Tag Archives: moving on

Stitches

stitches

 

I wake up to him kissing my neck and running his hand between my thighs. I sigh and turn my head to kiss him. He needs a shave, but I’m too distracted to tell him that. And besides, I like the stubble. I’m tempted to tell him to let me sleep another hour, but he runs his fingernails along my stomach, and I come alive against him.

Eventually I turn over and pull him close, careful to keep the injured finger clear of his writhing back. Kissing his shoulder, I can see the bruised, stitched flesh, torn and marred, in heavy contrast to his smooth tan skin.

***

I would have really appreciated it if she’d told me sooner I was losing her. I knew we were going to break up, but I couldn’t have gauged how vicious she was going to be about it.

We’d been getting along lately, though, so I guess I misinterpreted that as a reconciliation. In hindsight it was pretty clearly just a cease-fire.

She was doing her makeup in the bathroom. She was naked, her hair fresh and dry, and before I jumped in the shower I came up behind her and kissed her neck. My hands slid along the curve of her hip.

“Get the fuck off me!” She jabbed me sharply with her elbow. Not enough to hurt, not in the body, anyway. But enough to startle me back.

“Jesus! What was that?”

“Are you trying to make me put out my goddamn eye?” she snarled. Even curled back across her teeth, her pink lips looked remarkably kissable. Eyeliner gave her a stare like sharp wire.

“Alright! I’m sorry.” I put my hands up in surrender and stepped into the shower.

“Oh, don’t sound so fuckin’ wounded.”

I didn’t answer, just started my shower. After a minute or so I heard her groan. “Turn it down! The steam is gonna fuck up my hair!”

I ignored her. I let the heat scald away my irritation with her. By the time I stepped out, she’d already left for work.

***

When he and I are finished we hold each other, our chests pressed together, me breathing heavily just behind his ear. His hair is sweaty, but when he sweats it’s with a clean, almost sterile odor. I run my fingertips against his scalp, ignoring the slight sting of my injured finger. We both need a shower. We’re clearly not done fooling around just yet.

Every so often he gives me a lazy kiss to my temple. We both doze off a few minutes. When I wake up I can feel him getting ready to go again. When Brittany got her stuff, she stripped the linens straight from the bed and threw them in the car. Soon Bobby and I are tangled in the act of consecrating the bare mattress anew.

***

“Christ, all I’m trying to do is talk to you-…”

“That’s all you fucking do. You talk about things but you never fucking do them. Goddamn, you’re boring.”

“Babe, just…”

“Just get the fuck back, alright?”

“Goddamnit,” I caught the door to the bathroom before she could close it. “Do you want us to break up or what?”

“No! I just want…”

“You don’t even fucking know what you want! All you do is endlessly bitch at me…”

She pulled the door. I tightened my grip, holding in place. Before I could say anything else, she threw her entire body into pulling it closed, grunting in anger and effort.

My finger made a dull, wet sound as it was smashed against the frame.

I remember yelling so loudly it felt like a roar. Brittany covered her mouth against the drips of blood spotting the carpet. She kissed me over and over on the forehead and told me she was taking me to the emergency room. She ran off to get dressed and grab her keys. While she was getting ready, I climbed into my own car and drove away.

I heard her come home from work around nine. I’d locked myself in my room. On the table in the kitchen, I left a note, telling her she had a day to get her stuff out. That’s all it said. Now that I think of it, I haven’t laid eyes on her since seeing her disappear into her room. This room, where Bobby and I are now.

***

When Bobby gets out of the shower I’ve set up a tray with toast and eggs. A carafe of coffee is on the desk I moved in here yesterday.

Bobby dries his hair. “God, I love you.”

He says it lightly, and I pretend not to notice him gauging me with his eyes. Seeing how I’ll react.

Oh, no.

His phone vibrates again. Text from Mark: “Hey babe. Flying back in tomorrow.”

Bobby tosses the towel over the curtain rod. He pours coffee without getting dressed. I take in the sight of him, and run my thumb along the stitches in my finger.

Maybe he’s sincere, but two days into this I’d prefer it if he wasn’t. I never touched him before Brittany left. Never thought of it.

While he stands there I contemplate going to him, kissing his body, going further and further until he’s against the wall and shuddering above me. I think about him trying to do that with Mark, a man almost twenty years older. Always tired, always busy, always out of the house when Bobby gets home. Maybe Bobby does love me. But he also can’t.

Bobby types something into his phone while he drinks his coffee. He winks at me while he sips from the mug. The tip of my left middle finger is deep blue and purple. Between the stitches I can see the skin beginning to heal. The flesh is smashed and shredded, but still it comes together.

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Seal

lips

 

Tori looked so picturesque that Zach cursed himself for not bringing his camera. She’d called at two in the morning, needing a ride, and then begging off and telling him he could go back to sleep. But she was downtown, and it was a two mile hike uphill to her dorm at Vandy. He was pulling up beside her three minutes after leaving his trashy-chic studio loft near Five Points.

