Monday, September 15, 2014

Fiction #54

New fiction! Issue #54
Submissions now open for #55!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #54: Christine Peterson

Lutroo

The fish are supposed to be dead when they get to Davi Kell’s department. All Davi Kell is supposed to do is sort through the frozen stock of heaping sea meat, take it out to thaw and once it has thawed, place it in the display window for purchase.

She’s obviously merely the middle-woman for the job between fishing and catching.

Davi Kell is in the process of rubbing her hands together, shivering from the man-made cold. She isn’t sure if she is more upset that her boyfriend is hiding something or that she has to be up and working so early in the morning while he sleeps.

Davi Kell puts her bare flesh hands into a box, digging out the frozen tilapia. She screams in fright when she feels a sinew-like sensation. She gasps when she sees a fully intact live tilapia, saran wrapped and clambering for air.

Paralyzed by the fear of the slimy texture and the irrational fear that it would bite her (she never wanted to work in this department anyway—why couldn’t she be moved to floral?) Davi Kell summons the courage to dig out her keys, hacking away at the clinging plastic. She glances around the freezer area, wondering if there is the occasional manager looking for her.

Davi Kell grumbles as she takes hold of the scaled flesh. The tilapia looks up at her as if to say something, but then huffs, suffocating. Davi Kell shoves the tilapia into her apron pocket, running outside of the freezer to try to find a dingy cup in the break room. Luckily, the old goat of a cashier isn’t there sipping coffee and rambling about illuminati theories at this time of day. She finds a discarded Big Gulp cup and fills it with water. She places the tilapia in it and continues to work.

*

Davi Kell spends the rest of her day flustered. She wonders how the tilapia managed to be wrapped up alive—not even skinned or beheaded (shoot she didn’t know the real terms). During the busier parts of her shift she forgets the fish, but thinks back to the problems with her boyfriend, and more particularly her boyfriend and “the female.” Davi Kell wipes the fish counter more aggressively. She was fine for Ted before—fine for him these past five years, but ever since he got his degree and his fancy entry-level yuppie job—all he can talk about is the competitor’s business salesperson.

Quitting time comes, and none too soon. Davi Kell wipes off her blood soaked hands on her apron and walks nonchalantly into the break room, where she starts to unlock her locker. She sees one of the slower cashiers at that instant, middling around about to drink out of the Big Gulp. Davi Kell runs to take the cup out of his hand. “Wait!” He promptly spits out the water only for Davi Kell to find that the tilapia is no longer there.

“What’s wrong with you Davi?”

She doesn’t know what to answer.

The drive home is long.  It usually takes only fifteen minutes but with the soundtrack of the day’s events playing through her head, Davi Kell takes back roads. She wonders about the tilapia: how did it get so lucky to survive? Or is it still alive? How would it be to lie suffocating in plastic, amongst your dead friends? She thinks about the shipping process: who catches the fish? Would the fisher have as much of a fleeting connection as she did? Or was she only drawn to the fish because it was just out of place?

She turns into her apartment building. Today is one of the increasing many that she is upset she opted to share an apartment with Ted. She begrudgingly walks up the steps, up to the top of the third floor, turning her key into the slot. There is nothing and no one to greet her. She slams her worn nametag and keys on top of Ted’s makeshift bookcase. She wishes there is a section of the apartment where she could go and think about the tilapia in silence. Thankfully with Ted’s new consultant job, he can afford an apartment with a built in laundry room. She opens the door, turns on the dryer and lets the choppy rocking motion calm her down.

Ted comes in a few hours later. Davi Kell can hear him pacing around the apartment, turning on lights. He doesn’t bother to call her name. It takes him a few more unnecessary paces before he decides to open the laundry door. His tie is already loosened.  She looks up at him.  He comes over to her. He remains standing, not even slinking to get comfortable. He just stands there, in the shadows.

“Have another lunch meeting with the female?” Davi Kell looks at him square in the eye, not accusing, not pouting, not even with a tear in her eye.

“It was a company meeting.” Ted stood still, he doesn’t reach out to her. The dryer starts slowing down its cycle. He leans over to turn the knob over for her.

“There’s just a lot I am able to learn from her,” Ted asserts. Davi Kell nods. She wonders about the early stages of their relationship, when they didn’t talk about work, and then the new post-honeymoon phase, when he inquired about her work with curiosity and as means of being able to talk. Now, he doesn’t bother.

“Well, I guess being stimulated by things other than demanding customers would lead you to learn new things,” Davi Kell adds.

“Hmm. Maybe.” He starts running his fingers across the t-shirt material. She notices this as she notices all his nervous habits.

“How long do you think a fish can live covered in saran wrap?” Her question doesn’t throw him off, she is always thinking of nonsensical things.

“Probably wouldn’t live to have the saran wrap placed on it. You know,” Ted’s arms started to cross. “They do need water to breathe, sweetheart.”

The sweetheart comes at her out of nowhere. She flinches-it feels like what she imagines her manager’s- long sinew-slicing knives coming down on the fish, taking the heads off. Discarding fins.

Ted seems to notice his mistake. He leans toward her and kisses her. It is clumsy and out of habit as well. They both know as their bodies’ angles slacken, that it is only out of the comfort and familiarity with the other that they are doing this. Their sighs are not of happiness or of meeting desire. His sighs denote that he wished he were with a white-collar girl. Her sighs are of figuring out how to escape this trap of love.

*

He leaves her on the dryer. Davi Kell refuses to go to sleep in a bed that he bought—her credit didn’t extend that far. She closes her eyes and sees a busy traffic street—with Ted on the other side, two blocks up. She is trying to get to him; anything to get to him, but the people, these seemingly throngs of people, walk hurriedly synchronized, the opposite way. She can see Ted talking to a female in an emerald shift dress, talking to the female about Davi Kell, and the female is laughing. The people around her start to lose shape, they became swirls of color. All she can see is the couple laughing and a life she can’t push through to, no matter how hard she tries.

She gets up and pours some corn flakes. She knows it will make a ton of noise-the crackling of the bag, but she doesn’t care. It is 2:20 in the morning.  She trudges on to Ted’s room. She sits on her side of the bed. She sits crunching on the flakes, wondering what happened to the tilapia, and what would have happened if she had brought the tilapia home.

“There was a fish. There was a fish Ted. And it was there in the freezer, its poor,” Ted keeps his eyes closed, he is used to her having anxiety attacks late at night, followed by nightmares of flesh-eating bacteria. “Its poor heart, how can it still beat in cling? Oh Ted I was so afraid but it looked like it could have said something…. Its heart just beat on my hand. I should have brought it home.” Her voice goes in and out of the night air quivering.

“Dabs, sounds like a good lawsuit to me—food contamination, animal cruelty and what not,” Ted sputters as he rolls over in bed.

And that’s when she knows he isn’t listening: he hasn’t called her Dabs since year 3 ¾ .

Davi Kell goes to work the next day. Davi Kell goes through all her pre-service chores such as wiping down the counters with disinfectant, putting up fliers of the specials going on, and rotating the meat in the block. She pushes through all these duties, and although she feels that it was juvenile to think that the fish would somehow magically be back in the freezer, she goes there with a religious-like curiosity.

She opens the freezer door’s compartments and looks for the day-old shipment of tilapia. Davi Kell brought her box cutter with her this time. She slices through frozen bag after frozen bag looking for the fish.  Her mind goes numb, as it usually does in the extreme cold. She thinks of 9/11, of planes crashing into tall, tall towers that she had never heard of before in a city she will probably never see. She thinks of Mrs. Pfirman, crying, calling into her phone, checking on her kids, while her sixth grade students, Davi included, sat perplexed watching the television. Davi Kell thinks of the femicide posters she and her mom walked by in the mall one time. The girls’ faces juxtaposed with images of corpses. Her mom had ran her past them, before Davi Kell could look at a girl named Esme, missing and presumed dead. She comes back to her task at hand and feels the knife in her grip. She sliced on, making big Xs in the boxes. Davi Kell continued to think-she thought of the time in 7th grade when most of the girls in her class had bragged about being kissed, but Davi Kell hadn’t at the time. She thought of the Spin the Bottle game that they played and how boys kept calculating the force that would be needed to be to not kiss her.  Davi Kell thinks of how she paid her brother’s friend three weeks of allowance to spread a rumor about them making it to second base so that she could finally be in the second-most popular girl group at school.

Davi Kell sits down, exhausted. A box falls, and on its tumble down some bloodied saran wrap flies out with it. She picks up the saran wrap and sees the tilapia.

“I always come back,” the tilapia said.  Davi Kell looked at the fish in disbelief.

“You’re stuck.” The tilapia added.

“Pfft, you can say that again. I’m 23, I’ve been at this job seven years. I know nothing and I am nothing—unless it comes to retail. My boyfriend hasn’t proposed because he’s ashamed of me. He’s been seeing this female for a while. He says he met her at work, but I think they were in class together. He doesn’t love me anymore, but he hates change.”

The tilapia’s expression doesn’t seem to waver, but Davi Kell doesn’t take offense. She isn’t sure what all it was capable of.

“Take me and leave work.”

“I don’t thin—”

“Just take me and put me in your car!”

Davi Kell looks around for something to put the tilapia in. She finally decides on placing an ice block in her apron pocket, then wedging the tilapia in. She hurries out to her dilapidated car, past one of the cashiers who was busy reading Cosmo.

