Trade In

When I walked into the bar with you, it was a normal night. We’d made ourselves pasta with peppers and onions and a brownish sauce that you invented and eaten it in front of the TV with the latest episode of that crime show you like so much. The funny one. We took showers, separately, and I cleaned your hair out of the drain and didn’t say anything to you about it. I wasn’t being passive aggressive, I was just loving you. It was one of the ways I loved you, without you knowing about it. When Nick called us and asked us to come to the bar he liked picking up women at, we looked at our watches and said sure, why not, it wasn’t even nine and we hadn’t gone out all week.
When we walked into the bar, Nick was already in full swing, a brunette with a great shirt – it was open in the back, and her spine was the kind that sinks in rather than puckers out, which I’ve always found attractive. I pulled on your arm, and asked if we should sit elsewhere. You looked down at me, and I loved you for being tall, and you laughed and said no, we can join.
Nick introduced us to the woman, Gen, with a G, like Gen-X or Y. She said this first thing, and you and I squeezed hands, each of us knowing that the other was thinking about the conversation we’d had sometime recently about how hilarious we thought it was when people insisted, upon first meeting anyone, on explaining how unique their name was because it was spelled differently.
Gen and Nick already seemed like old friends. For all I know they were. I haven’t seen either of them since that night, so I never got a chance to ask. She kept looking at you though, and then at Nick, and then at you. Whenever I tried to ask her anything, she gave me monosyllabic answers.
We drank a lot. Two beers each, and then we got to doing shots because Gen kept ordering them from the waitress. After three rounds, I noticed that only three shots were appearing. None for me, apparently. I didn’t say anything because I wanted to be sober enough to take you home.
The music got louder as the night approached eleven. I was bored. I could barely hear what anyone was saying, and the lights were getting dimmer. I was sleepy. I heard Nick yell, enunciating as if to someone who didn’t hear him the first time, that you and I were “cool.” I didn’t know what he meant, until I did. Gen started being nicer to me, touching my hand across the table and meeting my eyes and then flicking her own towards you. She started buying me shots again too.
Around midnight, I finally dragged you out, Nick and Gen trailing us, and we all got into the same cab. Nick gave the driver his address first, which pissed me off, but when you got off there too, and I sat in the cab, one foot out on the street, and one in, I began to know something was off. Your hand was on Gen’s hip. Had that been happening in the cab? I was in the back with you and her, Nick was in the front. You held your hand out to me and gave me that smile, the one you give me when I come out of the shower wrapped in a towel, and I shook my head.
You beckoned, with your head, with your whole body, and I said no. Gen put her hand in your pocket. I put my foot back in the cab. Nick was waiting by his front door, holding it open for you and her. He was smoking and spitting like he always does. I shut the door of the cab and asked the driver to take me home.
I didn’t have any money. He was angry and yelled at me. I gave him my number and full name and told him to call me tomorrow and I’d give him my credit card info.
When I got inside, nothing looked like you anymore. The hair in the wastebasket in the bathroom made me gag, or maybe it was the alcohol, and when I leaned over the toilet and threw up, again and again until there was nothing left in my stomach but acid and bile, I felt only a shadow of you behind me, an absence, where you should have been, waiting with a glass of water and a toothbrush, telling me sip, brush, come to bed.

