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"Coalescences," short story excerpt

Thursday 5/13/21

I had a friend who told me the best thing about being widowed was that you got to go to bed when you wanted. Some people share experiences like others break bread. Crumbs are just something that happen. She had two girls two years apart and they called me auntie Nin.


“Where are you talking us today? auntie Nin,” they’d ask, because I came by to give their mother a weekly break, which was one of those false positive terms like “same difference” and “only option.”


I didn’t know what she did during the breaks. She’d have the same clothes on when we got back. I considered chalking the tires of her car in the garage to see if she went out, but she could have just decompressed, whatever that meant for her. Smoked a couple cigarettes from her secret pack on the deck her husband built.


His arms used to remind me of the inside of metal, if you can be reminded of something you’ve never seen. The outside of metal is smooth. It’s where an alloy makes its polished presentation to the world. But the inside is tougher, veiny, though blended—raw cordage threaded into fibrous, elongated rectangle. Stackable bars of metal have an order I wish life would copy.


“What are you girls looking at?” he said to me and my friend when we popped out of the house two summers back, wines in hand, a beer in tow for him at half past five on some forever gone Saturday.


“Coming out to play?” he’d add, shooting me a wink I’d acknowledge with an awkward “as if,” provided his wife hadn’t answered first.


He could talk as well with a couple nails in his mouth as he could without any. It was a neat trick.


“The forest preserve again?” the girls would say on the days of the breaks, but in the manner of “Yes!” and “I hoped this is how it would be.”


We’d see deer, foxes, raccoons, beavers, and the occasional flying squirrel, with one of the girls reminding me—as if I’d forgotten since the last time—that they weren’t really flying, they were gliding.


Sometimes they’d ask if I could come and live with them and I’d brainstorm whether there was a way to make that happen.


“We all have a spell of needing to be picked up,” I thought, unsure who I meant most.


I didn’t want to be selfish, and I worried about how I’d leave when it was time for me to leave. If I’d fail in the leaving.


Later, the girls would be asleep, and we’d sit on the couch, my friend and me, watching a movie in the darkness, circa that time when even if my eyes weren’t heavy I hoped she’d say, “why don’t you sack out here, it’s too late to drive,” as though the roads turned to wood smoke after a certain hour and wouldn’t hold so much as a pebble, or the shadow of one.


The set hummed as I presumed radios did in the 1940s when people listened under their bed covers to the thriller of the week. Those were the nights I asked myself if it were possible to be human slag.


My friend wasn’t consistent in her statements.


“The best thing about being widowed,” she’d tell me, “is that people are always nice to you at first.”


I said, “Then what?”


“People are people,” she said.


***


A man on a dating site wrote me and all he said was, “Your breasts look rich and full.”


There was something vaguely mammary-ish about the line. Full of what, I thought? I was thin. I didn’t eat much. I worried I was anorexic. Or I would have had I rallied to care enough about official designations.


But I knew he didn’t mean it that way. I asked him why he’d say those words to a stranger, hesitated in adding, “and nothing more?”


It was one way to dip a hook, which is an old expression about fishing. You don’t have to bait it to tell yourself that you’re technically there.


He told me I’d only put up pictures, what did I expect? What else could he go on?


I’d understood from what he’d written, describing his dreams, his expectations, his hopes, what he needed in life and in himself, that he wasn’t a cheap thrill guy, not that I would have necessarily qualified as a provider of the goods in that arena. Once, maybe. Yes. That had been true. He wasn’t a stranger in his style of sharing. I felt close to him in that before-the-time-is-right way one does when the brain telegraphs what the heart requires because of what the heart has known.


You could see the outlines of my nipples in three of my four photos. It wasn’t on purpose, but it wasn’t an accident. Which means you know what’s there and you leave it. You’re not approving outright, but you’re tacit. You let it be. Wave it through. Wait and see.


“Fair,” I said.


“Sucks,” he said. “You seem like you’d be interesting.”


***


“Something bad has happened everywhere,” my girlfriend said to me when we were looking at the apartment we might have lived in together.


I’d told her I didn’t like the vibe. Someone had been hurt here, in this space.


“Did you ever go into a home and you just knew the pain?” I asked her and I gave my voice that tilt when you want to say, “I have experience for that of which I speak,” but you also don’t want to pull the corpus delicti of your experience into the middle of somebody else’s room.

I did this research project in high school about the houses in our town, and what percentage of them someone had died in. I ran the records on fifty houses, and forty-seven had deaths on premises.


“You could be next,” I added at the end of my report, which was supposed to be funny, but I also wanted to provide fair warning. I wasn’t sure for what. The mismanagement of expectations.