The tilapia fits on the console. Davi Kell tried to prop it up in the cup holder. The tilapia’s head glazed over at the clock, its fins grazed Davi Kell’s wrist as she holds onto her stick shift.

“Tell me about your boyfriend.”

Davi Kell keeps driving, her fingers tapping on the steering wheel, her left hand holding what seems like her whole world up.

“There’s not much to tell.”

The tilapia looks at her. Just looks. There is no gaze of urging her to go on, nor is there any sort of gaze to ask for a stop.

“Ted is very charismatic. So charismatic that he could probably woo a nun. We haven’t been happy in forever. He works at this job that has cubicle offices and paid luncheon in-services. There’s this girl in a competing company that thinks he’s a big shot. They’re screwing each other. The more they screw the less he thinks of me—and I don’t mean of my feelings. He doesn’t think highly of me, like I’m just some, trash. ” She fiddled with her blinker, debating whether to turn it to left or now.

“Stop.”

Davi Kell takes that to mean literally, and she brakes. However, the tilapia just sighs. Her foot descends onto the gas pedal again. She plays with her blinker again and again, until finally noting that that is what she finds the tilapia thinks of as unbearable.

She turns onto her street.

“I have this notepad app, I keep in my phone. I have a goal: do 200 exhilarating things in 52 weeks. The most exhilarating thing I’ve done is watching Rocko’s Modern Life on Netflix. I haven’t been trying, I know. I could blame work—work is always such a sucker of time, but I know that’s not what’s it. I just—I am frustrated because I’m content—I’m perfectly happy with this life. And the life I grew up wanting, I am definitely not happy with.

Davi Kell parks the car outside of her apartment complex.

Davi Kell turns to the tilapia and looks at it, pondering what to do with the situation. “I’ll be right back,” she says gently, putting her hand out as if to pet its scales, but then retracting it back.

Davi Kell treads on the rocks, past the little black kids exchanging Valentine hearts, past the old Euro-Asian lesbian couple on their porch, past the lurking creeper, staring off his balcony. She hates this place, hates it hate it, because she doesn’t deserve this.  But she is content in not deserving more. She can feel the heat come up from what felt like a resurging pit in her stomach. She flings open her apartment door, looking for Ted. It is Saturday after all--normal people usually just sit on their asses on Saturday.

“Ted.” She feels the air escape her throat.

“Ted!”

Ted comes out of the kitchen, wearing his ‘non-work’ boxers, ones with Mickey Mouse on them.

“Yeah-”

“I hate it—I hate this all this”

“What?” Ted asks, scratching his left butt cheek and rubbing his forehead with his other hand.

“I hate this feeling. What happened to me? What happened to you?”

This gets Ted’s attention, and he straightens up.

“Yeah, go ahead and straighten up, trying to get a power stance on me. May I remind you I’m the one who paid your bills all through school—the one that wrote every damn important paper in your life, minus writing your name on the actual degree?”

“Really, Da-”

Davi Kell feels the urge to move and to move fast and repetitiously.

“What happened to your view of me? What happened to mine?” Her head feels jumbled as if a concrete completed jigsaw puzzle was just dropped off a high rise. “I need to show you something. Please.”

“I’m really not—”

“Interested? I don’t give a shit.”

Ted stares at her, concerned.

“Ted, Ted please.” She whimpers.

Ted sighs and tries to locate his shoes. Finding them, Ted slips on his loafers. He follows Davi Kell down the steps, down the rock path and to the parking lot.

At the car, Davi Kell sees the tilapia on the console, bigger, fleshier and healthier looking than ever.

Ted sees it too.

“Dabs, I didn’t know you could fish.” He surveys it through the car window. “It looks so good. When can we eat it?” Ted opens the passenger door, about to grab the tilapia but Davi lays her hand on it. She feels the coldness of its gills.

Davi Kell turns back around to look at Ted. She feels close to fainting.  Her hands start tapping against the car. “No.” His lungs are pressed against her back, she can feel them through his body, exhaling, trying to keep his questions aligned.

Davi Kell had memorized his body a certain way: Oxford shirt (cerulean, not blue) three-inch wide tie, hair pushed to the side, slicked back. She had forgotten this body—the mole on the top of his right shoulder, the faint scratch marks he has on his neck from his eczema.

“What is it, Davi?”

She says, “I see you in me.” 

Opening up her grip, she notices the tilapia has disappeared.

*

Hailing from El Paso, TX, Christine Peterson is a college instructor and a dual masters candidate within the education department for Language, Literacy and Culture (reading education specialist) and within the English department: Master of Arts in Fiction Writing: emphasis ethnic and border literature at New Mexico State University. Christine’s passions include bridging the bilingual literacy gap in the southwest, writing prose with religious undertones and helping English as a second language and learning disabled students succeed and love literature as well as become writers themselves. In addition to this, Christine is an editor for Tlaa.

Photo taken by Barbara Peterson

Fiction #54: Joe Milan Jr.

Dreams Obstructed

At night, in a dance studio hidden in the bowels of the LPK Entertainment building in Gangnam, Seoul, with mirrors fogged and the speakers wailing like dying hyenas, the computer crashed. All four members of 2Qtoo collapsed to the floor. Violet – the “sexy” one, Jazmin – the “baby” one, and Mimi – the “dangerous” one, all cursed under their breaths. They held their sides and looked at each other as if to say the bastards are trying to kill us. They, remembering that they were looking at their competition, returned to their brave faces: masks that smothered daydreams of pulling hair and tossing each other down flights of stairs.

The fourth member, Tiffany, the sweet one, the cute one, the oldest one at twenty-five, looked at no one. She lay on the linoleum floor holding her stomach. Just below the skin something was whipping her. Stabbing her. Pushing a moan up her throat.

“Like fucking Shanghai all over again!” Mr. Lee, the manager, railed the assistant by the laptop.
Gut twisting squeals continued and grew from the speakers. Even as they covered their ears, feedback sliced through their hands and into their skulls and no one heard the blaze of insults spilling from the manager’s lips. Finally, the assistant pulled the plugs and quiet inhabited the room.

Mr. Lee slammed his fist on the desk, “Well?” he bellowed. 

The assistant stared down at the desk. He hadn’t heard exactly what the manager said but understood, whatever it was, the correct response was to look down at the desk.

As the ringing left their ears they all heard the moan. They looked. They saw Tiffany on the floor holding her stomach. It wasn’t the normal moan of fatigue. It wasn’t cute for one and a stray tear dripped from her eye to the floor. Then, as if the other girls were about to pounce on her with their manicured claws outstretched, Tiffany bolted from the floor and out the door to the bathroom.

“What the hell is wrong with her?” Mr. Lee asked.

The three other members of 2Qtoo shrugged and kept their silent hope of a recently mopped bathroom floor. They listened for a catastrophic slip and a head-splitting fall.

It didn’t come.

*

Falling and breaking her arm during the first rehearsal with Jelly hadn’t done it. Her lips didn’t quiver when company managers told her to go back to the training pool. The bout with H1N1 that sidelined her from joining SuperNoBa! hadn’t even brought a sniffle. With 2Qtoo she had tumbled off the stage during sound check in Shanghai – which Tiffany suspected Mimi had something to do with, had the little hairs on her left arm singed by the pyrotechnic mishap in Bangkok – maybe Jazmine? She didn’t moan, didn’t whine. Even the break up with Sungyup didn’t bring a tear. But this, the jaws of whatever was inside her now, gnawing on the soft spaces of her stomach, forcing her to seek refuge on the toilet, was the first she could remember to actually bring tears to her eyes. A torn muscle? Appendicitis? Indigestion?

Whatever it was, it bit hard. Harder than her tormenters from childhood: your face is like monkey butt. Your voice sounds eight-bit. A three-legged dog dances better. That was until the dream, fueled by her parents’ unrelenting fervor and sacrifice, kept her in academies dancing and singing until her feet bled and every breath sanded her throat, strapped her to plastic surgeons’ tables and molded her face into something cute, something marketable, until the dream had gotten her accepted into the LPK Entertainment talent pool. Tiffany knew pain. But this was unreal.

A couple of days earlier, during a press conference announcing 2QToo’s second and final world tour, “Lollipop to the World,” she had winced, bit her lip, and it subsided as quickly as it had appeared. Each hour it shadowed her more and refused to be tamed by Pepto or Multigrain Super-Lax. She hoped it would pass like preshow heartburn, but of course it didn’t. Nothing came so easily under the tight gaze of the company. A misstep in rehearsal, an unsteady hand during an interview, an angry red bump on the sculpted nose, any little thing could cause the company to lose faith. And the company’s faith was everything now. After the final tour finished LPK would choose one, and only one, girl to become their next superstar. The others would fade into nostalgia, only to work birthday parties and karaoke bars on Wednesday nights. 

But now, on the toilet, the dream of fan clubs squealing her name, not 2QToo’s, felt so far away, so distant. And this thing in her, could kill it.

Once, when she first joined the talent pool, as a teen, doubled over on the dance floor, she had looked up for sympathy from the dance instructor who bent down and asked in her most motherly voice, “What is pain?”

“Weakness.”

“Yes. And what is weakness doing?”

“Leaving the body?”

“Exactly. Now get up, and stretch.”

“But it hurts, like so bad,”

“Weakness remember?”