Weakdays

     You begin to understand why people have a favorite day of the week when she enters your life. You are sedate, a bearish den mother collecting your people and your things around you. You like your teapot to rest just so on the corner of the counter beside the fruit bowl. You prefer things to be in order and clean. Your nights of debaucherous drinking produce a heavy trip down to the recycling bins the next morning, not an acquaintance with strangers’ toilet bowls. 
        She is a migrant, a traveler, a pick-up-and-leave kind of girl. But she doesn’t, not quite, not too far. She is like a tiger on a nature reserve, loping up to the fence and turning her back coolly on it, pretending she doesn’t see the bridges and boats and planes that lead out of New York City. She’s the small-town girl of the Big Apple, bred to be a house-cat in confined spaces, the feral rippling beneath her skin. 
        She doesn’t understand you and you don’t want her to. She thinks you’re a mystery. She finds you charming, endearing. These adjectives aren’t generally applied to you and you welcome them, and her, with arms thrown wide, embracing the neon pink baggage she brings with her.
        When she rings your doorbell, her hair floating softly in your view through the peephole, you discover what butterflies must feel like when they burst out of their cocoons. She gives you wings when she walks over your threshold and places her hands firmly down the back of your pants, lifting you up enough to touch the low-hung ceiling of your apartment. She stays for tea after tasting you. If it is a Tuesday, that is your favorite day that week.
        If she comes on the weekends, you know she will arrive with others, sometimes kissing them in front of you, and you become acquainted with all the spots on your walls and the stains on your kitchen floor.  You bring around drinks and snacks and turn into a plastic model of your mother who does these things with grace and affection. Your bitterness, you’re sure, can be tasted in the cocktails, in the crackers, in the guacamole you tarry over for far too long.
        The weeks she doesn’t come at all are worse than the weeks she ignores you in your own house.
        This is how far you’ve fallen.
        This is how far you have to climb out.
        You wonder if you have any interest in finding a ladder, in making a rope of your hair and using it to climb out. If you do manage to scrape yourself out of the whole, what will you find out there? Won’t it be bleak? You’ve gotten used to this.
        You like having a favorite day of the week. 

Quickie #2

He said: “It very quickly becomes Microsoft.” Across the aisle, baseball cap covering bald spot, he said this to someone I couldn’t see. The train’s current was choppy today, passing broken houses and homes, and I wondered if I’d misunderstood.
Maybe he’d meant micro-soft. The small-scale tenderness that creeps into relationships when they get rocky. The fingertip touches that mean more, because the skin is hypersensitive.
Or is it all just brand names, really?

A Bridge of Hope and Spit

“I like to be in the dark sometimes.”

“Me too.”

We lay together, side by side, barely touching. Or is it lie? Do we lie together? Which is the correct conjugation of the verb? We care about language, this is a crucial issue. If we lie together, does the insinuation extend beyond the simple act of bodies naked limbs stretched side by side on a too narrow bed minds on different planes of consciousness which we have already agreed are impossible to bring together in any substantial way? If we lie together are we lying to ourselves and each to the other as well? There’s no need to raise this question aloud, of course, it will only spoil the thoughts racing in our minds which may be exactly the same and may on the other hand be entirely different, but are equally valid. The gap is unbridgeable or is it that the bridge is ungappable? We can’t remember, that conversation was too many pleasures ago.

“Is this okay?”

“Yes. Is this okay?”

“Yes.”

We talk about books and music and likes and dislikes and our heads are filled with mush and gray matter and our lips move around words which mean things or don’t and the hour grows later and light grows brighter and the birds chirp and our voices grow softer. Soft like what, is this important? Are they soft to the touch like a piece of felt that is smooth when you run your fingers along it both ways, or soft like velvet which is so smooth it may induce tears when touched one way and suddenly course and upsetting when touched against the grain, like a cat being pet to make its fur stand up? And on the subject of furs are the tree version used for Christmas celebrations absent from both our locales as they seem to be at first glance or is Christmas celebrated in a half of this darkness that is still unexplored?

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Oh, Please Believe [Flash Fiction]

When Mother forbade me from going into her office, I was, of course, determined to go in there. I should have respected her privacy. I didn’t have the excuse of being a curious, nosy seven year-old anymore. I was married, thirty-two, and had a child of my own. But I was going through a bad divorce and I was living with her for the first time in over a decade, and I didn’t like the idea of not being allowed to go somewhere in the place that I once called home so naturally.

Mother and Father had moved into the house in the 60s, before I was born, and they never left. After I was five or so, Father stopped leaving for good. He was too heavy to go out much past the garden when I was a toddler, and by the time I was skipped up into first grade, he was only able to stand for a few minutes at a time and poke his head out the kitchen window to wave at me. I loved him for it, at the time. It took me a few years before I really understood how shameful it was to have a father who stayed inside all the time. I was proud of him, then, because I could boast of how often he played with me.

