Category Archives: Fiction

Scales of Balance

by Bill Loundy

Mom sits with Mark at a lacquered mahogany table in the parlor, scanning through frayed puzzle pieces, her eyebrows furrowing into an upside-down V. In front of them, the box is propped open and they take turns looking up and down, first at an image of a calico cat lounging among dahlias and marigolds and then down at the scrambled puzzle pieces, a mash of similar colors that sits on the table like a small undulating reflecting pool. Some of the pieces litter the carpet near Mom, but she seems not to notice or care. She doesn’t have a chance in hell of finding matches, but she keeps saying, “Mark, Look!” and he keeps responding, “Hey—I think that might be right.” Across the room, I don’t even need to look up from the paper to know that she just forced together two random pieces—some blue sky jammed against grey fur, or a center piece squeezed next a corner. Mark laughs, but he’s just happy she remembers his name. He moved with his family to Phoenix a few years back, and now he’s got a real sense of calmness about him. I went to New York and my blood pressure’s never been higher.

Mark tugs his chair out a bit, and I’m already uncrossing my legs and putting down the business section when he says, “Lunchtime, Dave. Whudda ya say?” So I help Mom into her wheelchair and Mark pushes the puzzle pieces back into the box. Lunch will probably be tuna sandwiches or macaroni and cheese, but I hope I can get my hands on some kind of soup and oyster crackers. “I promise we’ll finish that puzzle next time, Mom,” Mark says. She hunches over so far in her wheelchair. I’m afraid that if I stop short, she might fall forward.

We make our way toward the cafeteria, passing the kind of artwork you wouldn’t take for a nickel at a yard sale. It’s all kitschy shit, mostly westerns: Cowboys at the rodeo, on bucking broncos or out in the desert taking a water break, their horses tied to a wooden stake. Some of them stalk buffalos, traversing from left frame edge to right frame edge in front of a grey wash streaking across the background. It’s either a silvery mountain range or an oncoming storm—I wonder if the artist even knew. The cowboys are all typecast, pigeonholed to play a counterfeit hero, except for one miserable bastard who munches an apple while dark skinned Indians line up their bows behind his back. I like the Indians. Mom would too, but she’s missing all this static melodrama, her face aimed square at the floor. “Mom?” Mark repeats, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Next time, right?”

I can still see the cat among the flowers, and so can Mark, but Mom has no idea what puzzle he’s talking about. She has forgotten that quickly.

*****

You really should know my mother the way I know her—the way I try to remember her, at least. She packed me peanut butter and seitan sandwiches through grade school, and cold tofu patties and yogurt for Mark. She could name ninety-seven species of wildflowers growing in the back yard, and sometimes, she took Mark and me on nature walks through the woods, even on schooldays. Thanks to her I know how to make tie-dye shirts from pokeberries, and how to “smoke” a house with sage on full moons. She walked around our Gypsy home, draped in hemp, chunky beaded chains, and exotic pendants and pins that clanked like the rusty wind chimes she hung from the oak tree near my bedroom window. One of my girlfriends once asked if my mother was a witch. “I’m not sure,” I said.

In our front yard, twelve stepping-stones led the way from the curb to the front door, each painted for a different zodiac sign. Vishnu, Ganesha, and Shiva eyed visitors from various bushes and shrubs as they made their way up the path. Mom dug a particularly large hole in the ground one spring (“We really need a meditation pond,” she said) and later I found a letter taped to the side of our mailbox. On the front of the envelope, in loopy housewife handwriting, was written, “Just a reminder…” I showed Mark and we laughed about what was inside, before I tossed it into the trash:

Village of Little Mill Homeowners Association Policy Statement The Village of Little Mill supports a community of individuality and freedom of expression balanced with community-wide standards that maintain an overall architectural harmony and sustain property values.

If Mom wanted a pond, she would have a pond, and nothing was going to faze her, especially the women of Little Mill with their manicured topiaries and white chocolate mousses. “There’s too much beautiful atmosphere out there to breath in the filthy gas of cynics,” she said.

And if Little Mill wore Mom out, she never let us know, though I later suspected it might’ve. For one thing, the family left town almost every weekend, especially when we were really young. Usually we went to the beach, where I could tell mom felt at home. She would dive through waves with mermaid precision and sift sand through her knobby toes. She was mother Earth, creating tiny landslides and sinkholes and earthquakes at her feet. She tossed Mark and me into crashing waves that rag-dolled us to the shore. We coughed water, shook sand from our swimsuits, and jumped back in for another round. Dad was fond of photographs, and from behind us he would yell, “Smile!” and we turned around to strike our favorite poses—Mark and I karate chopped and kung fu kicked and Mom, twice our height back then, flashed a peace sign and a smile so broad it was like the moon turned on its side. As the tide rose, other moms took their children out of the water, but my mom demanded, “CHARGE!” and led us into battle, all of us laughing like a group of wild banshees.

*****

Twice I’ve heard my older brother cry. The first time was when I was seven and Mark was nine. Dad was allergic to fur, so we never really kept pets, but Mark and I won a pair of hermit crabs on the boardwalk one summer. They came with a piece of paper that read: Feed your crabs daily and bathe them weekly in warm water. For the first few days though, out of anxiousness and excitement, we fed them on the hour and bathed them every morning. Mark named his Hermie, mine was called Crabby, and we loved them with all our hearts.

But we had had the pets for only a few days when I woke up one morning to Mark screaming from the bunk below me. He had brought the glass terrarium onto his bed, and was sitting Indian-style next to it. “No. No, Hermie, no.” he said. His hands were open in front of him. In one he cupped an empty shell, and in the other the corpse of his beloved crustacean. There was steam coming off a bowl of water—Mark had cooked the lobster. Crabby was lounging poolside, still in the terrarium, unaware that his only friend had been boiled alive.

Dad buried Hermie in the back yard, and Mom led us all in some ritualistic prayer. It involved a dark potion-like tea poured on the grave, a string of bulbous black beads, and a lot of chanting in Sanskrit. We all stared at the small hump in the ground and I wondered what the neighbors would think if they saw my Mom sitting in the dirt while Mark stood next to her crying into his sleeve. To conclude the service, Dad tossed a shovel up against the shed, and left his family outside.

Mom stood up slowly and smiled in my direction, brushing soil off the back of her thighs. She cupped her hands under Mark’s ears, her thumbs gently drying the puffy skin under his eyes. She was wearing a black camisole with silver lunar stitching around the neckline, and a patterned midnight blue skirt that flowed to her ankles. Mark’s sobs turned into sniffles, which faded to long soft breaths and with regained composure he turned to me. I tried to keep a neutral face, one that meant, “I’m sorry about Hermie. It’s okay to cry. I don’t think less of you. You are still my older brother and I still look up to you.”

“Crybaby,” I said instead.

*****

I’m losing my cool in a hotel room three perfectly squared blocks away from the nursing home. It’s the middle of the night and I can’t escape ninety degree angles all around me: a Camel light resting between my parallel fingers, the legs of my wooden chair anchored into the floor, a metal fork stuck into the top of a Styrofoam container of cold leftovers. I turn around and notice the sharpness of the corners of the linens the maid has smoothed to perfection. Even the smoke from my cigarette is rising too perfectly. I shake my hand and the smoke wafts around for a moment, but then it’s a straight line toward the ceiling all over again. The ash refuses to fall, even bend. There must be an inch of it now, and I want nothing more than to see it break from the cigarette and drop on to the bottom of the tray, but the Camel refuses to comply. The ember continues to steam tunnel towards the filter, leaving behind a trail of dead grey that still won’t crumble. I grab the cigarette and tear it apart at its middle. Raw tobacco shavings fall onto the table, a mini heap of kindling, a GI Joe campfire waiting to be blazed.

Looking at the cigarette halves before me, I’m reminded of Doctor Livingston, who spoke with a Southern drawl. “Let me tell you about Alzheimer’s,” he said. He cracked a wooden tongue depressor before my face to a perfect ninety-degree angle and told me that the splinters, like the connections in my mother’s brain, could hold together for only so long before the two sides would break apart. It bothered me that he snapped it so close to my eyes. “We’ll talk again soon,” he said as the door closed behind him. The sound of that snapped piece of wood was like a redwood struck by lightning.

A few months later, Doctor Rodriguez, who feigned a sort of empathy, told me that Mom’s memories would always be there, but as her illness progressed, she would struggle more and more to access them—”It’s like a bottle of wine but no corkscrew,” he said. “There’s really not too much you can do.”

In my hotel room, the table is a mess. I’ve eaten four meals here without cleaning, and now there’s a snapped cigarette on it and black ash rubbed into my palm. My eyes are closed and I can remember nothing but forgetting.

I’m coming home from school and mom’s sitting at the kitchen counter, unable to balance her checkbook.

I’m sitting at the airport waiting for her to pick me up. Three hours late because she can’t find her keys.

The piano bench in the living room is turned on its side, books sprawled across the hardwood floor, and Mom can’t offer an explanation.

I’ve got the flu and she’s recommending Benadryl and Immodium. I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s not what I need.

It’s Christmas. Mom gives me books and the inscriptions are written to Mark. 
She’s stealing bingo chips in the nursing home, dropping them into her purse one at a time. “Mom, you’ve got B10, right here,” I say, pointing to the square.

She turns to me and says, “Do I know you?”

“Mom. It’s me, your son, David.”

She breathes a quick laugh. “Don’t be silly, I don’t have any children.”

*****

The second time I saw Mark cry he was thirteen and I was eleven. I saw him through a crack in the shed door, sitting up against a rack of nearly empty paint cans. Three days earlier Dad left for good, and the family photographs went with him. I’ll never understand why he wanted those pictures. To remember the family he deserted? Mark was lunatic, punching the plywood walls inside the shed and screaming into patio furniture cushions. I had the sense to run away before he caught me peering in, and he emerged as though nothing was wrong—as though he hadn’t just bawled his eyes into tiny rivers. If Dad is still alive, I wonder what he thinks when his sons’ birthdays pass: if he remembers dizzying me around to pin a paper tail on the donkey, or pressing Mark’s face into a slice of birthday cake and then letting Mark do the same to him. Mom definitely deserves to remember.

*****

I am in the driver’s seat of a beat up truck that’s not my own. A plastic wrapped American flag with yellow tassels is bobbing in my periphery. Mom may or may not have known who I was when I stole her out of the home, but she didn’t put up a fight either way. She was half asleep, only marginally mobile, and mumbling about Mrs. Templeton, who gave me four detentions in one marking period. She asked, “Where are we going?” and I said, “For a ride.”

Mom’s lying down in the flatbed, laughing and screaming and howling at a crescent moon, and smiling with her gummy mouth wide open. I tossed all the scrap lumber to the curb and put a quilt back there so she could be comfortable. We’re doing seventy-five on the highway, and I know she’s enjoying this more than bingo and medicine and James Stewart and puzzles she can’t even solve. My foot is pressing harder on the accelerator, and I’m blasting the radio. I’ll tell Mark about this, but he won’t believe me—that I set up a ramp against the tailgate to get her into the back of the truck.