After fifteen futile minutes on the toilet, as she imagined the fan forums discussing her own death, came a bang on the bathroom door. The assistant’s shaky voice echoed in, “Um, the speakers are fixed, we’re waiting for you.”

Her stomach twitched as if relishing the thought of pelting her some more. She breathed deep. “Leaving the body,” she hissed.

“What?”

“I’ll be out in a minute.” But as the footsteps shuffled out, a little voice in the back of mind whispered, Leaving the body my ass.

*

In her room of needles and glass cup vacuum bleeders, Doctor Pak eyed Tiffany over her glasses. “So, how long has it been since your last bowel movement?”

“Like, about a week?” Tiffany said.

“A week, or about a week?”

Tiffany counted the practices, the photo shoots, the interview on the comedy show set in a fake sauna. “Maybe ten days?”

“Stress?”

Tiffany looked around the room for cameras but there were none. She had worn a sweatshirt, sunglasses, no make-up, and had taken three different taxis to shake any possible tail the company would have put on her. She avoided the eyes of the nurse at the desk and the elderly women who gossiped in the lobby. She had made the mistake of running to the company doctor before and had come to this old doctor on the edge of Seoul precisely because this doctor wouldn’t know anything about pop, wouldn’t recognize her, wouldn’t tell anyone about her problem.

Stress? she thought. That talentless group who always sings and dances like drum majors having seizures? “No, no, no, I’m not in a pop group.”

The old woman sighed. “Do you have a lot of stress?”

“Well, um, it’s like, I don’t know. You know, I guess anyone that’s anything has stress.”

“Do you drink or smoke or eat western food regularly?”

“Um, well, no?”

“Look, this is very serious–” then the doctor looked at Tiffany as if she considered giving her the best advice money could buy, but instead she showed her a plastic model of an intestinal track. She told her about the possible obstruction high up in her track. She explained it could be serious and that they would try coercing it out with an enema.

Tiffany took off her sunglasses. “So, it’s just…”

The old woman sighed. “Yes, but this is serious.” A nurse entered the room with a long metallic hose.

*

The drugs were strong enough to dull but not strong enough for her not to feel the tentacle snaking inside her, or to watch the screen as the camera travelled the tunnels of her bowels. She took out her cellphone and searched her name on the internet and avoided giving the younger nurse a good look at her face. There were few photos of her and they were all the same: her hair swept by a fan, her cherry lips sparkling and pouting in the light, her hands up as if her head was on a mantle. If only the photos weren’t cutouts from band posters. At least there were more hits of her cutouts than the others.

If she could get through this and survive the attempts of sabotage on tour, it could really happen. With the exception of the forbidden boyfriend Sungyup – which she dumped as soon as she was told to – she had been stellar. No drunk driving charges like Violet. No rumors of drug use like Jazmine. No gambling debts like Mimi. Tiffany washed her face with perfect pore saving swirls and always smiled, never betraying her role as the cute one. She had endured.

Sungyup had joked, “There can only be one!” and slashed the air with an imaginary sword. Of course he didn’t understand. He had never gone home from LPK dorms during the holidays after failing to get into a group. Never saw the disappointed faces as if carved from stone of a family who wished their daughter to be something greater than their modest lives as washed up cruise ship entertainers with sequined dresses and suits and old keyboards gathering dust in the closets. He had never grown up. He hadn’t learned that “I love you,” was just a catchphrase.    

There was a cool feeling in her stomach.

If she could just get through this.

There were more x-rays. They jammed the tentacles in her and inflated her and made her roll around on the table. They told her not to fart. When they finished, and after she finished in the bathroom and told the doctors that nothing came out, the doctor and nurse talked in hushed medical tones. Tiffany struggled into her jeans.

“I think I feel better,” Tiffany shook her hips.

“That’s the drugs,” the doctor sighed. “We weren’t able to get it. The obstruction is pretty well set.”

“So what do we do now?”

“Wait. Hope it passes.” The nurse nodded with the doctor. “We will give it a couple of days.” 

“Can’t we just do that thing again?”

“We’ll give you some laxatives. You’ll have to drink lots of water and try your best to relax. But if it doesn’t pass by itself in a couple of days we will need to surgically remove it.”

“Is this about money? I mean, I can give you more.”

“This is serious. It can become fatal, and trying to force it now might make it worse.”

“But…”

“Give her the pamphlets,” the doctor said quickly to the nurse and motioned her out of the room. The nurse led Tiffany to the lobby, where a new crowd of elderly women waited, and pulled a pamphlet from a drawer.

The nurse eyed Tiffany, “you look familiar.”

“I… Is there someone who could fix this now, I mean…”

The nurse shook her head and handed her a pamphlet. It had a smiling cartoon intestine with a tiny hand giving a thumbs up. Keeping your insides happy: Colostomy bags and You!
   
*

After reading the final page in the pamphlet where the description of colostomy bags ended with ten tips for maintaining the O-ring, Tiffany wailed. She hid in her apartment and alternated bottles of laxative with bottles of water. She jumped rope in her living room through the pain and hobbled the steps of the show until the feeling came. On the toilet she pushed. She scrunched her face until tears beaded on her eyelashes. Nothing happened.

She leaned back and tried to keep her focus. In the rehearsal space in her mind she saw the set-up of the stage for their hit single “All the Soul Needs is a Lolly,” but when stage lights erupted and she heard the swish of the bag hanging off her hip and the tidal wave of horror from the crowd. And she was back in the bathroom, on the toilet, coughing for air.

A few hours earlier she had been on the cusp of solo career. A superstar. Now, she scoured through her food diaries on her phone trying to see where she had gone wrong. Salad. Yogurt. Soup. Black Rice. And exactly two weeks earlier, there was a single blank entry. The night she had broken up with Sungyup.  She had snuck a single fried chicken leg and beer to soothe her nerves.

She called her mother – she had to talk to someone, anyone – but her little brother, a brother she had only seen on holidays, said that mother had gone to get a perm. She thought of calling Sungyup, but he was abroad, taking photos for one magazine or another. And even if he were there, would he talk? She could still see his mouth agape as she handed back the Pooh Bear he had given her on their first date, could still hear his stammering that rattled over the hum at Korean Fried Chicken. “Career?” he had echoed, “Career?”

*

After a couple hours of fruitless sitting, she left the bathroom and was almost out the door to go to evening rehearsal when the pain dropped her to her knees. Tears came again. By the time it relented enough for her to stand, something stirred inside as if it was falling through her.

In all the years she’d been with LPK, she had never been late. But as she held onto the handle of the door, shuddering, she knew that rehearsal would only be her staggering and howling, or worse.

She retreated back to the toilet. And with a trembling hand she sent a text message to the Mr. Lee: Can’t come. Sick.

*

The next morning, she woke to the sound of a key twisting the tumble locks of her front door. The shaky voice of the assistant called, “Tiffany?” Footsteps wandered the halls, stalked through the living room and into her bedroom. He knocked on the bathroom door. “Tiffany?” She could hear him fumbling with his sparkly tie.

“I’m busy,” she said.

“Where have you been?”

“Right here. Only here.”

“Um, Boss sent me to get you.”

“I know. Tell him I’m sick.”

“He’s pretty mad.”

“I know.”

“Mimi, Jazmine, and Violet are worried.”

“I’m sure.”

“So, can I take you?”

“No.”

“Um…”

“Go away.”

“I can’t do that. I mean, he’ll kill me. Or worse.”

“He won’t kill you if you tell him I was, like, not here.”

“I don’t lie well.”

“Did you see me?”

“Um, no.”

“Well, there you go.”

“Do you need help? I mean, I could help you.”

“Do you think you can help me?”

“Um, you’re not doing drugs or something, right?”

“Like, I would do drugs.”

“Are you?”

“Go away.”

“Um, I don’t think I can do that.”

“I’ll throw you in front of a train. Do you want that?”

“Mr. Lee would do that. Please, could you just come with me?”

“Fine. Give me half an hour. Go and get a Kim Bap across the street or something. There’s some money on the table. Take it.”

“Why not now?”

“Girl issues you idiot.”

“Oh.”

“Yes.”

“Half an hour?”

“Go already. This is weird.”

She heard the assistant turn and shuffle toward the door. Then he stopped, shuffled back a few steps, and finally turned again and left. She imagined him out in the hall, waiting for the elevator, rubbing his mopped hair, fixing his black suit, and debating to call the manager after food. Inside her, and below her, from the pristine toilet up, a terrible sinkhole of feeling opened.

She hugged herself and breathed. She had to get out of there. She had to go someplace safe, someplace quiet, away.

*

Soul music blared from the speakers as she drove up the mountains. Honking cars passed her on the straightaways. She was driving slowly, she knew. But for her, with a travel pack of tissues clenched in her fist around the steering wheel and one eye out for secluded bushes – just in case, she drove at the speed she felt comfortable. She had never driven during the daytime with so many cars on the road. She stopped at each rest stop, each time filled with hope, and each time leaving the wretched smelling bathrooms disappointed. When she reached the secluded house, it was dark.  

It was an old traditional house. It was Sungyup’s house. During their short romance he had brought her here, high up in the mountains, hidden in the dark of the trees. It was the only place she knew that no one would find her. It was the only place where there was no one watching, the only place she had ever felt safe. Under the rock beside the front door she found the key.