I knew we’d split up, because we were one of those couples who reached milestones so that they could stay together. The next one always matters the most, and I didn’t know what ours could be. My marriage hadn’t fit that bill. The milestone was the new day and what it could bring—what we could bring to it, together.


But with my girlfriend there’d come a day of moving out for one of us, and it’d have probably been her, because she was someone who went, whereas I was someone who stayed. Some people leap, others try for balance. Or to balance, I should say. There’s a difference.


“Will I sit over there and pine?” I thought, looking at where the current owner’s couch was, “Or will it be there?” my gaze going down the hallway to the bedroom.


“It just doesn’t feel right to me,” I said.


I hoped we’d be great exes later. Two people linked, but not bound, who really got each other.


“Nin,” she’d say, when I really needed it, in my post-relationship dream—or dreamed up—scenario, “come on. Come on now.”


Those words—only those words--would mean more than 15,000 others from someone else.


“Suit yourself,” she said. “We both need to be happy in the space.”



***


When I TA’ed in college, I had an affair with a professor. I called it an affair to some of my female friends, but the affair was not mine to have and the terminology on my side may have been inaccurate. I wasn’t married. He made awful jokes that I bet he first used when he was in school.


“I am so into your ass,” he’d tell me, when we were alone in one of his classrooms. He had a bunch. I’m not even sure he was tenured, though he’d been there a long time and was fifty-one.


Later at my off-campus apartment, we’d be doing what we did, and he’d say, “I am so into your ass,” but he’d italicize it.


I’d say, “Right you are,” and he seemed really into that as well.


***


I have had cookout dreams. A cookout dream is an olfactory dream, but it’s also a people dream. A cookout dream is stoked by what you smell in late spring and early fall. The former is when it’s warm enough, and burstingly vernal, for cookouts to start, and then when they are about to shut down again for the cold air season. The air has the tang both times. I imagine the tang as a black hook that runs along the surface of your skin. There’s no puncturing. The skin most commonly used is that of the cheek, followed by the sides of the neck, and the bottoms of the ears.


You think, “I’ll have a house, we’ll be settled with a good group of good friends”—and you always imagine this group to swell, because new people move to the neighborhood, and they know that you’re someone worth getting close to, and you make it easy for them. You have all the right words and perform the proper courtesies, but you’re not doing them just to be nice, to go through any motion, but because of who you are, and the new people are that way, too. It’s little wonder you hit it off.


A lot of neighbors will come to the house. They’ll be happy there. Later they’ll move away. Decades will pass. What communication there is and that which passes for staying in touch will come in the form of Christmas cards.


Your kids will be surprised and pleased when they find out your old friends are still alive in Delaware and Florida, should they remember to ask.


***


People put a lot of stock in first impressions, but they underestimate the power of a goodbye. You make the goodbye to others, but also to something inside of yourself. Whereas, first impressions are not two-fold.



***


My dad had a saying—“Don’t come for the big dog, it’s never going to go the way you want it to go.”


***


I read about these men in a concentration camp. This wasn’t a Nazi camp. You hear the term “concentration camp,” and you think Nazis, but camps have really been all over. This camp wasn’t as brutal as some, because torture was the norm, rather than executions, which was a qualifier that made me think.


But there was a movie night. Or there was going to be. The men would be allowed to watch a film in the great hall that had amphitheater-style seating. They were provided with scant amounts of food, but what they were served they gave to one man alone. For a couple of weeks. He had been a large man prior to coming to the camp. He didn’t get back to his original size, but he looked fat again. The men had stolen a projector, and a reel of film. It was the fourth reel of a romance movie with comedic and tragic overtones. A strange movie. Stranger when it was not viewed in sequence, or in piecemeal fashion, and jumping in at the third act.


But that is not why they wanted the projector and the reel. The fat man stood in front of a wall, and they had the movie play on his back. They watched what they could before the guards stopped them, which did not take long.


“These pig fuckers,” one guard said to another.


***


I put naked photos of myself up on a site once. That’s what the site was for. But you could write things. There were prompts. Your “story.” Your “non-kinky interests.” Some people wrote a lot. Another was, “My motto is…” Fill in the blank.


Quite a few people wrote that life was too short to sweat the small stuff. I’d want to say, “if life is too short to sweat the small stuff, then isn’t it not long enough for clichés?”


I decided to protest in the space for my motto.


“The sodomy need be piping hot,” I wrote.


Many men wrote to me asking, “How hot?” as if I was supposed to say, um, 101 degrees. Or, “as hot as you need it, baby.”


Some said I should have more respect for myself. They were there as well, but that didn’t seem to matter. One guy wrote, “You’re funny—witty, even. This isn’t probably the place for you.”


I deleted my account that night. I thought maybe he’d done the same, but I knew if I logged back on, he’d probably still be there and I wanted to think of him as having also gone away.