Her hair is everywhere in the wind, and her arms are reaching towards the stars. She found a long piece of red yarn, and she’s holding it high up to watch it dance. In the rearview I can see kicked up fallen leaves and dust and I wipe sweat off my palms. The whole world is dancing—not only alive, but living. Scientific white lines appear in the sky above us, tracing the outline of Mom’s maiden carrying the scales of balance. She’s tiptoeing across the big dipper, and my centaur is lining up an arrow on his bow. The truck is rumbling along and I’m hooting and hollering with Mom and blaring the horn. The neon sun will soon bruise the perfect blackness of the East, and the glowing fireflies will tuck themselves into tall cold grasses, but for now the leafy trees are swaying with us and flowers are blossoming marvelously as we pass.

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Filed under Fiction, Vol 2 Issue 1

Naming Him

by Jessamyn Edra

Evelyn grips the cold curves of the sink. She closes her eyes, lets the image of malformed Irish Spring soap and unscrubbed tub fade to black.

She remembers back when she was a kid, her mother promoted afternoon naps by turning them into a competition. Evelyn dutifully shut her eyes alongside her brother and her two favorite cousins, knowing that whoever woke up last got to walk to 7-Eleven and pick out a piece of candy after church. She always faked it—listening hard for the rustling of clothing, the shifts in breathing, and waiting just a little longer before lifting her own lids and yawning. She entered second grade with several cavities.

Evelyn opens her eyes and looks down at the rust-ringed drain. As she breathes slowly, in and out, she feels the full weight of her head.

“Hey, babe?” Edward says with a light knock on the door. For the past three months, until now, she has only heard his voice over the phone, syllables distorted by static. Now in the silence of the small studio apartment, his words are clear, even through the bathroom door. “You okay in there?” he asks. She hears the steady note of concern in his voice, but also his barely-muted anticipation.

She unclenches her hands. She puts the toilet seat cover down and sits with her knees tucked into her chest. “Yeah.” Then, with an effort at normalcy, she says huskily, “I’ll be right out, darling.” But somewhere along that last word, her voice hiccups into something from an old Western film, and her performance becomes parody. She coughs.

There is a pause. For a moment, she fears that he has noticed her incompetence, her lack of experience with this sort of thing. “Looking forward to it,” Edward says.

Evelyn listens to him walk quietly away from the bathroom, then stands up and lets the pink chemise, trimmed with black lace, resettle over her thighs. As the cool silk moves over her skin, she feels almost desirable. Hand outstretched, she takes three small steps to the door. But at the last moment she stops at the sink again, and this time, when she grips its edges, she looks up into the mirror. Her sleek hair has frizzed up in the humid, Hawaiian air and, despite her best efforts, her eye liner is unevenly applied, giving her left eye a slightly sinister look. She dabs at it with a piece of toilet paper and tries to smile. She lifts the corners of her mouth, but as she parts her freshly-glossed lips to show some teeth, the smile falls.

Earlier that day, her mother drove her to San Francisco International airport, telling her that Grandma bought herself a mink coat at the mall yesterday, that Auntie Luz waxed off too much of her eyebrows, that Bill did not like taking baths because it irritated his eczema.

Smiling, Evelyn half-listened to the latest gossip, her mind inevitably drifting back to Edward. She had opted out of her cotillion this year, the traditional Filipino debutante ball that announced eighteen with dresses fitted too tight and stiff waltzes with vaguely reptilian cousins. Instead, she convinced her parents to send her to Hawaii to visit Edward during Thanksgiving break. It was cheaper, she reasoned, and with the bills from her first quarter at college filling the file cabinet, they agreed.

Evelyn first noticed Edward more than a year ago when they were lining the dirt track for the meet against Washington High. The job normally needed one person, but she couldn’t chalk the straightaway without someone else’s eye. She tended to veer subtly to the right if left unsupervised. So he walked alongside her, his hands shoved in black basketball shorts that were too long for him. Sometimes he jogged ahead on the grass to check out the progress, but mostly he stayed with her. They finished lining the track and when she turned to look at him, she noticed the smudge of chalk on his jaw. It was smooth back then; the stubble she so adored would come later. She told him he had some chalk on his face. He pulled his hand from the deep pockets of his shorts and quickly brushed along his jaw-line. She hoped he would miss a spot, but he didn’t. She knew because she spent the rest of the afternoon sneaking glances.

“Are you bringing Edward anything from his dad?” her mother asked.

“No,” Evelyn said. She put her fingers to the car window and watched suburbia stream past. “Mr. Flores just sent him a care package, actually.” This was a lie. Or maybe it was the truth, but she doubted it. Evelyn’s mother had wanted her to see Mr. Flores, let him know that she was going to visit Edward, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She didn’t like him. Maybe it was the way he said, “Would you just call me James already?” every time she greeted him, or the cigarette smoke that announced his arrival. It could be the gleaming whiteness of his teeth that unnerved her, or the rigid part of his hair. But it was probably what he had said after Edward placed sixth in the two-mile against Kennedy. If Edward had run a good race, Mr. Flores would jog over to the track, holding a bottle of water—not cold, ’cause cold’s not good for you right after a race, but room temperature water—and a stopwatch to show Edward the new time to beat. Kennedy High was not a good meet for either Edward or Evelyn, and when Mr. Flores came jogging over as they changed out of their racing flats, Evelyn saw Edward grab a fistful of grass in preparation. “All those nights with Evelyn are draining you, son,” he pronounced and winked at both of them. Edward tore the grass from the earth and looked at her. He whispered apology as his father sauntered off.

Granted she and Edward did spend many nights kissing, and touching, and licking, and caressing. One night, they parked at Coyote Hills and fumbled about in the backseat of his Honda Accord. He pushed away fabric and bit down on her shoulder, and she prayed that he wouldn’t actually take off her shirt because she was wearing one of her rattier bras. The headlights of a passing car had been her saving grace, the sudden illumination of the car’s gray interior an apt reminder of where they were and what they were doing. Still—her smell was everywhere, and as soon as she got home, she washed her panties in the sink so her mother wouldn’t stumble upon them in the laundry.

Evelyn was almost ashamed by just how much she loved feeling his skin under her fingertips, loved the taut muscles of a long-distance runner just below the surface, loved even the smell of his sweat after a quick six miles. Even better than his skin under her fingertips was his skin under her lips. He tasted good, like eating graham crackers and then waking up from a long, afternoon nap, with the mild honey-sweetness still in her mouth. “Does that make sense?” she asked when she told him. “No,” he said, and kissed her. Still, they had not done anything that warranted Edward’s father winking in such a way. Mr. Flores never would have believed it, though. Edward said that since his mother died, his father only got worse.

“Oh, so you’re really not bringing Edward anything?” Her mother was displeased; her mouth puckered in thought about the correct social protocols. Evelyn’s mother was still beautiful, even with the thinning hair she washed with a special shampoo; something about the brown freckles at the corners of her eyes kept her girlish. Though she complained about how much weight she had gained here in America, she had aged softly, retaining her high cheekbones and the easy class that Evelyn never inherited.

“I am bringing myself,” Evelyn replied, twisting her long string of plastic pearls. “That should be more than enough.”

“No, not that.” Her mother laughed. “Anything but that. It’s still early.”

Evelyn laughed, too—and not the nervous, guilt-tinged laugh she may have uttered at any other time—but a real laugh; her mother had made a joke that acknowledged sex and, by extension, her adulthood. Evelyn knew her mother, who attended mass at St. Anne’s Catholic Church every Sunday, would never grant an official seal of approval on her decision to finally have sex with Edward. But understanding, on a woman-to-woman level, wasn’t impossible. The proof was in her name.

Her mother had named her Evelyn after a Filipino woman who sold kalamansi in front of the house her mother had grown up in. Every day, her namesake would carry in her basket not only hundreds of these small, round lime fruits, but also the letters of young lovers. In Tagalog, the only language which her mother could use to describe these things, she recounted the sharp, tangy smell of the letter that had been wrinkled by the weight of the kalamansi and the pleasure of smoothing out the thin paper on the floor of her room, watching the black letters appear under her hands. Her mother was not allowed to date until she was in college and when it was discovered that she had been sneaking letters to a fisherman’s son in the barrio, her father forced her to drop a semester of classes. “You only have time to do one thing: study or date,” he pronounced. The next semester, her mother studied hard, remembering how she had knelt with bare knees on uncooked rice. She held pails of water, too, as her parents chastised her. Because of this, her mother let Evelyn date as soon as she was in high school. Because of this, her mother named her Evelyn, after a woman who understood young love.

Edward had written Evelyn letters, too—his cramped handwriting filling page after page of lined notebook paper with lurid remembrances of short skirts and sticky afternoons. Her name all but disappeared under the flood of babes, darlings, and sweethearts. Other, sturdier names popped up like driftwood: Anne from work and Shelly from the cross-country team. Edward and Evelyn’s conversations were either do-you-remember’s exchanged or promises for the future—they didn’t have a present together.

Evelyn consulted friends. She read Advice for the Geographically Challenged along with articles in Cosmo. She researched and responded accordingly. She sent him perfumed pages of poetry: Amichai’s “Posthumous Fragments,” Neruda’s “Letter on the Road,” her own enjambed lines. She went to her first frat party, felt large hands grip her hips, and shed small tears. She sent Edward the racy photos and the care packages with his favorite candy, Mike and Ike’s. She glared at couples holding hands and ran for miles, trying to purge herself of this immense tension, this sleeplessness that made her mistake one head of hair for another, this affliction that made her grip armrests at movie theaters. She bought a scruffy loofah and inhaled chocolate. And one night, after she filled yet another awkward silence with trite advice when he was trying to decide whether or not to withdraw from organic chemistry, she promised him. A promise that their first night back together would be a night he would not soon forget. That got him talking, and the buttery flow of his low tones over the line loosened something heavy threaded through her.

When they got to the airport, her mother gave her a soft smile and said, “Be safe and have a good time.” Evelyn spent most of the five-hour flight looking out the window and twisting her pearls. She tried to fall asleep but couldn’t keep her eyes closed for more than a few minutes. Instead, she opened and closed the paperback she brought until the sky drained of daylight. It was after midnight when she saw the lights. When a plane landed in California, the world came to view in square grids of city or farmland, but the lights outside her window were an organic net of golden points, more web than grid. The red lights on the wing flashed as the plane began its descent into Honolulu, and Evelyn realized all the darkness rushing below her was water. An island, she remembered, like the Philippines. Evelyn walked to baggage claim, her steps shaky in her new high-heeled shoes. She almost didn’t recognize Edward when he came toward her, walking in his slow and deliberate way, sensuous but precise movements through the crowd. It always surprised people how quickly those tawny thighs moved on the track. He was holding a lei of yellow flowers. He was leaner than she remembered, more tanned, too. The good runners look hungry, their coach had said. He was wearing the striped polo she liked. He placed the lei around her neck and smiled crookedly, flashing his sharp canine teeth.

“I just lei’d you.” He winked.

She pushed him, but he grabbed her hands and pulled her in for a kiss and the kiss was familiar, his fingertips weaving into her hair like they always did.

“I’m just kidding,” he whispered in her ear. Edward planted a small kiss on her earlobe—thick earlobes were a sign of great intelligence, he once told her—and drew back to look at her face. She wondered if he noticed that she had pierced her ears. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said and picked up her bags.

The moist air enveloped her as soon as they stepped out of the airport. She felt hazy, her edges blurring like an object overexposed in a photo. “Your hair makes you look surprised,” she said.

He raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “Yeah, it’s due for a cut.” He ran his hand through his coarse hair and glanced at her. “So…how was your flight, kiddo?”

“It was okay. How was your drive?”

He shrugged and adjusted the backpack slung over his shoulder. “Eh, it was all right, a little long for me.” He smiled and she had a ridiculous urge to count his teeth.

Instead she nodded, and felt petal and pearl shift against her neck. Edward should hand her back one of her bags. Her arms dangled uselessly at her sides. “How are things with Rich?”

“Good, good,” he said. He re-adjusted the bags again and put his hand on the small of her back, guiding her in the direction of his car. His palm felt enormous and warm on the eyelet fabric of her dress. “He actually decided to go back to Michigan for the break.”

“Oh.” She looked downward, focusing on the heel-toe motion of walking in her heels. She thought suddenly of her mother who had worked as a bank teller in college; it paid well back then and was respectable for a young lady. She told Evelyn that she would walk close to a mile to work from campus in the black heels required for her uniform. On her way, she always passed by the crumbling Spanish-style mansion of a blind old man. The gentleman’s ancestors were well-established in Quezon City, but his children were in America, all gorgeous mestizos who sent home LBC boxes crammed full of good coffee and tins of corned beef. He always called out the window when he heard her pass: “Hoy, kumusta ka na, Lita?” He swore that he knew her by the sound of her heels on the pavement, but she never believed him until one day she passed him on the street. Their shoulders brushed—puffed sleeve of white cotton and starched corner of gray tweed—and he was silent. Ha, she thought, clacking away with a smile. Three strides later he called out, “Marry me, Lita!” She laughed and hopped onto the jeepney, her dress stuck to her back in the heat. It was only later that she learned he was in earnest. He had even gone to see her parents. She had stared down at his hands, sun-withered and crossed with veins, and when he reached to take her hand into his own, she refused as politely as she could, citing her studies.

“Yeah, so we have the place to ourselves,” Edward was saying. He looked at Evelyn and she returned her gaze to her shoes. “No coercion, I swear. His mom wanted to take him skiing, or snowboarding, or something.”

“Oh,” she said and nodded again, thankful to be at the car.

He opened her door and held her hand as he drove. The windows were rolled down and that thick air wafted in, carrying with it the possibility of warm rain. With Edward’s hand massaging hers, she felt her muscles slowly relax, one by one. She once sent him a rock she found on one of her rambling walks across campus. She thought he would appreciate its smooth lines, the way it retained heat, the way she held it under her pillow when she needed to grip something at night. The miles passed in silence and much to her embarrassment, she managed to fall asleep this time.

“Hey, babe?” She awoke to Edward whispering in her ear. “We’re here.” She opened her eyes to find him looking at her. “I was going to take you to get some food or something, but I thought sleep might be the better option.” He bit his already chapped lip.

Still half-asleep, the words were out of her mouth before she could stop them: “I thought we weren’t going to be sleeping tonight,” she said. Immediately, she regretted the joke.

“Well, then,” he said. She was glad he didn’t wink.

Edward had some difficulty with the keys when they finally got to his apartment on the seventh floor. In between apologizing for the out-of-order elevator and telling her how much he had missed her, she remembered that she liked him a great deal. She put her hand over his and he grinned, toothy and boyish. They unlocked the door together. 
“You’re going to love the view,” he said as he flung the door open. He tossed her bags to the side and took her hand. Quickly, they crossed the small space of the apartment; kitchenette, two twin beds, a television, a fan. He brushed aside the threadbare curtains that lined one whole wall and they walked out onto the lanai. Her eyes took in the dark ocean continuously shaping the curves of the island, the banyan trees that grew both up and down, roots descending from the branches to steady the tree during flood times, but also the skyscrapers and road construction and traffic. So Honolulu was a city after all.

“What’s the place with no lights?” she said.

“Diamond Head Crater,” he said, wrapping his arms around her from behind. “Those high-rises around it are the U of H dorms.” He pressed his lips to her neck as she stared out. A plumeria tree worthy of worship spread its branches next to a streetlight and a tattoo place. There was a Mustang parked outside “Tropical Tattoos” and when Evelyn leaned forward, she could make out the figure of a man smoking on the hood of the car.

An ambulance rushed past on the street below them and before the siren could reach its fever pitch, she took his hand. “Let’s go back inside.”

“Okay,” he said, and scooped her into his arms. One of her shoes almost fell off.

“Hey, hey, hey,” she said. She batted at his forearms. He had never lifted her before; she told him short people didn’t like it. And they didn’t, especially on the seventh floor. “Put me down.” She tried to laugh.

“Why should I?” he said. He buried his face in the crook of her neck. With only his foot, Edward slid the screen door shut.

“So,” she said, tugging at her dress which had ridden up a couple of inches in the process, “I can go get ready.”

He stopped in the middle of the room and considered this. “Okay.” He put her down.

She took a couple deep breaths. “Where’s the bathroom?”

“It’s, uh,” he walked over and opened a door, “right over here.” He smiled down at her and tugged at his earlobe, a tic she had always found endearing. “I’ll just be out here, getting ready, too, okay?”

“Okay,” she said and shut the door.

Evelyn can imagine him now, sitting on the edge of the bed, tugging at his earlobe, wondering exactly when she will be ready. She walks out of the bathroom. The clear clacking of her heels on linoleum is instantly absorbed by the dingy carpet. The silence is disconcerting.

“Wow,” Edward says, the single, breathless syllable breaking into her thoughts. He is wearing the boxers she got him for Christmas last year, bright blue and covered with penguins wearing orange bow-ties.

Emboldened by these penguins, she strikes a pose, placing her hands on her hips and jutting her chest forward. She turns her head dramatically to the right, letting her long bangs fly over her eyes, and pouts her lips, another parody of sexy confidence.

“What do you think?” she says, careful not to look at him.

He walks up to her and slides a fallen strap back onto her shoulder. His fingers are warm, his touch much-missed.

“You look—” He chuckles the way he did on their first date, nervous but happy. “Too good for any of the clichés I had planned to say,” he concludes.

“Spare me…” she begins, still half in character. But when she turns her head to look at him, she cannot finish her line. He brushes the hair from her face with those warm fingers. It’s been so long.

“Thank you,” she says. She looks down, embarrassed by the rush of warmth in her body. It is then that she notices Edward’s erection poking through his boxers. Her head snaps back up just as he leans in to kiss her forehead.

“Fuck!” His eyes are tightly shut and his thick eyebrows are knitted together as he grimaces. He exhales a single syllable through gritted teeth. “Ouch.”

“Oh my god!” She winces in sympathy. “I’m so sorry.” She means this, she really does. But underneath her hand now covering her mouth, she feels herself begin to smile. She suppresses the impulse quickly. What is wrong with her? “Are you okay?” she says, “You want me to get some ice?” She slips off her heels, ready to run for the fridge.

He slowly opens his eyes. She must still be conveying an accurate enough expression of concern because he sighs. “I’m okay.” He sits down on the bed. His erection has deflated considerably. “How’s your head?” he asks, staring at the wall in front of him. His roommate has a Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar up and next to that is the Greenday poster she sent Edward in September.

“It’s fine,” she says. She needs to get a grip. She promised and it was not a promise made lightly. It was a promise she is sure even her mother would eventually forgive, as long as Edward and she get married immediately and never divorce. Breathe, she tells herself, this is Edward—you know him. She knows that his earliest and fondest childhood memory is of winding his mother’s hair in his small hands. She knows the way he kisses, never staying in one place long enough, and that his ex-girlfriend is a little prettier than she is, but she is much smarter. She knows that despite his mother’s fatal accident, he drives like a maniac, recklessly weaving in and out of traffic, making bets about the ethnicity of the drivers who piss him off—all in a car with no horn. She knows that when he cries, he is like a little boy, both hands covering his face. She knows that he likes smooth, not crunchy, peanut butter, and that he has exactly three pornographic magazines under his mattress back in California.

“I know you’re nervous,” he murmurs. “It’s my first time, too.”

Right—she knows that it’s his first time, too.

She sits down next to him and rubs his back with one hand. He glances at her with a half-smile, not wide enough for dimples. She moves behind him and starts massaging his back with both hands, planting open-mouthed kisses on his spine.

“That feels real good, babe,” he says with a low moan. His excitement should excite her. That’s the way it’s always been in the past, just the sound of his pleasure gave her pleasure—but even now as she kisses him, each kiss committing her further, all she can feel is anxiety. What if she doesn’t know enough? Or what if what she does know has changed? She stops kissing him. Breathe.

“You like that,” she says, pressing her body against his, “Edward?”

He turns to look at her, somewhat surprised. “I do,” he says, “Evelyn.” He turns away from her as he says her name. In the silence that deepens between them, she can hear the continuous whirring of the small rotating fan in the corner of the room. She closes her eyes and tries to concentrate on the sheer warmth of his body. She can do this. Maybe one more fact to recite, one more story to hold.

“Where did your name come from, Edward?” she asks him, her cheek pressed against the sinewy muscles of his back. She wraps her arms around his narrow chest and breathes him in; the plumeria-air making him smell as pure as soil.

“My name?” he says. He shrugs off her arms, not roughly but decisively, and turns so that they are facing each other on the bed. He looks at her, his gaze direct and a little cold. She grabs a pillow to hug to her chest. “Why are you asking about my name right now?”

“I don’t know,” she says. She buries her face in the pillow. “Just wondering, I guess.” She peers out from the top of the pillow, just enough to see his face through the hair that has fallen over her eyes.

He sighs and grips his thick hair with one hand. “Edward,” he says, releasing his hair, “is actually my middle name.”

She looks at him—at his rumpled hair; at his eyelashes even longer than her own; at the constellation of moles on his chest, Orion’s belt in sepia tones. “What?”

“Edward,” he says, “was what my mom wanted, after some character in a Jane Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility.” He stands up and just as quickly, sits back down. “But my dad didn’t go for it. My first name is Jamison.”

Jamison. James’ son. Somehow, she is not surprised. Edward’s hands are back in his hair. He is looking at the off-white curtains now. The muscles in his face are tensed. “After she died—” He stops and closes his eyes. Evelyn watches as he takes a deep breath. He looks almost too lean, the newly tanned skin pulled too tightly over his lank frame. She remembered what he told her; his mother went on a drive to cool off from another argument with his father, just a spat about the groceries, and collided with a pickup while merging onto the freeway. He opens his eyes, but keeps his gaze averted. He starts tugging at the curtain. “When she died, I was just starting high school, and when people asked me what I went by, I said Edward.”

She smiles softly and places a hand on his knee. He looks at her, his eyes taking a while to focus. “I see,” she says, rubbing small circles on his knee with her thumb. He is the same after all. “I like Edward better,” she says.

“Me, too,” he says. She reaches out and holds the angles of his face in her hands, relishing the prickly feel of his stubble, wanting to feel it brush against other skin. He closes his eyes and she leans forward to press her lips against his. She has missed this.

She feels as close to him now as she ever has, closer even; no sex necessary. And looking at him, she knows he feels the same. “So now that we know each other’s names,” she says, arching her eyebrows, “how about we, uh—” She can’t find the words so she pats the bed instead, still flexing her eyebrows. Her forehead hurts a little with all her exertion.