Inside was just like she had remembered it. Spotless. Photos blanketing the walls. But she paid them no attention and went directly toward the bathroom with the fancy bidet: a heated seat, drying fans, and filtered heated water. As she passed the bedroom, she saw the only evidence of their relationship, the Pooh Bear she had given back to him, the photo of their two coffee cups on the railing of a coffee shop balcony, their first date. She held the bear and brought it with her to the bathroom. 

When the toilet seat had heated up, a text message came. Mr. Lee: Answer or else.

Suddenly the phone rang.

“You’re with that photographer, aren’t you?” the manager growled.

Her stomach rumbled. She squeezed Pooh Bear in her hands, “I’m sick.”

“We have a schedule. That man is not on the schedule.”

“I’m sick. I just need a little time.”

“You know better. Think of the group, the stage crews, engineers, everyone who has been rehearsing, while you have been frolicking with that sack of shit.”

“I told you, I’m sick. Intestinal…problems.”

“Problems is right.”

“I just need time.”

“Photo shoot. Tomorrow morning. Six-thirty. After that you’re going to rehearsal and then a fan meeting. And when it’s all finished, you come directly back to the studio. You’ve lost your apartment privileges, it’s back to the dorms for you.”

Her hands clasped tightly around the neck of Pooh Bear. Somewhere deep in the coal furnace of her soul she wished its head would pop off. “I’m dying.”

For a while there was only the hiss on the line. Finally the manager said, “Uh, huh.” 

“Dying.”

“We don’t have time for you to act precious. You’re not special.”

“Didn’t you hear me?”

“Do. As. You’re. Told.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“You Tiffany, that’s what’s wrong.” His sigh crackled through the line. “Six-thirty.”

*

After the phone went dead, Tiffany threw Pooh Bear against the tiled wall and dropped the cellphone to the floor. She held her breath and pushed with all her might. But nothing moved. Nothing came. She flushed the empty toilet, and staggered out of the bathroom as if gunshot and screamed. If there had been a neighbor, if the house hadn’t been set on top of the hill, if it had been a music video, a man with messy, side-swept orange hair and a leather jacket would have kicked down the door and held her in his arms. But her screams fired through the house and vibrated through the double paned windows and out into the forest, and no one came to her rescue.

She held her stomach as she sunk into the leather couch. She sobbed. She pounded on her stomach with her fists. And when her arms tired, she gasped for air and gazed up at the photos that ringed the TV console: Sungyup’s travels. A desert sunset burned the sky above a sign – Welcome to Chile. A frog perched on a wide tropical leaf licked one of its giant red eyes. A mustached man smiled and held out a hot dog from behind a cart in New York. The lights of Shanghai’s midnight skyline beamed in the fog, or maybe pollution.

She hated him for it.

If her intestines were to explode, what would she be able to say she had seen? Craft service tables? The insides of vans, planes, and dance studios? A million flashing lights coming from those people she had never had, or would, meet? She felt a rumble inside her. She imagined gas inflating a bag hanging off her slender hip. That’s what it would come to: a bag hanging off her hip, worse than any muffin top.

The bag. Maybe she could make it a fashion statement, a swinging bag of debris in sequence with the performance. She could cover it with a sarong. But she knew better. There would be no more dancing. No more singing. No more pouting faces to cameras. The feeling came again and she went back to the toilet. She reached for her phone to look at photos of herself. But the first thought of cute poses, she decided that no, she didn’t want to see herself like that. That was the only type of photo she had: of herself as the cute one. No photos of the rashes she got from the sailor uniforms. No photos stony callouses on her toes and ankles from the six-inch butterfly heels. Nothing showed how damn hard she had worked, battled, for that moment on stage that left as soon as the stage lights went dark. How she gave up her only boyfriend. How she gave up her own real name – Sumin. How an obstruction clawed and clung to the walls of her bowels for dear life. The photos were all of her, but not her. Not what she saw. As if she had never been alive.

A thought cascaded from some deep place in her mind and filled the room with a simple fact: nothing was worth this. She was better, deserved better than this. She deserved fried chicken and beer. She deserved a sunset without a photographer telling her to move her head a little to the right and to stop blinking. Or that he loved her.

Suddenly, like a battered soldier scaling out of a foxhole, hands shaking and haggard from years of blood and guts, teeth grinding and eyes aflame, she grabbed the Pooh Bear from the floor and clawed her nails into its neck until she heard the slow crackle of tearing plush. It felt good. Then, with hands still shaking, her skin slick, chest heaving, she picked up the phone and sent a message to the Mr. Lee: I quit. 

She would not dance for anyone. If she was going to have to get some damn bag slung from her slender hip, she was at least going to do something for herself. Sunrise, she decided. Yes, she would wake to see the sunrise climbing the peaks to the west. Did the sun rise from the west? She had no idea. All those years of training and she wasn’t even sure which way the sun came. It didn’t matter. She would hobble toward it and bake in the light and the sweetness of fall pine. And maybe go back to school with two bags hanging off her side. With that thought rippling past her eyes she leaned back and slept on the toilet.

*

It was sometime around midnight, the sound of thunder woke her. Her eyes focused on the stuffing gouged from the bear’s neck. The rumbles were not of thunder, but within her. It came in bursts, like beats through the editing suite of the recording studio. Deep in her, guns fired, squeaky toys whined, and bass drums boomed. The smell, so caustic, made her eyes water, and she cried. For an hour, and countless flushes, she shat.

After the storm abated, she stepped out of the bathroom and went directly to the scale. Two kilos had left her and she felt as if she could be a gymnast. And she looked up to the clock. There was plenty of time to hop in her car and drive back to Seoul.

Then she saw the photo of a clean reef somewhere warm and far off – so pristine, so peaceful. She gazed out the dark window where all the sky was orange from the streetlights of Seoul and wondered if the sunrise could break through the clouds. She couldn’t remember if sunrises were better or worse with clouds. And she stood there behind the threshold. She felt a weakness, a hurt so deep in her body, she wasn’t sure if it was coming or leaving.

*

Joe Milan Jr. is a writer who teaches. Joe was born in Japan and has spent nearly a third of his life traveling and living outside the borders of the USA; his most recent landing is in Seoul. His work has appeared at Numero Cinq Magazine, and is upcoming in Transnational Literature and more. Check out Joe’s blog at www.joemilanjr.com which is a hodgepodge of Korea, learning and stories in progress.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Fiction #53

New fiction! Issue #53
Submissions now open for #54!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #53: Julie Paul

Weeping Camperdown

“What makes you happy?” Andrew asked her.

Joni was blowing on her tea and looking smart in a thick orange sweater. She stopped and smiled at him. “Good question,” she said. “Do you want a list?”

Andrew flushed with embarrassment. He’d been too forthright and now she thought he was looking for easy ways to bring her happiness, a cheap way in. He smiled at her, but he could tell that his lips looked thin.

Still, she took his smile as an invitation to carry on. God, he hoped she wouldn’t say flowers or chocolate.

“Peonies,” she said. “They remind me of those fluffy dogs. Shih Tzus, maybe?”

He nodded. A bit off, but yes, he could see it. “What else?”

“My children,” she said. “Especially when they’re asleep.”

They laughed and then the sandwiches arrived and they spread their paper napkins over their laps. She ate her pickle before anything else and the crunch made him jump.

As he was into his first decent bite, she came up with another item for the list. “The moment when you turn off the kitchen lights at the end of a long day. The dishes are done, the fridge is full, everything is put away and ready for the next morning.”

Suddenly, he felt close to tears. They were so alike—equals in this ridiculous field they were now playing. Their baggage was of similar heft and vintage. He wasn’t thinking Brady Bunch; it was just so good to be sitting with a woman who knew fatigue of this level. The last woman he’d taken to lunch on his flex day had kept talking about Red Bull and e-books and she had updated her location on Facebook right in front of him, as if to tell him that she had people out there looking after her, who knew her coordinates in case the date went bad.

Joni’s hand was on his arm now. “And you?” she asked. “What’s the biggest happy thing in your life?”

“Ah,” he said. “Not a thing.”

“Nothing?”

“No. It’s not a thing.” He’d made a bad play on words and his daughter would cringe if she heard him. At eleven, in her critical phase—another play on words—Maddie was still the joy. “My kid,” he said. The comment made Joni smile.

They’d just started talking about their kids when a girl with a pink streak in her hair popped up beside their table. “Are you done yet?” She was about nine, he figured, and more full of nerve than his daughter would ever be. Would he still think of Maddie as his biggest joy if she acted like this girl? He remembered the year she’d made animal sounds when spoken to and he’d had to reassure the teacher that nothing was wrong. Predictably, it had been the year his wife had moved out: another sign of how they’d hurt Maddie. Of course he’d still loved his daughter then, although the chicken noises had made him a little crazy.

“No,” Joni said to the girl, who stood there staring at their food. “And we’re getting dessert.”

Nerve, he thought, was all right when properly used.

The girl moved on, to another table, and got the answer she wanted.

“I don’t want dessert,” Joni said, after she’d leaned in toward him. “I just want to linger.”

Andrew smiled, pointed at his plate. “We haven’t even finished half!”

“Kids,” she said. “Do you think they’re less observant these days?”

“I’m not sure. I’m not that observant when it comes to kids.” He didn’t like to break things apart, to analyze and compare and pass judgment. He imagined that judging things made most people feel powerful, or more involved in the world. Whenever he turned critical, he just felt old. A curmudgeon was what his daughter called him when he was grumpy.

