Emily asked. She was looking around the restaurant more than she was looking at her mother.

“Did you tell him what this doctor said?”

“No,” Emily admitted, “he doesn’t know about this appointment.”

“You shouldn’t do that,” Lauren said, with an all-too-motherly furrowed brow, “You shouldn’t sneak off to a doctor without telling Tom.”

“I know. He’s just not much for second opinions, much less fourth.”

“Still, you should tell him. He is your husband.”

“I’ll tell him tonight,” Emily said.

*****

The first pregnancy had been Emily’s longest. It lasted about ten weeks, long enough that she could feel the baby kick, or at least Emily thought she felt the baby kick. It was just as likely some indigestion mixed with wishful thinking. Emily and her mother had started planning the nursery. It was going to be a gender-neutral yellow color with teddy bear wallpaper. Emily, who taught second grade, was determined to finish the room before her summer break was over. She spent a week priming and painting the room with her mother, and another week cutting out and pasting the teddy bears along the wall. The room was golden yellow and when the windows were open light bounced around, giving the eyes of the teddy bears actual life.

The Friday they finished they went to the mall for a celebratory lunch, both looking and not looking at baby items. They ended up buying a mahogany rocking chair with a soft white cushion. The chair had flat legs instead of round ones and swung more than rocked. Emily felt it was a good reading chair. She planned to start reading to the child in utero. And since the chair came with free delivery, it seemed the perfect deal. It arrived the same day it was purchased and Emily was set up and reading by the time Tom came home.

“Wow,” Tom said at the doorway.

“What?” Emily said.

“You look like a real mother.”

Emily gave a playful frown.

Tom kissed her, first on the forehead then the stomach. “You look beautiful.”

“So you like the chair.”

Tom nodded.

“Good, cause it’s non-refundable.”

Emily listed the things she had seen that day. She particularly liked a stroller that could fold into quarters. It was only twenty pounds but very stable. She also thought the crib should be placed away from the window, so the sun wouldn’t bother the baby in the morning, and the changing table could go near the door and the rocker in its current spot because it seemed the focal point of the room. Emily talked so fast that there was hardly a space between the words for Tom to agree or disagree. He just smiled and took in Emily’s excitement.

“So what do you think?” Emily offered at the end.

“I think you might not need me at all. You and your mother have this whole thing worked out.”

“Well, you helped,” Emily said, patting her still flat belly. “A rather enjoyable help at that.”

“Is there anything else you wanted to do before you go back to work?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I was just thinking,” Tom was rubbing Emily’s shoulders as he talked, “maybe we could take a few days, just for ourselves at that cottage at Castle Lake. We might not be able to get a real vacation next year with the baby.” Tom was now kissing Emily’s neck between words, “How’s that sound? A couple of days, just us?”

 *****

The night of Emily’s fourth opinion, Tom came home around eight. Emily had left him a pork chop and green beans on the kitchen counter with the note, “went for a jog.” Tom was watching TV and napping when Emily came back and didn’t hear her until she started drying her hair with the electric blower.

“Did I wake you?” she asked, when Tom sat up.

“No, I was up.”

Emily was combing her brown shoulder-length hair.

“I like Patricia if it’s a girl and James for a boy,” Emily said.

“I thought we liked Andrew and Julie,” Tom responded.

“That was for the last baby.”

Tom got up and took off his dress shirt and pants, hanging the pants neatly in the closet.

“So,” Emily asked in a slightly high-pitched voice.

“What?”

“Do you like the names?”

“I don’t know why we have to pick new names—I like Julie, Jules for short.”

“We can’t use that name.”

“But we never told anyone. No one will know.”

“I’ll know,” Emily said, putting her brush down.

Tom went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. When he came back he said, “Why don’t we just wait until we get pregnant before picking out names?”

“Okay,” she said, “but they have to be new names.”

Tom agreed to this condition and apologized. It was easier than fighting. And he supposed Trish was as cute as Jules. He kissed his wife. And remembered how he used to pick fights with her when he was in law school just for the chance to make up with her later. Back then she bought underwear at Victoria’s Secret, surfing the online catalog late into the night. He hadn’t seen a colored bra in what seemed like years. It was just standard white Hanes these days. He caressed his wife, first on the stomach but then moved upwards.

“I’m not ovulating,” Emily said without moving. Tom stopped his playful advances and rolled to his right. They were back to back, separated by a foot of clean white sheets. “Next week,” Emily whispered.

Tom could remember a time before babies when sex was fun. When his wife coming out of the shower was a call to action, when she’d slowly remove her towel and perform a small dance before ripping off his clothes in passion. He remembered a time when waiting five minutes was excruciating, and if they touched each other’s hand at dinner, they’d race to the bedroom. He remembered sex that was full of moans and looks of ecstasy, a feeling of connection with his wife that was now easily postponed with the words “next week.” This of course was only a promise of intercourse, not passion, not sex. After the act, they didn’t kiss or hold each another anymore; they didn’t even talk. Emily would immediately move into some yoga position that supposedly helped conception, often chanting herself into a trance that would remove bad energy from her body. At this point Tom would be unneeded, and he’d retreat to the basement.

 *****

“Did you tell your parents, yet?” Emily asked.

“Tell them what?”

“About the miscarriage.”

“They didn’t know we were pregnant.” Tom didn’t turn his head from the road; he didn’t need to turn to feel his wife’s glare. It was their fifth miscarriage, and Tom had decided to stop talking about the pregnancies until they got to the second trimester. This pregnancy, Baby Susan, because Emily was sure it would be a girl, had only lasted three weeks from the positive pregnancy test to the pains that sent Emily to the bathroom.

“I just didn’t want to tell them in case this happened again,” Tom finally said, still feeling his wife’s glare.

“Whatever’s easier for you,” Emily said.

They drove in silence the rest of the way. When he pulled up to the church, he asked Emily if she was sure she wanted to come.

“She’s my niece too,” Emily said.

“I just wasn’t sure if you. . . I can make an excuse if you don’t want to see everyone.”

“I’m fine,” Emily said with a plastic smile.

They walked together to the church, but separated once inside, as Tom, the godfather-to-be, was needed in the annex.

After the priest gave some brief instructions Erin, Tom’s sister-in-law, offered Tom the baby to hold. Lily’s eyes opened wider when passed to Tom and she gave a soft coo that made Tom smile in a sad clown sort of way. His eyes were glossy, not quite wet but full of wanting. Tom pulled Lily a little closer, feeling each light exhale against his lap.

“You and Emily have any luck?” Tom’s brother, Jim, asked.

Erin shot him a look.

“What?”

“You don’t ask such things,” Erin said.

“He’s my brother,” Jim said.

“It’s not polite,” Erin replied.

“We lost another one,” Tom said, letting Lily grab his finger.

“What?”

“I’m sorry, Tom,” Erin said, putting her arm around his shoulder.

“Three days ago. We weren’t going to tell anyone.”

“Is Emily doing okay?” Erin asked. “If you guys don’t feel up to . . .”

“I told her she could stay home. But she wanted to come.”

“I feel terrible,” Jim interrupted, “Lily was an accident. And you. . . ”

“She wasn’t an accident,” Erin said, “She was a surprise.”

“I’m just saying it doesn’t make sense that they’re trying to have a kid and can’t and we’re not trying and have one.”

“Don’t say it like that,” Erin said.

“I feel bad, is all. It’s like we took his kid.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tom said, “one has nothing to do with the other. We’re just unlucky.” Tom pulled Lily into a hug against his chest. “But for the sake of my wife, let’s try not to let anyone bring it up at the party.”

 *****

“Honey,” Tom said, coming back to the living room, “did you move my stuff?”

There was no reply, so Tom went to the kitchen. “I had some adoption pamphlets from this guy at work. Did you see them?”

Emily looked at the kitchen trashcan.

“I go to the bathroom and you throw out my papers?” Tom asked.

“I’m just not ready to give up yet.”

Emily turned her attention to the onions, cutting them in loud thuds.

“It’s not giving up. It’s just looking at options.”

“That’s not an option,” Emily said, still focused on cutting vegetables.

“Well, it’s like a three year process, so I thought we should at least look into it now. I thought you wanted more than one child.’

“I’m not ready to raise someone else’s baby.”

“It would be our baby.”

“Do we have to do this tonight?”

Tom stopped talking and poked his head over the trashcan. He saw the pamphlets at the top, but knew better than to fish them out. Instead, he returned to the living room couch and flipped through the channels, never settling on a show to watch. Emily’s cutting continued for about ten minutes, until she went to bed without cooking anything or saying goodnight.

 *****

It was at Castle Lake that Emily had lost the first baby, Justin for a boy, Nancy for a girl. She had had bad cramps for hours before saying anything to Tom. The nearest hospital was a two-hour drive, and Emily was screaming as Tom drove. About twenty minutes before they got to the hospital a calm feeling came over Emily, some type of relief. Tom didn’t ask if she felt better or not and didn’t point to the blood that was seeping through her sweatpants.

When the doctor reported the baby was lost, that there was nothing anyone could have done, Emily slapped Tom across the face. “Why did we leave home? This wouldn’t have happened at home.” Then she turned into her pillow and cried. Tom’s own body had gone numb with the news; he reached out to touch her shoulder but Emily pulled away. For a few minutes he tried to think of something to say, something comforting, but the words never came. He finally sank into a chair and watched as Emily emptied herself through tears.

Emily was discharged from the hospital, and they went back to the cabin to collect their luggage. It was a quiet ride with neither music nor conversation, just the sound of the engine. There was a small blood spot on the passenger’s seat that forced Emily to sit in the back. She stared out the window as they drove. The trees were still green, and the sunlight of the day made everything look alive and feel terrible.

Within a week Tom would sell the car rather than clean it. But for now they had to avoid the spot. About an hour down the road Emily put her head next to Tom’s headrest.

“I’m sorry for what I said at the hospital.” Emily’s voice was soft, “I know this wasn’t your fault.”

Tom gave her a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll get pregnant again soon.”

They didn’t say much after that, but the car ride didn’t feel as eerie. For a while Tom even put his right hand between the seats so he could hold Emily’s hand as he drove. That was enough to make him think things would be all right.

***** 

“This calls for a celebration,” Lauren said upon hearing of her daughter’s pregnancy. “I’ve been waiting three years for this.”

Tom smiled at his mother-in-law as she got the champagne glasses from the top cabinet. She had been asking for grandkids since she first heard that Tom had proposed and now the promise of their arrival gave Lauren a pregnancy glow all her own.

“I was so worried about you guys. Three years.”

“Well, we weren’t exactly trying all this time,” Tom said.

“Mom had trouble conceiving,” Emily said, “she assumes everyone else does.”

“It took us six years,” Lauren said, “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, not anyone. But when you feel that first kick, when you feel the baby growing inside, that’s when you really know what love is.” Lauren gave Emily a Hallmark smile that made Tom snicker. “I almost feel sorry for you men,” Lauren continued, “You’ll never know what that’s like.”

“Well,” Tom answered, “from what I hear labor is no picnic. So I’m quite happy to not be the pregnant one.”

“Don’t you listen to him,” Lauren said, “it isn’t that bad.”

Lauren poured two glasses of champagne. “I wish your father were here,” Lauren said, handing a glass to Tom. “I hate to celebrate without him.”

“Hey, where’s mine?” said Emily.

“You can’t have alcohol,” Lauren said.

“I don’t think a sip of champagne is going to matter, Mom.”

Lauren grudgingly poured a third glass much smaller than the first two and offered a congratulatory cheer before the three drank.

 *****

When Tom entered the bathroom, Emily was on the floor holding her stomach. “Call an ambulance,” she said. Tom knew immediately the baby was lost. As they waited for the ambulance to come he got on the tile floor with her, holding her hands in his. It was the way he used to hold her when they were first married and spent Saturdays lying in bed together.

“Why can’t I be a mother?” Emily asked.

Tom kissed her on the forehead. He couldn’t comfort her anymore than that. That was the third miscarriage, the Andrew or Julie miscarriage.

In addition to seeking her second, third, and fourth opinions about her physical condition Emily also started going to church after that miscarriage. At first it was just an occasional Sunday, but then it became more regular, and finally included bi-weekly counseling sessions with Father Mark.

“Am I being punished,” she asked the priest, “somehow tested like Job?”

“I don’t think that’s the case,” the priest answered.

“But the doctors tell me I’m healthy. They can’t explain why I keep losing these babies.”

“We must always have faith in His plan,” Father Mark said. “We can’t always explain it, but we must have faith that it is right.”

“My husband thinks we should adopt.”

“I’d be more than happy to recommend a good agency; Catholic Charities does wonderful work.”

“Could you really love a child as much, knowing it wasn’t actually yours?”

“I know many people who have adopted,” Father Mark answered, “and they are just as loving as any other parents.”

It was the answer Emily expected, the argument Tom had always provided. But there was something inside of her that doubted its truth. And in the wake of her “good health” she couldn’t see how adopting was the right solution, even if adopting a foreign child, as Tom now suggested, sped up the process. She couldn’t see herself loving at first sight the way her mother had loved at first feel.

***** 

Tom didn’t recognize his refrigerator anymore. There used to be soda and beer and nacho cheese on the door. The peanut butter used to be Jif with pieces of peanuts in it. Now it was some Whole Foods goo, the oil rose to the top and needed to be stirred for twenty minutes to make a sandwich. Tom used to get 2% milk and white bread; now there was only soy milk and whole wheat multigrain. Tom never brought his lunch with him to work anymore. It was the one chance a day he got to eat what he liked.

But it wasn’t just the food that had changed. Emily herself had. She did yoga in the morning, waking at five to do her stretches before school. She also went to the gym in the evening, for light calisthenics. There was only about an hour a day when he could actually sit and talk with her. But even that was difficult because all she wanted to do was talk babies. There were no more “how was your day” pleasantries, no more funny stories about what her kids had done in class. It was all business. We need to try this or that. She read medical journals like a pharmacist and knew which pills she might consider trying next. After her sixth miscarriage, the Daniel/Danielle miscarriage, she found a doctor who would prescribe Cervexus, an experimental drug that strengthened the walls of her uterus, one potential cause for miscarriages, though he noted like the doctors before him, that her uterus did not seem particularly weak. Still, the drug gave Emily a new sense of accomplishment and her regimen of exercising, cleaning, dieting, existential breathing, and researching made her feel in control.

The house was different too. It had been clean before, but now it was spotless. Emily ran the dishwasher every night, not wanting any germs in the house, and scrubbed the tile of the kitchen floor and bathrooms religiously. Since no one could tell her exactly what was wrong she wanted to eliminate any possible cause of her unhappy life. Cleanliness became a calling for her. And the house was almost a museum where Tom couldn’t touch or use objects because he was not as clean as them.

But the most jarring change for Tom was the crucifix that hung over the bed. It was a testament to Emily’s new life as a devout Catholic, a promise that if she was deemed worthy enough to have a child, she would raise it in the Church. Tom didn’t mind the religion entering her life. He too was Catholic, if only in name. What disturbed him about the crucifix was how Emily looked at it with unwavering intensity, offering it small prayers before they had sex.

What had started as understandable eccentricities for a woman under stress had developed into an insane routine. Tom no longer saw the woman he married in his wife, and when she looked at the cross as they made orgasm-less love, he had no idea who she was.

 *****

Emily locked herself in the bathroom. They had a full-length mirror on the door and she was looking at herself with her T-shirt rolled up. She was a thin thirty-two-year-old, merely three days pregnant, or at least it had been three days since the positive pregnancy test. Emily arched her back and tried to make herself look fat. Not satisfied with the reflected image she rolled down her shirt and pushed her stomach out. In a few months she’d look this big.

She continued playing in the mirror, trying to imagine herself in the third trimester. The door handle jiggled.

“I’m in here,” Emily said.

“Is everything all right?” Tom asked.

“Yeah.”

Emily fixed her shirt and splashed some water on her face before coming out. Tom was sitting on the edge of the bed, a pale look on his face.

“Is everything okay?” Tom asked, nodding toward her stomach.

“Of course.”

“You were in there for forty minutes.”

“I was just— you know women in the bathroom.”

Emily sat next to Tom on the bed gently rubbing his thigh.

“I thought. . .” Tom stopped his words.

“What happened at the lake isn’t going to happen again. We’re going to be fine,” Emily said, giving Tom a kiss. “I feel so much better this time.”

Tom smiled. It would be another week before he’d get called to meet Emily at the emergency room.

 *****

For Tom’s fortieth birthday Emily had the whole extended family over for dinner. It was a light fare of lemon chicken with brown rice and carrot cake for dessert. It was great to eat dinner with the whole family. Tom had two nephews, Andy and Scott, and two nieces, Lily and Brittany, whom he loved but rarely saw.

“How old are you, Uncle Tom?” asked his five year-old niece Lily as Emily started lighting the candles on the birthday cake.

“I’m this many,” he said flashing all ten fingers four times.

“How old?”

“This many,” he said and flashed his fingers up again.

“You’re old,” Lily said, still unclear of his exact age.

“I know,” Tom agreed, “I think I need help blowing out the candles.”

As the family began singing Happy Birthday, Tom lifted Lily to his knee. He filled his cheeks with air anticipating the amount needed to blow all the candles out. Lily mimicked her uncle, and when the song was over they worked together to get all forty candles out.

“Did you make a wish?” Tom asked.

“Yeah.”

“What did you wish for?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot.”

After cake Tom let Lily open the gifts for him. She tore through the paper in seconds, barely looking at the contents, mostly shirts and books, before moving to the next package. As Lily played with the discarded paper Tom looked at his wife, hoping to share a moment. But there was a bleakness in Emily’s eyes, as if she were in her own world far away from Tom and Lily.

After the guests, left Tom and Emily went to bed. As Tom took off his shirt, Emily lay on the bed, seductively calling him over with her index finger. Tom slid over the top sheet then kissed his wife on the neck and shoulders. After a few minutes of kissing, Emily got up and gave Tom a little strip show. He took off his own clothes, remembering his honeymoon and sex before pregnancies. He thought tonight would be like the old times, but as Emily climbed back in bed she wasn’t staring at Tom, but rather at the crucifix that hung over the bed.

Tom laid Emily on her stomach and stood behind her.

“What are you doing? This is not the ideal position for conception,” she said, wiggling to her back.

“I thought tonight could just be about us. Maybe we can mix it up. You know like we used to.”

“I don’t want to waste my most fertile days.”

“Do you really think position matters that much?”

“The experts say it helps.”

“Well, can we just do it for real. . . You know, for my birthday. I mean, do you have to just lie there?”

“I have to focus on my breathing, create an inviting space for the baby.”

“I’m just saying once a year, can we have sex like people who love each other, not people trying to create a baby?”

“We only get one good chance a month. Shouldn’t we do everything possible to get pregnant?” Emily said.

“You really think staring at that crucifix and breathing every six seconds matters? Our problem isn’t getting pregnant. We’ve always been able to do that.”

“This time it’ll be different. I’m on those pills now, and we’ve started a new hormone treatment. It’s going to happen, I deserve it.”

Tom was sitting on the bed now. “Deserve it,” Tom repeated.

“I know I can carry to term,” Emily said, “I know I can. Once we get pregnant it’ll be different. You’ll see. We’re going to do it this time. We’ve been doing everything right—diet, exercise, prayer, everything.”

Tom turned to Emily, “And what if it doesn’t happen?”

“It will,” Emily said.

“It’s not a question of deserve. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”

Emily was silent.

“I don’t know what our problem is,” Tom continued, “but I don’t think our milk and bread has anything to do with it. I don’t think position has anything to do with it.”

“What harm does it do to try everything?” Emily asked.

Tom looked at Emily, “I think you need to start seeing a therapist about this.”

Emily laughed, “I talk to Father Mark once a week.”

“No, I mean a real therapist.”

Emily was silent.

“What harm could it do to try one more thing?” Tom asked.

They didn’t have sex that night or the next day or the day after that. They skipped two more of Emily’s cycles, and Tom spent most nights in the guestroom. Emily didn’t want to see a therapist and still wouldn’t talk of adoption. Her only reason for denying both requests was that it wasn’t time to give up, though she wouldn’t say, even now entering her late thirties, when the exact time to give up would be.

 *****

They were married in Jamaica in 2000. Emily wore a strapless white wedding gown that flowed with the breeze coming off the ocean. Her hair had small curls, and she took deep breaths to keep herself from crying.

Tom wore a light hemp pants suit with a cotton button-up shirt and no tie. He wasn’t moved to tears, but he couldn’t help smiling and couldn’t look away from Emily. She was captivating even through the deep breaths that held back happy tears.

As Tom repeated his vows the world seemed to slow; he could feel every movement of his mouth and feel Emily’s hands tighten around his. The justice of the peace then turned to Emily whose voice was barely a whisper as she spoke, yet unmistakably happy. As soon as she got the words out, she jumped into a kiss before a pronouncement of marriage could actually be made. The justice of the peace made a small joke about Emily’s excitement that seemed to take away her tears. Or maybe it was just Tom’s arms around her waist.

Tom thought about that day often when preparing the paperwork for the divorce. He would let her keep the house and gave her more of his personal assets- 401K and stocks- than she’d ever think to ask for. He loved her despite everything, which made signing the divorce decree difficult. She hadn’t looked at him directly in any of the meetings with the lawyers, which made leaving easier. Had he seen her face, her eyes, he would have been tempted to sink with the ship.

 *****

As the plane rolled toward the runway, Tom closed his book and looked out the window. It was his first flight ever without someone he knew beside him: his ex-wife, his brother, his father. It was a twenty-hour flight to Vietnam, and the return flight would be just two days later. Just enough time to sign forms and make everything legal.

As the engines geared up, Tom felt both nervous and excited. His whole world was about to change. And the roar of the plane gave the trip the feeling of reality. The flight attendant went up the aisle checking everyone’s seatbelts. It was a full flight, so the process took several minutes. But Tom didn’t care. It was a bright cloudless day; nothing would stop the trip now.