He tosses the other pillow lightly in her direction. “You’re ridiculous.”

She tosses her pillow at him. “You love it.”

“I do,” he says. And he is sincere. He takes both pillows and tosses them aside. They hit the floor decisively and she knows as soon as she hears the soft thuds that she has misread him. He feels close enough to have sex. She braces herself, as if against a summer monsoon; her limbs stiff planks waiting for July flooding. His face becomes less and less clear as he moves forward; his chapped lips filling her half-shut eyes. He kisses her, lightly, tenderly even. On their third date, they had been sitting next to each other in a booth at Nation’s where he ate with such vigor that a rib popped clean out of his mouth and on to her lap. He was mortified, but she had laughed, turned to him and they kissed for the first time. Soft and barbeque-flavored, she recalls, and smiles against his lips. He notices, pauses, and smiles back, his hair falling over his forehead. She breathes deeply and lifts her legs onto the bed. Maybe this will be okay. Edward begins kissing her again, his breath coppery-hot, and her scalp tingles when his tongue slips in and out of her mouth. He chews on her bottom lip.

“Ow,” she cries out, louder than she intended to.

“Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry.” His lips touch her forehead, eyebrows, cheeks, even her chin in feathery apology. She knows she loves him. He hums on her collarbone and she is breathless, her back arching in response. His smooth chest rubbing on top of her makes her squeeze her thighs together. All her muscles are rapidly contracting and releasing, except the ones in her fingers, which seem to be going numb. When he moves her legs so that they are no longer tucked underneath her and she is laying flat on the bed, she hardly notices. She begins to recite facts in her head again: He likes his tea stronger with each sip. He wants to be a forensic scientist. He tugs at her chemise and rubs his thumb furiously across her left nipple. She inhales sharply and exhales fractured words. His favorite color is red, but only because black is not a color. Black absorbs everything and reflects nothing. He moves to her right nipple. His breath fills the creases in between her breasts as he murmurs moist endearments: darling, babe, gorgeous. Everything but her name. He has terrible taste in music and cannot conjugate the simplest Spanish verbs, much less the irregular ones like ir, to go. Yo voy. Tú— He lets out a tangled groan that breaks into her recitation.

She can no longer hear herself think, and yet still can’t pull away. They are both laying down now, his hairy legs intermingling with her smooth ones. He presses into her with the full weight of his body. Sweat gathers in the small of her back, along her forehead, in between her toes. And even now, she feels as though she could summon up desire, if he would just—she grits her teeth and thinks that they have time. They have more time together. There’s no need, no need to rush. His stubble scratching her clavicle feels almost too prickly. She shudders as his hand sprints over her calves, searing. His fingers part her thighs and she gasps. “You like that,” he says. She bites her lip and closes her eyes. He moves his rough fingers forward, his thumb slipping beneath flimsy black lace. Breathe. She lifts her arms and begins to reach around his neck to remind him that she is still here, will be here for a while. There’s no need, no need to rush. Her fingers shake and she wills herself to solidify, to pull together. He grabs her wrists with his other hand and pins her hands above her head.

“Edward!”

His hand, the one that had been snaking in between her thighs, stops. His grip on her wrists loosens, but he does not let her go. He remains on top of her but eases back so that he can see her face. All the vulnerability in his once tense jaw has evaporated; his mouth is slightly open, his jaw slack. His brown eyes churn as they struggle to process the image in front of him: a woman restrained, breath curled on her dry tongue. Deep lines etch themselves into his brow. She tries to speak that one syllable, but her throat aches.

She shakes her head. No. He releases her wrists first. Then he moves his other hand from underneath her chemise. He gets off of her. The bed creaks and she hears the whirring of that fan, spinning blades reverberating in her throbbing skull. She feels wetness on her cheeks and realizes she is crying. She stares at the ceiling and hears the screen door that leads out onto the lanai slide open. He is outside now.

Her mother never saw him again, this fisherman’s son she had been writing letters to, this boy whose hand she held as they walked along the pier. In her second year of college, after her first proposal, her mother met a medical student with thick glasses and gentle hands. Not as cute, Evelyn’s mother admitted, but from the right type of family. Family is important, her mother said, you need to feel secure. By secure, Evelyn had always thought her mother meant financially secure. Young love is important, but her mother did not regret her choices—this is what Evelyn understood from the story. But maybe after all this time Evelyn had misunderstood this last sentence, maybe her memory of her native tongue had failed her and she had misinterpreted that last word: not secure, but something more basic—safe.

Evelyn hears the screen door slide closed and Edward’s soft footsteps return to the bed. She dutifully shuts her eyes.

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Filed under Fiction, Vol 2 Issue 1

A Story in the Water

by Rebecca Fraimow

She tells him stories; every night, after he’s tired himself out with trying to find a way home, she tells him a story.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman,” she tells him. “She was pretty as humans go – not as beautiful as me.” Her tone implies obviousness. To judge from her voice, she is almost always explaining the obvious. “Her skin was that terrible pale pinkish-brown color you have, and her hair was thin and straight, and she kept it tied up.”

She runs a hand through her own flowing green locks, waving wild in the water, and smiles. “But all the same,” she says, “she was very pretty; and she broke your heart.”

He remembers the woman she’s talking about, though not as a woman. He remembers her as a young girl. He remembers deciding that he wanted to marry her. He thinks– although he is not sure – that he did.

“She was my wife,” he ventures, and the storyteller shrugs graceful shoulders with an air of supreme indifference.

“What do I know about wives?”

That ends the story for that night.

“Once upon a time, there was a man,” she tells him. “He was not a very handsome man, but he was a good man, as humans go.”

He thinks she may be talking about him. It’s sometimes difficult to tell.

“He was in love with a woman who couldn’t be his, and it was really very hard for him.” She sounds pitying; she is pretending to be kind, but she is not very good at it. “He brought her gifts, pretty dresses and things for the house, and books about love that conquered all odds. She gave the dresses to her sister and the things for the house to the poor, and the books about love to her friends, who read them and cried. Some of the better ones she read, too – she liked stories – but she wouldn’t keep them. She tried to give the man to her friends, too, but he was stubborn, and wouldn’t be given away.”

“Good for him,” he says, still wondering if she’s talking about him, and she looks at him in scorn. He knows the look. It means he’s misunderstood, and she’s wasted her time.

“You didn’t think so then.”

That ends the story for the night; but he stays up a long time, after, trying to remember the men he’s known. He remembers working, long days squinting against the glare on the sea, and long nights drinking with the other men – fishermen? – after that. He remembers laughing. But he can’t remember any faces except his own, and he doesn’t remember knowing anyone who believed that love conquered all odds, except maybe the girl with the thin straight hair that he thinks might have been his wife.

“Once upon a time, there was a man,” she tells him. “He was not a very good man, but he was a handsome man, as humans go. He had a good job, and a woman who loved him, and everyone told him he should have been happy.” Her eyes glint like they’re speckled with salt. It is clear that this idea amuses her beyond measure.

“Maybe he wanted something else,” he says; then, more hesitantly, “Maybe he didn’t love the woman.”

“Oh, he loved her,” she answers, more entertained than ever. “But he was afraid, and jealous, and he was a fool. The woman was very pretty, true, but not pretty enough to drive men mad. He had no excuse for his foolishness, and a human would say that if he had not been a fool, they might have been very happy indeed.”

“And what do you say?”

She smiles at him, pleased, and stretches out a slender finger to caress him under his chin. The finger has no nail.

“I say that if a man acts as foolish as that for no reason, he is of a nature that is likely to make him unhappy regardless of a very pretty, very human wife. I say that a man acting as foolish as that is a sign that he wants something more, and I would say that a man like that would count himself very lucky to have found it.”

But he’s not listening anymore; he says, “Wife?” and then, “I thought you didn’t know anything about wives.”

She frowns, drawing back her hand. “I don’t,” she snaps. “But you will keep using the word.”

She leaves him, and that ends the story for the night.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman,” she tells him, “and you acted very foolishly towards her. You shouted at her, and told her to go, and she thought you meant it, and left, and didn’t come back.”

He doesn’t remember shouting. He remembers a book, and a girl with thin straight hair reading it, and laughing. He remembers wondering where she got it. He remembers asking her, but he doesn’t remember shouting.

“I remember a book,” he says, out loud.

“You tore out the pages,” she answers. “You dropped them in the water. I have them now.”

“Do you take everything that falls in the water?”

She laughs, and runs a hand through her thick green hair. The expected, flirtatious answer: “Only the things I like.”

She looks at him, and he knows what she wants him to think. It might even be true. But he can’t remember it; he can’t remember seeing the water from land, and he can’t remember lusting after it. He can imagine himself with the book, tearing out the pages one by one and dropping them into the water, but he can’t remember it. He can’t remember jumping in after them.

He looks away.

“I think I’m going to sleep now,” he says.

That ends the story for that night.

Once upon a time, the book says, there was a boy and a girl. The girl had golden hair and eyes of blue that flashed violet in her fits of passion; the boy was dark, with sullen grey eyes and more money than he knew what to do with.

Or at least, so the man believes; some of the letters are unreadable, worn away with the water. He has pieced together the story that he believes to make the most sense, filled in words in his mind if not on the page – he has nothing to write with, nothing that works underwater.

The story has nothing at all to do with him. He does not remember blonde hair. He does not remember money, any money at all, except perhaps a coin handed over a counter here and there. All the same, he found the pages himself, folded carefully beneath a rock; they were not given to him by her hand to keep him content or discontent, and when he reads he tries not to hear the words in her rhythmic whispering voice.

There are many pages to the story, though not as many as were in the book. It will take him a long time to read through, longer to weave the broken bits together with the most likely strands of narrative. He will keep it secret, he thinks. He will read it every night, and it will be his story.

And by the time he has finished it, he promises himself, he will be gone from here; he will return the pages to the girl he perhaps took them from. He thinks that whoever she is, she deserves to be able to read the end.

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Filed under Fiction, Vol 2 Issue 1

Drying, Freezing, Canning

By Michelle Traub

Our ceiling is falling in, and next week is my grandfather’s ninety-first birthday. This morning, I woke up with plaster on my pillow. My father says he will look into it, but the rains have been heavy. The galvanized iron gutter, rust-resistant for the past decade, needs to be repaired. Precipitation seeps through the brickwork into the bookshelves. We’re all concerned about water damage; sonograms and first editions curl towards the sun on the windowsills.

Sy, my grandfather, is coming up from the shuffleboard courts of Delray Beach to help me find his birthday present. In years past, I have resorted to spray-painting Moses or Miles Davis onto t-shirts. He wears these garments while juicing grapefruits after his morning walk around the condo development. When I visit, I prefer to pick the kumquats off of his neighbor’s tree. With each wash, the t-shirts fade; it’s time to find a new gift.

“Lorraine, could you make some toast?” My mother leans against the banister in a cotton nightgown, waiting to use the second floor bathroom.

“Yeah, I can do that.”

“And make sure your brothers don’t leave their dishes in the sink.” Our dishwasher is full after each meal. More than dishes, though, I know my mother hates cleaning the sink strainer. It’s like replacing the toilet paper roll.

“Lorraine, I’m serious.” Saturday morning showers start early; we pace about the first floor with wet hair.