Her black skirt swished a half-beat before the rest of her body followed. Her red hair seemed to absorb the glow of the bar front neon. He would have honked, but the familiar rattle of his old Wagoneer gave him away, and she waved to make sure he could see her. Of course he could see her.

“Tell me again why we’re not dating?” she sighed, climbing in and leaning back in her seat.

“Your giant, giant boyfriend, mainly,” he told her. He pushed in the cigarette lighter below the dash. He didn’t smoke, it was just something he did. Some folks touched their nose. Others tugged their collars. He played with the cigarette lighter in his truck. “Also,” he added, curling his fist and lowering his voice, “my art is my true love.”

“Oh, Jesus. What do you call it when someone cliches a cliche? Hypercliche? Megacliche?”

“I’m a barista and a photographer, living in a studio apartment above a pizza joint. I am the Voltron of cliches.”

“You’re not too cliched! Didn’t you sell something recently?”

“Sure did. From that gallery there.” They passed by a tiny storefront, the picture window covered in white blinds. In huge Veranda font the numbers “465” were stenciled in black. “Dude bought a picture of mine for a grand.”

What? Hell yeah!” She punched him on the arm, and he added to his cliche gestalt by pretending the punch hadn’t hurt. “How are you not more excited about that?”

“Well, it might not happen again.”

“Oh, Jesus.” She shook her head. “If you’re gonna be broody I think I’d rather walk.”

“I’m not broody. I just don’t wanna get too comfortable with the idea I can live off my photos.” He’s in a good space now, but when he worked two grueling jobs just to survive, he’d sometimes wake in the middle of the night unable to breathe. But things evened out for him. He starves now, making coffee and hustling photos, but at the price of finally living.

Ben Folds was playing in his stereo.

And all this wanderin’…

Got you nothin’…

“So I guess I’d be the chipper one.”

“What?”

“When we’re together. I’ll clearly have to be the optimistic one.”

“Yeah.” The lighter popped back out, and after a beat he pushed it back in. “But we won’t be together.”

“Yeah,” she nodded.

You were ready to…

But never could…

“So was it a bad fight?”

“Not really. Just…” she sighed, “a stupid one.”

“So you’ll call him tomorrow.”

“Guess I gotta.”

“Yep,” and in the flash of a street light he could see her smile at him, “now that I’m gonna hold ya accountable and all.”

He pulled up to her building. The campus police call box by the door flashed blue and red in the still night. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’re a lifesaver, man.”

“Cherry flavored and everything.” And he smiled after her as she climbed out. He caught himself a little too late watching the swish of her skirt against her thighs as she went in.

“Come on. Get your head on straight.”

At a light, he caught his reflection in the rear view mirror, saw the faint pink imprint on his cheek where she’d kissed him. He snapped a quick pic with his phone, and back at home he toyed with filters and exposure until her lipstick was a steel-gray print, framed by flecks of stubble along the slate white board of his cheek. He printed a copy, then scribbled along the gloss with a permanent marker. Once the words had soaked in he made two more prints, one to hang, one to hustle. He could easily get thirty bucks a copy for this print. He was gonna try for three hundred.

Are…

You…

Happy…

Wanderin’?

He texted a woman he knew, but she never responded before he fell asleep. Beside his whirring laptop, the corner of the print hung over the edge of his desk. It wafted in the eddy of his ceiling fan. Across the gloss, beneath Tori’s steel kiss, was the title, scrawled in black ink.

“Seal.”

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Flies in the Air

Flying Fly

 

When Alex first started working at Third & Rose, Mo immediately imagined him being blown out the door by the might of the wind machine Cooper kept leaning against the far wall from the counter. She imagined his white smock billowing like a parachute as the heavy duty fan launched him off his feet and spun him in the air like a stray takeout bag. She could picture him snagged on the top corner of the door, banging against the frame every time a customer came in, until finally a faint cross current plucked him free and sent him swirling down the block.

He was thin, but she soon realized he was one of those skinny people who cheated by being muscular in a wiry sense. His pale face never reddened whenever he hauled the morning’s meat delivery into the cooler, and he would work at the make line for hours, sweating in stale heat the wind machine only seemed to whisper to.

“Aren’t you hot?” Coop would ask him. “You want I should cover for ya a bit?”

Sometimes Alex would take him up on this, saying only “Yeah, I could stand to take a leak.”

“Take a leak, smoke a cigarette,” Coop would wave him away. “Christ kid, just sit down for a second.”

Coop liked him. “He works hard,” he said one day. “Believe me, we know how to appreciate hard work.” At that, Coop would tap the Star of David he kept on a chain. Mo wasn’t Jewish, but she didn’t think it was too kosher to tap the Star with a knife that had just halved a dozen pork butt sandwiches. Still, she kept that concern to herself. Outside, his sweaty hair pushed from his face, Alex smoked a cigarette he’d bummed from Mo, turning his head to check out a dog walker in a floral print skort. When he caught Mo catching him, he pretended to be intensely interested in the gravel by the gutter.