Some fifty miles away in the home they once shared, Emily sat alone in the Teddy Bear Room. The room was still empty save for the chair that sat by the window, in which she quietly rocked. In her hand was a rosary, and as she recited her Hail Marys, she watched the neighborhood kids play touch football in the street in front of her house. Johnny, who lived three houses down the street, was playing quarterback for both teams and threw dead-on spirals as he marched the opposing squads up and down the field. Emily smiled as they celebrated the latest touchdown and tried to wave at the boys, but they didn’t see her. So she turned her attention back to the rosary, falling into a slight trance as she prayed. Everything was going to work out. If nothing else, Emily was sure of that.

Hall Jameson

halljamesonHall Jameson is a writer and fine art photographer who lives in Montana with her husband, Val, and a menagerie of other furry and feathered critters. Her work has recently appeared, or is forthcoming in, Swamp Biscuits & Tea, Cream City Review, Redivider, and Eric’s Hysterics. When she’s not writing stories or taking photographs, Hall enjoys kayaking, exploring ghost towns, and cat wrangling.

Strategy

My grandfather loved oranges and black cherries; he preferred citrus or berries to chocolate and other sweets. Each Saturday morning I would stop by the farmers’ market for fruit before our weekly backgammon game.  “Don’t choke on the pit,” I’d said to him, trying to get under his skin. He ignored me, the morning light accentuating the spray of wrinkles fanning from the corners of his eyes and the perfect, college-ruled lines spanning his forehead. He leaned to one side in his armchair as he studied the board. He looked frail and vulnerable in his baggy clothes and ancient slippers. The dark red juices from the fresh cherries tracked down his chin; his attempt to distract me. I moved to blot away the juice with my napkin, but he pushed my hand away, then spit a cherry pit into the trashcan.    “Don’t fuss over me, Ella.” He wiped his chin with the sleeve of his flannel shirt and nodded to the board. It was my turn. The backgammon checkers stuck to the pads of my fingers, tacky from dividing an orange. I studied the board, so focused on our game–I must win–that I put the doubling cube into my mouth instead of an orange segment. Bright flecks danced before my eyes as I gagged for air. My grandfather pounded me between the shoulder blades until the cube shot from my throat and landed on the board, trailed by a ropey string of saliva, revealing the number sixty-four. He poured some water into a plastic cup and handed it to me. I drank without meeting his eyes; instead, I watched his gnarled index finger slide his final checker across the board and then remove it. Next, he blotted the wet spot of my dribble from the board with his sleeve. I need to launder that shirt, I thought. He looked at me and shook his head. My shirt is fine, his look said. Stop worrying. “I win,” he said aloud before popping another cherry into his mouth. He smacked his lips as the juices raced down his chin. He tilted the bag of cherries in my direction, but I shook my head. He picked up a backgammon checker and offered it to me as if it were a cookie or piece of chocolate, his eyebrows raised. When I frowned and fixed him with a chilly look, he erupted, his laugh, one of my favorite sounds. Then he spit another cherry pit into the trash.

Bernard Grant

Bernard Grant is an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. He lives in Washington State and has work forthcoming in Gravel and Barely South Review.

The Child

 

Family Man

A month ago a man came to show us a Kirby. He poured juice on the carpet, then sucked it all up, the vacuum screaming. Pink soap bubbled up on the floor. Mamma bought the Kirby. Early this morning, wearing a wife beater and basketball shorts, he comes into the kitchen where I’m eating cereal. Winnie the Pooh laughs behind me. He pours a glass of orange juice and says he wants to take me out today.

Mamma comes in wearing a robe, sips from his glass.

“Aren’t you sharing germs?” I ask.

Mamma laughs. “What?”

“Only when it’s family it’s not germs.”

“Don’t worry about it, child. Did Mr. Leon tell you he wanted to take you out today?”

I tell her he did. At first I thought he was a stranger, and you’re not supposed to go with strangers. But his orange juice didn’t make Mamma sick, so he’s family.

We spend the morning at the park, playing basketball. He never says much, except when he whispers on the phone. When we go to the movies I eat too much popcorn during the previews. His phone lights up, and he says we have to go; he wants to visit his friend. The movie hasn’t started.

Lit by orange streetlights, the houses sliding by are smaller than the ones in my neighborhood. Barred windows, chipped paint, graffiti. The streets are dirty, marked with trash and holes. The lawns too. There are old rusted cars; some don’t have all their tires. The only place I feel safe on the east side is Grandpa’s house. When I ask to visit him, Mr. Leon says no, and then he says, “Stay quiet. Don’t tell your mamma we visited my friend and I get you some McDonald’s.”

He stops at a dark house, makes a phone call, and his friend runs out.

Mr. Leon turns to me, puts a finger over his lips.

I don’t speak—not now or after Mr. Leon gives him money, and the guy, who smells like nasty cigarettes, hands him a plastic bag bulging with yellow pebbles. I don’t speak when a lighter sparks and a flame tips into a glass tube sticking out of his mouth. Liquorice-smelling clouds his head, scatters. The only time I speak is on the way home, when McDonald’s slips by and he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t say anything either. I wish Mamma would have gotten sick, cause now he’s family.

Big

My skin burns. Cousin Ray and me spent all morning playing out in the sprinklers, staying full off pecans and Japanese plums he picked from the trees. In three years, when I’m a teenager, I’ll be as big as him, and I won’t have to climb. I’ll just reach up and twist off plums.

We’re inside for lunch, sodas and Beanie Weenies. Uncle Walter pours half of my soda into a cup, but Ray gets to drink his straight from the can. The whole thing.

Back out in the yard, the grass is wet but it still pricks my feet. Uncle Walter rolls out the Slip ‘n Slide, a blue mat he put under the sprinklers. Every time I run onto the mat I fall back and hurt my neck, but I don’t say anything. I don’t whine that my back stings. I don’t stop running onto the mat either. I don’t want Ray to call me a baby.

I try a belly-flop, hear a smack and feel it. I can’t see the sunlight flashing through trees like before, just the street coming closer before my face hits dirt. Then I spit grass and realize being a teenager might not be so great.

At bath time—I’m spending the night—I take off my clothes and jump into the kitchen sink, but I can’t get all the way down.

“Get out that sink, boy,” Uncle Walter says.

“Why can’t I bathe in the sink? I used to bathe in the sink all the time, when—“

“When you was little, that’s right. You too big now.” He tosses his thumb over his shoulder. “Go on, now. Get in the tub.”

I climbed out of the sink. “If I’m so big,” I ask, “why can’t I drink a whole soda?”

“You ain’t that big.”

 

Knives

Mamma went to the grocery store. Cousin Ray’s in charge. He been home alone before. But he’s never been in charge. It doesn’t matter though because I can watch myself. I tell him just that. Then I go to the freezer to get a frozen spaghetti. He snatches it, lets it clank on the counter.

“I’ll make it,” he says.

I sit, pick and flick a red crust off the table. The table’s glass, and through it I can see my feet kick above the floor. His feet touch the floor when he sits.

The microwave beeps. He presses buttons but he can’t get it started.

I get up from the table. “A microwave is easy,” I say. “If you can’t use one, maybe you shouldn’t be in charge.”

“I got it.” He presses the black rectangle. The door springs open. The plastic on the frozen spaghetti isn’t cut, and I tell him so.

“You open it when you want to eat it,” he says.

“You’re supposed to cut it first, so it doesn’t blow up.”

I grab a knife. He grabs one too. Light skips off his blade. We’ve done this before, we’ve done it a lot, we even practice. Whoever stops the blade between two fingers wins. He swings. The knife rips the web between my thumb and pointer finger. One time I fell from a tree and ripped my shirt on the way down—the slice sounds like that. There’s blood on the floor.

Mamma’s gonna whip me.

 

 

 

Brandon French

Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer, born in Chicago at the end of the Second World War. She has been (variously) assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a topless Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress (that’s another story!), an assistant professor of English at Yale, a published film scholar, a playwright and screenwriter, director of development at Columbia Pictures Television, an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director, a psychoanalyst in private practice and a mother. Eighteen of her stories have been accepted for publication by literary journals and she was nominated for the Kirkwood Prize in Fiction at UCLA.

 

Dolores Our Lady of Sorrows

The aunts from Toledo stood outside the sliding door of the bedroom closet, staring disconsolately at the dozens of stacked hatboxes. It was 1971 and American women had stopped wearing hats.

“Perhaps we can give them away to the coloreds,” she said to her sister. “They still wear hats to church, don’t they?”

They had flown out together from Ohio to Los Angeles for their sister Lois’s funeral and since her husband Walter was too distraught to be of any use, they took over the onerous task of clearing the house of Lois’s possessions. They assumed Walter would need to sell the house in the upcoming months and it would be easier to show it to potential buyers if it was empty. Practical women, they managed their grief by focusing on the tasks at hand—funeral arrangements, catering needs, the obituary announcement, the death certificate, the medical bills. And the hats.

Lydia, the younger sister, a plump little woman with a soft, sweet face and bird legs, opened one of the boxes and reached into the crushed tissue paper, withdrawing a black velvet cloche adorned with a deep red rose.

“Remember this one?” she asked her sister Cecile, her voice quavering.

Cecile’s eyes widened in recognition, her mouth set in a solemn straight line.

“We’d better not,” she said, turning her head away.

 *****

When Lois’ daughter Jenna arrived after a seven-hour drive down from San Francisco, the hatboxes were already piled high in the entryway, confronting her like naphthalene ghosts as soon as she cleared the door. Months earlier, although weakened by the cancer, Lois had come out into the driveway in her flowery bathrobe to greet her daughter.  Now it was only her hats.

Jenna felt a fleeting impulse to open one of the boxes but thought better of it. Whatever specters escaped would probably be too much for her to handle at that moment, and so she passed into the living room where her stepfather Walter was asleep sitting up on the beige satin sofa. His head was tilted back and his mouth hung open, creating strangled snores in his throat. Almost none of the bottle of Mouton Cadet on the coffee table in front of his knees remained.

Jenna, a small, boyishly slender psychologist in her late twenties with dark eyes and the plush cheeks of an infant, walked through the hallway toward the sound of voices, discovering her aunties in the master bedroom going through her mother’s clothes.

“Long drive,” Lydia said by way of greeting, taking her niece in her arms and hugging her warmly. “You must be exhausted.”

“Are you hungry?” Cecile asked. She was tall and stout and her face had the hard marble sheen of a lifetime of dutiful service. She had famously told her daughter, a glamorous daytime soap actress, “Life is not about having fun, Lisa.”

“No,” Jenna said, “I ate on the way.”

“We’ll all go out for dinner tonight,” Lydia said, “as soon as we finish sorting through your mother’s clothes.”

“Did you know she bought eight new pair of shoes last month?” Cecile asked. “Never even took them out of the boxes.”

“She must have been frightened,” Jenna said, feeling queasy. She had spent her childhood fending off her mother’s anxiety, developing a nervous cough, diarrhea and chronic stomach aches which the pediatrician said were “signs of stress.”

“She probably convinced herself that she wasn’t dying by buying the shoes,” Jenna said, thinking out loud.

“Did she do things like that?” Lydia asked, looking distressed.

“Sometimes,” Jenna said, sorry she’d brought it up. The aunties were fiercely protective of their sister and would not tolerate any suggestion that she was unstable, even if they suspected it. There was no way for Jenna to tell them what it had been like as a child to watch her parents fight so violently that she was afraid they would kill each other. And even if she tried, they would just blame her father.

“What size are your feet?” Cecile asked.

“Seven.”

“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “Your mother was six and a half.” She bent down and lifted up four of the shoeboxes, putting them next to a stack of dresses. “We’re bringing all of this to Hadassah Thrift tomorrow. You should take a look in case there’s something you want.”

 *****

At dinner that night—a seafood shanty with an Italian name in Redondo Beach —- they discussed the funeral and catering arrangements. It would be a closed casket of course, Lydia said, because the cancer had left little of their sister but tumors and bones. Jenna could not imagine her mother, who had plowed through life like an army of red ants, brought to such a merciless halt. Even having a conversation with her had been a challenge because she almost never stayed still.

“Could you write something?” Cecile asked her niece. Jenna nodded yes although she had no idea what she might say. “The rabbi will speak, and then you can give the eulogy.” She turned to Walter. “Do you want to say something?” she asked.

“Well. . . ,” Walter said, his mind foggy with alcohol and sorrow, not only for the loss of Lois but of his first wife Sonja, who also had died of cancer. “I suppose I should, she was such a great gal. . .” He had forgotten the times he hurled dining room chairs at her, shattering the sliding glass doors to the patio, and still she would not stop enraging him, her sense of self-preservation trumped by her compulsion to criticize and humiliate.

“That’s all right,” Cecile said, deciding for him. “We need you to greet the guests and help get them seated.”

“Do you think there’ll be a lot of people?” Jenna asked.

“Of course,” Lydia said. “Your mother was very beloved.”

 *****

Later that night, Jenna looked through the clothes, the bright rose pink and sherbet orange chiffon dresses, tweed suits, fur coats and high heel shoes, her nostrils assaulted by her mother’s waxy scent. She had volunteered to transport everything to the thrift store early the next morning so the entryway would be cleared when the mourners came back to the house afterward. How sad, she thought, that her mother would not be here to feed and fuss over them; she had loved to entertain company. And she adored being with her sisters, they were like three teenage girls when they were together, laughing and teasing each other and retelling the same stories so often that Jenna knew them by heart. “Remember when Lydia was driving and asked, ‘Is that a red light or a green light?’ And I said, ‘Let me out of this car right this minute!’” —followed by shrieks of laughter. It was one of the few times Jenna remembered her mother being relaxed and carefree. And at these times, Lois would chide her bookish daughter, “Why are you always so unhappy, so withdrawn? Why can’t you laugh and dance and play with the other children?”

 *****

Jenna had saved the hats for last, gingerly opening one of the boxes, which instantly loosed the toxic reek of mothballs. Enrobed in tissue paper there was a wide-brimmed black straw cartwheel with a black satin bow that women wore in the forties with their shoulder-padded suits. Like a movie flashback, Jenna’s mind returned to Chicago at the end of World War II and for the first time in twenty years she remembered Dolores.

Dolores the milliner had lived in a modest house on the west side of Chicago, but not as far west as the apartment where Jenna’s family lived. Lois and her daughter had to take two buses to get there because Mr. Chenoweth was busy at the Furniture Mart selling bedroom sets. He wouldn’t be available until after dark, picking them up in the old Chevrolet that no longer had any paint color to speak of and vibrated with what he called ‘the death rattle.’

It was always light when they went into the house and dark when they left. And Jenna was always hungry at Dolores’ because it took so many hours to create a hat.

There was a parlor next to the entryway of the house but it was dark there and dark also in the adjoining hallway. All the light was reserved for the next room, an enormous studio with huge mirrors along one wall. Beneath the mirrors was a ledge lined with stuffed blank heads for the hats, spools of colored thread, pins (Dolores always had pins in her mouth, sticking out from between her lips), and chiffon, lace, velvet, satin ribbons, feathers, netting, cherries, flowers, and sequins, as well as scissors, hand mirrors, and pink and gold metal ashtrays, the same cheap metal from the five and dime that Dolores used for cold drinks, tall pink and gold tumblers with rough edges that raked your lips and gave a funny taste to the soda pop, which was what people used to call it.

In front of the ledge there were five black wrought iron chairs, each one a foot apart from the next, without cushions. The chairs had backs and legs that twisted and curved around sensuously. They looked like the chairs in Jenna’s little children’s book about Madmoiselle Fifi, a milliner like Dolores except that she was very glamorous and lived in Paris with a black French poodle. The hats and the poodle were fuzzy on the pages and Jenna found it soothing to rub the tips of her fingers on them as she read.

Lois would sit in the second chair, and Jenna would sit in the third until the metal which was cold and hard beneath her six-year-old bottom made her restless and she moved onto the floor, lying on her belly with a book, always a book, in most instances one from Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series.

Dolores would begin with a shape. Sometimes it was a floppy circle of straw and sometimes it was a stiff triangle of felt that swooped up into a curl and sometimes it was a fedora, or a toque, or a pillbox—that’s what Dolores and her mother called it although it wasn’t anything like pills or boxes or pillars or boxers or pillows, but something in the shape of a corsage container for orchids or pink and white carnations which Jenna would save up to buy for her mother on holidays.

Things would be wrapped around the shape, then draped, adorned and pinned with the pins from Dolores’ mouth. Jenna’s mother would tilt her head to the right and to the left, with pursed lips in an experimental smile. Then she would sigh and the pins would come out of the hat and go back into Dolores’ mouth and another fabric would be draped or wrapped or hung, in another color, from another position, at a different angle, until it became inky outside the windows that were reflected in the mirrors. Dolores would have to stop and feed her children who were always quiet and younger and not at all fun for Jenna to play with. Dolores’s husband worked nights and slept during the day, so he was never around when they arrived at Dolores’ house in the late afternoon after Jenna’s mother had finished teaching.

“I don’t think he makes much of a living,” Lois would say to her husband in the car driving home, although the same could be said about Mr. Chenoweth as well. “I don’t think Dolores wants to work anymore,” she would add, “but she hasn’t any choice.” Then Lois would think about having to get up and teach 32 public school fifth graders the next day and the thought would make her sigh.

 *****

The most wonderful hat Dolores made for Lois was a peacock blue pillbox. It sat on top of Lois’s black hair like a small, arrogant bird, and had little purple berries along one side. Bird food, Jenna’s father called it, but told Jenna they must not say that in front of Lois, who was very sensitive about her hats. Still, every time Lois wore this particular hat, they would sneak a look at each other, mouth the words bird food and stifle their secret laughter. It was a wonderful hat.

“Dolores is a very talented girl,” Lois always said, except once when she didn’t like a hat after she’d paid for it and thought that Dolores had pressured her into it. But Dolores wasn’t really a girl. She was thirty-five with a plump little pig’s face, a bouncy beach ball-shaped body and a fringe of blond hair that was always the same length but never any particular style. There was, though, something girlish about the way Dolores talked because she couldn’t pronounce her r’s which came out like w’s, and even her l’s were odd, they got caught too far back on the roof of her mouth and hung there like uvulas.  To Jenna, her little girl way of pronouncing words made Dolores seem very adorable.

Dolores was also a good cook. One evening, Lois began to cry because Jenna’s father had gone and got drunk again and ended up in the psychiatric ward at Michael Reiss Hospital. Dolores brought them back into the kitchen, where there was a little breakfast nook, and warmed up some dinner.

“The doctor humiliated him,” Lois told Dolores. “Can you imagine a psychiatrist telling a man in a public hallway that he is a disgrace and a failure?  He started to cry. He begged me to take him home. But how could I? He’s liable to hurt himself. He has no judgment when he’s drinking. He fell from a curb the other night and was almost hit by a car. The whole side of his body is bruised. Oh, Dolores, I’m so ashamed to tell you this. I’m so ashamed.”

Jenna was also ashamed. It felt as if her mother were showing pictures of her in her underwear to strangers. She wished so hard her mother would stop that she bit down on her top lip until the tinny taste of blood reached her tongue.

Dolores served them macaroni and cheese, which was warm and creamy and salty and something Jenna never got at home, because they were meat and salad eaters. But Jenna had lost her appetite. And her mother keep lifting her fork to her mouth and then forgetting why.

 *****

There are photographs of Jenna’s mother in many of the hats that Dolores made for her. She is wearing a floppy tan straw hat with a yellow polka-dot scarf on her honeymoon in Miami Beach, leaned up against Jenna’s father in a flirtatious pose. On a boat ride to Catalina Island, taken when she and Jenna visited her brother in Los Angeles, she wears a dark green bonnet, holding it down on her head with both hands against the wind. At the exorbitant all-orchid wedding with carved-ice swans that Aunt Lydia threw for her oldest daughter Jillian, Lois wears a purple toque with a sequined veil to go with her silk pansy-print sheath dress. Six-year-old Jenna, wearing a yellow dress with a crisp white pinafore, stands next to her holding a basket of flowers. Jenna’s grandmother is on the right, wearing a pale gray satin gown, her jaw set in stone and her face as frozen as the swans. Way in the back behind a crowd of people is Jenna’s father, leaning against a pillar and looking sardonic.

Lois usually has the same experimental smile on her face in the pictures, as if she is saying Why-are-you-taking-this-picture-of-ME and Oh-heavens-hurry-up-and-TAKE-it and What-do-you-think-of-my-HAT and I-don’t-CARE-what-you-think-of-it. When she really smiles in a few of the pictures, the I-don’t-CARE part takes over and she looks like Carmen Miranda.

In the Los Angeles pictures, taken after she and Jenna moved there, Lois wears no hats, because nobody in California wore them. But she brought them all with her from Chicago, precious objects protected as much as possible from the ravages of moths and mildew, as if she thought time might circle around like a boomerang and give her and the hats a second life.

 *****

Jenna was nine when her mother, by this time divorced, learned from a friend that Dolores had died. She’d had a massive heart attack and was dead on the floor of her studio when the husband woke up to go to work. Jenna had wondered if Dolores had pins in her mouth when she had the heart attack and whether she had swallowed them. It made the muscles in her throat ache, as if she could feel the pins sticking her as they went down.

“I never knew she had a heart condition,” Lois said, slicing an orange into quarters and then eighths for Jenna’s dessert. “She never mentioned anything about it. I wish I hadn’t argued with her about the last hat.  What a tragedy. Thirty-nine years old, with two young children.”

What will happen to the children?” Jenna had asked, feeling little flutters of fear in her stomach. She closed the book she’d been reading, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which she had hidden inside a Misty of Chincoteague cover. Years later, her mother would donate the book to the school library in Lawndale where she taught, only to learn—much to her horror —of its secret identity.

“The dad moved in with his sister in Skokie. The sister’s taking care of them,” Lois replied. “Dolores was the same age I am,” she said, handing the bowl of orange slices to Jenna. “She was still a young girl,” she added, giving her daughter a nervous little smile.

Then she scooped up the dinner dishes and took them over to the sink, immersing them in soapy water. “Well, honey,” she said, “it just goes to show you.”

“What will happen if you die, mommy?” Jenna had asked, picking at the orange with her fingers.

“Oh, listen, kiddo,” Lois said, rubbing the plates vigorously with a dishrag. “I’m not going to die.”

 *****

What had she meant by “it just goes to show you?” Jenna wondered now, examining each hat carefully, her fingers alive with the sensations of the contrasting textures, lush and crisp and lacy and woven and silky smooth. What did it show? That life was short and death could be sudden and merciless? That today was all we could count on? Memento mori, they used to say in medieval times, their pale, pious faces looking up toward heaven in hope of God’s mercy.