Our games were simple ones. I hid, and shouted out for me, moving from one easy chair to another, heaving and puffing. His sweat smelled of talcum powder. He was fastidiously clean. He was shy of his big underarm stains, even though I knew them so well that I used to put my forehead under them in the summer, when I was hot, and cool myself off. I would giggle and he would blush. He loved me, I think, even though he died before he ever really told me so. He didn’t talk very much. Most of his communication was accomplished through his eyes, which crinkled at the sides like his his favorite potato chip brand.

Mother talked too much, and when he died, she let him out of the house only long enough to be cremated. Then he was back, and she carried him around in a jar with her. She talked to him, and to me, sometimes getting us confused. It made me angry at him. I didn’t like being confused with a pewter jar full of dust. I peeked inside once, even though she told me not to, so I knew that he wasn’t in there really, despite what she always said.

Now, at thirty-two, I knew better. She hadn’t lied to me. I just hadn’t understood that my father wasn’t sitting in that jar like a genie in a bottle. A comforting thought, especially because the environment would have suited him – he wouldn’t have to move very much at all – but one that at my age I knew was stupid. I should have trusted her this time when she told me not to go into the study. I should have learned from past mistakes. I should have realized that I’d only be disappointed.

I waited until she went to her quilting class. She never carried Father around with her anymore. She’d bought a lot of new clothes and gone back to work when I started high school. She was better. That’s what she always said. Better. Like Father had made her sick. Maybe he did.

I made sure that Jonah was sleeping. Ever since leaving his father, he’d been sleeping badly, prone to nightmares. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get as much custody over him as I wanted, because I knew that he loved his dad and that it would be cruel to him – not to his dad – to separate them completely. I couldn’t hurt Jonah, even though I wanted to knife his father with a set of scalpels.

Opening the door to the study, I already knew that I was making a mistake. It wasn’t dramatic. It was anticlimactic. I really should have expected it when Mother had “thrown” Father’s favorite chair away, the last of the old possessions in the house, a few years ago. Of course, there it was, right there. I leaned on the door frame and sighed, disappointed. I was expecting a family of bears, or maybe some secret lover hidden away there. But a chair? An old chair.

The worst bit of it all was trying to figure out why Mother needed to hide from me that she’d ever loved Father. I didn’t understand it. I closed the door, decided never to ask, and ran to Jonah who had started crying, waking up out of a nightmare.

Carved Innocence

“Carve my face just like it is, okay?” Juliet turned to see how her hair would look piled up on top of her head in a messy knot. The result was unappealing so she let her long, dark locks tumble back down to cover her back.

When she took her eyes off the riveting image of herself, she was almost surprised by the other presence in the room. She was so used to speaking to herself, that it was hard to remember how to act when she did have company.

“Of course, my lady. I would dare not insult you by creating a lesser image than the one you see before you in the glass.” This courtly nonsense was exactly what any poor artist who lived on the whims of the rich was supposed to say.

Juliet didn’t smile. She wouldn’t smile unless absolutely delighted. The uncles that raised her had taught her that facial expressions could cause lines in older age, and they strictly forbade them. Juliet was their prize, their secret weapon, growing into womanhood in relative secrecy and almost absolute privacy in order to be unleashed upon the world at precisely the right moment. Until she was out of their hands – and, if they had their way, she never would be, not entirely – she would do as they said and would be rewarded and punished accordingly.

The artist was one of her rewards. Juliet knew that she was beautiful. But her uncles didn’t know that she was growing shrewd, locked as she was inside the walls of the estate they’d allocated to her. She asked questions of the servants and bribed or charmed them to answer her despite their fears. She discovered how she could get what she wanted. In time, her intelligence might prove dangerous to her kin, and she might become a force to be reckoned with in quite a different way than her uncles had planned for.