***

Alex figured out Third & Rose’s expansive menu pretty quick, especially the kosher section. “You could be a regular Jew!” Coop would say, impressed.

Coop knew Alex was also a Jew. Or, more accurately, Coop had been made aware on two separate occasions that Alex was Jewish. “Get outta here! Really?” he’d said both times, right before lunch rushes. Two hours of shouted orders and muttered Yiddish later, however, Coop had completely forgotten.

Alex didn’t mind. He was Jewish in the absolute most technical understanding of the identity. His people were Russian Jews, and it was definitely more Russian than Jew that showed in his makeup. But when you looked at him, it wasn’t even so much “Russian” that you thought of as much as it was “Icelandic,” or really even just “bleached.” He was the kind of fair-haired, fair-skinned person that never tanned or burned. Most of his genome hailed from a region that considered refrigeration to be a weather forecast.

Most of his friends assumed he was lying when he told them he was Jewish. “But we see your dad at Mass all the time!”

“Well yeah, he’s Catholic.”

The idea of a Catholic/Jewish coupling always seemed like such an outlandish idea to gentiles and Protestants, but from his own experience Alex was pretty sure more Jews married Catholics than other Jews, and vice versa. It was like a safe form of abandonment for both parties. They could escape a small portion of the oppression that comes from a heavily religious household, but still have someone they could feel comfortably guilty around. Judeo-Roman guilt beat Protestant shame any day.

***

Mo had a tattoo of a coiled snake between her shoulder blades. The snake wasn’t coiled naturally, but made to look like the spikes one would see on the screen of an EKG. A rattle pointed to her left shoulder, a forked tongue pointed to her right. The deli didn’t have a dress code beyond “don’t show up naked,” and Mo favored tank tops while she worked in the yearlong southeastern heat. When her back was to Alex, he would stare at the tattoo. As the muscles in her back flexed the snake would seem to slither from shoulder to shoulder. Or maybe slither wasn’t the right word. Maybe what Alex actually meant was dancing. The snake was dancing across her tanned skin, wriggling around freckles and coiling against the straps of her bra. It would nip at the tips of her dreadlocks, hanging from the bun she tied each morning, but it could never reach beyond the nape of her neck. It was trapped in a wonderful prison, stuck inside the exposed square of her upper back. When he fantasized about her, the fantasies always began with him thinking about the smooth, tan expanse of her back.

He felt like, even if she and he were ever to get together, this was something he should keep to himself. Would she find it creepy that he fantasized about her back?

As it turned out, she would. She would find the general idea of him fantasizing about her to be sweet and endearing, but going past generalities and into specifics, she would definitely begin to feel some reservations. So it was good that he never told her, just as she never told him that she could see him looking at her, his reflection caught in the sneeze guard, clouded by Windex residue.

***

Third & Rose handled flies pretty well. Above the door, a monstrous blower would dissuade most of the little bastards from following customers inside, but in Georgia, in the summer, flies were an inevitability.

Cooper was pretty good at killing them quick, and without garnering too much attention doing it. He keep an eye out while he slapped sandwiches together, careful with his work but always glancing up to track some whizzing black dot overhead. When it would land he coordinated his movements perfectly, as though he were a teenage ballerina and not a potbellied fifty-five year old with, as he called it, “a bad toe.” His movements in handing out orders and taking cash were so fluid that even if he reached above the bug, it would sit where it lighted, undisturbed. Then when the moment was right he would slip his hand overhead and with a little pat he’d execute the thing, killing it but not squashing it, then brushing it into his hand to deposit into the trash. He was a master at this, a veritable White Death, except with flies instead of invading Soviets, and with a middle-aged Jewish man instead of a disgruntled Finnish farmer.

But around mid-June, Cooper found himself outmatched at every turn by one fly that persistently buzzed overhead in long, lazy oval. He watch the bug with sniper’s eyes, muttering to himself.

“I’ll get the bastard when he finally lights,” he’d swear to Mo and Alex, his gaze circling the ceiling while his hands mechanically prepared a perfect pastrami on rye. You could tell he was mad from the way he sawed through the sandwich, hacking through it in three deliberate strokes. Coop kept the knives so sharp he could cleave even the thickest hoagie in a single swipe. By cut number three he was practically sawing into the cutting board.

After about a week, the fly was still alive. Mo thought she could hear Coop cursing it under his breath. By week two, she was certain she’d caught him, at least once, accusing the bug of being an anti-Semite.

***

“Who’s that girl who walks with you after work?” Alex’s mom asked him one lazy Sunday. She was sitting inside on a folding chair, enjoying a faint breeze from the screen door and sipping a beer she’d stolen from his dad’s stash in the garden shed mini-fridge. She did this every time he went to Mass. Alex’s dad was pretty devout, so she’d developed quite a fondness for Miller High Life.

“Woman I work with.” He was careful these days to say woman and not girl. He wasn’t doing this so much out of sensitivity as propriety. He was twenty-four years old. People his age weren’t boys and girls, they were men and women. He forbid himself, however, from ever thinking of himself as anything coming close to what he thought a man should be.