And now Lois was dead, a mere four years after Jenna’s father had succumbed to leukemia, and Jenna, orphaned with no sisters or brothers to help shoulder the losses, was left to ponder what she should do with the hats. Pack them into the car and drag them back to San Francisco, let them languish in another closet until she, too, died? Her fingertips searched for an answer as if she were reading a Braille message from another dimension of time. What came was the memory of elephants she had seen on the Discovery channel reverently stroking the bones of a departed loved one, and the low, nearly inaudible rumblings of grief and goodbye.

Aunt Lydia came out into the hallway in her blue satin quilted robe. “How are you doing, honey?” she asked, her voice hushed and tender.

“I’m okay,” Jenna said, trying to smile.

“Are you seeing anybody?” the aunt asked, the inevitable question when a young woman in the family wasn’t married.

“I was, but it didn’t work out,” Jenna said, thinking about her ex-lover Robert, who was always on the verge of leaving his wife but never did.

“It’s going to be very hard without her,” the aunt said, thinking that she was intuiting her niece’s feelings.

“It was very hard with her, too, for me at least,” Jenna said, feeling immediately anxious about how her aunt would react to her candor.

“She loved you very much,” Lydia said, and Jenna knew then that she mustn’t continue. The price of her aunties’ love was Jenna’s silence. “Have you decided what you’re going to say at the funeral tomorrow, sweetheart?”

“Yes, I guess so,” Jenna said, feeling the depth of her loneliness as she walked with her aunt toward the bedrooms. She knew what they wanted her to say—how hard Lois had worked, how good a person she was, how much people had loved her. She could say all that, because it was true enough. But it was so much less than the intense experience of her mother, the glamour, drama, and terror that were her essential and indelible signature.

This was the woman who had screamed at Jenna, “Nobody will ever love you except me!” This was the wife who’d picked up a heavy Bakelite telephone and slammed it into the back of her husband’s head, running to him afterward weeping with remorse. This was the girl who couldn’t bear to read serious books or watch sad movies or listen to the atrocities on the nightly news and was mystified by a child who was exactly the opposite. This was the mother who had longed for a playful son named David who would always be her baby and instead gave birth to a studious daughter named Jenna who preferred solitude and her father’s company. And no living soul would ever know the real truth.

“I want to give away her hats at the funeral,” she suddenly announced to her aunt, and felt a rush of joy at the idea, as if she were a thousand feet up in a plane about to release them into the wind. “And then I want to tell her favorite stories, mostly about you and Auntie Cecile, because I loved seeing my mother happy.”

She was crying now, at last, choking on tears that felt like pebbles and wet sand in her throat, while mucus gushed from her nose in explosive bursts.

“I’m going to open up the boxes,” she said, forcing the words out between sobs, not asking for permission any longer, sounding a little crazy even to her own ears. “I’m going to set the hats free.”  

Brett Beach

Brett BeachBrett Beach’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Hobart, The McNeese Review, and elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

Brother

After college, Mary worked as a secretary in a high school on the east side of the city.  Each time the news ran a story on students bringing guns into classrooms or selling drugs in bathroom stalls, her mother called to ask, “That’s not you, is it?” 

She really meant, When are you going to get a real job?  She was saying, Do you think I’ve always had this much gray hair?  Let me tell you, young lady, I most certainly did not.

Mary didn’t know why she liked lying to her mother so much.  She just couldn’t help herself: the words tasted as sweet as melted caramel on her tongue.  She’d been working at the school for two months when her mother called, frantic.  “You have to get out of that place,” she said.  She’d just read a newspaper article about two boys who had gotten into a fight during their gym class; one boy had stabbed the other.

The school where the incident took place wasn’t even in Mary’s district.  Still, she hedged in a way that implied a personal knowledge of the incident, and told her mother not to believe everything the newspaper reported.

“Well,” her mother said, “one boy was taken to the hospital with stab wounds.  I think that’s pretty serious.  Children with knives, shanks, whatever they’re called.”

“They didn’t have knives,” Mary said, seeing the lie unfold like a bright tapestry in front of her.  “They had sporks.”

On the other end, her mother gasped and said, “What on earth?”  Her voice got quiet.  “Is that a gang thing?”

Mary excused her own lies because her mother was gullible enough to believe any terrible half-truth,; and because, no, her school wasn’t the one in the news that particular evening, but it could have been.  The inter-office communication was still pecked out on old typewriters, and copies churned out of the machine with a sound like a locomotive engine.  The teachers passing in the halls scowled with dark feral looks aimed at students and faculty alike, as if their only goal was to survive the day.  More than one carried a small canister of mace, flashing from a belt loop or inside the big pouch of a purse.

The high school was not at all like the private one Mary had attended when she was a teenager, St. Ursula’s, with its nuns and plaid-skirts and white blouses buttoned up to the collar.  Because of this, she felt brave returning to the school each morning.  She saw herself lit anew with courage.  Before the first bell, a line of boys posted near the front door whistled at Mary as she approached.  She tried, and always failed, to not smile at them.  On the days when her boyfriend Claymont dropped her off, the young girls huddled around their cell phones looked up and hooted as he waved at them from the driver’s seat.               

“She know how it is,” a girl said one day, pointing across the main office to where Mary sat behind her typewriter.  The girl was pregnant, and her boyfriend had punched her in the face after he heard the news.  She stood now with a wad of brown paper-towels pressed to her nose.  The girl cocked her hip and said, “You know why she know?”  She ticked her finger at Mary.  “She got a brother.”

That night, Mary told Claymont about the girl.  They were lying in bed, in Mary’s small apartment on the west side of the city.  Claymont tipped his head back to laugh.  His teeth glimmered, white and perfect, and Mary wanted, very suddenly, to kiss him.  “So now I’m a brother,” he said, rolling toward her.  “And you got me. I’m yours, girl.”

He pulled himself close to her, draping his arm across Mary’s chest, the length of his body pressed against hers.  She felt secure in his warm wet sleepy breaths on the back of her neck.  Blue moonlight came in through the window.  A breeze pushed through the screen, and Mary fell asleep, trying out the words: I got a brother. I got a brother.

 *****

Mary had gone to college with one goal: to inhabit a different universe, to reinvent herself and do it right this time.  She saw her teenage blunders like a dress after a party that she could slip out of and leave, wrinkled and stained, on the ground.  But the girls living on her dorm floor were no different than the girls she’d known in junior high and high school.  They were all part-time vegetarians.  They all had long-term boyfriends who called faithfully each night, boys who put up with various rages and inarticulate abuses.  These girls kept photographs of their childhood pets taped to the walls above their dorm room beds.  Mary had her own picture taped up: Mr. Tucker, the yellow lab she’d tearfully led through the halls of the vet’s office after his diagnosis of cancer.  She’d kissed his snout and whispered nonsensical chants into his ear as the vet put him to sleep.  She had considered it, at the time, the saddest day of her life.     

The boys Mary invited back to her dorm room touched the batik fabric draped over her nightstand lamp and smelled the dried flowers tied around her bedpost, as if they were all dancers following a routine they’d learned on Orientation Day.  They examined the photos of her family taped to the wall, the snapshot of Mr. Tucker drooling in sunlight, the poster of John Belushi in his “College” sweatshirt.  The boys looked at Mary in a bemused way, as if they knew the secrets of her heart but liked that she tried to hide them.  The girl they wanted to kiss was not the girl Mary thought herself to be, and certainly not the woman she was aiming to become.  She didn’t fool herself into ever believing she was in love, but she also wasn’t strong enough to hold out.  So she pretended for one boy and then the next and then the next.  She liked how they made her feel: pretty and important and wanted.  Why change now, she thought every so often, why bother?  Only rarely did Mary worry that she was forgetting how to be herself.

In the summers she worked as a waitress at a chain restaurant and lived alone in a series of cheap studio apartments off-campus.  Her parents treated this exercise in enforced poverty with a humored skepticism.  Mary’s mother, visiting a particularly grim one-room walk-up, asked if Mary had a case of white guilt.  She’d read about the condition in a magazine, and pulled the clipped article from her purse.  “Well,” she said after a long pause, “I think charity work would be more effective.  It gives back.  Directly.”

But Mary liked the long thoughtless hours of serving food.  Each customer presented a new start: if she messed up, if she forgot a side dish or dropped a cup, the mistakes were forgotten fifteen minutes later.  She came home each night with aching calves and a wad of dollar bills and loose change in her pockets.  She counted out the tip money and wrote the figures in a marble-covered notebook, tallying the proof of her efforts.  

The summer after she graduated, Mary discovered that her waitressing job, which she’d always considered temporary, was the one constant in her life.  Gone were her dorm room and her hall mates; disappeared were the boys who called out her name from down the hall, who brought her flowers to dry and hang from the bedpost.

She noticed Claymont one June night.  He was sitting at the counter opposite the front door.  He had high cheekbones and a thin curl of hair along his jaw line.  He was beautiful, not just handsome like the frat boys, or solid-looking like the business majors.  He ordered a meal to go and waited, propping his elbows on the countertop and folding his hands under his chin.  It was a slow night, and Mary wanted to feel his sleepy brown eyes turn to her, so she walked over and offered him a drink.  He seemed not to hear at first, but later she realized he must have, because he looked at her and then away and asked for iced tea.  She returned with the glass, and he touched one of the ice cubes floating on the top.  He sat for another forty-five minutes, even after his food was ready and bundled beside him on the counter in a to-go bag with plastic handles and a set of wrapped silverware inside.

He asked Mary when her shift ended, and if he could come back and possibly drive her home.  “Or,” he said, “we could get coffee.  Or tea.  Whatever you drink.”

Later, Claymont said that he thought he’d offended her.  He was always careful about what he said when he went out.  It was because of the city they lived in, he explained, and because the people in the restaurant saw a different situation when a guy like Claymont spoke to a girl like Mary.

But she’d heard none of his hesitation, none of the cautious edging he’d laid between them.  “Coffee would be nice,” she said.  His mouth was already relaxing into the grin she’d come to love, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes making him seem both old and young.  She told Claymont she expected to be finished with work by eleven.

“All right, then.  I’ll be outside.”  He nodded.  “Eleven.”

Mary’s mother often said that men who were good-looking like Claymont expected things from young women, and that any young woman would be smart to avoid those heart-breakers altogether.  Mary guessed her mother was partially right, but perhaps she wasn’t.  She picked up a rag from a bucket of soapy water kept under the counter and wiped at the ring of moisture where Claymont’s glass had rested on the countertop.  When she looked up, he was still there, watching her.

“Eleven,” she said.  “You promise you’ll be right outside?”

“Girl.”  Claymont leaned his head to the side.  He stood a foot or two back from the counter, with the carry-out bag in one hand and his check in the other.  It felt like the beginning to Mary, like a moment she’d want to remember even if she didn’t know its significance yet.  He smiled at her.  He said, “I promise.”

*****

Claymont’s sister lived on the east side of the city, not too far from Mary’s school, in the house where she and her brother had grown up.  Mary had dated Claymont for close to three months before she met Annette, though the two had spoken before when Claymont’s cell was dead or he forgot to pay his bill and had to use Mary’s phone.           

Annette stood waving on the front porch when they arrived, looking just as Mary had imagined: a pretty, softer version of her brother in a sweater and jeans.  

The street, however, was not how Mary had pictured it. Elms and oaks lined the front yards, and a canopy of October leaves shadowed the driveway. The houses were large, with wooden porches that stretched along the fronts like ship decks.  The second-story windows were capped in half-moons of stained glass and the sky overhead was unusually bright, blue and cloudless.  Mary said, “My school is so close to here. I can’t believe I’ve never been over this way before.”

Annette smiled, not unkindly.  “Why would you ever come over here?”     

The house was old but revealed its age in a stylish manner, with intricate paneling around the doorways, and a series of checkered tiles in the hallway that had the faded look of a well-used chessboard.  The bathtub’s metal claws were green with oxidation.  Behind the gold-plated mirror over the sink Mary discovered a box of Band-Aids and a half-finished roll of toothpaste.  She hadn’t meant to snoop, but then she was checking through cabinets, peeking in doorways, trailing her hand along the wall in the hallway.  She paused to look at photographs displayed on a shelf in the front room of the house.  She was struck by the complexity of entering another person’s life.  There were so many faces to remember, so many people she didn’t know but wanted to know.  How could anyone ever decide to stay alone, she wondered, how could anyone not feel curious and lustrous in the glow of someone else’s family, with all of their secrets and their love and their history?  She thought of people she’d known in college who would have only found the house intriguing in its eccentricities; the type of people who would present the worn-down staircase as a sign of their bohemian sensibilities, but would never be curious about the people who had lived in these very rooms before them.

She came upon Claymont fixing the closet door in Annette’s bedroom.  He squatted beside the doorframe, screwing a new hinge into the wood paneling.  Mary watched him from the hallway.  “You know, if you ever sell this house, you guys could make a fortune,” she said. 

“Sell.”  He repeated the word as if were in a foreign language.

“I know a ton of people who’d buy a house like this.”  She walked across the room, over to the window.  Metal bars slatted over the glass, the four of them still warm to her touch from the afternoon sun.  “I mean, look at these,” she said.  “It’s so weird.  But kind of cool.  Who would put these here?”

“What do you think those are there for?” he asked.  He stared at her.  “Girl, where exactly do you think we are?”

Mary turned away first with the feeling of a chastised child.

In the kitchen, Annette cooked dinner while Mary watched her daughter totter between the cupboards and the table.  The little girl was just learning to walk and her steps were tentative but heavy, her bare feet slapping down on the linoleum.

“Tell me something,” Annette said.  She stood at the stove, stirring a red sauce with a wood spoon.  “You went to college, right?  So why are you working at that school?  Secretary.  You know you could get a better job.”   

“I like it there,” Mary said.

“Hey, I love this city as much as the next person, but that school is dangerous.”

Mary clapped her hands at Annette’s daughter.  The girl wobbled toward her, arms outstretched.  “That’s what everyone says, but I’ve never felt scared.”

“It doesn’t matter what you feel,” Annette said.  “I’m telling you, I wouldn’t even work there.  Me.”  She gestured with the spoon.

They ate dinner in the living room, with a game show on the television and the curtains pulled open to frame the street.  The houses and cars outside grew purple in the dusk.  Neighborhood boys on bicycles circled the block, hoods pulled tight over their heads, until only the sound of their tires on asphalt could be heard.

“You guys seem to get along,” Mary said to Claymont as they drove back to her apartment.

“We used to fight like you wouldn’t believe.”  He smiled over at her, as if to see if she believed him.

Mary asked, “Do you think Annette likes me?”

Claymont shrugged.

“She didn’t say anything to you?”

“I don’t know,” Claymont said.  He was driving, but he took one hand off the wheel to find Mary’s.  “We don’t talk like that to each other.  And I wasn’t asking for her to like you.'”

“So you don’t care?”

“That’s not what I said.  I just meant that it’s different for us.”

“Different how?”

Claymont lifted his hand from hers to make a right turn onto Mary’s street.  The car’s headlights flared bright against the fronts of brownstones.  He said, “You see a space?”

Mary wanted to ask what he’d meant when he said “us,” but he was distracted in his search, and she wasn’t sure of the point anymore.  He’d called forth a group to which she’d never belong as if he were reciting his address: so easily dismissing her, without thought.  She felt words brimming in her chest, a sort of righteous indignation that had no aim.  Was Claymont to blame? No, she couldn’t go that far; he hadn’t meant to belittle her, she was certain.  But surely she couldn’t take on all the responsibility, simply by feeling this difference between them when he didn’t.

****

Mary’s college roommate got married at the end of April, in the groom’s hometown three hours upstate.  Both Mary and Claymont agreed that renting a hotel room was a waste of money, but the drive would be too long to make after the reception.  Mary’s parents said they could stay over; their house was forty-five minutes from the reception hall.  Eileen even offered to leave a key under the potted hydrangea on the front porch, in case they arrived in the middle of the night.

Mary finally consented.  “But we can’t stay long,” she told her mother.  “Claymont has to be back before noon.”  The lie was insignificant in the history of untruths Mary had unspooled for her mother; she simply didn’t want to do the strained-silence-breakfast, the early-morning-false-conversation.  “Oh, how interesting,” she imagined her mother saying to Claymont, when she really meant, Do you have to cover up your gang tattoos when you’re at work?   

In the end, the wedding reception didn’t last much later than midnight.  As the last song played and the staff packed bottles of liquor into cardboard boxes, Mary sat at a table strewn with napkin balls and toothpicks.  She spotted Claymont by the door, talking to some of the groom’s buddies.  All night, he had danced well and Mary had floated around the room on his arm.  She felt the whole evening had been a success, but in the parking lot, Claymont unlocked the doors of the car and got in without a word.

“What?” she said.  It was hard to see his expression in the odd light.  The car keys hung from his hand, tinkling like little bells each time he flicked two of his fingers together.    

“Just go to sleep,” he said.  “You’re exhausted.”

“I can’t.”

“I’m not drunk, Mary.  I’m fine to drive.”

“That’s not what I mean.”  She sighed.  “You don’t know where the house is.”

He put both of his hands on the steering wheel.  He was looking straight out the windshield, but nothing significant lay before them: a few other cars, a dark hill and a distant blinking red light atop a radio tower.  He said, “I’ll wake you when we get close, then.  You can direct me.”

He parked on the street outside the house and they shut the doors gently, to avoid making noise.  Mary had never snuck a boy into her house as a teenager, but walking with Claymont through the familiar hallways and up the stairs, she understood the appeal.  A girlish giddiness made her forget being tired.  When they passed her parents’ bedroom door, she reached for his hand as if he might go into their room by accident.  She laughed as she stepped out of her heels and turned, asking Claymont to unzip her dress.  He did, quickly, and without touching her.  Mary hoped to dispel whatever irritation had overcome him, so she draped the dress over a chair and walked toward the bed naked.

Claymont was sprawled out with his eyes closed.  He looked like a slumbering giant; his feet nearly hung off the end of her bed.  Mary said his name, and then again, but he didn’t respond.  She touched his shoulder.  His chest rose and he exhaled a slow sleeping breath.

In the morning, her mother made pancakes and set out a bowl of fruit salad.  While they drank coffee, Mary’s father offered Claymont advice on which highways and bypasses to take.  Once they were in the car, Mary told Claymont to go the way they’d originally planned.  “He just needed something to say to you,” she explained.

“Oh,” Claymont said, “was that it?”

He navigated through the neighborhood and soon they merged on the interstate.  They had a straight shot south now, a little less than two hours to go.  The land on either side of the road unfurled into stretches of cornfield, like a billowing yellow cloth held down at the corners by barns with rusted rooftops, hemmed in by wire-strung fences.  At first the sun was hidden by a copse of trees in the distance, but as they drove the branches lit with a fiery dawning light.

Mary asked, “What was going on with you last night?”

Claymont reached for the radio and scanned through the stations.

Mary turned the radio off.  “Can you at least tell me what you think I did wrong?”

“Okay.”  He glanced over at her.  “Okay, tell me something.  What do I do?  What is my job?”

“You work for the city.”

“No,” he said.  “I’m a garbage man, Mary.”   

“Right.  And the Sanitation Department is part of the city.”  Mary felt the beginning of an ache in her stomach.  “Is this really what you’re mad about?”

Claymont said, “I’m in the union.  I make good money.”

“I don’t understand.  You’re acting like I lied.”

She hadn’t, not exactly, not the way she lied to her mother.  She’d told people at the wedding Claymont worked for the city because it sounded better.  She knew how those people looked at the world; they wouldn’t see him like she did.  He’d tell a joke and they’d think only of the green-outfitted men working in the hours before dawn, the sound of clattering garbage cans against the sidewalk, the big truck motoring down the street.  She’d wanted to protect him.

“I’m not ashamed of myself,” Claymont said.

“But you think that I am.”

Mary had to look at anything but at him.  She tried to focus on the back of the car ahead of them.  She thought that if she stared at the rectangle of the license plate long enough, she wouldn’t cry.  She asked, “When have I ever said that?”

“Never,” he said.  “You’re right, you never said that.”  He lifted his shoulders, then let them fall. “But I guess in my mind, if you can only prove it to me by saying it out loud, it’s the same thing.”

*****

At the end of the school year, Mary was called into the school’s personnel office.  It was just after the last bell and the hallways were ghostly in their stillness, with loose pages of notebook paper pushed against lockers, and classroom doors shut against dark interiors.  The woman in the office, which was actually a janitor’s closet packed with a desk and a lamp, explained that Mary wouldn’t be needed over the summer, or for the following year.  “There are school-wide cuts going on,” she explained.  Bad test scores were to blame, high-dropout rates.  “And frankly, there’s no more money.”  She held out her hands to display the empty air.

The lease on Mary’s apartment came up for renewal around the same time, and because the timing felt serendipitous, and because things seemed to be lining up to push her in this direction, she decided to move back in with her parents.  Temporarily, she told her mother.

“Of course,” Eileen said.  “But know that you’re welcome for as long as you need.”  She mentioned a receptionist position she’d heard about, with an engineering firm up north.

Claymont took the news quietly, sitting in the living room with his elbows propped on his knees.  “So you’re leaving me,” he said.

“No,” Mary said.  “You’re not listening.”  She just wanted to save money, and the city was too expensive.  It had nothing to do with him.

“Exactly.  You did all this stuff without even talking to me.”

Well, yes, she thought, but no.  She was tired of the dirty city streets and walking with her keys brandished like a weapon.  She hated having to check that her doors were always locked.  The sense of urban exploration she had once felt was now gone.  She wanted to get out of here, and she wanted Claymont.  Why couldn’t she have both?

“Come with me,” she tried.

“I live here.”

Mary reached for his hands.  “I want you to come with me.”

“To your parents’ house?”  He made a raspberry sort of sound with his lips and brushed her hands away.

“We can still be together.”

“I know what this is,” he said.  “You want me to say I can’t go.  Then you get your exit.  You’re just too scared to say you don’t want to be with me.”

“Don’t do that,” Mary said.  “We can figure this out.”

