Use a gusset to prevent the stressed seam from ripping open.
Only Get One Valentine
Magritte & Rosen
© Magritte & Rosen. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
His fingernails, his cuticles, his knuckles, and the lengths between them—his thumb pads and his palms—are infused with love for her. His hands hang uselessly at his sides, as she is not here. He can’t touch her. Or, choose not to touch her. He doesn’t know what to do without these options, so he stands there, a bleak statue in his living room, imagining he has the stigmata. He laughs. People bleed, not simulacri. Is that a word?
At least I can laugh, he thinks, the word formed by the sound of the last syllable—cry—hovering threateningly. He shakes his shoulders and twists his hands together to reclaim them.
He pads into the kitchen with all its distractions. Without routines imposed on them, forks stay in cottage cheese tubs on the counter. Wine splats have darkened and cling flatly to the counter and the linoleum beneath the spout on the box. A bunch of optimistic parsley slumps over and sleeps in broad daylight. He had been sure, when he bought it, along with some anchovies, that he was ready to make a simple Roman pasta dish again—to cook again—after these last few months. Few, he reminds himself as he gazes at the parsley dolefully, is three or maybe four. It has now become five—several—months that he has not been able to taste or care about food. He tugs at the waistband of his boxers and runs his hands down his sides. Coffee. He dumps the soggy filter from the plastic cone and rifles in the drawer for a fresh one.
His phone rings in the other room, and he dashes over to it. With hands now sweaty and barely functional, he fumbles, but manages to slide the switch to answer her call.
Her voice is awkward with him, causing him to kneel on the rug. It needs vacuuming or sweeping or whatever they used to do to keep things tidy. He believes his breathing, which is all he can manage, is enough of a reply.
She clears her throat. “I wanted to let you know.”
There is some mumbling, some background talking, some muffling of the phone. If she is not alone then this will not be about justice, about love. The questions between them and the answers are not for others.
“What do you want to let me know?” It’s what he should ask and the words have no past and no present, because all he wants is her, outside of anything she has said or is saying now.
“This is weird, and I probably shouldn’t have called. But I’m taking my mother to Bloedel today and thought I should tell you, in case… Well, you wouldn’t want to bump into us. If you were planning on going there.” She laughs nervously. He keeps listening. “I know, it would be weird if you were. Like, we only ever went that one time.”
He breathes into the phone, listening. She says, “But still. I thought I’d call. Just in case.”
He relaxes onto his heels, his butt settling onto them. He studies the rug, picks a few dried-up pine needles out of it.
She asks, “Are you there?”
He crumbles the orangey needles between his fingers.
She asks, “Are you OK?” He stands up and grinds the needle crumbs into the rug with his foot.
He says, “I’m here.”
“OK, well, I’ll let you get back to whatever. Just wanted to let you know.”
“I love you,” he says, then looks at the phone and presses the red button.
Well, that went well, he sneers to himself. Still, he feels somehow buoyed by having been within the shelter of her voice. He lopes back into the kitchen and gets the coffee started, pouring the hot water from the hot water thing into the little teapot and then drizzling it onto the grounds in their cone, watching some bob on the top of the water like Jesus.
Like Jesus? Jesus.
In just twenty minutes, he is whizzing through the formal gates of the Bloedel Reserve and past the gigantic old elm tree with its grand canopy, eager to get rid of his bike, pay, and start walking.
The greeter or docent or whatever she is, wants to tell him a lot of things. She starts marking circles on the map where something she has mentioned is now in bloom and something else bears extra attention. He realizes he is not being a satisfactory subject, but she perseveres and hands him the marked-up map with an uncertain but stubborn smile.
“Thank you,” he says, folding and putting the map in his pocket, turning to look behind him, just in case. No one else has come in. He passes his bike again as he sallies forth, full of fever.
The meadow seems alive in its heavy quiet as he carries his body into it. He feels exposed, like a fragile rabbit baby watched by hawks, and picks up his pace so he can reach the forest beyond the barn and feel less conspicuous, more like a part of things. The leggy rhododendrons beneath the forest cover rise, tall and lush and in ghostly blossom. Stepping along the silent path, it’s easy for him to forget the team of gloved gardeners with snippers and spades—probably even tweezers—that keep the natural beauty groomed to perfect “natural,” and the path flat and softly covered in leaves and bark. It’s easy to pretend he himself is part of the forest, safe and welcome. As he walks, sounds swell from the silence. The rush of a breeze far above, a skittering in the brush to his right, the flap of the small wings of something settling on a branch, its inaudible creak.