“You like her?” She sucked on her beer, always smiling a little when she did that, her eyes closed as though in quick prayer. A cicada squawked and thumped into the screen beside the mezuzah. Alex’s mom splashed beer on her fingers and flicked them at the insect, sending it screeching into the heavy afternoon heat.

“She’s alright.” Third & Rose closed early on Sundays, staying open only to serve the lunch crowds from church. Since getting back home at two he’d locked himself in his bathroom three separate times, in deep consideration of just how alright he found her to be.

“One day when she’s walking with you, you should keep walking. Just walk past here and go get her some coffee or somethin’.”

“I got grad school comin’ up, Ma. I don’t know that I’ll have time for anything serious.”

She smirked and shook her head. “Oh, so serious. Life just won’t give you three seconds to get your dick wet.”

“You’re very matronly, Ma.”

She cocked her head in a quiet, huffing laugh and swigged her beer. Her hair bobbed when she did this. The color and curls made Alex think of chestnuts. He didn’t look like either of his parents, really. His mother was the kind of Jew you’d find on vacation posters for Israel in the sixties. She was quick to beam and loved the sun. His dad was tall, dark, Black Irish. Both were given to browning in the sun. When they were together, it was like his parents had leached anything resembling skin and hair tone from their offspring.

It was the picture hanging above the TV that reassured him he belonged. In it, his grandfather, fresh from the old country, stood beaming with his wife and kids. All wore their Stars of David on glittering chains. All had dark eyes and dark hair, and smiled with deep, dark lips.

Except his grandpa. In the old black and white, taken in direct light in the middle of the day, his grandfather’s pale skin and light hair seemed to glow. Sometimes, if he stared long enough, Alex felt like his grandfather would begin to fade away.

***

At home Mo was in constant motion. It often occurred to her that she shouldn’t have to move this much just to live alone with a single cat, but there was always something that needed cleaning or feeding or scooping.

She spoke to her parents while she cleaned that Sunday, her mother and father quickly swapping the phone between themselves so that Mo had to guess when to end one topic of conversation and begin another.

“No, Mama, no one serious.” In English she had a pointed, intelligent inflection that made you think there was a secret meaning behind even the most mundane phrase. In Farsi, her mother’s language, her entire manner changed. Her voice softened, and words flowed together like a spoken song, unless, of course, she was talking to her parents. Then there was just a lot of interrupting and occasional swearing.

“Mama, I’m not even looking for a boyfriend now. I told you that internship might even call me back…”

“You have a boyfriend?” her father snapped into the phone in Urdu. Then in Farsi, to her mom, he asked: “Why the hell don’t you people tell me anything?”

“No, Papa, I don’t have a boyfriend…”

“You just said you had one. I’m not deaf! I’m old but I’m not deaf! I hear better than your mom’s dog hears!”

“Papa, I didn’t say you were deaf…”

“Don’t bother her so much,” her mother said, taking back the phone, “her boyfriend might be over there.”

“Mom, there is no boyfriend!”

“What’s his name?” her dad asked beside her mother. Again, in Urdu. The language her folks used when they wanted to be sneaky.

“Give me time, I’ll get her to slip up and tell us.”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Mo interrupted, in fluent Urdu. Then, because Farsi came easier to her: “Mama, just let it go.”

“Why don’t you bring him over one night?” Her father had grabbed the phone again. “For dinner? Does he like homemade pizza?”

“Your pizza’s terrible!” her mother cried. “You’ll scare him off, you cook so badly!”

Her cat mewled as she walked past, more out of polite acknowledgment than affection. She clamped her phone between her cheek and shoulder and scooped laundry into the hamper. Clothes were strewn across the living room floor. Looking at the mess, you’d think her entire wardrobe consisted of nothing but thongs in varying colors. When the hell did she buy so much underwear? Did she really only own three socks? Where were her goddamn yoga pants?

“Honey, you bring him over when you’re good and ready, okay? Don’t let your father pressure you…”

“Who’s pressuring? I’m her father! Shouldn’t I wanna meet the guy? Honey…”

“Mom, Dad, MOM. MOM? Okay, mom, I gotta do some laundry. I’ll call you guys back, okay?”

“Okay, my love. But don’t you let your dad scare you into bringing him over, you hear me? You just take your time.”

“Mama, there’s no…”

“I remember how your grandfather scared your dad so awfully when they first met. He was going to ask for permission to marry me then, but he held off for three more years because of the hell my father put him through. You know…”

She did laundry and cooked dinner while her parents talked. They spoke of Pakistan, of her mother spending summers there working for her grandfather’s company. She could hear them both laugh, softly, as they remembered how scared Mo’s dad had been when her mother brought him back to Tehran. Their laughter was low and more intimate than a kiss. Mo’s dad had intended to stay a week, but had flown back to Kerachi the very next day after meeting his future father-in-law, convinced he’d lost all hope of ever marrying this amazing woman that God had put in Pakistan for the summer, seemingly for him.