 

Two hours later, I’m shoveling the stoop when Sy climbs out of a cab. He wears canvas sneakers in the snow.

“Grandpa,” I say, “your feet.”

He shrugs his monogrammed suitcase. I pull him inside the vestibule. Under the coat hooks, I offer my father’s shearling slippers and we shuffle to the dining room. My parents are out shopping for new storm windows, my sisters sit in a hookah bar on the other side of Flatbush, and my brothers would not tell me.

Over tea, Sy hands me Maimonides.

“I recently read this,” he says, “and I was excited by the excellence both of scholarship and of writing. I thought it worthy of passing on to my granddaughter.”

“But I have nothing for you.”

“Lorraine,” he says, “you are only fifteen.” I can hear wet snow fall through the heating vent.

“When it stops snowing, we’ll start looking for your gift, okay?”

“No, I’m only allergic to cucumbers and melon.” Sy no longer asks me to repeat myself; he merely answers the questions he hears. The floors were refinished last spring and they gleam under our feet.

“Grandpa, how was the plane ride?”

“The plane ride was fine.”

“How are your sinuses?”

“Oh, I brought Prednisone.”

“I thought the steroids made you anxious.” He does not hear me so I hold my hand over my mug to catch the steam. “Grandpa, did your mother make her own gefilte fish?”

“Lorraine,” he says. “Of course.”

 

Sy falls asleep with space heaters up in the den, listening to Quincy Jones. Even downstairs, the vinyl is perceptible at a volume akin to that of the Klezmer band at his second bar mitzvah. I know the neighbors might call, but I like how the sconces buzz with each trumpet blow. Sy will soon be gone; I want to know what the jelly doughnuts of his childhood tasted like. I want to know about the stickball and the midrashim. My mother cannot even find our porcelain dolls in the basement.

At three, the snow and rain finally stop. I wake Sy up from his nap and we pull on woolen coats. The fabric tugs at the band-aids lacing up his arms and I reach out with open hands. He says it’s fine; he shoos. I stuff sucking candies in my pockets and Sy grabs handfuls of tissues.

“Boots,” I say, and give him an old pair of my father’s. They’re stiff. He must sit down on the bottom step of the staircase in order to pull them on his feet.

“We’re ready.” I keep the front door key in my mitten so I will not have to search for it when we return. Slush pools in the gutters; we must jump off curbs. It’s the weekend so we wait fifteen minutes for the Q. The train drags up to the platform with ice on its windows.

As we ride over the bridge, I pull off my tweed cap. Sy comes from a long line of milliners.

“People don’t wear hats anymore, not like they used to,” he tells me. Though, I know through my mother that Sy never wore hats, either, not even out on the deck of the ships during the war.

“But how did they make the hats? What was the process? Mercury?” I grip my knees.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Sy’s hearing aid begins to hum as we descend back into the tunnel. “Have you looked at Maimonides yet?”

“You just gave it to me,” I say.

“What are you waiting for?” He draws out a shredded tissue. “When I was in school, we didn’t believe in memorization. You can always look up a fact, Lorraine. You need to learn how to think.” He leans forward, as though contemplating to blow his nose. “Although, I remember my twelve times tables. Thirteen and fourteen would take me some time.”

 

We begin at the Strand. Sy is convinced that the bookstore’s disorder is its source of supremacy. “Hold this,” he tells me, throwing his coat over my shoulder. His elbows crack as he crawls through the aisles. He disappears into Transportation, reemerges from Military. I’m sure my mother would disapprove of this, but I know about the folios on the bottom shelves.

“Grandpa.” I have not moved from the central table of audio books. “Grandpa, how about some poetry?” Sy rolls onto his heels.

“There’s nothing here,” he says. “Lorraine, let’s go.” I pull him to his feet and hand him his coat. His palms are bleeding from the friction.

“Do you want, I don’t know, a band-aid?”

“In fact, I don’t remember these winters being so severe,” he says.

There is a flea market on Prince at which I have found candelabras and road signs. We walk down Broadway with snot on our collars. The NYU dormitory windows are open and the snow is saturated with the smell of clove cigarettes.

“I may be shrinking this way,” Sy pats the top of his head, “but I’m growing this way,” and he points with a fully extended finger to where I imagine his stomach must sit beneath the coat.

“That’s gravity,” I say, because it’s true; my grandfather is shorter than I am these days. Though, the randomness of quantum theory seems more apt for justifying the disappearing flesh of thighs or biceps. When we brush our teeth at the bathroom sink, even his breastplate seems to be slowly collapsing, as though organs and blood vessels deflate with collective fatigue.

At the flea market, Sy points to the two-tone steel typewriter. “You need that,” he says.

“No, we’re shopping for you,” I say. When my grandfather moved from New England to Florida, he invited all of his progeny to take what they could carry. My mother said that everything I wanted was too heavy. I could take either the typewriter or the sewing machine. My brothers took the army cot; my sisters took the Atomic Formica kitchen chairs. I have always been anxious over heirlooms. Having already lost the Kodachrome portraits to Uncle Bruce, I’m afraid I will be cheated out of a wedding dress or a latke recipe.

“Lorraine,” my mother said. “What is your decision?”

“The sewing machine,” I said.

“Good. It’s riding in your lap on the way home.”

 

From the tables covered in tarp, I pick up a bagel slicer, pocket watch, sweater vest, but Sy shakes his head.

“I don’t need any of that,” he says.

“But think of its history!”

“Whose history?”

I nod and tuck my ears into my cap. I understand change to be when the bodega down on Fifth Avenue turns into a tea lounge. My grandfather knows eras. He once told me that he was born on the kitchen table of a coldwater flat in Brooklyn. I’m not sure where to put this information. I am tempted to etch into stone, bury archival boxes, tattoo the backs of my knees.

“We should have started in the Bronx, you knew the Bronx so well,” I say.

“I mean, they were literate in Yiddish,” he answers, with one thumb behind his ear, tuning the hearing aid.

“No, Grandpa, I said-”

“We need,” Sy interrupts, “sustenance.”

We ride the Q back downtown and buy three roast pork buns. “Because you always want one half more,” Sy says.

The dough sticks to my fingers. Sy raised my mother in a kosher household. To this day, she cannot eat cheeseburgers. However, there was always a distinction when it came to Chinese food. In the house, Sy tells me, there’s Coffee-Mate; but at Szechuan Palace, there’s shrimp in lobster sauce.

We walk in the street, because there is no room on the sidewalk.

“What about old school?” I suggest. “Rakim, Guru, Kool DJ Herc.”

Sy shakes his head and the sun begins to fall behind roofs. Vendors are packing up lanterns and sunglasses.

“It’s time to go home,” Sy says.

“But, I have nothing,” I say. He watches my mouth closely.

“Lorraine.”

“Tell me about the static, during the war,” I say, “tell me again.”

“I’m tired. It’s time to go home.”

 

My mother has laid a path of towels from the vestibule to the staircase. Her floor is protected. Sy and I peel down to undershirts. I can smell the potatoes from inside of the roasting chicken. My brothers are setting the table; my sisters, uncorking wine.

“Did you find something?” My mother hands us flannel robes.

“Well,” we say.

“Dad, I have some extra socks for you upstairs,” she says.

“I’m no Kabbalist, you know that.” He grins. My mother tells me that Sy’s father’s ears were even larger, and his hearing even worse. She tells me this, because we have their earlobes.

 

Sy leaves the next morning after toasted bialys. He climbs back into a cab as rain and snow continue to fall. For the rest of the morning, my mother and I gather dried pages from the windowsills. The photograph album from my parents’ Crete trip could not be salvaged. Beaches melt down the plastic.

“It’s too bad,” my mother says.

“But how will you remember?” I ask.

“I remember.”

“But what about me?”

“Lorraine, don’t worry so much.” She puts the album into a garbage bag and hands it to me. “Take this out to the curb.”

“And these?” I pick up the empty milk cartons by the inner door.

“And those.”

I hold the railing as I descend, so I will not slip on the ice. The sidewalk in front of our house is splintered; underneath, the roots of the oak tree persist. I toss the cartons into the blue recycling bin and shift the bagged album to my right hip. My childhood of rice cakes and snow pants will never be epic; I know this. In a skirt suit, my mother seems unconcerned. I crouch over the flower boxes my father built two decades ago. Soil spills out the side. Above me, the tree shivers and snow falls to my shoulders. I reach into the dirt with cupped hands. The album fits vertically, and I press the topsoil with the heel of my palm. Here, we will plant geraniums in the spring.

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Filed under Fiction, Online Exclusive

What’s There in Marquam Hill?

by Scott Bolkan

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Filed under Fiction, Vol 1 Issue 3

A Modern Guide to Pi

By Steven Tagle

     “I never planned to become a pi junkie. I never thought I’d become intimately familiar with the Holy Grail of geeks and math majors, or know that its sixty-forth digit was three. But handsome Derek made me learn it, digit by stubborn digit, as we raced up the stairwell of the psychology department each morning on our way to class.
     “Let’s go, Sammy!” he cried, leaping over the railing and onto the stairs. “3.1-4-1-5-9…”
     I hurried after him, clinging to the railing as if it were the lone cable strung over a bottomless pit. The staircase filled me with a continuous, numbing terror. The steps were made out of concrete, rectangular slabs precariously attached to a skinny white beam. As I climbed them, I could see through the stairs and through the stairs below them to the first and second floor landings. Climbing so high, so fast, activated my eczema. I scratched my arms for relief and focused on Derek’s calf muscles. They pumped up and down hypnotically, pistons beneath the skin.
      “…2-6-5-3-5-8-9-7-9-3-2-3-8-4-6…” We counted between breaths.
      “Faster!” he said, “faster!” He lifted his chin and swung his arms, coaxing numbers out of me like notes of music. Only Derek could make me recite sixty-four digits while running after him up a stairwell. As I trailed behind him, I thought once again that he should have pursued his master’s in drama, not psychology. The boy was almost twenty-five, but cute enough that he could still be immature and get away with it. Girls ran to him like well-trained rats, and he flirted shamelessly. I had known him for two years. The thought came to me often, flickering through my mind like some great accomplishment. Two whole years. My parents knew each other for less than a year before they got married. The first sixty-four digits of pi contained seven twos.
     “…2-6-4-3-3-8-3-2-7-9-5-0-2-8-8-4-1-9-7-1-6-9-3-9-9-3-7-5-1-0-5-8-2-0…” There were ninety steps in the stairwell, each step—each gap between the steps—a little piece of hell. I wondered what the ninetieth digit of pi was. An elevator soared past us, and I could hear its happy chiming through the walls. It chimed to the beat of pi.
     Some jerk posted a sign on the third floor landing that said “NO RUNNING.” It was shiny and new, with letters in bold caps, serious as a heart attack. I pointed it out to Derek to see what he would do. Grabbing the railing, he leapt onto the wall, tracking dirty sneaker prints across the sign. I kissed the “O” that his shoe missed, transforming it into a pair of thick, red lips.
     “You’re such a beauty,” he said.
     “Am I?” I wanted to hear him say it again.
     He cocked his head at me. “For a girl.”
     “…9-7-4-9-4-4-5-9-2-3!” I said. That was it. Sixty-four digits of pi.
     “3.1-4-1-5-9-2-6-5-3-5….” he replied.
     I grinned at him, and he grinned back. This guy better be worth it, I thought.