“You mean,” Claymont said as he studied the ground between his sneakers, “that I’ll have to figure it out.  Because you already have a plan.  Really, you’ve been out the door for a while and I just didn’t want to see it.”

“Stop,” Mary said.  “Be nice.”

“Nice?  You want to talk to me about nice?”  Claymont lifted his face to gape at her.  “Girl,” he said, “I loved you.”

*****

In the worst parts of the months that followed, Mary believed that Claymont really did love her and that she had ruined a good thing.  When they first began dating, she’d made him list out the reasons he liked her.  She was pretty, he’d said, and she had a wild laugh.  She was interested in things, and he respected how she listened when other people talked, even if she didn’t agree with them.  She regretted never telling Claymont that he was the most sincere person she’d ever met, that she always worried he would recognize how unworthy she was of being his girlfriend.  She’d made him work and work but never given a bit of herself back; she felt, retrospectively, lucky that he’d stayed with her as long as he did. 

Most days, she ate lunch at her desk, and she turned down offers to go out to drinks or dinner with the engineers after work.  Some days she had an off-center feeling in her chest.  Other mornings she woke from a dream of Claymont lying alone on his bed, whispering, You had a brother, you had a brother.           

Eileen was perplexed.  “It’s not as if you were going to marry him.”

“But we were practically engaged,” Mary said.  It was a lie.

Her mother’s eyes narrowed.  “No. No, I doubt that very much.”  She reached to touch her daughter’s shoulder but stopped short of the actual gesture.  “Listen.  You moved to a different city.  What did you expect?  I just don’t think you two were very serious.”

The more and more Mary thought about it, the more and more convinced she became that her mother was right.  It helped to believe that she had never been serious.  At best, Claymont and his life and her job at the high school were some grand experiment to her.  Worse, they were details in a story she’d tell about how she had slummed for a year or so.  She’d been trying out a life that would never be her own, and then had gotten caught up in surprise by the reality of it all.

In the spring of the following year, an engineer named Josh transferred down from the firm’s Michigan branch.  He asked Mary out to lunch on a bright day when the sun filled the windows of the office with yellow light, and she said yes.  Something in her mind clicked when he looked at her.  Enough, she decided, enough.  She was tired of eating lunch alone.  She wanted to go outside and talk to someone.

They sat on the patio of an Italian restaurant.  The traffic on the nearby interstate made a looping sound like wind blowing through a tunnel.  Josh explained how the foundation had been designed to best compliment the landscape.  Mary didn’t quite understand what he was talking about, just as she couldn’t decipher the large blue maps that passed through the office, or the green and black computer models the engineers clicked and fretted over.  Still, she liked how Josh made off-ramps and overpasses sound beautiful.  He tried to show her what he saw when he looked at the world.  A sign, she thought, of a good and compassionate man.

A week later, Josh asked Mary out for a second, official date.  When she told him about her last boyfriend, the terms she used were vague and the details hazy as if she couldn’t remember.  Not lies, exactly, but a refusal on her end to examine too closely what had happened.  She felt ashamed and didn’t want Josh to know that part of her, not yet, not ever if she could help it.

He asked Claymont’s name on that second date, and when Mary told him, he said, “That’s not one you hear every day,” and then didn’t ask any more questions.        

*****

A few days before Christmas, Josh took Mary out to dinner in the city where she’d once lived.  The restaurant was expensive and in a neighborhood she’d never been to before.  It had snowed while they ate, and now a great white cloth had spread itself over the street.  Her mother had said on the phone that she thought Josh would propose soon, perhaps that very evening.  Mary felt almost certain she’d say yes.

“Let’s walk a little,” Josh said.  He took Mary’s hand to lead her.  A block over, visible between the tall corporate buildings, a pine tree stood decorated in cords of gold and silver.  White lights in the branches reflected against the windows of the nearby buildings.  In the plaza, a man sold hot chocolate in white disposable cups, and foreign-looking women in shawls wandered around with baskets of roses.

A small orchestra of men in overcoats began to play holiday melodies.  The players were arranged like a tableau of metal figurines on a wooden stage to the left of the tree, and polite applause followed each number.  Josh went to buy hot chocolates and returned in a cloud of steam trailing up from the cups in his hands.  He smiled and stood once more beside Mary.

“Look at how many people are here,” he said in a pause between songs.  “Traffic’s going to be a mess.”  He always noticed what Mary did not.  She’d missed the swell of bodies, how the crowd had grown thick and the air steamy with so many people talking and laughing.  No one applauded for the carols anymore.

Mary wondered if she would see Claymont.  She imagined the crowd moving to reveal him, standing just beyond the pine’s branches with his sister and her kids.  She was certain he’d be wearing a ski-cap and scarf, but no gloves.  She remembered, in a winter that felt like another life, taking his hands between her own and rubbing his fingers to circulate the blood.

She stared across the square, trying to find him.  What had seemed a possibility now became a certainty in her mind.  He had to be here, this was his city.  But he was not by the glimmering tree or by the stand where hot chocolate was sold.  She looked toward the stage and then watched the cars gliding past on the street, smears of red taillights projected onto the snow banks, bodies paused at the intersection.        

She wanted to see that Claymont was happy, his life continuing on without her.  Then she didn’t want to have to think about him anymore.  She thought of a distant future, of a better version of herself who had learned from this experience.  But not yet: what she’d done still unnerved her.  She had never imagined hurting anyone the way she hurt Claymont.  He’d cried when she left.  Cried, which was so sad, but also kind of exhilarating.  She’d always been out of place with Claymont; she could see that now.  She wondered how he’d never seen it.  Or how he’d never let it bother him.  But Mary didn’t think a person could live like that, feeling like a quasi-symbol of progress.  She’d tried, though.  Didn’t that say something about the type of girl she was?

A second group of performers lined themselves in rows on the stage.  They lifted brass bells on wooden handles and held them partially aloft, poised.  The first peal broke through the air, and then many more, until the chorus of reverberating notes became endless.  The wind ruffled the branches of the pine tree.  The star on top of the tree, oversized and previously unlit, broke open into five glittering white points.  A few people clapped.  Someone whistled.

Mary looked for him one last time, but it was hardly more than a gesture.  Because of course Claymont was not here.  Just as she had followed him to unknown parts, he could never have come to this place without her.

Shaun Turner

Shaun TurnerShaun Turner writes in West Virginia, where he is the Assistant Fiction Editor for the Cheat River Review. His fiction can or will be found in the following great publications: Cleaver Magazine; Word Riot;  JONATHAN; and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, among others.

 

 

Dissolution of Care

Summer burns my corneas jasper, and your head blooms from the pool-water like a morning glory. It flowers slowly, then all at once. I wipe an errant stream from my forehead. You kiss me like you are in love.

In six months, we struggle in appeals. You inherited the way you sit from the grandmother that raised you. She would make you suck in your stomach to where the breath caught. Wipe your bangs across your forehead. Check the hands, folded neatly in your lap.

You stand in front of the judge. Your eyes are distant. Your tone firm. You list our inadequacies—our irreconcilable differences—and I remember the first time you loved me: Over dinner, our hands touch over a stiff piece of bread. We were twenty-seven and still beautiful.

You tell the judge about the silences. You tell him about no children. How I would often sleepwalk—once, down the street to Huddle House—and how you would wake up to grass—or, one time, blood—tucked into your inherited cotton sheets.

I have chosen to defend myself. And I will not deny the stains your wet hands sometimes left on my back or the time I found you cross-legged at the bottom of our swimming pool. How you coughed in deep swallows of air like you were a newborn, and I was the doctor and your first good spank.

I will say that done is done.

That, in this day and age is, the infant is rubbed down with a nubby towel. If required, light suction is applied to clear its airways, thus starting the first breath of life. In more modern times, I will say, more gentle ways are available and spanking is no longer common, or desired.

Sara Henning

Sara HenningSara Henning is author of a full-length collection of poetry, A Sweeter Water (2013), and a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (2012).  Her poetry, fiction, interviews, and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming from Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review.  Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

 

A New Year

New Year’s Eve and I’m at a Steak N’ Shake twelve miles from Graceland.

This side of Memphis is haunted by strip malls, women ready to cat fight for a plum parking spot. This side of Memphis, it’s smart to lock your doors against the men shape-shifting, cruising for something easy. They’re sometimes boys, sometimes ghosts, sometimes here already, ready to slip right into you.  

The most I know of Memphis is a friend’s mister before she dumped him, tight jeans, six-string, empty cans of Keystone like a halo around him when he’d play through the night.  Always the same man over and over. She had a thing for being able to picture the next move. That way you can fall into everything, she’d tell me. That way you know how far you’re going to fall.

She didn’t have to tell me: when stereotypes become real, that’s when to run.

At the Steak N’ Shake I’m waiting for a storm to pass. Mississippi to Memphis, torrent to torrent. I’d forgotten how a southern wind can bite harder than a dry cold—the kind wet enough to reach past my coat and clutch my hips, softest part of the sacral ledge. The place where a woman bends and is liable to break. Because I’m far from home, chewing through my straw, because I’m hours from a new year crowning in its lunar canal, I watch the thick wasted blonde a few booths down, her jeans 80’s shredded up to the crotch. She’s ignoring her fries, her man is biting into his burger over and over. I wonder if they are on a date. I wonder if they are drunk. I wonder if this is the first booth they’ve sidled in next to each other, or if they just have nowhere else to go.

Once I lived on a road where women sold their bodies for a fix. There was this one named Tammy—acid washed capris, peek-a-boo stilettos, her toes painted crimson. I was friendly with her in the way a girl needs to be in order to survive, to be open but not so open that what’s breaking inside of her has a chance to slip through her blouse. Open but not so open that the parts of her cossetted and stained by winter don’t surge out like some epileptic miracle.

When I was twenty-four, I drove from Virginia to Georgia through the night without stopping. Two interstates, Atlanta’s Spaghetti Junction.  Every twenty minutes, a voicemail.

He’d say, I’ve smashed everything you left with a hammer. He’d say, I’ve burned all of your clothes. Over and over.

New Year’s Eve, Steak N’ Shake, how the TV station will switch from the baby dropping in Jackson Square to the peach dropping in Atlanta at midnight, always something dropping. Always a sacrifice in order to start over.  And if I stay long enough, I can watch the couple slip past me and out of the door. I can watch them drive off into the night.

And what can I say, I’m always running.

I’m wondering if they’ll park somewhere, go home together, what they’ll mean to each other by morning. 

James Chaarani

James_Chaarani-1James Chaarani’s articles and essays have been published in Instinct, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and Fab Magazine. His play, Everybody’s Whore, was named “Best Bet” by Eye Weekly Toronto, and his interactive narrative, Painting the Myth, received a Gold National Post DX Award.

 

White

As we drove north, I watched the city skyline slip away in the rearview mirror. I sighed, releasing a knot from my throat, and took a deep breath. Dylan and I hadn’t said much to one another since I picked him up. I ate my breakfast sandwich and looked up at the sky every so often. There seemed to be murmurs in the clouds as they gathered and rolled.

“Look at it out there,” Dylan said once we left the city limits.

The snow was thick on the highway and molded into the shape of tire treads. The car skidded when I changed lanes. The trees were also covered, balancing heaps of snow on their branches.

“Since we were in University you got me to do stupid shit,” he said. “I think everybody needs a crazy gay friend.”

“They do this stuff all the time in those nature documentaries on the BBC,” I said.

Dylan laughed and turned the radio on so low that we could barely hear it. He began tapping his thumbnail against the side window.

“What would you be doing instead this weekend?” I asked. “Watching TV?”

“Come on, I’m excited. It’s more the unknown that scares me.”

“If you read the winter camping book like you said you would there’d be fewer unknowns. It’s not fair that it’s all on me if something goes wrong.”

 “Well, if you let me drive then you could read it to me. We have five hours, don’t we?”

“I didn’t mean it like that. I guess I’m nervous too,” I said.

He nudged me. “We’re going to have fun. Even if we don’t.” He turned and began tapping his thumbnail against the window again.

 *****

We got to the entrance of Algonquin at a quarter after two. The girl at the gate said that it would take us a couple of hours to trek to the lake where we were camping. I loaded the sled with our bags while Dylan sat in the car fiddling with his phone. There were two long poles at the front of the sled with shoulder straps so we could pull it without using our hands. Once I figured out how they worked, I dragged it in a circle a few times to practice. I looked back over at Dylan, who was still in the car. “The sun goes down at five-thirty,” I said. “We should get going.”

He didn’t respond.

“Setting up camp is another half an hour, and we don’t want to get caught on the trail in the dark.”

“It’s not even two-thirty. I just need to do a few things. There’s no reception once we get in there, right?”

“It is the wilderness.”

“Isn’t it better that I get this stuff done now so I don’t worry about it all weekend?”

“I guess so.”

I strapped the sled to my shoulders and turned, staring at the opening in the trees where the trail began. Large birch trunks stood out on either side like pillars leading to a strange world. There was a long hush in the breeze that swam through the branches, which was followed by a silence so loud that it heightened my senses allowing me to feel the depth of the landscape—it was daunting like the open sea. When the wind picked up again, it sent a chill through my body, and brought me back.

I heard Dylan approach from behind so I moved forward with the sled. He mumbled something, but I couldn’t hear him so I stopped and turned but he was just talking on the phone. He put his toque on with his free hand so it sat crooked on his head. I could tell that he was talking to his girlfriend, Sarah. He had an impish grin that he got when she was around. He was a much quieter guy before he met her. Since they’d hooked up though, he seemed to form opinions about things, often trivial things like the lack of taxis in the city, or how they should remove bike lanes because they held up traffic. His opinions often seemed like Sarah’s, to be quite honest. It was annoying, but I guess it was better than him being impartial to things.

My last serious relationship ended just as theirs had begun. Dylan met Sarah the day I broke up with Fouad. Five years of my life felt like a waste, but I knew it was for the best. I’d been trying to convince myself that I loved him for the last two years that we were together, saying “I miss you,” or “I can’t wait to see you,” because I didn’t want our relationship to fail. I was lying to him, as he put it, but I was thirty-three and I should’ve been settled. The thought of going to bars and clubs again to meet people was enough to keep me in the relationship. I think I was also afraid of dying alone, but I guess that’s inevitable. We tried to remain friends after we broke up, but our conversations always turned sour, and I didn’t have the energy for it. We stopped reaching out to one another after only a few phone calls. Maybe I should’ve tried harder.

I continued dragging the sled towards the entrance of the trail.

“Where are you going?” Dylan said, covering the mouthpiece of the phone.

“I won’t go far.”

“Wait for me in there.”

“Okay. Say hi to Sarah for me.”

“Yeah. No, no, don’t worry. We won’t die. Yeah…”

I headed far enough into the forest so I couldn’t hear him talking. There was a beauty in the lack of symmetry of the forest. The land was thick with birch, spruce, and red and white pines, creating an elaborate maze with their branches crisscrossing above me like a gothic canopy. Everything seemed so timeless and uncomplicated, void of the distractions of civilization. This is why I came, I thought.

Some time before Fouad and I had broken up, I found out that I had cancer: stage two Lymphoma. I needed chemotherapy. At first, I thought that if I ignored it and didn’t do the treatments, it would go away, but then I started to smell something rotting inside of me. It was like the scent of human flesh burning. When I started to smell it more regularly, I knew that the cancer was growing. I could almost feel my bowels splitting from the tumors. I finally agreed to the treatments, which were to begin the week after the camping trip but decided that until my hair started to fall out and I looked emaciated, nobody was going to know, not even Dylan. Things were hard enough and I didn’t need the sympathy and tears.

After finding out that I was sick, I focused much less at work, and made inappropriate jokes about world issues during meetings. This got me promoted. At dinner parties, hosted by my more affluent acquaintances, I’d get excessively drunk and ask perverse questions that I’d always wondered about, like whether or not lesbians could be into fisting. Dylan believed that I was committing social suicide, but my comments only guaranteed me a seat at the next party. I also began spending the money I’d saved for a waterfront condo on expensive dinners, designer shoes, and an eight ball of coke here and there. It felt great at first: I was getting all the things I’d ever wanted, but the more I bought, the less satisfied I became.

“Where are you?” Dylan yelled.

The sound of my snowshoes crunching the snow made it hard to hear, so I stopped. “I’m up here waiting for you!” He must’ve been far behind because I couldn’t hear him walking through the snow. It was completely silent.  I read that it was much quieter in the park during the winter because snow absorbs sound. In the absence of sound, the landscape became more potent. I closed my eyes, and felt the air moving around: brushing and stroking me. The smell from the pines lingered in my nostrils. I could feel bark on my skin. It gave me shivers.

“Are you alright?” Dylan asked.

“Yeah. Why?”

“‘Cause you had your eyes closed.”

“I was just thinking.”

“O-K,” he said, laughing, like I was mad.

There was a charm in Dylan’s meek manner, but unfortunately he was becoming aware of it. I was happy to see him more confident. He’d come a long way from that quiet kid in class who had all the answers but was too scared to speak. He’d always surprised our professors when they called on him because he was never wrong: statistics, marketing, French—it didn’t matter; he always knew the answer.

He recently got promoted to National Director of Sales at the agency we both worked at, and bought a Lexus the very next day. I didn’t think he was the material type, but when I asked about it he said, “Haven’t you always wanted a Lexus?” There was something different about him after that. I could see it in the way he rolled his eyes, and how he talked back to, say a waiter or a store clerk, when asked a simple question. Beyond his soft smile was an arrogance that sort of crept in.

The truth was that he reminded me a lot of myself only a few months before. Not anymore though.

As we continued on, the trail became more rugged, making it harder to pull the sled through the narrow passages between trees. We had to be extra careful when we crossed a creek so the sled wouldn’t fall into the water. We were losing light, but I didn’t want to say anything to Dylan that would make him worry. Instead, I asked him about Sarah, her friends and family, and whether he thought they’d get married. They’d already discussed it, even though they’d only been dating a few months. He wanted to wait until he had enough money to buy a house uptown. Then we talked about my two-year-old niece and how cute she was. Dylan asked whether I wanted kids, which I sort of did, but thought I never would have, what with my illness.

“Why not?” Dylan said.

“Because.”

“‘Cause they’d get in the way of your career?” He laughed.

“Not at all,” I said.

“What then? Isn’t it easy for you to adopt a kid from some country?”

“I don’t know if it’s easy, but it’s possible.”

“‘Cause of Fouad then? You’re a great guy, you’ll meet someone new.”

I turned to him and shook my head. “I could care less about Fouad. Nice guy, but I’m over him.”

“Well, you’re either lying or you’re in denial. Or you’re hiding something.”

“Why isn’t ‘because’ a good enough answer?”

“Because.”

“Cute. Let’s change the subject.”

As we lost more light, it began to snow. It started with just a few flakes, but soon it was falling everywhere, filling in the forest and clinging to the hemlocks and spruce. Our conversation became thin: we talked about our mutual friends, our mutual enemies, my mother and my sister, and then nothing.

We marched silently.

The forest was endless and there was no lake in sight. After about three hours of trekking, I began questioning whether we’d taken the wrong turn. It was 5:02pm, and the sun was to set at around 5:28pm. “Let’s take a break,” I said.

“Are we almost there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are we lost?” He pulled off both straps from his shoulders and let his backpack drop into the snow behind him.

“I don’t think so. We’re looking for a lake.”

He laughed. “Where’s the lake?”

“Relax! The worst thing to do is to panic! You’d know that if you read the damn book!”

“Okay, okay…easy…let’s think.” He kneeled down and leaned against his bag. “Why don’t we use the compass?”

“Do you know how to use a compass?” I said.

“Are you kidding me? Of course not! You don’t?”

“There’s a trail—why would we need a compass?”

“The snow is covering up the trail!”

“Look, I’m going to run up ahead to see if we’re close to the lake,” I said. “It could be over that hill.”

“You’re going to leave me alone?” he asked, standing up.

“If it’s not close, we have to camp here. We still have to set up camp and we don’t want to do that in the dark. We have twenty minutes of daylight left.” 

It didn’t take me long to get beyond the hill without the sled, but it just led to a valley of trees that stretched miles. I began running as fast as I could thinking I’d find the lake quicker, like it would just appear beyond the next hill. My body heated up, and I could feel sweat forming along my back. It gave me a chill, which was dangerous, according to the book, because it could lead to hypothermia, but I kept running anyway. One of my snowshoes slipped off and I found myself knee deep in snow. It was a struggle to get it back on but I finally did by rolling onto my side and lifting my leg up. I was in the stomach of the forest, every inch of me being digested. The trees teamed up, making it hard to pass, poking and teasing me along the way. I felt that I could beat them, that I had it in me. I grabbed a branch that was at my face, and twisted it, hoping it’d break. It flung back, whipping my cheek. I had to stop. It was getting too dark to continue so I turned around. As I walked back, I undid my shirt so I could get some air to my body. When the wind touched my lower back I knew the weather had changed: it must’ve been at least twenty degrees below zero Celsius, and dropping.

Dylan was still standing in the same spot when I returned, shivering. “Now what?” he asked. It was like he was mocking me, like I was to blame. He could’ve at least read the damned book!

“We set up camp,” I said.

“Where?”

I pointed to a clearing amongst the trees. “It’s just as good of a place as any.” I walked over and flattened the snow with my snowshoes by stomping back-and-forth. Dylan watched for a few moments, and then grabbed his headlamp. It didn’t take us long to set up camp in the dark. When we were done, he got inside the tent and stuck his head back out. “I’m going to sleep,” he said.

“It’s still early. It’s not even six-thirty and you haven’t eaten.”

“I don’t care. I’m cold and tired.”

“It’s because you haven’t eaten.” I grabbed my bag and pulled out a power bar. “Here, have this.”

“I don’t like power bars.”

“I don’t either, but it’s what you’re supposed to eat when you do stuff like this.” I grabbed a wheel of Laughing Cow cheese and handed him a few wedges. “Eat these then.”

He unwrapped one and shoved it into his mouth like a starving child. Then he unwrapped another and another. The edges of his lips had bits of cheese that he didn’t bother wiping off. “Can I have some more?” he asked.

“Here. Did you want a bagel?”

“No.”

“Did you want something else then?”

“No, thank you.”