“Oh, I dunno,” she said. “You seem pretty aware.” She looked into his eyes and goosebumps rose on his arms. Fifteen again! That’s how he felt. He hoped she didn’t notice.

“I have an idea,” he said, before he even knew he was speaking.

She nodded.

“How much time do you have?”

“Pickup’s at three, so about an hour?”

“Right. Me too.”

“What’s your plan?”

“I’m going to get these wrapped up.” He pointed at the sandwiches. “We’ll eat them, but just not here.”

In ten minutes they were at his favourite place in the city: Ross Bay Cemetery. He led her to a tree in the centre of the park-like burial ground and spread out his jacket for her to sit on. There was a small headstone, and a nearly obscured footstone, both engraved with the name Mott.

“This is incredible,” she said, and immediately laid her orange-sweatered self down to look up into the leaves.

“It’s a Weeping Camperdown Elm,” he told her. “One of only a handful in the whole city.”

“Do you visit the others?”

“No,” he said. “This is my favourite.”

They both lay back and stared into the tree, the leaves arranged like tiles over one another, only growing from one side of the branches. This made them easier to count: a relaxation technique he’d been using since he was little. When his parents started to yell at each other, he used to run out of the house and sit beneath the one decent tree in the backyard—an old broadleaf maple. There he would try and count all the leaves above him to calm himself down.

“I’m expecting gnomes to appear at any moment,” she said.

“It’s happened once or twice,” he told her. “And I hope you like the bagpipe, because they’re Scottish gnomes. That’s where the tree comes from, originally.”

She giggled and turned on her side. “I’m so happy we’re doing this.”

He heard her words with his blood, his joints, his tendons. Even his bones softened. Soon he was touching her at their command.

When they were done kissing, they both lay on their backs and held hands.

“I was at the library yesterday,” she said. “I was just sitting there, reading in the quiet, and it was quiet, aside from the old coughing men.” She paused, and pointed up at the leaf ceiling. “God! The light!”

It was their ceiling now; before it had been his alone but now he was willing to share. Oh, how ready he was for this.

“Anyway.” She squeezed his hand. “All of a sudden, a woman started crying. It was so, so strange.”

“Why? I mean, why was she crying?”

“I had to know, too, so I casually got up and moved closer. And there she was, at a table, reading, and weeping, and not even noticing anyone else.”

“Wow.” He didn’t want to think about libraries or sorrow right now—he was under his tree with a warm hand in his and a woman had just kissed his mouth for the first time in three years. The ache of that was so acute, he had to physically restrain his muscles from contracting so he could roll on top of her and—

“Guess what she was reading,” she said.

“The newspaper.”

“Not too far off.”

“Oprah?”

“No,” Joni said. “A book on the fate of the planet.”

“Whoa,” he said, but it was a misplaced whoa, because he’d forgotten, again, that when people said the planet, they meant this one, Earth, mother ship. He didn’t think of Earth as a planet. Planets were objects swirling with gas and ringed with light and really didn’t concern him, day to day. But this planet. Well.

“I know,” she said. “It made me teary, and guilty, and I got in my old clunker and drove to the ocean, just to make sure it was still there.”

“You want to go there now?” The sea was just thirty or so metres from them. He didn’t want to move, but he liked to leave his options open.

“No,” she said. “I know it’s there. I’d rather just stay right here.”

She had such a way of saying just what she meant, and wanted, that he remembered why his marriage hadn’t worked. His ex had never said what she wanted, directly. She was the queen of passive aggression, and eventually he went mad from the subversive demands.

Joni let go of his hand and turned on her side again. “Do you bring women here often?”

“None ’til you.”

She smiled and put her hand on his sternum. “Can I take you to my favourite place, the next time?”

Was she feeling his chest for a jump in his heart rate?

“I’d love that,” he said. Then he looked at his watch. “Dammit.”

“Already?”

“I know.”

She sighed. “Without dust, no rain.”

“Okay,” he said, slowly, because he had no idea what she meant.

“Raindrops form around dust bits.” She’d understood his slow okay. “And if we didn’t have histories, children, past lives, and so on, we would never have met.”

He felt jealous when he thought of her having a husband, even though the relationship was long over. Her honesty didn’t help. She’d spoken at lunch about her marriage, described intensity so extreme it made him squirm. Back when they were young, she had pursued her husband in the library stacks, and she always found him. She told Andrew she could find him by his scent, a feral thing. They’d done it in a study room, more than once.

That felt like too much information for a first date. But they were both coming to the table—the grass, the burial ground—with luggage. There were many things Andrew was not proud of, and she didn’t need to know any of them, because he had changed. Although he was already sensing that she was the kind of woman who would find out about his past, and he would most likely tell her everything. Men weren’t supposed to change, he knew from what his ex had shown him in her magazines, but he was different. He had changed. Perhaps he’d become sappy, late to romance, but it had never occurred to him to bring his ex here. Only a small example of what he was now versus then.

“We really better go.” She sat up and looked him right in the eye, a challenge in the look. “Promise we’ll do this again?”

He rolled over and got up onto his knees, kissed her forehead, then her lips. “I promise.”
They came out from under the elm and walked back through the cemetery, under the brocade of branches and turning leaves arching over the path. His hand longed to hold hers but now wasn’t the time. There had been no public announcement of anything—no private one, either, but he was lost in the speculations, hope burning in him—so they kept a slight distance from each other as they returned to his car, to the lives they lived, to the world that had vanished while they were lying under his tree.

*

Maddie was waiting for him, sitting on the brick fence around the schoolyard, head bent over a book. She was looking up from time to time for him—he watched her for a minute before getting out of the car and walking up the street—but she didn’t appear worried. A book is better than a friend, she told him once, and he’d felt both bereft and very pleased, in equal parts. He’d tried to arrange more play dates after that. He could see she had fun with the girls who came over, but she was even happier when they left. Maybe it came down to noise, a lack thereof in her life with him, and she simply preferred the quiet. Their visit to the library was as much a part of his week as her washing her hair, the bottle collecting for the class fundraiser, the takeout pad Thai.

“Hi, honey,” he called now, and she looked at him, and then marked her page before putting her book away.

“A bit late,” she said.

“You got some reading done, I see.”

She hopped down from her perch and walked beside him.

“You weren’t worried, I hope.”

She shrugged. “You’ve only forgotten once this month, so I was pretty sure you were coming.”

“Good,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He’d become good at apologies, and so far, at least, they’d worked on her.

*

The phone rang at 9:30 pm, while Maddie was brushing her teeth.

Joni. She needed to see him. He hoped his heart would stay in its cage. Especially when he had to say no, not tonight. He had his daughter.

“I’ll come there,” she suggested.

Maddie was standing in front of him now, Sears Wish Book in hand. They were going to search through the store catalogue together and circle dreams.

“I’m sorry,” he said into the phone, business-like, sorry he had to use that tone. But his kid was watching him, and he didn’t want her to know his secret, that he was a man looking for love. This was not a thing he could share with her. At least, not yet. Not until the relationship evolved into something more, if that ever happened, a day when they would all get together and announce the news. “It’s not possible tonight.”

“Okay,” Joni said, lightly, seeming to know he was adopting a voice, an attitude. “But I’d really like to see you soon.”

“That sounds fine,” Andrew said, more gently. “I’ll speak with you tomorrow.”

“Work?” Maddie asked when he hung up the phone.

“Yep. Ready for bed?”

“No, ready for shopping!” She held up the catalogue and pulled him into her room, where they lay on her bed and imagined these objects making their lives better. Maddie circled at least one item every two pages, until they got to the lingerie section.

“Eww,” she said. “I’m skipping this.”

He didn’t protest, but he wanted to look, to see what to put on his future list.

*

It was eleven by the time he got himself ready for bed. After Maddie went to sleep, he did the dishes, folded laundry, made a grocery list, and answered a few emails. During the weeks she wasn’t with him, his evenings were empty; he still had to do the same things but the volume was halved. Fewer clothes, dishes, groceries. He liked fullness. He was not a loner by nature. Nor a single man. He needed a woman and he was not ashamed to admit the fact, at least to himself. The last few years had been hard, but gradually the debris from his marriage had begun to disperse. Maddie was still here, and not debris at all, but the beautiful result of a non-beautiful union.

When Andrew went to the front door to check the lock, he saw that the moon was full. He opened the door and stood on his porch with the light off to get a better view of the sky. He heard someone walking toward him, high heels striking the sidewalk lightly—a woman, alone. He hoped he wouldn’t startle her. He stayed completely still, and watched as she came into view. She was tall, and had long hair, and was wearing an orange sweater, like—

It was her!

“Joni!” he called out when she was nearly past his house. “Joni!”

She stopped walking and turned to him. “Andrew?”

“Yes! What are you—what a crazy thing!”

She walked up his short walkway. “I know! Is this your place?”

“Yeppers,” he said. “Home sweet home.”

“Cute,” she said. “I was just out for a walk, and—”

“Come and sit.” He wanted to rush over and hug her, but for some reason he was shy.

She sat down beside Andrew on the top step.

“You were out for a walk at this hour?”

“Sure,” she said. “I love the quiet.”

“You’re not afraid?”