     If I concentrated hard enough, I could remember snippets of our life before pi. Taking the stairs each morning was one of our pre-pi rituals. That, too, was Derek’s doing. About a week before the quarter started, he accidentally hooked up with Blaine “Rabbit” Crawford, a guy from our lab he found adorably repressed. I had never paid too much attention to Blaine. I only knew him as the Rabbit King, a tall, pale guy who studied anger suppression in bunny rabbits and said “obviously” a lot when he got nervous. He was a six, a seven tops.
     “You should’ve seen him afterwards,” Derek moaned, nuzzling his face into the gap between my neck and shoulder. It was my first night back from a summer abroad, and we lay side by side in my bed, listening to the sounds of our new apartment. “It’s like I’m not meant to have any guy friends, like I’m unable to suppress the mildest attraction.” He hugged me tightly, and I struggled to be more present in his arms, to calm him with the simple pressure of my body against his. Boyfriends and hook-ups came and went, but friends filled beds when lovers were gone. “Why can’t they be like you, Sammy?” he said. “You’re more of a man than most of the guys I date anyway.” The guys he dated inevitably hurt him, and when he was soft and broken, he came to me. Consoling him was what I did best.
     After he hooked up with Rabbit, Derek gave up the elevator. I didn’t blame him. Throw me in an elevator with one of my ex-hook-ups, and I’d scratch my arms off before the doors closed. When the quarter started, he somehow convinced me to join him on his morning aerobics, running up and down five flights of stairs to class. “Come on,” he said, “we need the exercise.”

     After Derek crammed the sixty-fourth digit of pi into my brain, I lost the cognitive capacity for politeness or tact. The average person can fit about seven random digits into his short term memory. Sixty-four was a beast that had set up shop in my head. All this work for Mr. Pi the Pi Guy, and I still didn’t know any juicy details about him. We sat in the fifth floor conference room, waiting for Professor Owlan to arrive, when Derek prompted me to begin our twelfth repetition of pi.
     “Tell me his name or get lost,” I grumbled. Rabbit crouched at the front of the room, struggling to plug his clunky gray laptop into the projector so that he could present his research on anger suppression. He got so adorably tangled in his VGA cable that I found myself completely unwilling to help him.
     Derek swiveled his chair to face me. He didn’t seem phased by my demand, but when he opened his mouth, he broke into a smile so wide that the whole shape of his face changed. For a moment, he had difficulty forming words. “You won’t believe it,” he said finally. “Sam. His name’s Sam.”
     I’d often fantasized about Derek bringing home a guy named Sam. “We have the same name,” I’d say when I hugged him at the door. “We’re like twins, you and I. Derek’s indispensable Sams.” If I could share enough traits with him, maybe he could share the experience, the feeling of being with Derek, with me. If Sam and I were close enough, maybe I wouldn’t grow to hate him. Almost of one mind, Derek and I had very similar tastes in men. Take Rabbit, for example. He was too tall and too pale, but not altogether unattractive to the discerning eye.
     “So how’d you meet him?”
     “At the café. Monday, after you left.”
     “Monday?” On Monday afternoons, we had coffee at the Brokedown Café. We ordered Daily Dysfunctions, tripio espressos with dashes of rum. He always paid.
     “I was trying to recalculate the figures for my grant, but this guy in the booth behind me kept spouting off random numbers. So I turn around, and I’m like ‘Listen, buddy.’ And this guy’s totally hot. Like in a way that represents America and all that.”
     “Does he have good skin?”
     “Well, he scratches, but you can hardly tell.” I looked down at my arms, splotched red from our run up the stairs. Where was my hydrocortisone when I needed it? I felt an instant bond with people who scratched like I did. Maybe Sam and I could share something.
     “So when he turned to me, naturally I was like….” Derek let his jaw fall slack and his eyes glaze over.
     “That good, huh? A ten?”
     “At least a twelve.” He grinned at me. “I’m totally keeping this one.”
     Rabbit was still fussing with his laptop when Professor Owlan came in, late as usual. I watched his cursor wander across the projection screen and toggle the volume settings. You won’t get sound, I thought, without an audio cable. What a space cadet. At the end of his presentation, Rabbit started his silent video and sat down next to me, eyes closed, passing a week’s anxiety. His rabbits twitched their noses furiously on screen, demonstrating “covert anger behavior.” Derek refused to take notes in pen; he stealthily reached into my bag for a pencil, but I kicked him away. I didn’t like people fishing around in my purse. Rabbit leaned over to me. “The screaming,” he whined, “you can’t hear the screaming.” He had a deep voice, deeper than you’d expect from a man who played with rabbits. On my other side, Derek hiked up my skirt and scrawled “Sammy wants Rabbit!” across my thigh with his pen. I laid a reassuring hand on Rabbit’s arm and laughed softly in his ear.

     “Rabbit seems healthier,” I said, cleaning up after a quick lunch. The compliment screamed high school crush almost as much as the smudged-out pen marks on my thigh. Hoping that Derek would be at least a little jealous, I absorbed myself in washing plates, meticulously scrubbing each tube of macaroni down the sink.
     “He’s not your type,” Derek said. He shoved a hand down his pants, scratching himself as he handed me his plate.
     “How do you know?” I asked. People always hassled me for falling in love with gay men. They made it sound like I sought out gay guys to turn them straight. That was completely off base. It just happened that most of the guys who interested me turned out to have the hots for other men.
     Derek yanked bottles of cranberry juice and vodka out of the fridge with both hands. The cranberry juice still had a red bow tied around its neck. “You’re going to break those girls’ hearts,” I said. The undergrads in Derek’s section fell so easily for his sly, boyish smile, his hugs that were warm and cryptic. Every quarter, they invited him to dinner in their dorms, and I made him bring me back juice mixers. He’d tell them that he was a poor grad student with a weakness for cranberries, then return to our apartment with three or four bottles tucked under his arm.
     He squeezed a lime into my Cosmopolitan, licking the juice off his fingertips. “It’s just a game,” he said. “Besides, I dress way too well to be straight.” I pitied these girls, but mooching off their dorms’ cranberry juice made the drink that much sweeter. I could see what attracted them to Derek. In my opinion, he wasn’t really gay. He liked men, but everyone liked men nowadays. There were guys in our department who thought that being gay entitled them to high heels and a tiara. I liked this one guy in developmental until he asked me to help him paint his nails. He wanted to have a “girls’ night out.” After that, I avoided him like Brand X pads.
      “Oh, Sammy,” Derek said, frowning as he handed me my glass. Checking my right hand, I discovered a large, crater-shaped cut in the dry flesh between my thumb and forefinger. A shiny film of plasma or something covered it, so I figured it was fresh. I didn’t notice it this morning, I thought huffily. Even with the ointment I religiously applied, I often scratched in my sleep.
     “It’s because you never cut your nails,” Derek said. “I know they’re pretty, but guys’ll never notice them if you keep scratching like that.” He took my hand in his, and while stroking it with strong, square-tipped fingers, he held it up as proof. It looked a lot like a slab of raw meat with a French manicure. God, I thought. I hated the public nature of skin.
     “I’ll pick up some of those moisturizing gloves the next time I’m at the store,” Derek said, sipping his Cosmo. “Sam told me they’d do wonders for your skin.”
     “You told him about my skin problem?” Derek’s boyfriends entertained me like the characters on TV sitcoms. I watched them, but I didn’t know they watched me back. And even though Sam scratched as well, I planned to bring it up myself. Now we’d have one less amazing similarity to bond over when we met. My hands were getting hot. I absentmindedly rubbed my knuckles against the sides of my wrists. The noise it made was dry and comforting.
     “I thought he might have some tips,” Derek said. I hid my hands in my lap and scratched some more. I enjoyed picking at the tough, tingling scabs.
      Derek took our glasses, rinsed them once, and left them in the sink. “We need wooden hangers too,” he said. “For button-down shirts, Sam says they’re a must.”

     It had been a long time since I last derived pleasure from numbers. I first learned about pi in the fourth grade, but didn’t really understand that it was a number until the sixth grade, when Mrs. Steinberger declared March 14 official Pi Day. She insisted that we memorize the first ten digits as homework the night before, and that day in class, she threw a giant pi party. She helped us move our desks to form that funny-looking symbol, and we sang our ten digits to the tune of “Happy Birthday” while we danced between pi’s legs.
     After sixty-four, the digits came easy. Derek and I chanted them as we climbed up the stairs, rocketing to the fifth floor in a flurry of numbers. 3.1-4-1-5-9-2-6-5-3-5-2-3-8-4-6-2-6-4-3-3-8-3-2-7-9-5-0-2-8-8-4-1-9-7-1-6-9-3-9-9-3-7-5-1-0-5-8-2-0-9-7-4-9-4-4-5-9-2-3-0-7-8-1-6-4-0-6-2-8-6-2-0-8-9-9-8-6-2-8-0-3-4-8-2-5. We reached ninety digits, then one hundred. Derek became a math department groupie. He started giving his lab presentations without notes, spouting off percentages, correlation coefficients, and standard deviations like designer brand names. Sometimes I wondered how Sam rewarded him for learning pi. Did he round a new base at every hundred digits? The possibilities were endless. Although I wasn’t as good with numbers, I too began to crave them. One hundred digits were, come to think of it, insignificant in the grand scheme of pi. I wanted to know two hundred, three hundred. Pi held the promise of mastery and possession, each number offering itself up to be my next thrilling conquest.
     The day Derek and I broke a hundred and fifty, we lay sprawled out on the fifth floor landing, struggling to catch our breaths. I now knew that the ninetieth digit of pi was a five, and could casually dangle my hand into the rectangular space between the stairs. The cold concrete tickled the back of my neck, so I inched my head up onto Derek’s stomach. It was only 9:22, the earliest we had been to class all quarter. Not bad, especially for a Monday. In two hours, Derek and I would be sitting down to our Daily Dysfunctions at the Brokedown Café.
     “Sam says that pi is like poetry,” Derek mused, smoothing the wrinkles in his rolled-up shirt sleeves. “They’re both overanalyzed to death.” I closed my eyes and listened to him talk, imagining us back in bed instead of lying awkwardly in the stairwell. My head lolled to the rhythm of his breaths, falling from ab to ab. He was the perfect headrest.
      “Sammy?”
      “Hmmm?” At the moment, it was all I could manage.
     “Is it okay if we don’t do coffee today?”
     “What?” I sat up to face him. “What do you mean?”
     Derek squirmed up against the railing. “Sam wanted to go to the Brokedown Café today.” He blurted the words out quickly, shutting his eyes in terror of me. Derek and I hardly fought, but when we did, I gave him a thrashing.
     “Take him tomorrow!” I yelled. It made me even angrier that a part of me found him cute backed up against the railing, cornered, like a rat. I realized that I had been scratching at a dry patch of skin on my arm and scattering tiny white flakes into the rectangular abyss. Derek was toast. I leaned in for the kill.
     When he sensed me near him, Derek pushed his forehead against mine and gave me the saddest puppy dog look in the history of the world. His furrowed eyebrows tickled my forehead. Though his face blocked out the light, I could see the line where his contact lenses separated the white of his eyes from the brown, and his breath hit my nose in cool, minty gusts. It was so close to a kiss. My hands flailed around wildly until I found the railing.
     “Please?” he whispered. He looked even cuter when he needed something; begging gave him an excuse to flirt with me. I wondered if he thought I smelled sweet. Derek threw his arms around me and pulled me to him. We lay roughly horizontal on the landing, and he started gnawing playfully on the collar of my shirt. When his nose nudged my neck, goosebumps broke out like bad acne. I couldn’t believe I was going to let him ditch me.
     “I love you!” he said, “I love you!” Now he was going on a real coffee date with a real guy. I felt so stupid for always pretending that our dates were real, that our traditions were sacred. We were the greatest things that ever happened to each other. Samantha and Derek. Professor Owlan even called us “The Twins.” I gazed at Derek’s strong, smiling face and inhaled his minty breath, thinking how little I had that was truly mine. He leaned in and planted a sloppy kiss on my cheek.