Or maybe, he loved to add, he was put in Pakistan for her to find.

She stayed on the phone with them so long the battery eventually died, and when the charge cord brought it back to life she sent an apologetic text with a promise to call back tomorrow. She showered, then sat by her workout mat for a while, petting her cat. Around midnight he always became a whining ball of affection, and as she rubbed his stomach he twisted and coiled. After a half hour he dozed back off, and she left him to sleep. He stayed on the mat till dawn, dreaming in a spot touched a thousand times a day by the part of her back Alex secretly found sacred.

***

By the first of August, Coop was letting his preoccupation with the fly slow him down. Used to be any longer than a two minute make time was just wasted money. Now, if a sandwich didn’t get out till after five minutes, it wasn’t like it was the worst thing.

“Bastard’s quick. Only sets down when he knows we can’t get him in time.”

Even Coop’s mechanical hands were slowing down, his diverted concentration sapping the attention of his muscle memory. Sometimes he reach up with a magazine and smack it against the wall, but the bug was always just out of reach. It whizzed by, a mocking black dot against old, off-white tile.

“Hey Mo. You wanna maybe get coffee later?” Alex asked, wrapping a beef and Swiss in foil. “Maybe see a movie or something?”

She rang up two orders and doled out change, then slipped on a pair of plastic gloves. “Nah. I got some things I gotta do.”

He boxed the order and slid it out front. “Yeah. I got some stuff I should work on too.” He boxed another order before asking “Rain check?”

She ran a credit card, studied a guy’s license a little too long. “Nah. Is that okay?”

More orders. Grilled sandwiches wrapped in foil, the foil so hot his hands felt mildly scalded even through the gloves. “Yeah, that’s okay.”

The shift passed by even quicker than usual that day. Walking home, their usual bubbly talk flowed easier than it did before. An itch had been scratched, and not only that, but it had considered scratching itself before leaving. Consideration was everything.

Coop stayed behind an hour, hoping to catch the fly unawares. “Goddamn Jew-hatin’ fly,” he’d say to the anti-Semitic insect.

***

Mo’s internship went through. She left in September, taking her cat and mat and seven billion thongs to Atlanta. She came back for a weekend in October, and another weekend the next October, and the next October after that. She pretended not to notice how much time was passing, with Alex still behind the counter at Third & Rose.

Alex took so long deciding on grad school he actually had to reapply. By the fifth October, Mo didn’t see him behind the counter. She never saw him again, actually.

She saw Cooper plenty of times, though. Coop never left, never would, never wanted to. His grandpa had built that place, he said, and he told people that when he died he wanted to be buried in the basement, nestled in a make line cooler, hugging his beloved thin-slicer.

Coop didn’t have any kids. Never really wanted them. He never really let it bother him that there would be nothing to do but sell when the time for making sandwiches came to an end. The quality of his work never failed, but people eventually noticed that the speed he used to be known for had diminished significantly. No surprise. Cooper wasn’t a young buck even when he was a young buck, and age catches us all. But that wasn’t what killed Coop’s speed. Coop never could catch that damn fly.

It’s still there, now, swirling in the air, making Coop wince with each pass.

The fly, as it turns out, actually died years ago. It was never flying to begin with. It’d been caught in an eddy, caused by the wind machine Coop kept leaning behind the counter. It spins round and round completely beyond its own power. Coop still watches this tumbling corpse, waiting for it to land. The fly, however, has already moved on.

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Tree Tunnel

tree tunnel

 

The old Volvo bounces along the dirt roads. To anyone other than Kat it would seem like Stephen is simply careening wildly into the brush. Lush pine trees and bare oak trees whip by. Kat lies across the back, her boots propped up in the window of the door behind the driver. She chain smokes, flicking the butt over the fold out tray behind the armrest. Her long wool cap flutters in the wind. Her purple cardigan is open. Some ash is sprinkled over her black Ziggy Stardust tee shirt. Alice Cooper is playing on the stereo.

Stephen scratches at his pointed beard and squints through his thick glasses until he spots a break in the brush along the road. He brakes, slowing so a dip in the dirt won’t bounce the car too violently, and comes nearly to a stop before turning. The branches of the brush scratch at the doors. Kat feels them whip against the soles of her boots. She snuffs out her smoke and tries to shake off the sleepiness of the drive.

“So, did you, like,” Kat bobs her head side to side as she chooses her words, “did you, like, do stuff with her?”

“Yeah. We, uh…we did some stuff.”

“Like, what kind of stuff?”

Stephen shrugs. “The usual stuff, I guess.”

“Like…” Kat chuckles, “like, what kind of stuff is a middle-aged Greek woman into?”

He snatches the cap off his head and throws it at her without looking. She reaches up to catch it but it smacks her in the face anyway. She laughs, her tongue ring clicking against her teeth.