When he was done, he went back into the tent, so I followed him. As I zipped the fly up, I could suddenly smell the rot inside me again. It came out from my sweaty hands and sat in the air, filling up the tent. I wondered whether Dylan could smell it too—the scent was more acidic than usual. “Are you awake?” I whispered. He didn’t say anything so I got into my sleeping bag and placed my hands in between my thighs. I felt nauseous and light-headed so I rolled on my side and closed my eyes. After an hour of tossing around, I finally fell asleep.

 *****

When I woke up in the morning there was a thin layer of ice on the inside of the tent. I reached up and slid my finger across the surface. Drops of water formed and slid down my hand. Dylan was asleep with his back towards me, breathing heavily. I put my head down and closed my eyes. Just as I was about to fall asleep I heard something tumbling in the bushes outside, followed by the sound of footsteps. I jumped and looked over at Dylan again. “Did you hear that?” I whispered. He didn’t respond. I listened for a moment but all I could hear was the wind whistling through the front zipper of the tent in long strides. I grabbed my pocketknife from my pants, and unzipped the front of the tent. When I stood up outside, blood rushed to my head.

The sun was still below the horizon, creating a silhouette of the entire forest. I could see the outline of an animal, but it took my eyes a second to adjust. After a few moments I realized that I was face-to-face with a large black wolf. I swallowed my scream before it passed my lips. My heart beat violently, pounding at my chest.

The wolf growled. It’s large body bullied with a mass that doubled my own, bulging and flexing to exaggerated proportions. Don’t run, I thought to myself. It’s ears stood up like it heard my thoughts, and puffed, creating a cloud of stream in front of its face. I pointed my knife at it but knew it was too small to fend it off. My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to burst. “Go away. Go away,” I said quietly. The wolf finally turned its head like it was disinterested and retreated into the bush. I listened to it wander back through the forest. I couldn’t believe it was just there, a real wolf, standing in front of me. Is it really gone? I thought. It could’ve killed me.

A great silence fell all around me but with so much more force than before. I was bewildered by it at first, by its vast emptiness that echoed. After a few moments I collapsed onto the snow. “My God!”

“What’s going on?” Dylan said, unzipping the fly of the tent and poking his head out. “What was that sound?”

“That sound?”

“What’s wrong?”

“There was this wolf, it was just right there.”

“What? Where?”

“It was…I scared it away. It was incredible!”

“You’re kidding?”

I don’t know why but I started laughing. “No. I’m serious.”

“What?” Dylan put his hand over his mouth and looked down at the snow. “Jesus. Jesus. We need to leave.”

“Wha-why?”

“Do you realize that those things stalk you?”

“You can’t leave me.”

“I’m not leaving you.”

“I need to stay. We scared it and it’s gone.”

“What’s going on with you?”

“It was an animal. What do you expect? We’re in the forest.”

“We’re going,” he said, disappearing back into the tent.

“Why? So you can…go back to the city…and drink your no-foam latte and just pass time…until you die?”

He stuck his head back out. “What are you talking about?”

“I need to do this. I really need to do this.”

“Need to do what?”

“If you don’t stay I’m going to continue by myself,” I said. “This is probably one of the most important things I’ll ask you to do for me.”

“There’s something going on with you that you’re not telling me.”

“We’ve been best friends since university. We do crazy shit for each other, and we haven’t died yet. Remember in Mexico City when we bought that weed?”

“You mean when the drug dealer wouldn’t let us go?”

“We saw a side of Mexico that not everyone sees.”

“We got kidnapped and were taken to the slums!”

“But it didn’t kill us and it’s a great story.”

He pulled out his sleeping bag from the tent and stared at the ground. “Aren’t you supposed to be gay?”

“Is that a yes?”

“We leave first thing tomorrow morning,” he said, pointing his finger at me. “We wake up and go. And if I hear or see another damn wolf, we’re leaving. Both of us! I’ll drag you by your goddamn face! Now let’s go find that lake so we can, I don’t know, snowshoe on it. That’s why we’re here, right?”

“Thank you!”

“You’re nuts!” I thought he was going to cry.

“No, we’re nuts.”

“No, you’re nuts. And you better cook something nice when we get there. I’m so damn hungry I can hardly fuckin’ stand.” He shook his head. “There’s something going on with you.”

“There’s nothing. We’ll be fine. We always have been.”

We packed up camp and continued on. I used the movements of the tree branches to help guide us through the forest. Dylan followed along quietly. When I thought about how I was able to guide us like that, it all stopped. It was as though my mind needed to be inactive in order to obtain those abstractions. I was somehow able to sense our direction through the negative space of the forest. It took us no more than an hour to reach the lake.

“It does exist,” Dylan said.

Most of the lake was covered in snow and ice, reflecting the blue haze of the morning light. The air was moist with light flakes of snow drifting through the sky like ashes.

“This is actually kind of nice,” he said.

“Aren’t you glad you came?”

“Glad might be too strong a word.”

We slowly walked along the edge of the lake until we found a place with enough room to set up camp. “Why don’t I take the sled out and collect wood,” I said. “You can start digging out the fire pit.”

“What do you mean?”

“You use your snowshoe like a shovel and dig out a big hole. Like in the book, remember?”

“Ha-ha-ha. You and your damn book. Where do I dig this hole?”

“Far enough away from the tent so we don’t burn it down.”

As I pulled the sled back into the forest, I lost my breath. It was like the cold had sucker punched me out of nowhere. I fell over going up a hill and when I tried to stand, I fell over again. I pushed on, straining each muscle with thoughts of cooked food warming my stomach. Most of the loose branches were buried beneath the snow which made the collection of the wood a much more difficult task. I found a large tree that’d tumbled over, half-submerged in the snow like a drifting vessel. The smaller branches snapped right off with my bare hands. The larger pieces put up more of a fight so I used the saw that I brought with me. The first few were easy to cut, but I began feeling even dizzier and had to stop and rest. I eventually collected enough wood for breakfast and decided to gather more after we ate.

When I returned, Dylan had finished digging out a fire pit. He was sitting on one of the bags, facing the lake. “I’m so hungry,” he said. “I really can’t stand up.”

 “I know you don’t like those energy bars, but you should really have one just to tide you over until the food is ready.”

“Give me one of those damn things.”

I grabbed one that I’d stored in my sleeve. “It should be soft—I’ve been keeping it warm.” I dragged the sled over to the pit. “You did well. You got all the way to the ground below.”

“Huh?”

“You did well.”

“Shhhh!” Dylan said, turning his head. “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“I thought I heard a bear.”

“Bears are hibernating now.”

“Not if they’re psychotic.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Then it was the wolf,” he said, looking out into the forest.

“If it’s the wolf, the fire will scare it anyway,” I said, hoping that was true. I built a teepee in the fire pit with the smaller branches and drizzled them with lighter fluid that I’d brought, careful not to use too much. It was only for emergencies. When I threw the match into the pit, the surface of the wood burst into flames, but the fire went out. I had to use more fluid to get it going. After a few minutes, I threw one of the larger logs onto the fire to help produce heat.

“The damn logs are frozen,” Dylan said. “They’re never going to burn.” He was right; it sizzled for a bit and turned black but wouldn’t light.

I could suddenly feel the presence of something watching us.

“I saw a video on YouTube,” I said. “I don’t understand. I did everything right.”

“There’s a damn wolf out there and you’re talking about YouTube?”

“How else am I going to learn?” I drenched the log with the remaining fluid and threw another match onto it. It only stayed lit for a moment and went out again.

I quickly went through the smaller pieces, trying to keep the fire burning. I didn’t take my eyes off the flame, not once, fearful that if I did it would kill the fire altogether.  It didn’t appear to be getting any warmer, but I stared relentlessly with my snowshoe at hand ready to fan at any sign of weakness. I have to be strong, I thought. This isn’t going to kill me.

Twenty minutes had passed, but with no luck.

There was definitely something rustling in the bushes.

“Do you hear that?” Dylan said. He was sitting with his arms tucked into his sleeves.

As I threw the last branch on, a small flame began dancing along the body of the log. I dismissed it at first, and put my head down, but when I looked again the flame had doubled. Within a few minutes the log was burning all the way through. From there on it howled with strength, so I loaded it with more logs.

Whatever it was that was in the bushes left immediately. I was so happy that I did a jig. I hollered, and hollered again. I even attempted a cartwheel but I just fell over into a snowdrift.

I placed the grill over the fire and cooked those damn steaks so they were nice and juicy. I ate mine with my hands, licking my blisters clean.

“Food has never tasted this good,” Dylan said with his mouth full and juice gushing down his face.

Afterwards, I roasted potatoes, toasted some bagels, and melted snow for drinking water. The book was right, you can burn snow, and it tasted just awful like roasted pine needles and metal, but we drank it and appreciated every drop.

 *****

After breakfast we sat next to the tent and looked out onto the lake. Out of the corner of my eye, I felt a surge of light bleed across my lashes. The early afternoon sun peeked in through a break in the trees. Rays of light blasted through the rising smoke. The sun disappeared and reappeared again, each time rising higher than the last. Shadows dragged along the snow like moving stencils, many arrangements displaying the shape of the land. When the sun reached the top of the sky, its light reflected off the snow on the lake. I knew I had to go out there.

“I need to tell you something,” I said. I stood up and closed my eyes. “I have cancer and I might be dying.” Dylan didn’t say anything. He’d fallen asleep. “You’re kidding me,” I laughed. “Well, now you know. So what do you say we go out onto the lake? No? You don’t feel like it? Okay, I guess I’m going alone.”

I walked over and stepped onto the ice at the edge of the lake. It was so much warmer in the sun, so I took my jacket off. I walked to the middle of the lake and looked back at the surrounding forest. I could feel eyes watching me from the shadows of the trees. Maybe they were wolves like Dylan suggested. Maybe it didn’t matter. I got down on my knees so my thighs were half submerged in the snow crystals. I removed my glove and lowered my palm into the snow. Clusters of flakes stuck to my hand. They quickly melted and turned into water, returning back down to where they came from. It was magnificent.

I could still smell the rot inside of me, but I wasn’t afraid anymore. 

Nicole Nelson

Nicole NelsonNicole Nelson is a guest host for “Writers on Writing” on KUCI 88.9 FM in Irvine. She is a longtime member of the prestigious Writer’s Block Party Workshop in Orange County, CA, and holds a PhD in theoretical linguistics from Rutgers University. She also plays flute in a community orchestra. “Passengers” is her first piece of published fiction. Follow her on Twitter: @nan_nicole.

 

Passengers

At the beginning of the museum tour, passengers stood in front of a green screen as large as a small billboard. The gift shop at the other end charged fifteen dollars for one souvenir shot of guests on the Titanic’s grand staircase, or in front of underwater wreckage. The gift shop cashier showed them the choices on a computer screen. The staircase pose came with the option of having ghosts inserted in the photo. Josh meant to ask Rachelle whether those were big sellers.

He waved at Rachelle, who wiggled her fingers in return before swinging out the glass door to Balboa Park. Their shifts had changed ever since she traded with someone else to take her trip to Cabo a couple of weeks before. She worked the cash register at the gift shop next to the exit of the museum exhibit, just past his post by the list of names. After work sometimes, they would go for a beer at the dank but cheap bar by her apartment.

Rachelle didn’t ask a lot of questions. He hadn’t had to hide the fact that he lived at home still, because she didn’t inquire. When she did, if she did, he would tell her he was just saving money, and would move out when he could. She was two years older than him, and graduated from San Diego State that spring. She was taking a year off to apply to graduate school in anthropology. Josh played viola, and studied music at the community college. He also played bass in a band with some buddies from the college’s orchestra. Rachelle once came to their gig at a coffee house. Josh blew the bridge in the first song, he was so distracted by the dip in her tight black tank top, revealing more than the burgundy polo from the museum uniform.

His mom was a professional musician, a cellist. In high school, Josh played chamber music with her. That depressed him though. First, because he was aware that there were things he would rather be doing than playing these pieces with his mom, but he felt too sorry for her to say no. But also because there aren’t many duets for cello and viola. They would play string trios or quartets, meant to include violins, but they would have to just hear the violin parts in their heads.

Josh’s dad left when he was four. His mom didn’t talk about it much, just that he left after an argument and never came home. Through comments his aunt had made, and a diary entry Josh once regretted reading, he gleaned that his father had run off with another woman. Sometimes he sent a card on Josh’s birthday, but not always. He had missed the last three years, which included most recently his twenty-first birthday.

 *****

The boarding passes were a gimmick, Josh thought at first during the employee orientation meeting. The visitors-as-passengers thing felt like a cheap emotional ploy to engage people who had paid a lot of money for an exhibit that just plain didn’t have a lot to show. Each passenger was given a card a little smaller than a greeting card that listed the name, class of travel, origin, and other facts about someone who had really ridden on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Every person on the ship the night it went down in April 1912 was represented — over two thousand different cards.

He doubted people would buy into the passenger idea. He assumed they would just toss the ticket and forget about it. But almost everybody held the card in front of them, re-reading it, and checking it against the different tidbits on the posters throughout the hallways. And when they came to the end, they wanted his assistance.

“Can I help you find your passenger?” he asked every couple of minutes, as people stared in silence at the names on the last wall before the exit. There were four columns: First, Second, and Third Class, and Crew. The survivors were listed first in each column, then a line, with those who died underneath.

A tall, twiggy teenager on a family vacation from Oregon stared with earnestness at the wall until she found the name she was holding. She didn’t even acknowledge Josh’s offer to help, her focus was locked so tightly on the lists. He could tell when she found it. Her arms dropped to her sides. She exhaled. “She made it,”, she said, looking around, making eye contact with Josh before continuing to meet her family at the gift shop.

One man in a football jersey and Armani sneakers teared up when he found his passenger below the line. “She was third class. I knew her odds were bad, but she was only 19. My daughter’s 19,” he said. He stayed longer, looking at the names, before lowering his sunglasses onto his nose and leaving.

 *****

On his way to his post by the tour’s end, Josh passed the glass cases with stacks of dishes. A photo showed the same dishes, gently spilled out like dominoes along the ocean floor. He passed the oddly well-preserved leather satchel (the curing of the leather protected it, even in the in the two-mile-deep waters), the British currency found inside the satchel, and the pair of men’s boots without laces that were photographed right next to it on the ocean floor. The pictures of the dining rooms, copies of menus, and cabin room reproductions struck him as dated and eerie. First class was too lavish for his taste. His reverse-snob simplicity was drawn to the small but comfortable-looking third class shared rooms. It must have been like a mobile youth hostel, he figured. And the long tables and benches in the dining hall looked more communal, friendlier than the stodgy, dark, ceremonious first class chandelier-riddled dining room.

He felt the coolness blowing off the SUV-sized chunk iceberg installed in a dark corner under dim lights, the last stop before the section of the exhibit dedicated to the details of the collision. A steamy vapor came from the surface, even in the air-conditioned room. A sign explained that salt in the water lowers the freezing point, and the water that night was twenty-eight degrees–four degrees below freezing. Many perished from hypothermia in the water, waiting for the Carpathia to rescue them. The exhibit’s iceberg had dozens of holes, each about an inch in diameter, where passengers had felt the iceberg for themselves, over and over.

*****

Josh’s mom seethed when he told her he had been transferred to the artifact exhibit from the dinosaurs.

“You can’t switch back?” she asked.

“Mom, it’s fine. I was getting tired of that one, telling all the small kids to stay off the T-Rex. Half that skeleton is fake, anyway.”

“But the scientist who discovered the wreckage site didn’t want it disturbed! It should have been left down there.”

“He found the ship, but it’s not his property. The museum has been really respectful,” he said.

She snorted. “Respectful,” she said. “Respect would have been to leave the souls in peace. To work instead on averting future disasters. The fortune they spent insuring the exhibit! They could have used it to fight global warming–build a wind farm with that money.”

“Just don’t say that to my boss, please.”

“This planet is going down, just like the Titanic. People think it’s unsinkable, but there’s an iceberg, or rather a missing one, straight ahead.”

“OK, Mom,” he said.

 *****

Brogan, Josh’s friend from high school, worked for a small company that sold scented, brightly-colored, bio-degradable plastic bags for picking up after dogs. Brogan had said his job was chill. It paid two dollars more than minimum wage, included health benefits, and his main responsibility was to maintain the website, track online orders, and manage customers’ accounts. Brogan told him once about a job opening at the company, and said how great it would be to work together. Josh would have liked that in principle, the working together, but he knew himself well enough to be sure he couldn’t embrace employment by a company whose product’s sole purpose was to clean up poop. Even if the product was high-end, and good quality. Even if Katy Perry was a customer. He would dream about dog shit every night. But now he thought, maybe dreams of dog shit wouldn’t be so bad, better perhaps than drowning nightmares.

*****

“Do you get them too?” Josh asked. He lay in bed, his arms under his head. Rachelle’s red hair brushed against the inside of his arm as she repositioned herself. They’d gone out for a beer after work, and back to her apartment afterward. It was the third time they had slept together. He looked over and touched the tattoo of a shark above her hipbone. It was new, since the trip to Mexico.

He had just told her about his dream the night before, sitting with strangers on a bench, holding hands and praying as the water climbed higher, pouring down a ceiling vent, and through the bottom of the locked door. He woke with an enormous gasp.

“No,” she said, leaning on her elbow and propping her head in her hand. “I try not to over-think it.” She scratched her jaw and sighed. “People pay so much for reproductions of blankets, fake china with the Titanic’s logo on it – it’s such a racket. For me, it’s a show, a business, very removed from the actual people who died.” They both stared at the ceiling in silence.

“What if you were a relative of one of those passengers?” Josh asked her. He pinched his thumbnail and watched the color drain from the nail bed. “Wouldn’t it be excessively weird, say, to have several strangers a week impersonating, to a certain extent, a dead great aunt who you never got to meet?”

“I think it would be mostly cool. It would keep her memory alive, right?”

He considered it, and sighed.

“Think about it,” she continued. “My real, dead great-aunt doesn’t get that much consideration. We just have her nicked side table that my mom doesn’t really like, taking up too much space in the dining room. No one walks around, wondering about her life, hoping that she actually survived her heart attack.” She rolled onto her stomach. “They’re all dead anyway,” she said. “Didn’t the last one die a few years ago?”

“Yeah, in 2009. On the ninety-eighth anniversary of the launch of the ship,” he said.

“You take your job seriously,” she said, poking him in the side of his stomach, where he was ticklish.

He flinched and pulled up the sheet in defense. “Maybe I need a new job.”

“I’d miss you.” She smiled as she said it. He looked into her sea-blue eyes, and hoped that she meant it. They both turned on their backs and lay in silence. Then she slid her face toward him, followed by her whole body.

“You live with your mom, don’t you?” His mouth opened to reply, but he had difficulty forming a response.

“I thought so. You never invite me over. I need a roommate. You have a steady job. We get along.” She lifted one side of her mouth in a half-smile and wiped the hair from her eyes. “It’s until I go to school in the fall–I don’t know what will happen then. But I think it would be fun for both of us, and good for you, to get your independence, spread you wings.”

Josh’s chest tingled. A girl, an older woman – a sexy, smart, woman that he was worried he might love was asking him to move in with him. He felt intoxicated, and light enough to float.

“Yes,” he said. She laughed.

That hurt his feelings, but then she said, “No one can say you’re not spontaneous.”

He looked back to her, and rubbed his thumb lightly over her shark tattoo before sliding his other hand behind the small of her back and pulling her on top of him, as she let out a surprised but happy shriek.

 *****

Josh and his mom had a standing date on their mutual day off, Wednesdays. He planned to move on the first of the month, in just five days. He had put off for a week telling her about his plans, even though he had already packed two suitcases. It was his chance to arrange the outing, so he chose to take her to the Titanic exhibit. In spite of her initial distaste at his new job there, he felt attached to the exhibit, more so the more time he spent there. Part of him hoped to change her mind about it. And he would be on home turf, as good a place as any to tell her.

The night before in his bed, he alternated between rolling around, trying to move away from the worry that he was letting his mother down, and writhing from nightmares. In the one that woke him up, a version of his recurring one, he was sitting on a bench in the dark, where the bench lifted off the ground when water gushed into the dining hall where he had gathered with other people, and where someone had since locked the doors. The water rose, as it did every night for him, carrying the bench high enough so that his head knocked against the room’s ceiling.

Josh’s mom held the boarding pass between two fingers, not wanting to commit it to her purse, but not throwing it out either. They walked in silence through the beginning of the museum, as Josh rehearsed in his head. His mother stopped at the poster of the eight men in suits, the Titanic’s orchestra. The text explained that they had dressed in their green uniforms and overcoats, and began playing upbeat music, waltzes and polkas, as first class passengers were loaded onto lifeboats. As it later became clear that there were not enough lifeboats, the musicians continued to play. They could be heard from the small vessels below. Survivors reported that one of the last songs the orchestra played before the ship disappeared into the water was a hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee.” All eight died.

As she read the poster, her right hand crumpled the card, first curling it into a tube, and then crunching it smaller and smaller.

“Mom?” he said, trying to break her trance in front of the poster.

She turned to him, fanning herself with her free hand.

“Why did you take me here?” she asked. “It’s so sad. So many souls lost. Those poor musicians…”

He wondered whether having the conversation at his place of employment was a good idea. He didn’t want to make a scene, but he took a deep breath and began anyway.

“A friend of mine from work, Rachelle, she needs a roommate. It would help her out, and I have enough money saved; I was thinking of moving in with her.”

His mother smiled to herself and pulled her paisley scarf down so it was even, and tight against the back of her neck.

“That’s wonderful, Josh. I’m glad you found a place that you like.”

He waited, assuming that more of a reaction would come. When none did, he asked, “You’re not upset?” touching her elbow. She took a step away from him.

“Why would I be upset?” she asked. He looked for her shoulders to pull back in distaste, or the sides of her mouth to draw down. But he saw none of it – anger, disappointment – only a relaxed expression that confused him.

 “Just don’t make any little Joshes until you are married,” she said, looking straight at him. This was his mother’s version of a sex talk, he thought–direct, and vaguely accusatory. “You are interested in this girl, I imagine? Are you dating?”

“It’s complicated,” he said. “She leaves for graduate school in a few months.”

She nodded. “Birth control is a good invention–don’t take it for granted. It wasn’t always so easy.”