She laughed. “Nah.” She put her hand on his knee. “What should I be afraid of, strange men on their porches?”

He felt the warmth from her palm penetrating through his pants to his thigh. “It’s a pretty safe city, I guess.”

“Especially around here.”

They sat there looking at the moon. Joni asked, “Is Maddie asleep?”

“She better be. It’s nearly midnight.”

Joni was quiet for a moment. Then, facing him directly, staring at him the way she had in the cemetery, she asked, “Can I come in?”

He was split in two—one half was already saying yes, of course, let’s go and strip down and see what happens—and the other half was holding the reins, as if this whole thing were an antsy horse, a horse he wasn’t sure of with all its energy, because he wasn’t used to horses. In a second he would have to find out which half was bigger, or stronger, or more in charge. In a second she would need an answer. He looked to the moon for help and all he could see was a breast.

“Come in,” he said. “But I’ll get you to take off your shoes out here. We don’t want to wake the baby.” He said this in a put-on voice, hoping she would pick up his tone, for humour. And she did. She took off her heels and exaggerated her tiptoeing as they entered his house, on the way to doing what he had wanted to do all day.

*

Andrew would not let her walk home by herself at 1:00 am, and because of that, she was hinting at staying. He had to say no. “Maddie, she’s not used to anyone being here but me.”

Joni smiled and stretched her long body out like a slack cat on the rec room couch. “That’s good to hear.”

Andrew blushed, surprising himself. He was self-conscious about his dry spell, sure, but he shouldn’t have reddened in front of the woman who’d just broken it.

“I’ll call you a cab,” he said. He kissed her forehead on the way to the telephone. She sighed, and got up very slowly, as if she could barely move, like a modern dancer’s version of lethargy.

When he had the cab company on the line, he asked her, “Where to?”

“Huh?”

“They need a destination. Your address.”

“Oh, right. Uh, 2578 Browning.”

He repeated what she’d said into the phone, and then hung up. “You live all the way up there?”

“Yeah, well, it’s not the nicest part of town, but it’s cheaper than here.”

“It’s not that,” Andrew said. “It’s just so far away.”

“I told you, I like to walk.” She was pulling her orange sweater on over her head. Her breasts, braless still, pushed out from under her Mexican cotton shirt and made him wish, for the tenth time at least, that it was his ex’s week with Maddie.

“Let’s walk together,” he suggested. “On the weekend. Unless you have your daughters?”

“Not ’til Sunday,” she said.

“Great.” He could already hear the taxi idling at the curb. “I’ll call you and we’ll make a plan.”

Once they were on the porch, after she’d put her heels on and in full view of the cab driver, they kissed. Their first public display.

“Goodnight, Joni,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

She waved as she walked out to the cab, swaying her hips a little more than he’d remembered. He’d done that to her. Loosened things up. He went to bed, feeling like a hero, already dreaming of the weekend.

*

At lunch the next day he told Buddy about her. He kept it basic, but the portrait was rosy. Then, as they were getting their coffees to go, Joni walked past the café.

“Hey!” Andrew said. “That’s her!”

Buddy frowned. “It is? That’s weird, isn’t it? Just like last night?”

Andrew was all smiles as he made a dash for the door, foregoing the cream. “It’s awesome,” he said. “See you back at the office.”

And it was awesome. Two coincidences like that. Maybe it was a sign, although he didn’t lean toward signs. Still, he caught up to her down the block, where she was window-shopping at the bookstore. He wanted to stand behind her and clap his hands to her eyes, like a schoolboy, but he resisted. Instead, he just said, “Well, hello, stranger,” and watched her eyes light up, just for him.

*

Andrew was late getting back to the office. He’d decided to walk the long way around the block with Joni, who was out looking for a birthday present for her youngest daughter. That was the thing about self-employment he envied: flexibility. She wrote curriculum for online education and her timelines were her own. He had a decent boss, but he still felt the pressure of the clock, and he left Joni at the toy store with a kiss—even more public than last night—and dashed back to his building.

Buddy gave Andrew looks all afternoon, and he deflected them all with blank smiles, busying himself with the Johnson account.

“So that was her,” he said when they were getting their last coffee in the staff room.

“Yeah,” Andrew said. “She’s pretty, hey?”

Buddy nodded. “How long you known her?”

“Uh, well, about a year. When our girls started taking ballet in the same class. But we just, you know, last night—”

“Yeah, you told me.” Buddy opened a package of digestive cookies and passed it to Andrew.

“No, thanks. I’ve gotta watch this now,” he said, hands on his little belly.

Buddy took three and set them on top of his mug. “Don’t go changin’,” he half sang.

“To try and please me,” Andrew half sang back. Oh, it had been a wonderful day.

*

When he arrived home, Maddie was already there.

“I thought you had volleyball.” Again he’d come upon her with her head in a book, this time on the front porch, right on the step where he and Joni had sat before moving inside. He didn’t know if the flush in his neck and cheeks was from the memory or for mixing up Maddie’s schedule again.

“My coach was sick, so Jane’s mom dropped me off.”

“Ah,” he said, relieved. “But you could’ve called me.”

Maddie shrugged. “It’s okay. I’m really into this book and I wanted to read.” She stuck her face back into the pages.

Andrew slowly looked around, at the porch, at the yard. “I have an idea,” he said. “Let’s hide you a key.”

She closed her book. “Really? Like in a secret compartment?”

Andrew smiled, but not beyond what she would tolerate. He had learned the hard way to hide his amusement at her reactions. Often she closed up like an anemone, humiliated. “Something like that,” he said. “Help me find a spot?”

They examined every nook and cranny, and eventually decided on the pot that held the rosemary, at the end of the porch. They put the key right in the dirt, in a Ziploc bag Maddie had raced in to get from the kitchen.

“Only for emergencies,” he told Maddie. “And times like these. And, it’s a secret, so no telling friends. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said and gave him a spontaneous hug. Apparently this new freedom was a big deal. He was ready to give the freedom to her, if she could show she could handle it.

*

The next day after school, Maddie went to a friend’s to work on a project. But when Andrew got home, his front door was unlocked, and jazz piano was coming at him in waves. Shit, shit, shit. He’d been watched. Invaded. And only a day after he’d hidden the key!

Just before he called the police, he wondered: Would a robber play the radio? Had Maddie’s schedule changed again?

“Hello?”

“Hello!” a voice called back.

Joni. She was lying on the couch in a sundress—or was it a nightgown?—reading the book he kept on the coffee table: The World in Photographs.

“Welcome home!” she said and closed the book. She opened her arms like she was a showgirl. “VoilĂ !”

“How did you—”

“Well, I figured you might be the kind of guy who keeps a key hidden, so I just had a little look around.”

Andrew perched on the arm of the couch. “That’s so weird,” he said slowly. “I just put the key out there yesterday.” He was still holding his cellphone, 9-1-1 keyed in but not sent. He looked at her, smiling on his blue blanket. “How did you know?”

She laughed. “I didn’t, silly. I just wanted to surprise you, and there it was!” She got up on her knees and kissed him. “I thought we could have fun together.”

She smelled like oranges. He loved oranges. They reminded him of Christmas and Florida and mornings. He had to ignore the memories right now.

“But, Joni, what if I’d walked in with Maddie? Or what if she came home alone and found you here?”

She sat on her heels and smiled. “I would’ve hid in a hurry.”

“And then what? Slipped out the door when we weren’t looking?”

She nodded. “Sure.”

“Joni,” he said. “We are not on television. It’s just—just too weird, coming home, finding you here. Not that I don’t like seeing you, but it’s just odd, you know? Like yesterday, you just being there on the street when I was out for lunch, and the other night . . .”

He stopped. He felt like he was disintegrating as he spoke, the space between his cells growing, as if he were more empty than full. Porous, like coral. And in those spaces, the truth came flowing through.

She was on his couch, no longer smiling, but fixing her eyes on him with a sort of animal stare, as if she’d been cornered but still felt confident that she could get out alive. Or maybe he was making that part up. Maybe the look on her face meant she’d misjudged him, couldn’t believe he’d jump to such a crazy notion, a woman chasing him.

He looked back at her, matched her gaze, and waited for her to speak. He was waiting to hear the words that would make everything go back to normal, a return to where they’d been just a few days ago, eating sandwiches, talking about their children.

She started to cry. And try as he might, he could not just sit there and watch her, waiting for a decent explanation. That explanation did not exist, and never would. He pulled her to his chest.

To stalk was to pursue, to track, to chase and hunt—it meant you were in pursuit of something worth following. There was so much risk these days, with privacy all but gone, cyberstalking, identity theft, and fraud of various types, that Andrew had never given it a second thought. But who really did? Who walked around expecting someone to be hunting them? Who felt worthy enough of this sort of behaviour, except criminals and celebrities? Could this woman, a mother, sobbing against his shirt, really be guilty of this? Did he give off some sort of scent she could track, the same way her husband had? No, Andrew was just an ordinary guy. Not worth any sort of pursuit, least of all with this kind of determination.

“Joni,” he said softly. “Tell me what’s going on.”

She pulled herself back so she could look at him. Her face was red and wet; she tried to smile. “You’re not angry?”

He shook his head. “No. Just confused.”

“Oh, thank God,” she said. “I can handle anything but anger.” She moved over to make room for him on the couch, and patted the space. “Sit down, Andy. There’s so much to talk about!”