“She seemed to like saying Greek stuff when she came,” he calls back. He’s driving on bare ground, parallel to a splashing creek. The Volvo bounces a little, and Kat lurches to catapult herself into the passenger seat, her ass smacking the side of Stephen’s face as she whirls around. She nearly kicks him as she pivots in place, but she’s just barely able to pull her legs in close enough to avoid clocking him.

“Ohhhh,” Alice Cooper groans, “Burning inside this…”

Kat grabs Stephen’s fingers, and they squeeze hands.

“HELL IS LIVING WITHOUT YOUR”

They scream-sing in unison.

“AIN’T NOTHIN’ WITHOUT YOUR!”

They turn to face each other, leaning in so close their noses touch.

“TOUCH ME!”

They turn away now, still holding hands, rocking their fists and their bodies to the force of the words.

“HEAVEN WOULD BE LIKE HELL!”

Facing each other again now, leaning so close they’re a lost equilibrium away from falling into a kiss.

“IS LIVING WITHOUT YOUUUUUUUUUU!”

Stephen keeps driving, the Volvo shoving aside a bush that’s grown so thick it hangs over the water. The leaves rustle over the steel frame as the car slithers past. Another bush. Another. And then a path opens up, and they are gliding beneath a tunnel of tree branches. Ahead the space widens, not much but enough to park and turn around in the morning. He sets the brake and kills the engine. Kat squeezes his hand again at the refrain.

“HELL IS LIVING WITHOUT YOUUUUUUUUUU!!!”

The song plays out while Stephen reaches into the cooler behind his seat. He brings out a six-pack and drops it into the floorboard in front of Kat, then opens a bottle of Woodland Reserve and takes a drink. “To Kat,” Stephen says, tipping the bottle her way. She grabs it and drinks as he talks: “Single woman today. Married woman tomorrow.”

“Aw, Christ, don’t remind me,” she mutters, but she’s grinning and drinks again, then hands the bottle back. “Dude, we turned into fuckin’ grownups.”

“I know. Why didn’t anyone stop us?”

Kat laughs, then leans over and shouts out the window. “I thought you assholes had our back!” She drops back into her seat, giggling, and takes out another smoke. She looks over at Stephen as she lights up. “Goddammit, you even grew a beard to make it official!”

He scratches at his chin. “The Van Dyke: the official beard of dead childhood.”

“The dyke part is right. Your face is hairier than my snatch.” She reaches over and tugs on the end of it. “They don’t give you any grief for it at work?”

“No one cares how a librarian looks.” He drinks again. “Besides, I’m the youth program director. I think the grownups think it helps me connect to” and here he forms air quotes, still holding the bottle, “the kids today.

“Fuck man, I thought we were supposed to be the kids today.” She grabs for the bottle. “Jesus shit-eating Christ. I’m gonna be married tomorrow and graduated next Friday. I start my job in a month.” She grabs Stephen’s arm and shakes it. “A month, Stephen! How could you let this happen to meeeeee?

She throws her head back in mock despair, or maybe a small degree of genuine despair. He looks at her pale neck, and without meaning to he remembers how much he enjoyed kissing it when they were both teenagers.

He takes the bottle back and drinks. He offers it back, but she shakes her head and he corks it. He reaches back behind the seat, fumbles in the cooler, and brings up a gram and a ceramic pipe.

“Hot damn,” she murmurs. “The library ain’t gonna find out when they piss test you?”

“No one ever actually gets piss tested except when they start workin’,” he says, packing the bowl. “So with that in mind, you might as well smoke up now, before the piss fetishists at your own gig get a hold of ya.”

He gives her the pipe and lighter, and she takes a long, slow hit. The glass is a swirling pink and sea-green. The waves match the contour of her lips so well it almost seems like an extension of her.

She hands the pipe back. He’s feeling the bourbon, and when he grabs for the weed his fingers run over hers. His fingers have always been kind of rough. He’s always doing something with his hands in his free time, always making something or taking something apart. When he used to run his hands down her sides she’d gasp at the roughness.

It’s only four but it’s already getting dark. When they burn through the bowl she turns in her seat and leans against him, moving the armrest back and resting her head on his thigh. She props her feet up in the window and squirms until she’s able to kick off her boots. It’s gotten so cold that a little steam puffs from her blue and orange striped socks.

“That’s very generous of you,” he tells her. “Donating your shoes to homeless woodland critters an’ all.”

She stays still for a moment, then mutters “dammit” and sits up. She opens the car door and drags her shoes inside. “You got me fuckin’ paranoid now,” she tells him, throwing her boots in back and slamming the door shut. She throws her cap back with her boots, and her dark blond hair shakes out loose and long before she lies back down. She sniffs against the chill and rubs her thumb against her nose stud. She smells like berry shampoo.

Her smokes are tucked into the breast pocket of her cardigan, and he opens the box and works a cigarette free.

“Thief,” she mutters, then grabs the lighter tucked beside the pack and hands it up to him. In the flash of the lighter he looks both old and newborn, grizzled but impossibly baby-faced. His hair is nearly shaven along his temples, but it is long and slicked back at the top. He makes her think of a baby, with it’s only tuft of hair sticking wild from the crown of its scalp. She reaches up and runs her fingers through his whiskers.