“And in your day? Do you regret marrying my father?” he asked.

She stopped walking in front of the iceberg, with all the finger holes dotting it.

“Your father was alluring; we were young. You have his good looks,” she said. He felt she had searched to find something nice to say to stop from saying something negative.

“He was a bad person, leaving you and me like that.”

“It was a difficult time,” she said. “But without him, I wouldn’t have you, and that, I couldn’t bear.”

He crossed his arms. His mother seemed different to him. All his life, he had assumed he knew what she was thinking, but his confidence in that evaporated.

“Why don’t you go on dates?” he asked her. “Isn’t there anyone in the orchestra who asks you out? How about Mr. Zimmer at temple?”

“Ira and I have met for coffee quite a few times,” she said quietly, sticking her finger in one of the already established holes in the ice.

“You have?” He scratched his head. He tried to picture his mother sitting across from a man her age, leaning into the table and flirting. Then he tried not to picture it, accepting that, whatever was going on with Mr. Zimmer, Ira, she was content.

“I will just be living across town,” he said. “Can we still meet Wednesdays for dinner?”

She pinched her son’s cheek, which she hadn’t done in at least a decade. “You bet,” she said.  They were one room away from the end of the exhibit. “Oh! I have to run,” she said, giving him a quick hug. “Coffee with Ira. I’ll see you later at home.”

She turned and jogged out the door, and he tilted his head, silently blinking. They had ridden together, and she didn’t mention anything before then about not driving home with him. He stood there alone, just a few paces from his post at work. As his mother’s figure disappeared in the direction of the bus stop, her head bowed, he saw her wipe at her face with her scarf. He worried that she wouldn’t see where she was going and might trip, but he let her go without following. His boarding pass stuck out of his front pocket. He pulled it out, straightening the edges, and read the entry for the first time.

A male child. Third class. He scanned the column of passengers from the bottom up. When he got through the long group of names below the line, his eyes widened. Then he found him, a survivor. He smiled and surprised himself with the force of his sigh. He folded the card in two and put it in his wallet before continuing to the gift shop.

Sarah Seltzer

Sarah Seltzer is a winner of the 2013 Lilith Fiction Prize, and has had fiction published in Joyland, S-Tick, Extract(s), LABA Journal and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a journalist in New York City with nonfiction bylines in The Forward, The Rumpus, LA Review of Books, Vulture, The Hairpin, Ms. Magazine and The Nation, among many other places. Her novel-in-progress, “Joy, Somewhere in the City,” was awarded a grant from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

 

Disorder

Kat was born into famine; her sister Rina into plenty. Kat was black and adopted; Rina – white and “biological.” Kat pursued science, and Rina, drama. Kat was mellow to the point of being taciturn, while Rina had been a babbling fountain of foolishness and song.

Had been.

Kat was alive and Rina was dead.

There were similarities, too. Rina and Kat had both been known as tall, broad-shouldered, standouts. Rina – everyone said in the days after the accident – had been kind.  So had her sister. Such sweet girls, everyone said.

Yet as her grief bit into her, tore into her, melted her bones, the usually mild-mannered Kat, who as an adult had engineered her life to not offend the white people who made up her community, could feel herself turning mean.

Case 1: After the news of Rina’s gruesome and tragic death in front of a subway train plastered the tabloids, Kat’s phone began to ring with regular insistence. Most often, the flashing screen bore the number of her childhood “best” friend Joy. Kat pressed “reject” on her cellphone for two days in a row.

Joy began to try the house phone. Some people could not take a hint. Kat heard her mom, Ellen, sobbing over the receiver in some far, but too near room; imagined her mother and Joy cradling each other’s voices in apartments half a mile apart. Evidently, Ellen did not share her surviving daughter’s aversion to Joy’s partaking of the family tsuris, their loss that was now the entire city’s.

Kat sat at the kitchen table, which smelled of tobacco and sour wine, listening to her mother’s choked voice. She heard her mom say, “Oh, Joy,” and start crying afresh. Her heart hardened even as it broke. She moved to the floor of the hallway, leaned against the wall and listened to her stomach growl, a relentless tiger. She lit another cigarette and erased Joy’s number from her phone.

Case 2: During shiva, she had been given pills by Cameron, her sister’s best gay friend. They loosened her tongue, thus, when she was regaled with Rina stories – some debauched – by Maya, her sister’s best female friend, she replied caustically, “Why should I care?” (But she cared, she cared.)

Case 3: While the cold meats were being put away, she rolled around on her bed with her pseudo-ex Ezra – if endless sexual experimentation in high school and occasionally in college qualifies one as an ex. Ezra was her sister’s best straight male friend, a too-sensitive socialist who was always cause-hopping, being holier than thou, and getting into trouble. As he zipped his pants back up, she told him he needed to “get his shit together.” By which she meant, I want you, but fuck you for not being my sister.

Case 4: There would be no case four. Look at the way things stood. Her sister had had a best friend in every demographic, it seemed. Kat had only her sister, and Joy.

She had to be better, to make Rina proud. So she asked her mom for Joy’s number and arranged to meet her old friend on a stoop on One-Hundredth between Broadway and Amsterdam, a place their childhood selves had determined with mathematical precision was halfway between their homes. Lounging, soda cans in their hands, they’d once regularly discussed Rina’s doings as part of the confabulation. Now Kat relented. They would discuss Rina’s lack of doings and she’d behave.

Rina had died on a stifling August night weeks away from her first marquee role on Broadway; these were stifling August days. Rina had fainted from the summer heat, stumbled, floated through the air onto the tracks as the train pulled in. Or so the cops told them. Perfect drama. Quintessential Rina. These “incidents” with girls fainting, they happened all the time, the cops said. The left side of her had taken the blow; when they asked her family to identify her, they covered that side with a sheet. The rest of her body, tall and broad-shouldered, was recognizable only as the shell that had housed an unstoppable – no, a stoppable – a stopped life force.

“Broadway Beauty Mowed Down by L,” the headlines read. New Yorkers, ravenous for horror, turned the pages on their morning commutes, sweaty fingers staining the paper. Kat lost four pounds. She smoked twenty cigarettes. She had zero sisters.

Rina meant “joyful” in Hebrew because that’s what her parents had been at her birth. Kat had arrived in their arms curled up like a kitten; her older sister had named her on the plane home from Ethiopia. The namer, the knower, Kat’s guardian ever since. Rina had swatted hands away when they tried to touch Kat’s hair; she had snapped “she’s my sister,” when people puzzled out their relationship, and “the Upper West Side,” when they asked where Kat was from. When Kat interrogated her family about her origins, as she had inevitably done at age 15, Rina had supported her: “Yeah, where? Why?” She had approved of the black feminist novels, the African art on Kat’s wall, the radical treatises on her desk, her demands at the dinner table, to her family. “Admit that your white privilege is a problem.”

“We admit it, Kat.”

Of course, Joy had wanted Rina to look out for her, too. Who would not want a protector unafraid to snap unwanted attention from you towards herself? 

Kat and Joy stood in front of their stoop, their empty stoop, unable to make small talk because of the momentousness of Rina’s absence. Kat tried to dismiss the ironic echo, the similarity in meaning between the names of her sister and her former best friend.

“How are you coping?” Joy asked.

“How do you think?”

Kat raised both her hands, gesturing at her face, hoping the deep circles under her eyes might steer the conversation.

“Did it turn out that Rina had been drinking that night?” asked Joy. “I know I shouldn’t ask. But my mom and I were just wondering, you know, if there was anything else to explain…”

“Some wine. Nothing she couldn’t handle,” said Kat. “You knew her.”

“Why wasn’t anyone with her?” Joy asked, her tone quieter yet.

“She wanted to study her lines,” Kat said, feeling the stoop scrape against her bare thighs.

“I just – I’m just trying to understand how it happened. I’ve even gone to that platform myself, you know, to see where – ”

“Okay, so have I. I’m a scientist. I’ve tried to piece it together, but. . . enough, Joy,” said Kat. Enough Joy, to her ears. Her sister had been happy, hadn’t she? Kat’s voice came out cold, but her insides cycloned and roiled. She would never release all of her tears; she would remain a nasty piece of work even as a grandmother, snapping at her grandchildren, unable to forgive their ignorance of Rina.

“How do you think she fell, I mean, did they catch it on camera?” Joy’s voice barely above a whisper. 

Kat didn’t answer. She recognized what Joy was doing, as her own family had done for days, would probably do for years: turning the big question mark about why it happened into little ones about how.

“Was she – was she depressed? Or on any new drugs or anything like that? Sometimes they can make people do things, you know. . . feel things.”

“I don’t know,” said Kat honestly. “Can we take a break from this line of questioning?”

“You know, the last time I emailed your sister, she never wrote me back.” Joy’s voice was plaintive now. “You guys are tough to pin down. We all used to be so close.”

Kat could have told Joy that Rina, busy with rehearsal, always needed to be bugged to respond to emails. She could have told her about her theory – about the heat and Rina’s even more vegan, even more restricted diet for the new role, and about Rina’s history of fainting. She could have told Joy that the idea, this hovering idea that some clandestine fear, depression, agony, misery had gnawed at Rina, and that Rina hid it away from Kat – that this above all threatened to utterly unman her, leave her crawling on the sidewalk, an insane thing, an insect whose wings had been plucked by a cruel child.

So Kat clung to what she couldn’t un-know: intense heat, screeching, thuds, pain, a body broken – all in an instant.

The conductor of the train, his flashlight ducking between the cars, had tried to reassure Rina that help was on the way. She seemed, he told the press, “so lovely, so beautiful.” (Classic Rina – to look beautiful in death – the half of her not mangled, at least.) But no help or comfort arrived.

“I spoke with her that night,” said Kat, amazed that her voice sounded like a voice and not a wail.  “She seemed normal.”

Omitted – the call had been a wheedling request that Kat take care of their parents’ anniversary present. Had she been settling her affairs, or just dumping the task on her sister?

For the life of her, Kat couldn’t remember whether the call had ended with “Love ya” or not. But she had felt it, right? Sisters and best friends, that’s what everyone said at the funeral. “My sister, my shield, my partner,” Kat had said in her eulogy, even then recalling the lines that Rina had needed to rehearse, full of dudes and mans and groovys.

She didn’t tell Joy that after the police had called, had come to pick them up, she had been sure it was a mistake and called her sister, and called her again, and again, and again, hearing the click of the voicemail so many times that she finally had to lean out the window of the police cruiser and throw up.

And then she’d kept calling until, at the precinct, she saw the phone she was trying to reach in a small plastic bag with red smears on its insides.

Now with Joy, Kat let her first barb slip out.

 “I don’t know why we’re here, to be honest. I appreciate your concern, but I feel like we had kind of slipped into an occasional coffee friendship, you know? This heart-to-heart thing is weird.”

Of course, their meeting didn’t feel weird at all, because of the physical memories embedded in this ugly stoop. If things had gone on as they should have, they would just have continued their yearly faux-delighted get-togethers, feet tapping with impatience, or fingers smoothing the velour couches of some coffee shop, bookended by disingenuous assurances of “we should do this more often.”

Joy turned bright red. “Well, we were best friends,” she said defensively. Then her mouth turned into a trapezoid; she whimpered.

Kat sighed, irked by the surge of pity she felt. A wide-openness about the girl reminded her of Rina the way a copy of a painting on a postcard tried too hard to duplicate the original.

But here was the difference – when Rina rushed up to friends’ parents or new acquaintances, and threw her arms around them, when she pulled Kat to her side and said “my sister,” she became addictive. But no one craved Joy beside her, no one.

Joy’s thumbs wiggled inside the tight pockets of her jeans, causing a vibrating anxiety in Kat’s gut. The twitching inched Joy’s shirt up, showing a soft white belly, a previously well-hidden heft protruding over her skinny legs. Kat knew Joy’s body intimately.

They had been best friends.

“Remember playing star fairies?” asked Kat, thinking of their bare legs flashing through the grass in Central Park. “Remember Rina instructing us on how to cast a spell – as if she knew!” Her sister, Kat had come to see in high school, had really not been cool in the traditional sense. She had just been so defiantly herself.

“She seemed to know everything,” said Joy. Joy had never figured out the secret to Rina’s poise.

Joy had despaired when they stood side by side in front of the mirror, as though Rina’s coltish beauty lay hidden on its other side. Kat hadn’t cared, perfectly content with her own practical build. But then, of course, she’d had a sister to call her beautiful.

 “Shall we eat, maybe?” Kat asked.

Kat in these weeks had felt a filmy curtain, a shimmer in the air between herself and the physical world. She reached a hand forward, tried to push through. She struggled mounting and descending the curb, having lost her ability to fathom where her feet should go. She came down too hard or wavered mid-step. She felt like she might pitch forward or back if a gust of wind or an impatient pedestrian hit her, just like her sister had. She groped at door handles and gripped railings like she was old, frail, her bones brittle.

In that trance-like state, Kat led them into a pasta place with an aroma of starch and sweet tomato paste that leaked onto the sidewalk. Only after the bread basket came and Joy eyed it vindictively did Kat learn that her friend was on the South Beach diet.

“Well, why didn’t you tell me you were off carbs before we went for pasta?” she asked. Joy had been afraid to displease the sisterless one, she guessed.

Joy looked hungrily at the bread. “I need to lose ten pounds by my birthday,” she said.

“October,” said Kat instinctively. “A week after Rina’s. You were birthday buddies.”

They smiled at each other, tentative. Maybe it would be tolerable between them.

Joy ordered a salad that arrived with pale green lettuce and a scattering of purple and orange. She scraped her fork across her small plate while Kat twirled long, dripping pieces of thick spaghetti into her mouth. She ate out of spite and in hunger. The life force asserting itself despite all the cigarettes, the nausea.

“Do you remember how in the children’s choir, Rina always got to do a solo at shul, for Oseh Shalom?” Kat asked, marveling that the joyful words her sister had trilled as a young girl were the same words that closed the mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer they’d now say over and over again for her.

Oseh shalom bimromov, hu ya’aseh shalom alaynu, v’al kol yisroel; vimru Amen.

“Yes. Her voice was so. . . I don’t know. Angelic? But goofy; do you remember the trip to Rockland County?” Joy asked.

“She had you singing the ‘Comet’ song.”

Joy chortled and they sang a few bars together, under their breaths. “Comet, it makes your mouth turn green!”

“I thought it was so funny,” said Joy. “Your sister was a budding director, even then. And I was her ingénue.”

Kat detected an emphasis on the “I.”

Kat had gone searching for newts and tadpoles, had held their slimy bodies in her cupped hands, presenting them to the adults, hoping to elicit a shriek. But Rina and Joy, unaffected by nature, put on song and dance routines. It was true: Rina loved to use Joy as a prop, a chorus. Joy would stare at Rina with those round eyes and do whatever she was told.

Kat had been the odd one out, with her science and her stubborn avoidance of show biz.

“Truly epic. How about the summer we got obsessed with judging each other’s dives at the pool?”

“The Barbie soap operas we devised?”

The stories accumulated, exquisite and excruciating.

“Do you remember how you’d always bug Rina when she tried to do her homework?” Kat asked. “You would pad down the hallway and peek into the maid’s room, then Rina’s room.”  The two of them had watched the older girl bent over her homework, or a script, in the light of her lava lamp.

“Leave her alone,” Kat would say. “She’s got to learn her lines.” Rina’s legs would splay out on the bed, spectacularly. Her hand with a pen in it would prop up her chin for so long that her arm fell asleep.

“Yes! And her arm, the thing she’d do? Whipping her arm around and around to get the feeling back?”

When Joy wasn’t around, Rina would let Kat perch on the edge of the bed and braid her older sister’s hair, or massage her shoulders or listen to her run her lines. But Joy was around too often.

Kat waited, pinned down by dread.

“Do you remember how everyone used to think we were sisters?” People always did – always had. They pegged Kat as the friend, the third wheel.

Why had Kat shared so many of her life’s now-finite Rina moments with such a parasite?

At least there was the comfort of the times she’d mocked Joy with her sister, who of course hadn’t always been kind, or generous, or even thoughtful. “Deviated septum my ass,” Rina once said to Kat in a moment of candor, sitting on an island between two lanes of Broadway’s zooming traffic with frozen yogurt cups on their laps.  “Joy’s nose,” they’d squawked. Once aquiline, it lost its bump. Kat had been delirious that day on the street with her sister, arms linked against the world, buoyed by Rina’s vivid energy.

“What are you smiling at?” asked Joy. They stood to leave.

“Oh, just a private joke. Well, not so private, I guess. It was about your nose. My sister found its transformation very amusing.”

Joy’s mouth dropped open.

“Oh,” said Joy. “I didn’t realize you knew.”

You moron, thought Kat. Everyone knew.

“Okay, well, so. . . I guess I just wanted to ask – can we be friends again? Real friends?”

 Kat recited her lines stiffly: “Sure. I’ll call you when I’m ready.”

And then the last blow surfaced from deep within her, from a place thick with bile and envy. “Oh, and let me know how the no-carbs thing goes,” she said. “If you do drop those ten pounds, or fifteen maybe, you could fit into Rina’s clothes. Well, her shirts, anyway.”

She didn’t look to see the expression her words left on Joy’s face. She turned around and walked back to the house of mourning, forward on a long black ribbon of time that would take her from this curtained-off half-life to a life that was diminished, but a life nonetheless.

She supposed they would run into each other at some point, and sure enough, about three years after they parted that day at the stoop, Kat arrived at an engagement party on Park Avenue, a twinge in her memory’s muscle asking if she’d see her old friend there. Kat didn’t cry as often now, but she popped antacids like candy.

Sporadic Facebook binges and gossip had told her enough. Maya had had a nervous breakdown; Ezra had become an Orthodox Zealot in Israel; Cameron was gentrifying Brooklyn. And Joy?

“I’m delighted that Joy is doing well again,” said the bride-to-be, Zoë, with a sigh as she ushered Kat through the room. Sporting a big diamond ring, a smile, and a willingness to gossip, she led them to the balcony. To Zoë, this was mere idle gossip.

Kat felt the familiar gauzy curtain fall, partitioning her from her surroundings. Her free hand gripped the brick wall behind her until it hurt. She stopped sipping her champagne, its taste suddenly acrid. “What do you mean? What happened?”

“Oh, you didn’t hear? Have you guys lost touch? Her eating disorder got really bad. She had to be hospitalized and fed through a tube. Poor thing. She’d been dieting obsessively and then it just tipped right over that line.”

Her eating disorder? Was that the South Beach diet? Hospitalized? Kat remembered of course that she’d said a cruel, cruel, thing to her old friend – the words sparkled, knife-sharp, piercing through the humid shroud of that unspeakable summer.

Zoë clucked and hushed her voice.  “You guys growing up together and so on, the thing with your sister hitting her so hard. I thought maybe you’d heard, somehow. Parents or something.”

“Oh,” Kat said, putting on her too-sad-to-talk-about-it face, feeling the brick scrape her palm. Rina would know exactly how to weasel out of this.

“I guess I wasn’t in good touch with anyone for a while.”

“Understandable,” said Zoë. “La vie, eh? So tough. I wonder if she’ll come tonight. I invited her. She’s doing so much better, you know.”

A year before, Kat would have rolled her eyes, unable to shoulder the concept of anyone else’s suffering, even if she’d precipitated the slide into hunger, anguish, feeding tubes. Even now, a sliver of her judgment found something contemptible in Joy’s succumbing to such an illness, an illness that, despite all the medical truths she’d learned about genetics and brain chemistry, she found, well, somewhat narcissistic.

Still, Joy’s round eyes, her irritating questions, her relationship with the mirror and with Rina’s theatrical poise arrived in a new light of desperation, and Kat felt her soul clench with remorse, genuine remorse. Yes, Rina was her sister, hers alone. But Kat had wanted to siphon the sorrow for herself when there was plenty to go around.

What did the scarred-over wounds between them signify, anyway? Joy was “doing great” now. Joy had conquered her demons. Joy had soldiered on without Kat, the shattered sister.

Kat let her champagne glass rest, trying to stitch back together the newly-reopened gashes. Joy showed up half an hour later. The two women circled each other, exchanging pleasantries with others. They smiled over strange shoulders like prospective lovers.

At last, Joy approached Kat, armed with a new confidence, a slimness in the belly, a sense of having survived, and won.

“How are things?” Joy asked. “I haven’t seen you in forever.”

“It’s been – ” said Kat. “Well, it’s getting better. Well, not better, but bearable, I guess. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch.” She looked down at Joy’s shoes, which came to an abrupt point. Power shoes. Probably Joy had just been asking how things were, in general. She probably didn’t want a report about where Kat had arrived in the five stages of grief.

They spoke of this and that, of Joy’s new career in arts administration – she was working at a theater – and Kat’s promotion at her lab.

“You always did like experimenting,” said Joy. “You must miss Rina. You still go to synagogue right? I’ve gone a few times, wondered if I’d see you.”

“My family stopped going. Like, totally. I don’t really know why, but I actually do go pretty often on my own, and I always go for Rina’s yahrtzheit, just to hear her name and say Kaddish. It’s actually next week,” Kat said, surprised at the rush of words, the lilt in her voice. As though she was asking something of Joy.

“I know it’s next week,” said Joy. “I wouldn’t forget. Hmmm. You shouldn’t go alone. I’ll try to make it.”

Despite herself, Kat nodded.

“That would be so lovely,” she said.

The next Saturday, Kat arrived at the synagogue and looked for Joy, but didn’t see her friend in the lobby. She chastised herself for holding expectations. Why was she here anyway? Because no one else who was close to Rina was. Because here in this crowd, with no other family or friends to mourn, Kat could hear her sister’s voice and be alone with it. Selfish to the last.

But she wasn’t alone. When Kat was nine and lost her grandfather, they called his name from the bimah each Sabbath for a month. Every Friday night, her family stood up to acknowledge their loss, always to Kat’s humiliation and Rina’s perverse pleasure. But on the fourth Friday, Joy came and sat with them. And that night they stood together. They stood up as one family suffering one loss. One family, knit together by Kat, Joy and Rina’s friendship, their voices murmuring the words of the Kaddish in unison. Rina’s voice the clearest, the highest, a voice people said was “destined for the stage,” a voice whose sudden silencing would never, ever end for Kat, even as it receded behind layers of time.