But now, having just celebrated her fourteenth birthday, Juliet was getting a statue carved of her. Her uncles had been surprised. “Not a portrait?” they’d asked. “No,” she’d answered. “A statue. Of me in robes. Like a wise woman of the old days.” When they’d begun to complain about the cost of such an endeavor, she’d pouted, frowned, and wrinkled her brow. They had become alarmed, remembering the tantrums she’d had as a little girl and had quickly agreed. “Alright then,” they’d said. “As a birthday gift. How’s that?” She had let her face slacken, thanked them politely, and had walked away softly, demonstrating her perfect posture and the pleasing way her hair swayed back and forth lightly with every step.

Now the artist was taking some sketches of her. Juliet had been worried, at first, that her uncles had gotten confused or had tried to foist a portrait on her after all, but the artist had reassured her. “Ah, no, fair lady, I need the sketches in order to be able to work even when I am not in your presence. Have you not heard about artists and their muses? We do not always work at the most convenient of times.”

Juliet had spent her morning doing what she always did. She read poetry aloud in front of the mirror, listening to the resonance of her voice and practicing to make the tones more pleasing. She sat at the harp and played it for a while, eyes wide open, not getting lost in the music as she’d read in books that some people did. She couldn’t get lost in anything, not because the artist was there, but because she’d been raised to be aware of herself at every moment. She always thought of the way she held herself, moved, expressed her physicality in all its aspects.

The only time she could get lost was when she gazed in the mirror. Only when she saw that she was doing everything correctly and that there would be no lashes, no punishments, no chastising and shaming words from her masters – only then was she able to relax into herself.

It was when Juliet was gazing in the mirror and the weight came off her shoulders that the artist saw the human being in her. Before that, she had seemed like an automaton, a puppet being moved on strings. The artist began to sketch furiously, terrified of losing the one glimpse of this girl whose innocence was never allowed to flourish.

Next moment, Juliet heard the call from one of her masters and the weight of her uncles, their friends and their enemies seemed to sit back on her so that her posture became once more an act of will.

Can and Cannot

“I can’t.”
“But why? This doesn’t make any sense!”
“I guess not. But I just can’t do this anymore. That sounds so fluffy and cliche and… well, not me. I know. But it’s also true.”
“But what’s changed?”
“Nothing. With me, anyway, nothing has changed. That’s the whole point. With you, though? I don’t know. It seems like nothing, at times. But at others… everything’s changed.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I know. I guess I’m sentimental. I also just obsess about things, so I assume everyone else does too.”
“I really don’t know what else I’m supposed to say.”
“Me neither.”
“So what now?
“I guess we don’t see each other for a few years. Or ever. You know. Whichever happens to happen.”
“…”
“So you’re not going to say anything? You’re not even going to make me feel like this is hard for you?”
“It IS hard for me.”
“Right.”
“It is! If you don’t want to believe me-”
“No, fine, I do, I do believe you. I just think you’ve never really appreciated how hard it is for me.”
“I do-”
“No, no, you don’t. Because you’ve forced me to make this step myself. True, in a way it’s been me hurting myself through you but you know how hard it is for me to stop hurting myself and if you really cared in any way close to what you claim, you would have made this step before me. But you didn’t. And now I have to. And you’ll hate me.”
“But I still don’t get it. I thought everything was fine.”
“It’s not.”
“You can’t?”
“You can?”
“Yes.”
“Well, I can’t.”