He has a scar beneath one eye that looks deep and dark in the firelight. He got it when they were sixteen, shortly after they found this spot. She’d just got her license then. They’d had sex, then he’d chased her when she wouldn’t give him back his cigarettes. They’d run naked on a hot summer day, and when he caught her they wrestled each other to the ground until they were kissing and her hips were pinning his. After he came he held her close and kissed her body, listening intently to every murmur she made at the touch of his lips. Then an hour later she still refused to give him his cigarettes. On the chase back to her car he slipped and hit his cheek on a root. She’d laughed at him, amused but also sympathetic, and when they wiped the blood off she kissed his sore face and lit his smoke for him.

She takes back her lighter. “I wonder how fast your beard would go up if I lit it on fire.”

He shrugs. “It’s sparse but the hair is coarse. It might just melt. Like when people burn their dredlocks in place.”

“Duuuude! You could have beardlocks!”

“You wave that lighter anywhere near my face, and I’ll dump your body in the river.”

“You would kill for your beard?”

He flicks his smoke. “Well, you know. I’m a man on the edge, Kat.”

She laughs, stretches, and lays a hand against his face. I’m going to miss this with you.

He lays an arm across her and rubs his thumb along her shoulder.

“I know they’re mailing your diploma and all, but you think you’ll come back?” Stephen blows a stream of smoke out the window. “To walk the stage in the spring, I mean.”

She sits up, turns in her seat, and lets the back down, twisting her hips so her legs stick out the window. Her knees hook against the door. “I dunno. Maybe. I guess we could smoke it up a little if I do. I’ll already be piss tested and all.”

“You’re gonna be working in a recording studio.” He grabs the Woodland Reserve and uncorks it to drink. “Isn’t everyone gonna be high?”

“I think you have to be stone sober right before you work, ya see. Trial by fire an’ all.”

“Oh, yeah. That sounds completely legitimate. Now I feel stupid.”

She reaches over and thumps his ciggie, so a clump of ash drops into his lap. “Aw, goddammit!” he groans, then laughs as he swipes at his crotch. In his efforts he splashes whiskey onto his jeans.

“Oh, no!” she yells in mock alarm, and wipes at the liquor before too much of it can soak into the denim. “Dammit, Stephen! How are you failing this hard?!”

“I’m not failing, I was sabotaged!” And then he splashes the whiskey, not much, but she still feels it spatter in her face. A few wet hairs are now stuck to her neck.

“Hey!” She snatches the bottle back and drinks, then holds it out of reach and corks it. “No!” she scolds, slapping at his hands. “You clearly cannot be entrusted with custody of the booze.”

He leans against her and they reach through the window. He can’t quite get to the bottle. They’re laughing and his whiskey breath makes her think of brown sugar and molasses. She thinks of kissing the scar on his cheekbone but ignores the impulse.

“Alright, fine!” He falls back into his seat and grabs a beer instead.

“You splash that on me,” she tells him, “and I will kick you right in the face.”

He yawns. “Alright, truce.” He sips his PBR. “You and him oughtta get married out here.”

“Nooo!” She’s honestly almost horrified at the suggestion. She smacks him and he almost drops his tallboy. “This is our place! There’s even trees overhead! Even spy satellites don’t know we come out here!”

She loves him, more than she can say but not more than he’s aware of. He loves her too, and she knows it. They were the only two people they had sex with from ages thirteen to nineteen. They could’ve probably been called a couple when they were kids but they never felt like they were. It just all came down to trust. Against the rabid animal that is puberty, who else would you want with you but your best friend?

They keep drinking but they slow down as the night gets colder. They both hate and appreciate the fact that such foresight requires years behind it. The bottle empties, the cans disappear. The moon is a bright white eye. Hawks screech at each other in the trees.

Eventually Stephen stumbles to the trunk and takes out two sleeping bags. He unzips each all the way, lying one down as a pad, and using the other as a blanket while he and Kat watch the stars. Squirrels leap through pine needles and bare branches overhead.

“You make damn sure he doesn’t give you any shit,” he tells her.

“Aw, shit, what’s he gonna do? He’s even smaller than you are.”

“Still.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Neither of them will remember when they fell asleep. The night gets colder as the hours pass. There is splashing from the creek behind the trees. At one point, without waking, she turns to him and drapes her arm across his chest. An hour later he’s wrapped both arms around her. Neither are aware of holding the other. They keep each other warm until dawn.

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Pomegranates

pomegranate

 

“I think we should break up.”

“Seconded,” he told her, juggling three pomegranates. Nimbly he stuck two back into their crate and set the other in their cart.

“What?”

“I agree. We should break up. That’s, uh…” he swept his hand across the cart. “That’s what this was for. Although I guess now we don’t have to go through the hassle of checkout. You feel like Arby’s?”