Something in her voice made Andrew’s hair prickle. Her expression had changed again, from sorry to enthusiastic. Her eyes were wide, her cheeks flushed.

“I thought we could go here for our first weekend away.” She picked up a glossy brochure from the coffee table. “And then we could go back, for our honeymoon, you know, to reminisce. I know the girls would love it—this place even has a waterslide!” She opened the brochure to a photo of the pool. “Isn’t it perfect for us?”

Yes, she was definitely wearing a nightie, pale green and covered in tiny leaves. As she spoke, he imagined her buying it with him in mind, because of their picnic under the elm tree. His elm tree.

He began to count.

*

"Weeping Camperdown" will be included in Julie Paul's forthcoming collection, The Pull of the Moon, which will be available September 30, 2014 (Brindle & Glass Publishing). 
 Julie Paul is the author of The Jealousy Bone and The Pull of the Moon. Her stories, poems, and essays have been published in numerous journals, including the New Quarterly, the Malahat Review, the Fiddlehead, the Dalhousie Review, Geist, and Canadian Living, and in the anthologies Coming Attractions 07 and Women Behaving Badly. Learn more about Julie at juliepaul.ca.

Photo credit: Ryan Rock.

Fiction #53: Idas Ridaktum

The Interrogation

I looked at the man out of the corner of my eye on the subway. I was coming home from work and something struck me as odd about the man. The man already stood out due to his appearance, but that wasn’t why he was odd to me. They, and by they I mean the Maulanas and Muftis, would say that it takes a lot of faith, or Imaan, to do what that man was doing. To dress the way he was dressed, respecting and adhering to the Sunnah. He was dressed in one of those long white robes, a jubbah, a black cap covering his head and a full beard affixed his face. Many people looked at that man and thought ‘Muslim’.  Everyone in the Muslim community would commend him for his strong character and they would silently use him as a paragon of virtue in all sermons that came after. We were all meant to feel shame that we were not also dressing the same.

I was a grown man though. This meant I could feel whatever I want. I was able to feel whatever I wanted because I disobeyed the doctrine of organized Islam and asked questions. One example of this is ‘What does keeping a full beard and adhering to the Sunnah have anything to do with being a good person and achieving salvation? Those things may instill discipline, show a commitment to one’s faith, and a respect for the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH), but they will not be the transgression that bars you from the gates of Jannah. Ever.’

I looked at the man out of the corner of my eye on the streetcar, the fragrance of his itr softly emanating towards me and I thought something subversive. I knew him. The smell took me back to a different time, when we were all younger, and that fragrance pervaded the air and breathy halls of an ancient building only twenty years old. I remembered. I knew that man once, when we were all still boys, trying to figure out what faith really meant and how important it was.

We were teenagers, fifteen or sixteen or something. He was new to Canada, having just arrived from Pakistan that year. He was a few years younger than me, quiet, shy. He was dressed in a bright green and purple wool sweater and it was the middle of May. I think someone had told him that Canada was supposed to be cold. He always had the same glossy brown pants on, the kind you’d find at a disco in the 70’s. He was a funny looking kid by Western standards, and seeing a new kid dressed like that in the hallways at school burned an image in my brain that I carried throughout the rest of the week. I saw the kid again at the mosque on Saturday to my dismay. I was taken aback by seeing him there. There had always been a stark divide between secular and religious in my life. The two had always been separate. When I left school for the day I could expect to not see any of those people again until the next day, or Monday, or September. Seeing him on Saturday reminded me that he was like me, that he wasn’t that much different than I, and we had a lot in common despite how badly I wanted to deny it. Seeing him there on Saturday in his glossy brown pants, I had to admit that he didn’t’ look that out of place anymore. His outfit fit in a place that didn’t value fashion. I specifically remember hearing that evening that God favors the austere and Spartan person. Whether that was through poverty or a concern for the otherworldly didn’t matter. That kid was austere as shit, through no choice of his own. Later that evening a Maulana approached my father and I after the sermon was over and we were preparing to leave. My face fell. He had the new kid in tow with another man who could only be the kid’s father.

The Maulana gave a warm Salaam to my father and I. We sat and I began to wonder why my father looked unbothered. The Maulana gestured to me and spoke in Urdu. I could only hope that the man hadn’t heard anything troubling about me from my teachers in class. From what I could gather, it appeared that the new boy was having trouble adjusting in school. His English wasn’t great and he needed help acclimating to his new life here. All shit that I could’ve told them when I saw him in that outfit on the first day. I could tell where the conversation was headed and I grew uncomfortable. The last thing I needed was a kid who didn’t know English tailing me at school. It just wasn’t a good look.

But good looks didn’t matter to some people. I was young, and when you’re young, you’re an asshole sometimes. I wanted to be left alone by that kid and anyone else who didn’t know English. Even though I was born here, I was still desperate to prove it. I didn’t feel like my identity and citizenship were infallible. The way it was ingrained and a part of those rich white kids. I felt Canadian, but that feeling didn’t feel impervious. I didn’t want anyone mistaking me for someone who didn’t know English. This was my mortal fear. That someone would look at me and surmise that I was fresh off the boat. That fear made me a dick.

I needed everyone to know I knew English when they looked at me. So I was an asshole to that kid.

My father of course volunteered my company at school to help the kid adjust, much to my chagrin. Both my father and the Maulana were oblivious to my teenage discomfort and haughty protest, my crossed arms invisible to them. You may read this and believe that they just simply didn’t care, but the honest truth was that they were blind to my silent protests. They didn’t see or understand or care for a healthy social life. The other kid saw it all though, and I’m sure he knew, in that silent unspoken language we shared. All of us, the sons of religious immigrants, whenever we wanted to convey anything contrary to what was being displayed, could do it with a look, a nod, a glare. When words are profane, we have languages born in darkness, told through a touch, a glance, a breath of hot air. His hurt eyes recognized my silent protest in the Mosque that night.

The next week at school, the kid made a feeble half-hearted attempt to sit at my lunch table in the afternoon. As an asshole, I felt no empathy for him, only pity and awkwardness. He ate his lunch in silence, the smell of Daal and garlic making me brush the air in front of my nose and wrinkle it in disgust. I scarfed my hot dogs so I could continue playing Magic. He could feel his own unwanted presence in the crashing, rocking lunch room and he stood up to leave early. I would see him around in school afterwards, but never again around me. Even if he had stuck around we had nothing in common. There was nothing for him to do around me. At that age, people form friendships because of shared interest. He had been in the country a month, and the way we saw our religion and faith was completely different. His faith was a part of him, it directly dictated his identity. He loved cricket, and action movies where they cracked chicken bones to simulate kicks and punches.

I liked girls with big asses, Magic, Pokemon, comic books and hockey. What was I supposed to talk to this kid about? Still, I feel bad, horrible, guilty. That’s why I’m writing this all down. So you know what happened to him, and because I feel partly responsible. You decide.

About a few weeks before school let out for the summer, I was called into the principal’s office. I wasn’t worried though, I’d done nothing wrong, trouble wasn’t really my thing. I was surprised though to see the new kid sitting there, looking scared. Adeel, that was his name. I remember it now. Adeel was sitting there, looking scared, his eyes were wide, and he gulped, bobbing his Adam’s apple as I walked in. The principal, a frazzled woman with curly black hair sticking out all over the place motioned for me to sit beside him, facing her across the long dark, deep plum desk.

“Do you know him? Adeel. He’s new.” The principal, Mrs. Braithwaite asked, her fingertips on her chin, pointed like a gun while she waited for my response.

“Yeah,” I choked out, still unsure if what I was saying could get me into trouble. Mrs. Braithwaite studied me for a minute, obviously trying to discern if I was lying, her suspicion clear in her blue eyes. I knew what she was going and yet still her look scared me. No kid in middle school wants to be in a principal’s office. At that age, it’s seldom for anything good.

“Adeel was in an incident in gym class last week. I understand that you share a gym class with him and Megan?”

“Yes, that’s right.” I admitted, unsure of why I felt guilty. And what did Megan have anything to do with this?

“Well someone’s accused him of something. Something very serious.”

I didn’t understand. The kid was way too quiet. He didn’t even have any friends. What could he have possibly gotten up to?

“He says that you may be able to clear his name.” Mrs. Braithwaite paused again, letting the brevity of the situation sink into the cold, carpeted room. I was nonplussed, still unsure of how I fit into this whole thing. Last week’s gym class, as far as I could recall was uneventful. Just another day, we played basketball if I remembered correctly.

“We played basketball.” I offered quietly, shrugging my shoulders. I wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Adeel has been accused of a sexual assault,” She said clearly, her voice dripping with cold steel.

No, it couldn’t be me, I remember thinking immediately. He was an immigrant. And even though I was born here, I felt the same. We were way too scared and intimidated to even talk to any girl. They were too different from us. I ventured a look towards Adeel, he had his head down, staring at the grey pukey carpet so I couldn’t read his face.

“Do you remember seeing anything strange last Thursday? After gym class I mean? Mr. Rogelio says you were one of the last ones to leave? You were collecting balls after class for talking out of turn?”
It came back to me. I’d made a stupid comment out loud about the Appalachian mountains being in Appalachia and Mr. Rogelio told me to collect the rest of the balls strewn throughout the room as punishment. I was throwing them long distance into the storage closet as the class filed off into the changing rooms. I remember seeing Megan limp a little. It looked like she was trying to hide the awkward gait while she talked with her friend. Megan wasn’t really the gym type anyways. Her and a few friends usually just sat on the bench and watched, taking a zero for the day from the gym teacher. That day was much of the same for them.