Flies and Cubicles

Shane wondered how many words it would take to make his mother understand him. Each sentence he went through in his head became messier, each consecutive invention becoming more muted than the one before. It was as if they had no way to communicate anymore.
He fiddled with his pen, twisting it around and through his fingers in the old drummer’s trick that he’d taught himself in high school. They’d managed to talk then, ironically enough. True, much of the time they shouted each other down, but they’d gotten their meanings through. She’d let him get the big drum kit and had even helped him to make the garage sound-proof-ish. She’d come to the two years he’d been in his neighborhood’s Battle of the Bands and had bought him and his friends a big pizza when they lost.
“Has Roberta sent you the figures yet?”
“No – I don’t think so, let me check. Oh, yes, she just sent them!” Shane smiled at his boss and began to reel off the numbers she wanted from him. Roberta – one of the blank slates that Shane knew only through their interoffice email correspondence – had, in fact, sent in the figures two hours ago, but Shane had been catching up on some National Geographic articles that he’d missed and hadn’t been doing his work. It was a good thing that all the cubicles in the office had screens that faced into them rather than out into the walkways between the booths. Shane sometimes wondered whether whoever designed them was aware that no one was going to work this way and had designed them like this on purpose, so as to give the working drones like him a bit of a break.
A fly buzzed near his ear and he swatted it away with a spastic jerk of the hand, making his boss smile and then pretend that she hadn’t. She walked away, having jotted down the obscure figures onto her ever-present clipboard and Shane breathed a sigh of relief and allowed his eyes to drift down to the sway of her lower half as she walked away from him. He felt mildly guilty about his fantasies about his boss. One thing that he believed in just as strongly as his mother did was the equality between men and women. He’d stopped telling women on the online dating websites that he frequented that he was a feminist because he realized that it worked much too well as a line and he felt that wasn’t fair, since he actually was one. But being a feminist didn’t stop him from noticing his boss’s curvy figure and though he knew she was also intelligent and competent – he actually didn’t know these things about her, but felt obligated to think them because she was his boss – he couldn’t help staring at her ass whenever she walked away from him.
The fly was back. Shane swatted it again, this time actually hitting it with his hand. He winced. There was something disgusting about feeling the fly hit his hand – flies were supposed to be vainly swatted away, never actually touched with bare skin. He got up and went to the bathroom to wash his hands. He knew it was silly, but he felt dirty now, almost contaminated. While he was soaping up he began to think about his mother again. Why couldn’t they talk anymore? It truly didn’t seem to make a bit of sense. He was older now, a real adult with a job and rent and utilities and a bit of health insurance. Shouldn’t they be able to actually talk now, like equals?
But she was still unreachable to him. He knew that she still had friends – they went “lunching” together three times a week; he still cringed whenever his mother used the noun as a verb. He knew that she spoke to his sister because she often dropped heavy and obvious hints whenever he talked to her about how much “Mom’s going through right now,” but she always refused to explain what, exactly, it was that their shared mother, flesh of their flesh, was going through. His sister always said the same thing whenever he asked for details. She told him to call her and “ask her yourself! You’re her son, aren’t you?” The question unsettled Shane, and he occasionally wondered whether his sister was actually trying to tell him, in a strange and roundabout way, that he was adopted.

Hugs

It was the day that he hugged her that he realized that she was in love with him. He’d just finished a gig, and he was sweating, still in the suit he always wore on stage. She ran up to him, smiling, her shoulders hunched forward and inward a little bit because of her lifetime of insecurity and the several years of painful shyness that she’d recently gotten over. She was nice, and he was glad that he’d met her. But when she hugged him, he felt her body melt into his and the embrace was perfect, comfortable, warming. There wasn’t anything suggestive in it, nothing sexual. But it was sensual, and that was worse. It was the sheer warmth and feeling in the embrace that made him realize that things had taken a turn down an alleyway that he wasn’t sure he was ready to enter into.
He wasn’t scared of love, nor was he scared of relationships. He did relationships well, and he’d always been thankful of that, especially when he saw his band members fall prey to their own effed up desires and needs that ended up only hurting them and everyone around them. He’d never been in the same band for more than two years, and every time the bands broke up, or fell apart as was usually the case, it was almost always triggered by one of the members having relationship issues. Of course, the underlying causes were deeper – drinking problems, drug addictions, depressions, inability to deal with the stress of constant touring and little or no money. But the immediate cause had always been a bad girlfriend or boyfriend, a lover posing an ultimatum, or a blowout fight that invited the neighbors to call the police.
He didn’t know why he hugged her the second time. They stood outside, smoking together, and he was glad that she’d come to see the show, like she said she would, even though she’d known that it would be the same set as the show they played two weeks ago, when she’d first seen him. They talked about innocuous things, like movies made by his favorite playwright and the place she’d grown up in. He told her about how he’d heard once that Disney had planned to build a theme park on the moon and call it LunarDisney. She’d told him about the way she knew her parents had done drugs in the 70s. There was nothing too personal in the conversation, nothing telling. She didn’t laugh at the things he said and he didn’t lean forward and tough her all the time. But at some point, almost out of the blue, he leaned forward and hugged her a second time, and the words “I’m glad I met you” seemed to hover between them, almost-but-not-quite-spoken by either or both of them.
He didn’t mean to lead her on and he was determined not to do so. After all, he was leaving soon, moving to another city, and she wasn’t even finished with college yet and wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. They were going to be leading different lives and they both knew it. But she was in love with him, even though she hardly knew him, and while he wasn’t in love with her, he did feel a closeness that he didn’t know the origins of.
He worried that he would hurt her, especially after that second hug. They finished their cigarettes and discussed what each of them would be doing that night. Neither one suggested that they spend the night together, but he felt a vivid image tugging at his mind in which they woke up together and he smiled at her, knowing that she didn’t mind that his teeth were crooked and that she thought his smile was nice despite them.
She didn’t have any such visions. She didn’t even think he remembered her outside of their brief meetings. That was alright, because love, for her, wasn’t what it was for him. She loved many people, all at once, and felt deeply towards them all. She believed that people were good, and that there was something beautiful in everyone. She was naive in some ways, even though she’d been hurt enough in her life to know better. But she wasn’t expecting anything of him, not of him, and although she sometimes succumbed to wish fulfillment and painted an abstract in which the swirls of color represented her and another whom she loved, she still never verbally expressed that love to anyone.
They didn’t hug when they parted. They bade each other good night, and went their separate ways.