“Wait. You wanted to break up too?”

“Well, we’ve been over for awhile now. It’s only just recently become clear to me this isn’t a hump we’re going to get over.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean…wait, what do you mean what do I mean? You just said you wanted to break up with me too. I was there, remember?”

What hump?”

“The fact that we don’t love each other anymore. Or rather that you don’t love me. I think I might still love you, though. I mean, I could just be fixated, but I think I still love you.”

“And you want to break up anyway?”

“Well yeah. Did you miss the part where I said you don’t love me?”

She was quiet at that part. Almost seemed ashamed. “I’m sorry.”

He just shrugged. “That’s how these things end. One of us stops loving the other. I mean, we weren’t in love when we started out.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you told me, the year we became exclusive, that you realized you were in love with me right after New Year. I didn’t have that thought about you till the summer.”

“So we were together almost half a year, and you didn’t love me?”

“Sometimes love just grows. I figured it would with me. Guess I figured right.”

“That’s awfully cynical.”

“Nope. I said love, remember?”

“Stop saying that! Stop saying remember like you’re mocking me!”

“I’m sorry. That was pretty shitty of me just now.” He looked her in the eye. “I’m sincerely sorry. My…feelings are hurt, and I was sublimating it by being a douche bag, I guess. I really am sorry.”

“But you said you wanted to break up.”

“I agreed we should break up.”

“You were planning to break up with me tonight.”

“And pack my things in the morning. I know. It doesn’t mean I’m not so petty that being dumped first doesn’t hurt.”

He had a small fantasy of just tilting the cart over and dumping everything on her sparkling ballet flats. He was somewhat comforted by the surge of guilt he felt when the imagery passed. She reciprocated with a fantasy of her own, a simple one where she beat her fists against the back of his head, until the smugness was replaced with a pitiful beg for her to please stop hurting him.

But was that what he was saying already?

“Plus, I’m still in love with you, like I said.”

How much were they not saying to each other? How much had gone unsaid in the three years they’d been together?

They were still standing by the fucking pomegranates. Those things always took so much work to peel and eat.

“So,” and she had to stop to swallow a lump in her throat, “so what do we…Ben, I don’t wanna hurt you like this.”

“Then don’t. Dump me. Or I can dump you. Either way I should be fine, so long as we end it by tonight.”

Ben turned the cart around and nodded for Callie to follow. “I think I need some wine. We’ll feel better about this once one or both of us is drunk.”

He grabbed two bottles of the dirt cheap Merlot he always drank, then grabbed a mid-grade Moscato he knew she favored. “I’m not being a hog, I swear,” he told her, nodding to his own bottles. “The pomegranate glaze I wanna make needs to be boiled in a red.”

“Are you sure you’re still in love with me?”

“Pretty sure. But after awhile I’ll be running around somewhere, and it’ll hit me that I’m not in love with you anymore. It’s okay. That’s how it works. You fall in, you fall out.”

“Not always, though.”

“Oh, God no, not always. Only chumps get that pessimistic. Love can be forever, it just usually isn’t.”

She chewed her pinkie nail. “I should’ve ended this sooner. It wasn’t fair to you.”

“What do you mean? You been out of love with me for awhile now?”

She couldn’t think of any other way to phrase it other than: “I think so.”

“How long now? If you don’t mind me asking, I mean.”

“Like,” and she bit her lips. “Like…a long time now. I haven’t had that fluttery feeling for…years, I think.”

“Ooooh.” He paused, like he was considering something. “So not New Year, then.”

“What?”

“You weren’t in love with me on New Year’s. You had a crush on me.” He waved his hand like he was clearing smoke. “Love’s the other thing. The…the steady part that comes after. The quiet thing.”

“You don’t think I loved you?”

“No, I think you did. Longer than you think you did, anyway. You just…didn’t know which part the love was.”

There came a cold edge of certainty in her. “You’re a fucking patronizing bastard.”

“Oh, fuck you.” He sounded tired when he said it. “Do you realize how much restraint I’m showing by not climbing in the car and leaving your ass to walk?”

He imagined her walking, and again there came the guilt over how much pleasure the idea of her discomfort gave him. She imagined not talking to him as he moved his things into the U-Haul trailer. Thing was, between the two of them, her fantasy was more likely to come true.

They checked out without a word, and they were halfway home before Ben broke the silence. “Hey, look, I’m sorry for what I said.”

“I started it.”

“No, no. I had that coming. You were completely right. I was baiting you and I didn’t like that you’d caught on.” He bopped her knee. “I’m sorry. I really am.”

She glanced down at where he’d touched her. Once it would have made her breath catch, for his hand to have been so close to the hem of her skirt. Now the December night only felt cooler.

“Hey,” he said then. “Let’s just stuff our faces and get drunk. I’ll sleep on the couch. This’ll all be over by tomorrow.” He reached over and squeezed her arm above the wrist. “It’s like a band-aid, see? We just gotta do it all at once. It’ll be alright.”

They drove home, together, each heading further and further away.

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