     He didn’t come home until late that evening. I was reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams on the couch when he rambled into our apartment, slightly buzzed, his arms lost in the sleeves of his half-buttoned shirt.
     “Hey beauty,” he said, “I got you something.” He pulled a pair of white cotton gloves out of his back pocket and thrust it at me. “Courtesy of Sam, eh? Eh?”
     I looked him over with a prudish suspicion that instantly and painfully reminded me of my mother. “What’d you guys do?”
     “Drank. Hung out. Made out.” Derek rambled towards me, but I held an arm out to stop him. He needed a shower badly. Sweat stains darkened the armpits of his favorite shirt.
     “One of your buttons is missing.”
     Derek grinned. “Sam’s fault.” Then he pushed past me to his room, slamming the door shut behind him. Minutes later, his nasal snoring filled our apartment.
     I tried to keep reading. I tried to appreciate “The Dream as Wish-Fulfillment,” but Derek’s snoring was just too loud. After shutting off all the lights and appliances, I decided to go in and check on him. He lay on his bed, outside the covers, with his soiled shirt hanging limply from his arm. He had managed to get it off, but forgot that final step of shrugging it to the floor before he conked out. His snoring was unbearable. I knelt down at his side and tugged the shirt loose from his grip. The fabric was damp with sweat, but it wasn’t all his. Holding it to my nose, I could smell the odor of another man quite distinctly. It smelled too sweet, like a lollipop melting in the sun. I didn’t like the way it mixed with the subtle fragrance of Derek’s musky cologne.
     Why hadn’t Derek introduced me to Sam yet? He talked about Sam less than he talked about any of the other guys he dated. I knew that Rabbit wore pink boxer briefs to bed. I knew that alcohol made him lithe and graceful, that I’d probably like the pale beanpole even better when he was smashed. What did I know about Sam? Zippo. So he liked pi. Big deal. He was still an abstraction, as remote to me as pi’s millionth digit, whatever it was. I hypothesized three reasons for Derek’s silence. Hypothesis 1: Maybe Sam was in the closet. I knew lots of guys who pretended to be straight while they ran around with other men. Hypothesis 2: Maybe Sam was abnormal. Maybe he was obese, or paraplegic, or a transvestite. I didn’t like Hypothesis 3: Maybe Derek and Sam are better off without you. Maybe their relationship is none of your business, so you should back off.
     Derek’s snoring died down to a low whimper, so I turned to watch him sleep. He looked even more like a boy now. Sleep relaxed the overactive muscles in his face and drew soft brown hair down over his eyes. How would it feel to be loved by this boy? How would it feel to be the one he desired? I wished that for once I could be the one he talked about, the one who gave him pleasure. I could give him the best blowjob, I thought suddenly. Right here, right now. I glanced up at his thick, heaving chest and dared to trace his ribs with my fingers. Derek likes guys, I told myself sternly. He wants blowjobs from guys. What was so great about guys anyway? If he knew, I wished he’d tell me. I wanted to know him so desperately. I wanted him to let me in on his secrets. Being straight was so ordinary.
     That night I slept alone, fleshing out Derek’s body with my blankets and sheets. By now, I instinctively assumed a sleeping position that accommodated him, turning on my side at the edge of the bed and bunching my down comforter around me to mimic his arms. It helped me cope with the enormity of my twin bed, helped me sleep.
     I watched the shadows on the ceiling flicker as people walked by the streetlight outside our apartment. Even at three in the morning, there was always a handful of rowdy undergrads roaming the streets and laughing as they passed my window. My mind wandered. 3.1-4-1-5-9-2-6. My mom bought me a red leather purse when I was six. It was a rich, Revlon Red, like the lipstick when it’s first applied. I stuffed it with jewelry, Lego men, and fake food, carrying it with me everywhere. I wouldn’t let the kids at school see what was inside. Only I knew—I carefully handpicked each toy. One day I was chasing after my friend Jeremy and left my purse hanging on the jungle gym. By the time I finally remembered and ran back for it, a group of girls in fluffy pink skirts had emptied it out into the sandbox. They buried my Lego men in sand pyramids and served my plastic fruits to each other with rocks on plates of sand. The blonde, wide-eyed girls wore my rings and my beaded necklaces, so I screamed at them and kicked sand into their faces. I sent the sand and food and girls flying everywhere. Jeremy stood by the swings, watching me. He was my first crush.
     I fell asleep without rubbing hydrocortisone on my skin. That night, I scratched passionately and woke up with blood stains on my pillow. My wrists were raw.

     Derek was getting on my nerves.
     “We need to pick up the pace on pi,” he said. “3.1-4-1-5-9-2-6-5-3-5-8-9-7-9-3-2-3-8-4-6-2-6-4-3-3….” We knew two hundred and forty-two digits.
     Each number landed with a thud on the stairs in front of me and tumbled through the cracks to the landings below. The thought of pi, interminable and unwieldy, made the climb that much harder. Blame it on perceived self-efficacy or low self-esteem. For some reason, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t remember whether the two hundred and twenty-third digit was a four or a five because the numbers sounded so similar, and when you recited them that fast, who could really tell anyway? It bothered me that even if I did recite the numbers wrong, no one would be able to tell. I could just make a sequence up. Who cared if it was a four or a five? It didn’t really matter. Pi stunk of infinity.
     “Sam said there’s this guy in Japan who’s memorized 42,195 digits.”
     I was so sick of Sam. Sam cuddled. Sam scratched. Sam wore sweet-smelling colognes and had a black backpack he wouldn’t let Derek into. But—news flash—so did I! I had the eerie feeling that Sam was somehow commandeering my personality to get into Derek’s pants. Our Monday afternoon coffee breaks were officially dead. I tried to be happy for Derek, I really did. But happiness was such an impotent emotion, such a lame reason to not be angry. Was Sam really that much more appealing just because he had a penis? Was this stumpy, unimpressive appendage really that important? There were differences between men and women, and then there was just silliness.
     After we reached three hundred digits, Derek began sleeping over at Sam’s apartment. I stood in the bathroom for ten minutes that morning, wondering why there was so much space on the counter. It took me a while to realize that Derek’s essentials—his gel, toothbrush, and shaving kit—were all missing. That week, I took long showers and spent whole afternoons moisturizing in my bedroom. My pillow was a mess. I scoured the apartment for band-aids, and when Rabbit saw my mummified hands, he twitched his nose with concern.
     “Rabbits,” I told him, “their rage was too great.”

     After class on Monday, I stole a piece of chalk out of the conference room and started to write out pi on the side of the railing next to each step. 3.1-4-1-5-9…. I couldn’t bear to memorize another digit. This is it, I thought. This is the last time I’m ever reciting pi. Marking up the railing offered me little comfort. The spaces between the steps seemed to widen beneath me, as if they were being stretched from both ends. Then I was vomiting pi, regurgitating all the useless numbers, and as I stumbled from slab to slab with both hands gripping the rails, I thought of Derek and Sam smiling at each other over coffee. They were there now, sharing a Daily Dysfunction at the Brokedown Café. He probably paid for Sam’s drinks too. The empty stairwell mocked me. Pi wasn’t getting me laid. My bandaged hands were so stiff and raw that the chalk kept slipping out. Eventually, I pressed so hard that the chalk snapped in my hand. One piece rolled through the concrete slabs, and I got so mad that I chucked the other piece over the railing. I watched with pleasure as the two halves raced each other down five flights of stairs to the brown, pebbled floor.
     “Everything all right?” Rabbit peered down at me from the doorway on the fifth floor landing. I didn’t even want to know how I looked to him—a crazy girl with bandaged hands crouched in the stairwell chalking pi.
     “What are you doing here?” I asked.
     “I just wanted to check on you,” he said. I was wrong; he was at least an eight. “Where’s Derek?”
     “Not here, obviously.”
     Rabbit rambled down to the step where I knelt, and I slid over to give him space. His eyes scanned the bar of white digits on the railing. “What’s that?” he asked.
     “Secret code.”
     “Secret code, huh? Do you have a decoder or something?” He was no fun.
     “It’s pi,” I said. “Three hundred digits of pi.”
     “Oh.” I could tell he had no interest in math.
     “So you and Derek, huh?”
     Rabbit stared at me, looking for all the world like one of his stressed-out bunnies.
     “Was it good?” I reached over and gently stroked his arm, forgetting for a moment that my hands were covered with band-aids. Rabbit didn’t flinch. His skin was pale and smooth.
     “Well…I mean, obviously…” He stopped and sighed. “Yeah.” Images of Derek and Rabbit hooking up flashed through my mind in graphic detail. I wondered if Rabbit knew about Sam. Suddenly, I had the most marvelous idea.
     “Look, you want to get some coffee? I know a place.”
     Rabbit nodded and took my hand as we walked down the stairs.