Venison

Three winters ago, Mick and I went hunting. I didn’t know what I was in for. For one thing, the gun was so much heavier than I thought it would be. For another, I hadn’t realized how much waiting around happens.
Mick was so excited about my finally agreeing to go with him. He promised me that he would show me how to cook whatever we killed. When we first started going out, I couldn’t believe that he was the kind of person who went hunting. When I found out that he did, I was horrified. For a while there, I was going to break the whole thing off because it bothered me so much. But Mick was… well, Mick, and I guess I just sort of decided to see where things would go. I think I also didn’t quite believe him, because he has such delicate hands and he plays the piano. I couldn’t reconcile those long, large-knuckled fingers and his mild tenor with what I imagined hunters to be – rugged, rough, hairy manly men.
Eventually, though, I had to accept him in all his various incongruities, because there just isn’t a way to ignore a rabbit carcass roasting over a bonfire in someone’s backyard.
When he took me hunting, Mick told me that it would be a real adventure. I guess it was. We tramped all around through a forest with brightly colored vest things over our jackets so that no one would accidentally shoot us. We crouched down and waited, and breathed, and I felt the mist turning to a drizzle on the back of my neck.
I could hardly hold the gun up, let alone shoot, but watching Mick was fascinating enough to make the ache in my muscles worth it. There was something in his face that seemed akin to his concentration when he plays – but there was something else there, something almost feral. I didn’t, and still don’t, get it. There wasn’t anything exciting happening, but at every breath of wind and rustle of the leaves, his pale skin would flush and a small smile appeared on his mouth, but otherwise he’d stay absolutely still.
He killed a deer that day. That’s something else I didn’t realize – that we would have to carry something huge like that back to the car. Deer are much bigger than you think they are from far away. It was heavy, and Mick almost didn’t want to take it home, but I couldn’t stand the thought of him having killed it for nothing. If we brought the poor thing home, at least we’d be making use of it.
I couldn’t watch him turn the deer from animal into meat. I went to the bathroom and threw up after I saw him slit its stomach open, but I didn’t tell him. I pretended to be hungry, and, to be honest, the smell of the meat roasting actually made me hungry. It was easy to separate the venison from the deer I’d seen lying dead on the forest floor with its thick tongue hanging out and its eyes glazed and empty. I’m glad I never told Mick that I threw up, though.
We didn’t last for very long after that, but it wasn’t because of the hunting. It was because of his other passion – the piano. He got picked up by a touring orchestra and went to Europe. He cried a little when he said goodbye to me, and he apologized. He told me he would always remember me. I know I’ll always remember him too, especially when I see a deer or smell the telltale scent of venison.