Now, Kat sat in a corner, finding herself looking at the same stained glass, finding faces and patterns in it as she had when she was a girl. Strange that she was the only one in her family who came here, the one who wasn’t born a Jew, the one who baffled people. There were so many things she’d lost since she’d lost Rina. She’d lost her parents coming to shul, she’d lost her ability to empathize, she’d lost her sister as a shield and protector, and she’d lost – she’d pushed away – Joy. They might not have stayed close. But a yearly coffee didn’t seem so terrible.

Loss builds upon loss. A sudden wind sneaks through a cracked window and every thread of the curtain inside is displaced by the movement of its neighbors. The ripples go back and forth, from the threads that are nearest the wound in the glass to the edges of the cloth and back again. 

Kat never imagined she could bear such a thing, but here she sat. She was still here.

She stood up in the pews when the Rabbi read out Rina’s name and craned her neck around to find any other mourners standing. But she was alone, as always, the eyes of the congregation on her, on her skin and on her hair and on the hole beside her where her sister should be. She recited the words of the Kaddish by heart, loud and unafraid, because it gave her comfort, because she would remember always as the ripples slowed but never ceased.

They would never cease for her, but they would never cease for Joy either – for Joy, somewhere in the city, walking forward in her power shoes with her head high, touching the other side of a thousand-threaded curtain, an endlessly shifting curtain of lamentation.

Oseh shalom bimromov, hu ya’aseh shalom alaynu, v’al kol yisroel; vimru Amen.

 

 

R.A. Santos

R.A. Santos is a Filipina-American artist based out of New York City. Her writing and photography have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Kartika ReviewRio Grande Review, and Cleaver Magazine. R.A’s work explores notions of place and impermanence. She currently works in public affairs with a larger focus on art and activism. 

 

Body in Hands

1.         You met him on the street, at fourteen. It was daylight and you were passing around cheap vodka mixed with Sprite in a Poland Spring bottle. Marlene was the one who knew him from a math class; she’d texted because the two of you were bored and he lived close. She offered you a Camel and you took it. He watched as you exhaled, and you felt the hot spotlight of his gaze. The feeling of a man’s eyes on you was a paradox of craving and detesting something all at once. It made you want to hide in your skin.

But he was not a man. He was a skinny, ninth grade boy. And when he said, I love the smell of cigarette smoke, you didn’t notice that his voice cracked, because those were the first words he had spoken to you and not your friend.

People walking on the street stared at the horrific picture of the three of you. Children smoking and drinking in broad daylight. You introduced yourself, and he said, I’m Sam. He watched as you exhaled and you passed him the water bottle.

In a strange way, Sam made you feel comfortable, even in those moments between meeting and knowing. The space between you is fear and love. And even years later, you will be close, but sometimes still exist in silence, like people who were just introduced. He will still sit in your cloud of smoke, breathing in your toxins, never complaining about the closed windows or the graying walls. Still be there just because you asked.

You remember your mother told you once that there are some people who meet and they barely have to speak. They don’t need to think. It happens that fast. It’s like nature, or physics, or a sunny sky after a rainy week. They meet and they never stop meeting. As if they’ve known each other for longer than they’ve lived.

2.         Sam knows nothing about you at home and everything about you at school. He knows how much you hate math, and how much you like to take pictures. He knows that you do homework in your free periods and that you are friends with all the security guards because you stay in the library every day until they lock up.

He is like everyone else in that he gets this look on his face when you speak Tagalog on the phone to your mother. He becomes mystified, in awe. Tries not to make it noticeable, but concentrates extra hard on the floor so that he can listen without looking. Hard consonants spin him into a spell.

He sees your body like the rest of them do, too. Your bra size is that much more exaggerated in his mind, your boobs bigger than even the most voluptuous of your classmates. Your waist is somehow smaller than other girls’ waists. Hair that much longer. Lips fuller. Sometimes, at school, you wonder if people really see you or if they just see some old World War II trope. Everyone says your skin is dark but when you compare it to theirs, it looks more similar than different. The New York winter ravages it into the same dry patches. Skyscrapers block the sun from your pores the same as they block it from everyone else’s.

3.         Sam holds onto his Jewishness like a lifeline. You never really discuss anything too personal, but it is in the way you categorize your lives that you start to know each other. He speaks about his religion in facts: Purim, Passover, Bar Mitzvahs, Seders. You tell him about Confirmation and Communion, how many beads are on a rosary, and together you count how many invisible lines make up the Sign of the Cross.

4.         It was in the way he wanted to know your opinion. It was when he asked for a drawing from your notebook. How he went to your first exhibit at the art school. His face when you talked to other boys. His face when you talked to him. The time when something came up but his phone died, so the next day he told you, I waited for two hours. It was in the four years that you saw each other every day but he never stopped looking. In the way his friends called you exotic and mysterious, but he always said smart and distant.

5.         You hate the idea that we could be together, he told you when you were sixteen. This moment you will remember forever. I don’t know what you’re talking about. His breath was the whole contents of an Old English 40 oz. and his temper was carbonated. You know what I’m saying.

One of your friends stumbled over and dragged you away. I’m stealing her! She’s mine! They handed you another beer and tugged at your hands until you were dancing, but you could feel his eyes on your back. Later, when the last song had run its course, you tried to find him to take the train home like always but he’d already left.

6.         It was always at night when it would happen and it was always while you were asleep. The only way you knew was, when you’d open your eyes and a figure snuck out the door. Your room was so dark sometimes you felt blind.

7.         One day he starts sitting at the opposite end of the room. He has been talking to a girl with wavy hair and long eyelashes. She is nothing at all like you. She is calm and laid back. Likes comic books and is good at science. Her family has cartons of Parliaments that they share, because they smoke openly in their house.

He begins leaving class for ten minutes at a time and coming back with a goofy smile on his face. In the library, they do crosswords together, hunched over the table looking for words they don’t actually care about finding. Someone tells you that they went on a date. Another person says they saw them at the movies. He stops answering your texts, and when you hear her whisper to her friend, Sam asked me out, you feel your whole teenage universe come crashing down. It’s in that moment that everything you ever wanted becomes so clear and then so far. This is how you know.

8.         He disappears, gradually, from the parties. Spends time with her indoors. Every Friday and Saturday, you find yourself dressing with the idea in your head: I wonder if he’ll be there? And even if he never is, you repeat this cycle every seven days.

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

I wonder if he’ll be there?

 

9.         In May, the letters come in. Everything becomes about tuition. For some people, the story of school is about serendipity: I felt at home as soon as I stepped on campus. For others, it is about bills: Where can I get the most money?

Everyone has their dream place, but few get in and few can pay. Really, when a decision like this comes around, it is not a question of want and more a question of ability. Financial aid is announced and you go one place. Most people from your school go to the state university. I don’t really have a choice, he tells you. But then he leaves something out. One day you walk into the college counselor’s office, and there is Ana, putting a deposit into an envelope with a familiar address. Suddenly, you feel like you’re watching your whole life ending with one lick of a stamp.

10.       At graduation, he says the first thing he’s said to you in months, which is, I wish she and I were going to different places.

And you say the last thing you’ll say to him for months, which is, But you aren’t.

11.       Everyone puts up pictures in their dorm rooms, but you wish you could put up your memories. In a perfect world, you would pin that first cloud of smoke with a thumbtack. Your bulletin board would have all the words he’s said to you. Pushpins would anchor knowing grins across classrooms. Blue tacks would connect the walls around you to the sound of two people laughing at once. 

12.       College has you on the computer constantly. You start taking photography classes and when you’re not looking through a lens, you are looking at a screen. You spend your time editing, manipulating, saturating, animating. Making life into something else. On late nights, you log into instant-messager, hoping for some old friend to be awake and willing to procrastinate alongside you. It becomes clear that his name is always there. That username – a mess of adolescent humor and misspellings – constantly plastered in the space of the screen that Adobe does not fill. It is there every day – popping up at night and staying until the morning. You cannot hear Sam or see Sam but you watch, nonetheless, until Sam becomes just a name, or a word. A screen. A conversation that does not get started. You wonder if he is also looking at his computer and watching for your word to become a message. If somewhere in upstate New York he is also waiting with tunnel vision.

Those minutes on those nights are seas of anxiety. Names on lists glare back like pennies in a tourist wishing well. The minutes are the quietest galaxies where nothing is said and everything is hoped. They make you wonder: where are the words in silence?

13.       It happens at night in the middle of a heat wave. You are home for the summer after college and he shows up at Marlene’s apartment. You and some friends have been drinking wine from the bottle all night and lamenting the lack of air conditioning. When he knocks on the door, he finds you gulping down Riesling that still has the price sticker on it. You have not seen each other in at least a year, but when your eyes meet it becomes the most uncontrollable reaction. Mouths turn up into wide smiles. Shoulders relax. I missed you.

The heat wraps around the room like a wool blanket. He takes out rolling papers and makes you cigarette after cigarette. Ana smokes, he explains. Yes, you say. You remember. She doesn’t like to buy them, he says. So I just sort of picked it up.

The night unfolds like a pre-pubescent crush. You sit closer and closer to one another until finally you are both on the couch. A few people have left, but neither of you pays attention and eventually his arm finds its way behind your back. It’s high school all over again. No more computer screens, no blinking cursors waiting for an instantaneous response. Just the two of you, talking. Staring.

Marlene yawns and pulls you and him over to the mattress on the floor. You all lie down and the two of you are awkward at first, but then you find a place between his shoulder and his forearm and it feels too safe to leave. It is not long before Marlene gets bored of the bed and wanders into another room, where the last guest is packing a bowl.

You take the final drag of your cigarette before stubbing it out. This is the closest proximity you’ve ever been to him. It is the line in desire between fantasy and reality. The wine has you drunk, but you start to get nervous thinking about all the times you’ve dreamed of this and all the time he has, too. His body is as bony as it was when you first met him. You are about to comment on this, but then he says, In high school, I liked you. It is an avalanche of upset. You cannot find your words. It becomes ping pong game of secrets:

                    You were so hard to get close to

I was afraid

                    It made me hate you

I made a mistake

                           You are so beautiful

__________ __________ __________

                             I wish I had known

I wish you had too

                              It’s too late now

Everything changed

                               Sometimes, I wonder if it had been you and not her.

I wish we were still kids.

He touches your waist and asks. but doesn’t wait for a response. He kisses you, and in an instant it’s a thousand thoughts spinning out of control inside your head. You are still lying down and his body is on yours. If he were a flavor, he’d be sweet. You have a preteen reaction to his lips: shock, confusion, awe, but most of all, self-consciousness. Panic. The two of you have always been so in tune and it’s been a year but he still knows your feelings when you say, I don’t know what I’m doing.  And you still know his feelings when he says, I can’t do this.

15.       All it ever takes is a pause, and when that happens, everything is retracted. If the night is in motion, you are the finger that presses Rewind.

Limbs between limbs and

Lips on lips

His hand on your face

Can I kiss you?

In one second, you reverse. Your hand on his chest and your breath on his neck. He gets up a million times and lies back down again. Don’t leave. Tries to kiss you and you pull away. You avoid his eyes, but stare into his shirt. Please stay. You want to be in this place forever. 

I feel like I don’t know you at all, he says. 

Sometimes it’s like talking to a stranger. 

Tell me something,

               anything. 

16.       Your body can tell the story of all the things he doesn’t know.

Your feet could say the places they’ve walked. The hallways they’ve wandered. Dirt roads on trips back home. Churches and seminaries. Chapels and convents. The cold linoleum tile of a sterile outpatient ward. How one anti-depressant made all the blood rush to your toes. How another made you feel like you were walking on clouds.

Your thighs speak to the one time, when you were younger, when your dad was still drunk every day. Your thighs know the kaleidoscopic web of burst blood vessels that decorated your legs. Continental-sized bruises coloring your limbs blue, yellow, purple. The place where the other end of the belt hit and the metal latch dug into the muscle so that when you tried to walk away, you limped. The next day was the first time your dad went sober, and your mother slept with her arms wrapped around you for three weeks.

Your wrists still have the shadows of middle school. Soft, pink lines where scar removal cream failed. It would be the story of pocketed XACT-O knives from the art supply closet. The sting of your mother’s tears as they fell into open wounds.

The torso holds memories of skin on bone. An upper body that looked like a harp, every rib a string to be plucked. Anyone who got close enough could hear the symphony of an empty stomach. The rumbling of gas and air as you digested vacant space. Your concave gut singing the song of six years spent chewing gum. Of losing vision when you stood. Hair falling out. Stripping naked every morning on a scale full of hope. Sometimes, your heart might say, the sound of speeding up whenever Sam was close.

But your breasts could tell the most. They are oversized and full, perfectly formed in acute post-puberty. Even now he looks at them, like they all did in high school, but if he really saw them he’d find tiny white stretch marks that trace lines along the undersides of each breast. They are like rings on a tree trunk: they tell you about years. This one is 2001 and you’re twelve, and your chest inflates too quickly for your skin, so as they grow, they leave marks. This one is 2002 and the tissue swells, overflows until you cage them in underwire. Men stare at you on the street, calling, Nice tits. Shouting, I’ll show you what a real man feels like. This one is 2003 and your uncle lives with you. The lines are a young body in old hands. They are the things you can’t say.

17.       The next week becomes a series of messages written but not sent. It is a full Drafts folder and an empty Inbox.

On Tuesday you write, I was too drunk. And on Wednesday you try, Can we talk? At dinner with your parents on Thursday, you type under the table, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Friday night, Marlene invites you to the bar where she works. There might be a job opening up and you’ve been looking for extra hours. It’s a cigar joint right next to that famous steakhouse in Williamsburg, so it’s not difficult to imagine their clientele. The tips are unbelievable, Marlene told you. All I have to do is light their cigars and laugh at their shitty jokes. Wear heels and put on some makeup. The one time you’d worked as a hostess, you got fired because you refused to flirt. That’s dumb, you told your boss. That’s the job, she told you.

The bar is not very big and you show up wearing both heels and makeup. You have a sheer nude shirt on and it contrasts against your skin, which is so yellow in the winter but so brown as soon as the sun comes out. Marlene told you to wear the black skirt, so that is what you have on, and while you walk from the train to the subway you hear the anonymous echoes of men’s thoughts escaping their mouths.

                         Chinita, you are so fine.
                                   Hey Baby, I like how you look.
                                       I could watch you all day long.
                                 Mami, I wanna know your body.
                         Come on. Give me a smile. 

Marlene greets you the way she greets the businessmen who filter out of the restaurant and into the bar. She grins and runs a hand through her hair. Good evening, welcome to Velvet. A tall, handsome man comes up behind her. He has evenly-tanned skin and a shaved head. No more than forty, you think. Maybe forty-one. He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and his upper body is sculpted with the dedication of an obsessive vanity. You know him already. He is Marlene’s boss, Phillip. You like Phillip because he played along when you said, I’m twenty-three, I promise, and he let you drink for free since, Marlene’s his girl.

So, you down for the job? he asks. His eyes scan up and down your body, lids lifting and falling as he goes from head to waist to hips to soles. You’d be great. I could train you after we close. 

18.       After hours, the bar is quiet and small. You sit on a stool and he shows you how to light a cigar. Use the tallest flame, he explains. Rotate it like this.

Together you go through a bottle of red wine as you go over time sheets. You’re better than Marlene, he says. She’s the best hostess, but that’s all she is. You are something else. It is not very clear what he means by this, but with recent events, you take it as a compliment. He invites you to his apartment upstairs for a cigar, and then a joint. Smoke with him and talk to him. Think, this will be good. Think, a job will distract me.

When you look down to stub out the cigar, he takes your face in his hands and kisses you. I’m nineteen, you say. That’s fine, he says. You take a
second to pause and consider it, and even though that’s not what you came for, you realize, like a little girl, that this is an opportunity. Okay, just for practice. The fortyyear-old man looks at you and laughs. What the fuck?  So you say, I don’t have a lot of experience, as if that is a logical argument.

But even if you are a prude who’s been lost in her own fantasies, the first time you realize the way a kiss can escalate is always a shock. It starts with you thinking, I’m going to practice making out, and it becomes your legs on either side of him. Heart rates go up and each breath becomes a gulp. Phillip carries you up the stairs and onto his bed. It is very dark in the room. He starts at your feet and moves his hand up your thighs. Kisses your stomach, then your ribs. He pins your wrists above your head. Unbuttons your shirt. Unclasps your bra. With both hands, he touches your breasts.

               Your body can tell the story of all the things Sam doesn’t know.

Being naked like this is a disorienting experience. It’s like being an adult but feeling like a kid. Phillip is the farthest thing from a boy; he is a man, and now the story has become an old body in young hands.

When he spreads your legs, you let him. But as soon as he touches you, your nerve endings die. You go numb. Cold. It’s like something switched. As if you are floating somewhere above yourself. You’ve heard about this kind of thing happening, but you didn’t know it would be so literal.

There is no feeling, but there is movement. At that moment, he is the most alive person you have ever seen. There is a tangible difference between you. He keeps looking at you but you look away. He is here and you are somewhere else. Finally, you say, I’m tired, and move to the edge. On your side now, you feel his arms around your waist. Hear his voice in your ear, Goodnight, Yana. Soft strands of chest hair against your back. His breath on your neck. You want to cry and when it seems like he’s fallen asleep, you crawl out of Phillip’s bed and cover your body with blankets. At four in the morning, you sit on the floor of a man’s room, and you write a note to a boy. 

19.       Years later, in college, you stand at the back of the crowd for an event led by a women’s group. It has been months since you’ve even thought about Sam. Messages were, as always, never sent. Words never spoken. And when you returned to school, you decided, chance missed. Sam still wrote to you now and then. Told you things about him and Ana. You talked about your work, the photo thesis you’d been planning. I’m glad you kept up with it, he said. I remember your stuff from school.

By now, you have met someone else and it has been the greatest revelation because, in some way, you never thought it would be possible. He is the first person to make you think, maybe that wasn’t it, and his words and his thoughts consume you like the strongest gust of wind. The first night you spent together, he pointed to the black-and-white blow-up on your wall and smiled when he said, That’s my favorite picture.

When he looked at you, he saw your eyes before anything else. In the morning, you didn’t even realize that it was your first morning with anyone. Sunlight from the window washed your bodies in honesty and every piece of you that was ever shrouded in darkness or quiet or creams was suddenly there, but you kissed him with closed eyes and you couldn’t see the light, all you could do was feel it.

And yet, six months later and here you are again. Behind a sea of people with him at least one hundred bodies away from you, standing at the front, holding the hand of a girl whom, after a moment of silence, takes the stage to say the words that many other girls before her have said this night. The event takes place in the dark, and the only ones speaking are the women at the podium, so that the rest of you stand to listen in a hush, faces lit by candles. It is beautiful, really. It is tasteful, really.

When you lost your voice was when you lost your nerves, the second you were touched but not looked at. You were in bed with him and it happened again, just like you remembered it did with Phillip, just like it did with Sam. The next day, your voice box was empty, and sitting in class with him became an out-of-body experience of looking at your hands shaking, legs jerking, hairs standing up and pores brimming over with a cold, nervous sweat. It became painful to watch yourself, and he said the same things that Sam did. He said, communication and closeness. Why won’t you talk to me and Say something. Say anything.

His new girlfriend is standing at the podium and her voice is the loudest sound you’ve ever heard. She is amplified by the supersonic power of the microphone before her, and she says the words, keeps saying the words, that you can never seem to say. 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ , 

          they go on forever 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ . 

                    as if she’s said them before and she’ll say them again 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _______________________________________ _____________ ! _____________ _____________ 

                              and you listen in the quietest galaxy of a crowd in tears 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________  _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ ? 

          you watch as he goes up to hold her when she starts to cry, too

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________, _____________ _____________ _____________

               think, 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ .

 

               my body can tell the story of all the things She will always know

 

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ 

wonder,

____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ , _____________ _____________ _____________ .

                                                                                                                   where are the words in silence

 

 

Sara Henning

sara henning picSara Henning’s poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Bombay Gin, Willow Springs, and Crab Orchard Review. Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

 

 

Cutting It Down

My mother, the apple tree, her house in Des Plaines.

My mother, turning pages with juice-stained fingers, entire afternoons of books and wind. Sparrows’ toes tempting her to become part tree, part girl.

Then Dean Martin gushing through the living room windows. Then time to hide the children.

Memories are made of this, her father’s voice joining the lilt. Sixth Martini. You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you.

Her body dropping reckless from branches, plucking toys from her sibling’s hands. Sister on her hip, palm hard against her brother’s back. Up the stairs, shoes shorn for soft stepping, into closets. Cotton and leather to swathe the body. Silk for the face.

Always a different location. A game of memory.

Bedroom, crawlspace, bathroom cabinet. Wherever their bodies, contorted into shapes of fear and corduroy, could slink. Linen or bivouac. Whichever safety would hold them.

Breathe lightly, she’d tell them. Gather your breath into a small orb of light and hold it in your chest.

Stockings stained with cinder, upstairs fireplace. Children still as lamps, children behind curtains.

Hold it there. Like they’d entered a game of waiting.

Try not to let go.

Needle grafting the record’s face, the return to song. Her father’s voice, her mother’s voice.

Leave them alone, like her mother would say on Saturdays in autumn, when he’d spend mornings raking, then burning leaves. When he’d return to the pile from a break with the paper to find the gold and burnish ravaged, stains of laughing and jumping, a trail of things dead and glowing.

Her youngest running to show her the rake-shaped marks on her legs.

Leave them. The bodies, tucked away. The bodies unheeded.

Leave them. First, soles of leather shoes slapping wood. Then restlessness, small things curling away from their latitude, their longitude. The ripping apart of drawers, waspish oblivion. Kicked cat, kicked dog. How his body looks when it touches the bed. How his body, in blackout, is still reaching.

Gather the children like apples, turn them over in her hands.

When she returns from school and the apple tree is gone. Hollow, he’ll tell her, spectacular with rot. The next storm would fill it with a rage of water. The house would lurch when it split the roof. Have mercy, he’ll tell her, on a thing that will fall.

The tree, not the fruit now bitten.

The book, not the hands that clutch it.

The wind, toes of sparrows, not the leaves that hang, not the rain still clinging.