     The Brokedown Café was the hippest coffee house in town. Its owners bought the place from a crazy old widow and decorated it to enhance the aura of neglect. On warm days, the café extended outside to an overgrown lawn. Word on the street was that the owners were against counterculture—and everything else. People were thrown out on a regular basis for being too artsy, too emo, too sporty, too prep. Derek and I got in because one of the bartenders thought he looked hot in leather pants.
     I buried my head into Rabbit’s arm as we approached the café. Derek and Sam were probably still there, and if they saw me, I’d have to give up and play nice. I craved a Daily Dysfunction. It was a sunny afternoon, so Derek probably took Sam out to the secluded side of the house, the side with the dilapidated swing set that I absolutely refused to sit on. Flashing a smile at Brick, the bouncer, I steered Rabbit past the barbed-wire fence and into the café.
     Thankfully, the café was full enough that I didn’t have to worry too much about being seen. Wiry intellectuals sat in the booths near the windows where Derek and I used to spend our Monday afternoons. They slouched in the overstuffed seats, studying their menus so intently that they didn’t even glance up when the door creaked. Through the grimy windows, I made out two men swinging high on the swing set. When they launched themselves into the air, the rusty steel frame shook violently. Bingo. I sent Rabbit off to order two Daily Dysfunctions and chose a table in the middle of the house, facing the swing set. Two years ago, the owners of the café smashed in one of the window panes for the waitresses to use as a takeout window. It served as the perfect peeping hole.
     Sam looked nothing like the man I’d imagined. Derek described him as 6’2”, athletic but not dumb, but the Sam on the swings was a lean, delicate little fairy with ribboned blonde locks and a pink sarong wrapped around his waist. Derek usually dated effeminate guys, but Sam could easily pass as a woman. Dark eyeliner accentuated his eyes, and his lips were painted a suspiciously familiar shade of red. This wimpy half-man insulted me. I’d give him a two—maybe—without the skirt. He and Derek rode the swings so happily that I thought I was going to puke. Sam’s black backpack lay on the table by the swing set. He wouldn’t leave it in the grass, of course. Not if he was anything like me. I squinted to catch a glimpse of his hands as he swung by. They were blurred streaks that held the chain tightly, straining against the steel links. He let his feet hit the ground, and as his swinging slowed, I noticed that he did have the telltale red splotches. His hands actually weren’t much better than mine, and for a moment, I felt close to him. I started scratching as I watched Sam rub at the dips between his knuckles. Derek calmly reached over, lacing his fingers with Sam’s, and they held hands while they talked.
     “Two espressos, coming right up!” Rabbit said. I looked up at him and smiled, hoping he didn’t call them espressos at the bar. His nose was twitching, so I could tell that the bartender gave him a hard time. He was too likeable, I decided.
     “Thanks for inviting me,” Rabbit said. “This is…nice.” He squirmed around in his chair to avoid sitting on the nice metal prongs that pierced through his seat cushion. In my mind, I pored over the details that Derek told me about their hook-up. The scenes I imagined swelled goosebumps on my neck.
     “So how’s your research coming?”
     “Good, good.” He nodded amiably, as if he expected me to change the subject. “I’m trying to induce covert anger behavior with electric shocks. It’s pretty tough, actually. The rabbits enter this state of learned helplessness before they toughen up.” I knew that if I got him started on his research, he could go on forever without much prompting. While he talked, I shifted my attention back to Derek and Sam.
     They sat on the swings, chatting up a storm as they rocked back and forth. Derek waved his arms around like an idiot, and then the two of them broke into a fit of laughter. I wondered what they were giggling about. I often found myself laughing at Derek’s jokes even if they weren’t particularly funny. Did Sam do that too, or did he actually think they were funny? I wished I could be the one laughing with Derek on the swings. I’ll sit on them this time, I promised him in my head. I swear I will. They seemed annoyingly perfect for each other.
      “I’m actually starting to think that there are two types of anger behavior,” Rabbit said, “Covert anger behavior and overt anger behavior.” I nodded, hoping he wouldn’t ask me what I thought later. I needed my Daily Dysfunction right now. A waitress walked up to our table with two espressos. Like all the drinks at the Brokedown Café, the espressos were served on porcelain shards rumored to come from the old widow’s kitchen. The waitresses weren’t allowed to wear gloves and often cut their hands on the shattered plates. I waited until she set the drinks on the table and then sent them back. Rabbit apologized profusely for mucking up the order.
     Outside on the swing set, Derek stroked Sam’s chin and slowly leaned in to kiss him. They paused, savoring the nearness of their lips, then closed their eyes and kissed tenderly. It wasn’t making out. It was much simpler, silent and still, the way a kiss should be. I didn’t know Derek could kiss like that. They twisted to face each other, ducking under the steel chains, which crisscrossed and groaned above them. The gentle rocking of the swings brought them together, and they swayed back and forth, floating above the ground. And suddenly I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to sit alone and watch them through a crack in the glass like some voyeur. I wanted to go home. A new waitress brought out our Daily Dysfunctions. Rabbit gulped his down, so appreciative for the experience that he even cut his pinkie on the cracked saucer. I stared down at mine, letting its steam billow into the brass café.

     I was mixing up a second-rate Cosmopolitan with the last of our precious cranberry juice when Derek came home for the first time in a week.
     “I got these for you,” he said, waving a box of wooden hangers at me. He walked straight past the kitchen and into my room. “Geez, what a mess,” I heard him say. Then I heard my closet door sliding across the carpet and the distinct chink of my wire hangers as they bounced off my side table and ricocheted around the room.
     I threw down the Cosmo and ran after him.
     “What the hell are you doing?” I screamed. Cranberry juice and vodka seeped into the cuts on my hands, stinging painfully before dripping off my fingers. Derek stood by my closet, cradling the wooden hangers in his arms. Five of my new dresses lay in a pile at his feet. They were dresses I bought at the mall a few weekends ago when he spent the day with Sam in the city. I hadn’t even told him about them yet. I planned to keep them a secret, hidden in my closet on the off chance that he might ask me to the Winter Gala in January. It’s good to be prepared, I thought when I bought the dresses. Who knows how long Derek and Sam will last? I tried them on late at night while Derek slept. They still had their tags, all except for an elegant white dress that I fell in love with that day at the mall. It was like a wedding dress. Simple satin body, form-fitting and elegantly cut. Why couldn’t anything be truly mine? Why did people keep stomping on my secrets? Seeing the gown in a pile at his feet reminded me of my red purse in the sandbox. It stirred an impulse to destroy.
     “You’ll love these hangers,” Derek said, “They maintain the shape of your clothes much better than wire ones.” I watched him dig my new white dress out of the pile and jam one of his hangers between the straps. He was about to stuff it into the closet when its label caught his eye and he pulled it back out to examine more closely. “Is this new?”
     Black wire hangers were strewn over my bed and lodged between rows of our framed pictures. I grabbed a hanger off the bed and began whipping him with it. I struck at his perfect arms and his chest, hoping to raise welts under his thin blue shirt. “Get out!” I screamed. “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
     His face froze in surprise and terror as I forced him from my room. I slammed the door and locked it shut behind him.
     “I’m sorry, Sammy,” he pleaded through the door. His voice was horrible and small, but the pity he stirred in me only fueled my anger. It would take a lot more than a sloppy kiss to soothe me this time. Derek paced back and forth in front of my door like a child locked out of the house. I watched his shadow shift across the bottom of the door frame. “I saw you at the café,” he said finally. I sat on the floor with my ear pressed to the door until I heard him leave.

     Late that night, I awoke to the heaviness of Derek’s hand on mine.
     “I told you to wear the gloves,” he said.
     “I did,” I mumbled groggily. “They must’ve fallen off.” Then I remembered throwing the gloves away the day I found the bathroom empty. I held up my hands and squinted at them in the dark. They didn’t look so bad. A little puffy, but nothing a dab of hydrocortisone wouldn’t fix.
     Derek stood over me in boxers and a t-shirt that read, “Trust Me, I’m a Virgin.” I turned on my side, making room for him in bed. He slid in without a word, and I wondered if something happened between him and Sam.
     “Sammy?” In the dark, he sounded like a kid whose nightmares had gotten the best of him. His breath hit the back of my neck in warm spurts.
     “Yeah?”
     “What are all those dresses for?” he asked.
     “Rabbit,” I replied, grabbing a fistful of the sheets. I was too tired for truth. “They’re all for Rabbit. Every single one.”
     “I’m sorry,” Derek said quietly, wrapping his arms around me. “I didn’t know.” His chest was warm and sticky from a recent shower, and when he pressed against me, heat radiated through my body like sunshine. This must be how it felt on the swings, I thought. His strong arms were smooth and fresh, and I concentrated on all the tiny spots where they touched my skin.
     “His skin’s pretty,” I said.
     “Your skin’s pretty,” he said, running his hands up and down my arms, “prettier than you think.” His fingers grazed the rough, red spots on my arms, raising wave after wave of goosebumps.
     He nosed his way into the space under my chin and began to nibble and kiss my neck. Was he for real? I let myself respond to him, rolling my head up to expose my neck. I could smell no alcohol on his breath, and his stream of kisses flowed fluidly, consciously. I dug my nails into the sheets.
     Kiss me like you kiss Sam, I thought. Kiss me like you love me.
     The last time we cuddled together, I tried to memorize his skin, the feel of his muscles hard against my back. Now, the familiarity of his skin surprised me, and it pleased me to think that I retained some measure of his body, some trace memory of life in his arms. I could feel him pressing up against my back through his boxers. He was longer than I imagined, big for a boy.
     I flinched when he reached under my shirt. I’m not beautiful, I thought. It surprised me how quickly and apologetically the thought formed. His fingers traced scabs around my nipples, cuts in the most private parts of me. I tried to imagine my body as he would, struggling to accentuate the parts that felt most masculine. I held in my breath, tightening the muscles in my abs. My breasts were much bigger than a man’s, and they embarrassed me. More than anything, I longed to turn around to meet his gaze, but his tight hug kept me pressed to the wall. I began to scratch myself erratically, seeking a rhythm.
     I heard a rustle as Derek wriggled out of his boxers. Why wouldn’t he let me turn around? Why wouldn’t he let me see him? We won’t be able to kiss like this, I thought frantically. He pressed into me with quiet determination. The pain was overwhelming.
     “Sammy,” he yelped, “Oh, Sam….” His whole body was set to mine, and when he quaked, I quaked too.
     “Sammy,” I said, “Call me Sammy.” I couldn’t breathe.
     “Oh, Sam,” he insisted, “Sam! Sam!” He plunged deeper into me, taking everything. And I could only stare at the wall, digging into cuts that were mine alone.
     We fucked to a rhythm, and the rhythm was pi. His hugs and kisses were not mine, and the intimacies he whispered bloodied my fingernails. I would have struggled if struggling would have made him stop. The guy had stamina—I’d give him that. His t-shirt stuck to us both, became invisible with sweat. When he kissed me, I turned my face into the pillow, hoping I too could disappear. Pi was our mantra, our species of seduction. I mouthed it into my pillow, repeating the numbers until morning came: 3.1-4-1-5-9-2-6-5-3-5-8-9-7-9-3-2-3-8-4-6-2-6-4-3-3-8-3-2-7-9-5-0-2-8-8-4-1-9-7-1-6-9-3-9-9-3-7-5-1-0-5-8-2-0-9-7-4-9-4-4-5-9-2-3-0-7-8-1-6-4-0-6-2-8-6-2-0-8-9-9-8-6-2-8-0-3-4-8-2-5-3-4-2-1-1-7-0-6-7-9-8-2-1-4-8-0-8-6-5-1-3-2-8-2-3-0-6-6-4-7-0-9-3-8-4-4-6-0-9-5-5-0-5-8-2-2-3-1-7-2-5-3-5-9-4-0-8-1-2-8-4-8-1-1-1-7-4-5-0-2-8-4-1-0-2-7-0-1-9-3-8-5-2-1-1-0-5-5-5-9-6-4-4-6-2-2-9-4-8-9-5-4-9-3-0-3-8-1-9-6-4-4-2-8-8-1-0-9-7-5-6-6-5-9-3-3-4-4-6-1-2-8-4-7-5-6-4-8-2-3-3-7-8-6-7-8-3-1-6-5-2-7-1-2-0-1-9-0-9-1-4-5-6-4-8-5-6-6-9-2-3-4-6-0-3-4-8-6-1-0-4-5-4-3-2-6-6-4-8-2-1-3-3-9-3-6-0-7-2-6-0-2-4-9-1-4-1-2-7-3….

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Filed under Fiction, Vol 1 Issue 2

Stay Out of the Way & No Matter What Don’t Make a Scene

Download “Stay Out of the Way & No Matter What Don’t Make a Scene” as a PDF

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Filed under Fiction, Vol 1 Issue 2