I was in the change room alone afterwards and I remember rushing so I could catch up to my friends at the lockers. On my way out, I remember seeing Adeel, walking in the opposite direction. He smiled weakly at me and I pretended not to see it. I was pathetic, but so was his situation. He’d become famous in school. Every day after school his father met him at the entrance and they took the subway home together. He was fourteen years old, taking the subway home with his father. And that man gave no indication that he was on his way home from work either. He came in sweatpants and an oversized plaid shirt, sandals and a toupee adorned on his head. You could set your watch to his appearances at the front doors after school every day. Poor kid never stood a chance.

I looked at the principal. “I’m sorry...I don’t think I saw anything weird.”

“Are you sure? Think harder.” The principal repeated, her brows furrowed now, creases appearing on creases on her forehead. I was starting to feel accused.

Was Megan’s limp even a big deal? Did it matter that she was already limping before gym class was even over? Was it worth mentioning? Did it even matter that I saw Adeel walking down the hall after gym class that day? I didn’t want to indict anybody. I didn’t want to accuse someone of anything or create a problem where there wasn’t one. My deference for a white girl commanded me to stay silent.

“No I don’t think there was anything.” I said.

“You were the last one out of the changing room that day. Did you see either Megan or Adeel?”
It was like she knew something, or felt something was off. She was still fishing and I could tell now that Adeel had told her that he’d seen me in the hallway after school that day. As a little bitch, I wanted no part of it. A scared boy who just wanted to be left alone. Rape accusations were the type of things that followed immigrants around. White kids weren’t being pulled into offices to vouch for other white kids accused of assault in my mind.

I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted the questioning to end. I wanted to go back to class. I didn’t want to be involved in this weird problem that wasn’t mine and never could be.

“No, I didn’t see anything.” I couldn’t look Adeel in the eye. I told myself at the time that that was because I was too focused on the principal.

“Okay, That will be all. Thanks for your help Ahmad.”

She stood up and led me to the door. I hurried and didn’t bother looking back to where Adeel was still sitting. Stuck in his chair. I didn’t want the image of him alone in that cold room burned into my brain. But I felt it all the same, when the door closed behind me with a soft click. I knew he was in there, cold, confused, in a flurry of grey law. All for the sake of persevering my stupid teenage identity, I’d failed a boy in his hour of need. So I could go on, pretending I was the same as everyone else.

I remember what happened to him. I remember my stomach churning when I saw him next. He was suspended for two weeks. Word around the school was they couldn’t expel him because there was no concrete evidence for his crime. He’d got off lightly because of Megan’s reputation, and his lack of one. We all knew it might’ve been bullshit but none of us ever spoke up or said anything. We were all too meek and afraid in that lunchroom cacophony of a cafeteria where a ragtag group of Bengalis and Tamils sat amidst a sea of loud voices. The school kept it all hush-hush, and likely only suspended him to appease the girl’s parents. Megan never looked him in the eye ever again, and when Adeel came back, he was a changed man. Laughing angels spread their wings before him to tread on. His quiet demeanor became an austere one, the eyes of the afterlife quietly judging everything around him in the classroom.

When I took the subway to school a few weeks later, my heart sank even further in calamity. Adeel and his father were taking the subway together. And once again, I shook my head in awe at the fear and reprehension it took to go so far. But what really brought it home to me, what really made me uncomfortable, was that they were holding hands. A fourteen year old holding his father’s hand, looking nonplussed. Should a false rape accusation really affect someone that bad? I don’t know. I know that Adeel’s father walked him to school after and promptly turned back around at the gate and went back home, his Imaan enough to guard him from Fitna on his commute back home.

After I graduated I never saw him again, until that day on the streetcar a few weeks back, the musk of itr permeating throughout the car. It is said that angels keep their company around that smell. They find themselves around a blessed, holy man, and create a gathering of light around him. A man so sure of himself, and steadfast in his convictions, his faith lays waste to his doubts.

His doubts never even got a chance.

*


Idas is a writer currently squandering away his twenties working full time as a press release editor. Most of his spare time is spent either writing or reading, and the rest of it in contending with an existential crisis most Saturday nights at 4:30 AM after watching his fifth re-run of iCarly. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto, having studied English, and has largely remained unpublished until now.

Photo credit: Jason Liang

Fiction #53: J.K. Nolan

# 344

Vested in this brief memoir will be no similitude, allegory, or metaphor; the reality of the prosaic word is adequate encasement enough for one woman’s suffering. If the humble chronicler would seem to transgress his prescribed simplicity, he does so because on occasion our lady’s suffering was to her something more than mortal. He forgives her histrionics, and allows her, in his account of her endurance, correspondent embellishment in salute of her pain – as, no doubt, will the reader.

Our lady’s last years were spent in a small cottage. At first there was nothing particularly especial to remark about the residence – it shared all the common characteristics of the cottage in general – but where the writer has decided to pick up this history the cottage’s outward appearance was in a state of change, and had been for some time yet: shrouded in great trees, overhung with foliage, and denied sun: trapped in this moisture its wooden frame was rotting; trapped in this perpetual umbrage, seized by thick vines, enmeshed in moss and lichen, its wooden frame was becoming an extension of the forest in which it was isolated, soon to be reclaimed by the survivors of antiquity.

Of the cottage’s inward appearance, however, there was no semblance of change. While outwardly the cottage passed through temporality as do all human monuments – degenerately – inwardly the cottage’s aspect produced upon the mind the overwhelming impression that it was transcending time; that while without the worms were burrowing their slow way through the pine, there was a point at which they must cease in their efforts, being unable as it were to proceed any further.

For the air was not upset by mold or putrefaction. The fire burned steadily upon the hearth; the crucifix hung in good shape above the mantle, an effigy of grotesque contortion and provincial law gleaming in the glow. The empty kettle sat unrusted upon the hob: it, too, dazzling, sharing in the constant flame. A sizeable clock was lodged in a corner, but it did neither tick nor knell, its brazen pendulum did swing neither this way or that. No second, no minute, no hour was in that cottage ever announced; no day, no week, no month ever marked; and the light never made its way through the walls to guide us. Though once upon a time there may have been movement in our lady’s cottage, it had all tapered into insensibility, caught up and frozen in interminable monotony. And at its core was our lady, fixed to a cushion on her plastic-protected love-seat; as its very source, was her affliction, a trammelling weight upon her old, frail breast. Fixed to her cushion, as the clock was lodged in its corner, her hand outstretched on a side-table, in what might have been a creeping withdrawal from the blackened butt of a final cigarette, our lady was prisoner to a past that had become eternal.

What had cast her into this strait was the commonest occurrence of all – death. Our lady was not exceptional; she was ordinary indeed. But in the eruption of sudden loss relativity disappeared. There was no room left beyond her exquisite pain for comfort in generalizations. No extrapolation, no calculation, no arithmetic could soothe her; no rule, no principle, no adage could amend her woe; no philosophy could remedy the stupor into which she fell when Vimy Ridge became the grave of her dearest husband: when the bootprints, bones, and blood of his compatriots formed his tombstone, and the cacophony of cries, canons, and gunshots composed his epitaph – for none of this artifice had the power to resurrect, and restore. The globe shrank, and her bereaved spirit, voluminous with anguish, enveloped it.

 A gravel road once led to her cottage, but after the Official car drove down it, and the Official man delivered the Official telegram, notable for being writ upon a model, and conferred his Official condolences, notable for proceeding from a sympathy that had to be pretended for a few hundred thousand other mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, and sisters, and Officially disengaged himself from the scene – and our lady was left to weep in a crumpled heap upon the patio – well, then the road fell into disuse, and strewn about it in course of time were the leavings from those same survivors of antiquity who denied the sun to our lady’s cabin, as the Official tidings would blot out forever our lady’s future. The Great War was undertaken to insure the freedom of a few select nations – a Great shame that it should have enslaved so many of their peoples; that blinded by a Great dream the political acumen of our prized state officials should prove so short-sighted, and fettered to their failure, that our lady should have felt so completely the Great disillusionment.

Fixed to her spot on the couch, our lady’s outstretched hand before the ashtray appears no longer to be in a posture of withdrawal, but is rather pointing to an object on the mantle. Perched on that cement slab, beneath the gleaming crucifix, is a frame. Our lady points at it, griping to express a truth. From within the sunken sockets she stares with vacant eyes; and from within the frame life stares back at her – yet a life prematurely taken, made but a picture too soon.

The romantic might call our lady’s loss tragic; the sentimentalist pathetic; the moralist useful; the philosopher a necessary evil; the religious a divine operation; the poet, languishing in his words, a cruel, undeserved, sundering of husband and wife. But we, as a confession to human weakness, will forbear to classify – will content ourselves with the conclusion that behind our lady’s sunken vacancy abound the images, militated by ungovernable passions, of destruction, battle, blood, and an unknown place on Vimy Ridge, marked by the cross she supplied there in his name. And that, while this memoir of our lady’s suffering is not unique, yet it is one to confuse our notions of life and death.

*

Writer, musician, philosopher, student, teacher, lover, friend.

Photo credit: Natasha Kilfoil