Never the apples, brutal.

Never the storm.

Annaliese Wagner

Annaliese Wagner is a student at Stephen F. Austin State University. She has published her poetry in HUMID and The Blue Route, and has published fiction in Far Enough East.

 

How to Jump Rope

1) Start with the rhyme she liked to sing Miss Mary Mac, Mac, Mac. Bring the rope around and start jumping all dressed in black, black, black. Feel your sneakers smack the concrete. Close your eyes with silver buttons, buttons, buttons.

2) Remember to keep saying the rhyme. Squeeze your eyes shut. The pavement is hard.

3) Remember the pavement. Remember to close your eyes. Keep rhyming. Remember that today you went to the hospital and there were tubes in the veins of her hand, in the insides of her elbows, in her nose, down her throat all down her back, back, back. The pavement is hard. You want to hit your sister. Your sister is a bad word you can’t say. Say the bad word. Say her rhyme she asked her mother, mother, mother.

4) Your sister is beautiful. She took lots of pills. She is in a coma. She is not your sister. She is the bad word you said. She does not love you. Feel your knees ache. Feel your breath catch in your lungs as you chant her rhyme for fifty cents, cents, cents.

5) Remember you wanted to hide behind your father. She took a lot of pills and they were blue and white and orange and they mixed in her belly and they got into her brain and now there are so many tubes to see the elephant, elephant, elephant. Your knees ache and you can’t keep your eyes closed anymore because keeping your eyes closed doesn’t make any difference because you still see the tubes anyway and you are breathless but you keep chanting jump over the fence, fence, fence.

Matthew Dexter

Like nomadic Pericú natives centuries earlier, Matthew Dexter survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and warm sunshine. He lives in Cabo San Lucas.

 

 

The Value of a Good Camel Toe

My mother would never let me enjoy the nude beach, so I had to improvise: flaunted my camel toe as I followed footprints up well-trodden dunes polluted with half-burnt charcoal briquettes toward teenage surfers who smoked hand-rolled cigarettes on their boards, my flip-flops hanging from my middle fingers as I imagined a goddess should hold her bikini at the mythological shore on the other end of the island, the one my mother referred to as Forbidden. Our neighbor, the convivial widower and double-arm amputee, would swim naked every weekend. This I learned from Paco Villarreal, our other neighbor, who sold dime bags out of the emergency medical kit inside the hatchback of his mother’s Subaru.

I peered through our kitchen window every morning as we worshipped blueberry pancakes stuffed with chunks of chocolate and peanut butter, watching Mr. Wilson’s nurse lather his hairy chest and legs with baby oil. Severed my sweet cherry from the stem, inhaled a pyramid of whipped cream as he stretched in his living room with the nimble dexterity of a gymnast, with wrinkles and arthritis. Mr. Wilson wore shorts, but Paco was trustworthy–up until the day his mom rear-ended Emily Wheeler.

Emily Wheeler was a skater chick who happened to be the daughter of a cop. They thought Paco’s mom was drunk. Emily rolled with a drug-sniffing dog famous for finding contraband at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel carnival. The German Shepherd humping the hatchback, incredulous Mrs. Villarreal obliged arriving officers by opening up. Barking and licking the Velcro where bandages and rubbing alcohol were jammed against a large plastic Ziploc stuffed with thirteen smaller baggies. Such ended the drug career of one of our hood’s most ambitious and promising entrepreneurs. From then on, we had to steal weed from Karle Shaprona’s father when her parents went out for dinner at The Cheesecake Factory.

***

So there I was with my camel toe all jammed in tight and with these deliberate strides like a cheetah stretching, I orbited a constellation of freckles, pimples filled with puss as the boys rubbed their longboards with Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax. My shadow drifted across their legs.

Brown Pelicans landed on pink shoulders of children who had yet to learn the value of a good camel toe. I could feel mine at the perfect angle. When it was too sandy, I knew something had shifted. But the children didn’t pay me much attention. They were more interested in the ugly girls who didn’t shave perfect; the ones where they could see the pubes peeking from the bikinis of those honor students who wouldn’t know what to do with a sack of nuts if it smacked them in the cheeks.

I had been rehearsing what I would do with testes since I learned how to spell the word. In fifth grade, I studied the VHS movies Paco’s father began collecting from the adult video store with the black-waxed windows next to the arcade. Paco’s mother never returned from her stint in county jail. A few hours before her early release for good behavior, Mrs. Villarreal took a broomstick–not just to the hatchback, but to the head.

***

I still wanted to see that nude beach, what it had to offer, the promise of more than cotton and polyester dampened within the crevasse of knowledge. The three of us headed out one humid afternoon in early July when our parents thought we were getting dizzy on The Gravitron at the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel carnival. Emily Wheeler approached as we rode our bikes uphill. Her dog instinctively headed for my crotch. This was where we kept the weed in case we were confronted by security forces.

We were unsure how much to wax, so we carried shaving gel and a pink razor, just in case. We permitted Emily Wheeler to accompany us,without her dog. While Emily skated down Hillside Avenue, slaloming between parked cars, we sat on the side of the cul-de-sac behind an enormous maple tree and shaved our elbows, and made sure our pits were clean. When she returned we were in the middle of the cul-de-sac tanning our kneecaps.

The ride was smooth. Sweat was juicy. My camel toe was already swollen with excitement. We did not run from the rain. We washed our spokes and waited for the sun shower to dissipate. We would undress at increments, shedding our layers like rattlesnakes and doing cartwheels on wet sand to attract attention. This was our moment to shine.

The nude beach itself was not as majestic as fabled.It was scarce and rocky on one side, broken by dandelions and uncut brush. We went to hide our bicycles, but encountered an elderly love triangle. The breeze carried the sea salt, attracting thirsty dragonflies which hovered above our heads as we joined the circle to watch.

There was no boundary and nobody questioned why we had such swagger. Emily Wheeler had her skateboard under her arm. We wondered when would be the perfect moment to start stripping. Would there be a sign? Then it happened. It looked like a shark attack. The lifeguard dragged the woman from the white water. The nudist hit her head with her board, the lifeguard unhooked the band from her ankle and bandaged the wound beneath the shade of his umbrella.

Emily wheeler was doing the wheelbarrow butt-naked, nothing more than ethereal cartwheels and specks of backwards summersaults. She started at the rocky side and followed the shoreline toward the shadows cast by spray-painted cliffs on the far crescent. She became the angel of the beach. We waited an hour until the appendages were nothing more than fingers and toes and Emily Wheeler had worn herself out so that all she could do was lie on the wet sand and wait for the big waves to roll her over. The larger ones would drag her downward with a gush of receding foam. Our neighbor was waving his leg from an inflatable raft. We felt closer to Satan and Jesus and everything meaningful that afternoon. Nothing seemed so fuzzy anymore.

***

We hit the nude beach every day. We knew everybody: Mr. Wilson, the gym teacher, the postman, the guy who delivers the pepperoni calzones, the woman who works at the fitness center, the alcoholic with gout who collects disability. Nobody told our parents. Nobody talked about it. There was nothing to say. It was spoken through sundrenched atonement in the tabernacle of Forbidden.  The spell rode itself timeless and fierce.

***

The Indian summer was ending. Soon would be seventh grade, layers of clothing, skin so distant and cold. Sundrenched chestnuts roasting would be nothing but another Christmas carol. The present unraveling, we sat by the tall grass and sipped cabernet sauvignon with daffodils dangling from the corners of our lips in the shadows of the cliffs where the elementary school janitor with shingles was making love to the young single mother who worked at the Laundromat. We were tempted to join them, but instead followed the footprints of Emily Wheeler toward the shoreline where she was building an elaborate sandcastle adorned with pink shells.

Emily lost herself as a rogue wave smothered us out to sea. We knew we could have paddled horizontal to the shoreline to escape the rip current. We could have yelled to the lifeguard on the other side of the beach, held out our hands, hoping he would notice us drowning in the shadows where swimming was forbidden. We didn’t though. We unhooked the boards from our ankles by the Velcro. We swam till our arms and legs ached and then tread water and waited till time was ready to take our naked bodies under, as it would have done soon enough. We wanted the waves to take us together and hold us for a moment of sublimity. To let the current wash us away, wash us clean. 

Kristen Blanton

Kristen Blanton is currently an MFA fiction candidate at the University of Idaho. She received her B.A. from the University of Arizona in 2009 and lives in Moscow, Idaho.

 

Fast Water

I made Natalie breakfast once, the first time she stayed over at my house. When we finished, I took the plates and she followed me into the kitchen. I started hand-washing them and she offered to dry.

Above my sink is a photograph a friend took for a photography class last year, the summer my ex-boyfriend, Mark, and I lived together. I want to shock my class, she said, they’re all Mormons. In the picture my fingernails are digging into his flesh hard, scratching his reddened back. When the summer was over, Mark told me to move out. He sat there solemnly while I packed. He didn’t cry until I asked him to help put our cat into her carrier.

If Natalie had asked about the photo, I’d have said, he was just an ex, with promises to tell her more stories another time, but I’m not sure she even noticed it. I handed her plates while I washed the dishes from yesterday, and she asked me where each item belonged in my kitchen.

At the thrift store we look for paintings and frames to decorate the bare walls of Natalie’s new apartment. We’re sorting through them when I find a picture I know she’ll hate, a little boy dressed in a suit like a pretend adult, handing a flower to a little girl wearing a hat and dress. The little girl’s holding the flower in her right hand up to her nose, and she’s smiling like she knows something. The little boy is kissing her cheek.

“Jesus, Molly,” she says. “No.”

 “What if it were two girls?”

 “They don’t make sentimental photos with baby lesbians.”

 She buys the frame because I said I liked it.

“We can change the picture,” I say, like decorating her house is our project, like someday soon I’d be saying things like “We enjoy chow mein.” The signs are there, though: we leave panties that aren’t ours on each other’s bedroom floors. We adopted her dog – Toby – together. We have toothbrushes from cheap Walgreens’ 2-pack deals in each other’s medicine cabinets.

“This won’t ever be anything,” I told her.

In the car, she laces her fingers in mine and touches my thigh, and it’s like I’m somewhere I don’t belong.

We drive out to the country and park in a field where she drinks Yellowtail Pinot and I drink Tisdale shiraz from red plastic Dixie cups while we sit on her dog’s blanket and I lay my head on her stomach and she touches my arm.

She keeps touching my arm and tells me about how her mother criticized the way she folded socks. I like being a voyeur into Natalie’s life.

“I wanted to hold your hand at the bar last night,” she says.

“Then why didn’t you?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “Do you want me to?”

Her dog chases a squirrel.

“I’ve never had anyone’s hand to hold for any length of time,” she says, almost to herself.

“I know,” I say.

 “You couldn’t care less,” she says.

“That isn’t true,” I say, taking her fingertips and kissing them. “Don’t be mean.”

She kisses me. “I want to take you camping,” she says. “Let’s have a weekend.”

 “Where?” I ask.

“There’s this place I’ve been wanting to go camping. The Wallowas.” she says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “We should probably invite other people.”

She bites her lip for a minute, then nods. “Because nothing’s real, right?”

I laugh.

“Nothing means anything, right?” she says.

“Stop,” I say.

“Fine,” she says, smiling. “We’ll find someone else to invite.”

***

Natalie and I arrive at the mountain at five in the afternoon. We hike three or so miles with Toby, this little black lab that she’s strapped a backpack to, so it can carry its own food.

“She’s earning her keep,” Natalie jokes.

She makes mac and cheese for dinner and teaches me how to use a camp stove, boiling the water above the small flame and pouring the noodles in. She says since it’s just the two of us, we can eat out of the pot, so we do.

“What do we do all night?” I ask.

“We can play cards, I don’t know,” she says.

“It’s getting cold,” I say.

“Let’s go in the tent,” she says.

We open a bottle of cheap champagne, passing it back and forth while she shuffles the cards.

“Do you remember how to play rummy?” she asks.

“Sure,” I try to recount the rules to her. “What are you, stupid?” I say. I smile, but I hear Mark’s tone in my voice.

We get silly from the champagne. The dog stomps around the tent and tries to find a place to lie down.

“Let’s zip our bags together,” she says.

In the single sleeping bag she takes me in her arms.

“Can you think of anything better than this?” she asks me.

She kisses me shyly, waiting for me to kiss her back, waiting for me to say, “It’s okay.” She touches my stomach, and is more familiar with the terrain of my body than I am.

Natalie and I don’t say I love you, and I know we never will. I touch the scar on her breast, where they put a broviac catheter when she was a kid. She’d pointed it out to me once, said, “Look how ugly.” I wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out.

***

In the morning, the dog pukes on the bottom of the sleeping bag.

“God, Toby!” she cries, scrambling all over herself. “Get out of the bag,” she says.

“It’s fine,” I say.

“Jesus,” she says, pushing the dog out of the tent. “That’s what she gets, eating all that grass. Look at this fucking mess,” she says, while I try to shift out of the bag so she can take it outside and wash it off. I pull on the jacket I was using as a pillow.

“Hey,” I say, “it’s really okay.”

When Toby was a puppy Natalie would take her for rides in her mother’s car. Toby got carsick, and she threw up on the new leather seats, her mom shouting, “Natalie!” I wished that I had been in that car so I could have said, “It’s not her fault,” or maybe, “It wouldn’t kill you to be nice about it.”

I get up out of the tent and watch Natalie pour water from her Nalgene onto the bag and hoist it over a branch so it can dry.

Natalie makes coffee in her French press, and after it dries we stuff the bag into a stuff-sack. We put our packs on, and I carry the coffee while she leashes Toby. We hike three more miles in. There are the tallest trees I’ve ever seen and mountains so beautiful I didn’t know they existed in real life. I keep stopping and gasping, saying, “Natalie, look!” like maybe she wasn’t leading and looking at the same mountains. She had been here before, and I can tell it makes her happy that she knows a place to take me that would shock me like that, so I play it up more than I should.

We’re supposed to cross a river to get to trails that will lead us to a lake she wants to show me. Natalie says she’ll go first. She takes her pack off to see if it’s safe to cross. She sits on the ground and unlaces her boots, peels down her socks, stuffs them into her boots. She folds her shorts to the middle of her thigh and begins across the river.

The dog gets in after her. The dog is paddling hard, but she’s not going anywhere. Natalie’s being pulled hard by the current too.

“Natalie,” I call out. She can’t hear me above the sound of the water rushing downstream.

“It’s too fast!” she yells to me, halfway across the river. The water’s not high, maybe up to the middle of her thighs. She turns around and starts back.

The dog sees Natalie turn and turns back, too.

“Natalie,” I call again. Then, “Toby.” But they don’t hear me.

Natalie’s thighs are red from the cold, the water pushing against her. Toby’s struck against a fallen tree, trying to paddle, to get out.

I think of what would happen if we don’t get that dog back. I think of what Natalie’s scream would sound like if we lost the dog. I think of Natalie blaming herself. I think of holding Natalie while she cries, wishing I was anywhere else but there, wishing that I were anyone other than the person who had to be there to care.

Then I get this image of Natalie’s and Toby’s bodies floating down the river. What I would do. We’re six miles in and I’m not sure if I know how to get us back. Would I follow the river and fish her body out of the water when she hit a log? How long could she swim? If I managed to find my way out of this wilderness, would I call her mother? Her mom barely knows who I am, because we’re not really dating. “We” are not something Natalie will talk about with her mother.

Toby’s head goes under the downed tree and I can’t see her for a minute. Then she bobs back up on the other side, and the current is partially blocked by that fallen tree, and she swims to the shore and pulls herself up.

Natalie approaches the shore.

I run toward the dog, not twenty feet away, and grab her collar.

“Good girl, Toby,” I say to her. “Good girl.”

Natalie sits on the bank and looks across the river. She sits and the dog comes up and licks her face.

“I’m sorry,” she says, petting the dog. “I don’t think we can cross.”

“That’s fine,” I say, laughing. “It doesn’t matter.”

“The trails on the other side are better,” she says, taking her socks out of the boots she set on the shore. “I’m fucking cold,” she says.

“Do you want my jacket?” I ask her.

She shakes her head, shivering. The dog keeps panting.

“We can just hike around here today,” I tell her. “Did you see Toby?”

She shakes her head.

“She was fighting pretty hard,” I say, thinking maybe that will make it less scary for her.

“I’m a terrible dog owner,” she says. “I didn’t know it’d be so strong.”

“You’re not,” I say. “How would you have known?”

She has this look on her face, and I can tell it doesn’t matter that the dog didn’t drown, all that matters is that she could have, and Natalie won’t be able to forget it. I hate seeing her like this.

“Natalie,” I say, sitting beside her and running my knuckles against her cheek. “It’s okay. Nothing happened.”

She keeps looking at the river.

“If we leave now, we’d be back to the car before dark,” she says.

***

When we get to town we stop in at a bar near my apartment with a patio so we can bring Toby. It’s dollar-fifty wells, and we start on gin. Natalie’s good for two G & Ts.

On our third round, Natalie tells the waitress that knows us, “Toby had a rough day.”

She tells her what happened as if she’s confessing, reluctant but forced, like the waitress needed to know that something almost happened to Toby today. After five gin and tonics, Natalie says, “Let’s go to your apartment.”

We pass my neighbor, Andy, sitting on our joint patio, drinking a beer.

“You want to have a drink with us?” I ask him. Natalie looks at me, annoyed, like she wanted this to be a couple’s thing, the end of our night.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll be over in a minute.”

After we walk into my apartment, Natalie starts kissing me. “Come here,” she says, pulling me into the bedroom. Toby follows and jumps up. We fall down on my bed and she continues kissing me. She’s pushing her tongue into my mouth in a way she doesn’t when she’s sober. “Why did you invite him over?” she whispers, kissing behind my ear.

“It’s just a beer,” I say.

“I’m so tired,” she says. “Tell him to go away. I just want to be in bed with you.”

I get out of bed and pour her a glass of water from the faucet, take two Advil from the cupboard. When I return, she’s already asleep. She’s fully clothed so I pull the covers over her and set the water and the Advil on a table beside her head. There’s a particular pleasure I have in taking care of her, making sure she’s okay, seeing what she’s like when she’s drunk.

I answer the door. Andy’s holding his beer.

“Natalie already passed out,” I tell him.

“That was quick,” he says. “Do you still want a beer?”

“Let’s sit outside.” I say.

We sit on patio chairs and smoke cigarettes. Andy moved in a few weeks ago and he says his ex-girlfriend is moving in with him the next weekend. He says he needs help with the rent.

“That doesn’t sound like a good situation,” I say.

He shrugs.

“You have plans to reconcile?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “I don’t think so,” he says.

We’re both silent for a minute, then I say, “I have records.”

We sit on the floor and I open a banker’s box filled with all my records and begin to finger through them. He doesn’t say anything about Natalie being in my bed, so neither do I.

“Have you ever used a record player before?”

He shakes his head.

We sit on the floor and I put on a Beatles album.

“Everyone likes the Beatles, right?” I say and suddenly I’m nervous, don’t know what to do about being alone with Andy.

“I don’t really like them,” he says. “But it’s fine.”

“I can change it,” I say.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says.

Andy keeps talking about his ex. He says she didn’t understand that he had friends. He says she got jealous. He says he doesn’t need to fuck his friends, that he knows guys like that, that it’s not his thing, like he’s offering an explanation for why he’s not fucking me.

I think, What if he wanted to? Then I think of Andy on top of me on the carpet, of him breathing and his beard rubbing against my neck and the noises that he would make, and what it would feel like.

But Andy doesn’t matter. He’s just a guy.

“You should leave after we finish this beer,” I say, “I’m getting tired.”

After I close the door, I take my clothes off and walk to the bed and I see Natalie sleeping. I get into bed, naked beside her body. I run a knuckle across her hips. I look at the curve of her ass, down her legs. I put a hand on her flat stomach and smell her hair, that long white-blond hair. I think of my friends who, when I showed them pictures of her, said lesbians aren’t supposed to have long hair, and I think she probably keeps it long because once she didn’t have any.

I want to live inside this body, I want to be this body. Then I would know what it was like to spend a year in waiting rooms wearing hats, fingering the glass on the tanks where they keep the fish. I want to feel a man’s hands run across this skin marred by a surgery and I want to feel a man’s lips and his mustache across these nipples and this neck and I want to arch this back and moan with this voice.

I touch Natalie’s hips again and look at the bedside table. The Advil’s gone. I see her waking and finding me getting fucked on the carpet and I’m glad it didn’t happen. I move to be closer to her. I lie flat on my back with my arms by my side and I don’t want to touch her.

**

In the morning she rolls over and puts her arms around me. “Baby,” she murmurs. “When did I go to sleep?” she asks, sleepy-eyed.

She kisses my neck and I think this is the last place I want to be, in my bed with this woman.

“How late did you stay up?” she asks.

“I don’t know why it matters,” I say, closing my eyes. “Late.”

I feel her sit up on her elbow. I open my eyes, look at her, and I can see she’s waiting for an explanation, for me to say something else, but I don’t.

“Why are you being like this?” she says. She waits for a minute. Then she sits up. “Did something happen with Andy?”

“Why do you have to ask me that,” I say.

“Something did, didn’t it?”

“We’re not dating, Natalie,” I say.

“I know,” she starts crying. “You did, didn’t you?”

I play with my earring stud.

“That’s just like you, isn’t it?” She gets out of bed. She walks into my living room and throws herself onto my couch, crying.

“I’m being dramatic,” she says, like a child scolding herself.

I get up and follow her to the living room and sit at the end of the couch, the way I imagine her mother did, sitting on the foot of Natalie’s tiny bed while Natalie cried about something. I try to remember her mother’s name. Janice. Jean. Janine?

“You don’t even care,” she says.

 “That’s not fair, or true,” I say.

I look at Natalie, watch her shoulders rising and falling. Each time she cries harder I tell myself, I did that. I move to the floor and sit.

Maybe I should rub her back and tell her it’s okay. I know she wants me to touch her.

“What about our weekend?” she says, like it was something that happened years ago, like we’re looking back on this weekend as if this is when it all began to fall apart.

 “I’m sorry,” I say, “Maybe you should go.”

She doesn’t rise, just shivers and sobs, and I wonder how long I can watch someone cry.