The pond. A whole new silence descends as he comes around the bend, stepping out of the forest, and sees it. He had forgotten about the pond. He looks across its serene surface. There were swans. Suddenly, though just now remembering them, he needs the swans. He needs them to be rafting on the dark water, pristine white wings ready to tuck their heads under to take a nap. He knows how they sleep because when they were here that other time, she told him about it. It seemed so odd but thoroughly plausible given their beauty. He looks carefully as he walks along the path at the pond’s edge, scanning each wrinkle of shoreline for swans. There is an island in the middle of the pond. Perhaps there is a swan behind it, he thinks. Or two; one swan would be too sad. She’d also told him then, kissing him generously at that time, that swans mate for life. A swan can die of a broken heart if its partner dies. Does the lack of swans here tell this tragic story? He feels tears pressing at the back of his eyes. She was supposed to stay with me. She was not supposed to go. She is a swan, dammit.
He reaches a stand of birches toward the end of the pond, beautiful against the swoop of a hillside rolling up from the other side of the path, without seeing any evidence of swans. No feathers, no poop, no swans. The path past the pond enters a light forest with little undergrowth, and he walks along it with melancholy. She never said when she’d be here with her mother today. Did she mean for me to come? She knows me well enough. She knows I am here for her. A manly, sexy swan, like in those paintings in art books, ready to take his woman.
As he walks the path, a surprising number of other visitors come toward him and pass. Just like when people get off an airplane and you are waiting for your person, his mind does backflips and somersaults trying to make each one into her, though each is clearly too tall, too short, too old, too young, a man.
He breaks out of the forest onto a main path, paved, which skirts another pond, more formal and banked with aged willows. At the far end of this pond is the handsome visitor center. It is just as he remembers it, a gracious home built of stone, overlooking the Sound where a barge sits, heavy, on the water. As he enters, a staff member welcomes him and wants to know if he’s been here before. He says, “Oh yes,” as if it’s his millionth visit. His performance yields the desired result: she leaves him alone to wander the tall rooms with soaring windows.
Couples and families with children mill around amongst the belongings of the Bloedel family. No one else is here alone, and none of these people is her. He makes a point to walk through the library to the dining room and then into the very tiny kitchen. She had shown him the kitchen, so efficient and humble. Claustrophobic, actually, after the mirrors and sconces and sideboards in the dining room, which is a room that seems intimate and small until you enter the kitchen. He makes his way quickly down the back hall to the door and is outside again.
The right place to be, where he can be found but not exposed, is the reflecting pool. He remembers it clearly but has no idea where it is. He follows some not-hers up the paved drive and onto a side path into more forest. Children are playing a silly game that makes him feel old and spiritless. He notes that he is absent of want, actually. He is slogging up a hill following parents and children, mindlessly. When the path reaches a Japanese gate flanked by two cypress trees, he goes through like everyone else. The gravel garden is raked to perfection, in waves, and is graced with a few stray leaves that have blown onto its austere surface. People gaze admiringly in through the windows of the Japanese guesthouse, holding a hand up as a visor against the glare and nudging their loved one to look at this, look at that.
Nothing is wanting. Which is painful itself. Restless, he passes through the garden and out the other side. He follows the path across a small road and into another dappled forest. The ground is covered in moss. Bright green, verdant moss grows on any and every surface, fed by specially engineered bogs whose micro irrigators and drains he can see if he looks very minutely at the ground. A bird flits through the under-canopy and, as his eyes follow it, he sees a rectangular wall of perfectly-pruned hedge rising, tall and unbroken, out of the mossy reaches around him. The path takes him around its edge and through an invisible break and his breath is taken away. He is in the four-sided, hedged enclosure and its long, long, elegant reflecting pool. A small breeze ripples its surface, but otherwise it is silent and unpeopled. It’s not a place for swans, with its harsh edges, its austerity.
As he walks the length of the pool and chooses not to notice a dead bird in the grass by the linear concrete edge, the memories he has been keeping submerged swell up from within and prickle his skin. Not the memories of being here with her, loving everything, but the other ones. He hears himself telling her that he doesn’t know why he kissed her friend, doesn’t know how it came to be, hears his own beseeching voice full of the outrageousness of his position, what he had done without any explanation and little will, and sizzling shame. He sees her face close. He sees her gathering up her things, leaving the Christmas presents he has just given her sitting there on the coffee table, amidst his high-pitched babble of useless utterances and assurances and agonies. He remembers how the house felt when she left it that day, how it feels now that she never comes back. He walks back to the bench at the head of the pool and sits with this.
The pond ripples gently and reflects the colors of the tentative sky and the trees towering behind the tall hedge. He sits, listening to silence and sometimes a few far-off human words made low and vaporous as they float on the gentle wind.
The path leading out of the other side of the enclosure is reefed with azaleas the color of the friend’s lipstick. He walks upright, loosens his shoulders and walks among the visitors straggling back to their cars no longer talking to each other, just walking. When he gets back to the parking area and approaches his bike, there is a note. It is written on the back of an entrance receipt.
I thought you might come. I have done things I can’t explain, too.
As he bikes back to his bespoiled home, two large and ungainly birds—they seem hardly airworthy—fill the sky, and then sheer off behind trees.
Photo © Felice C. Frankel, All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Vova, you’ll never believe this
Once there was a man who was walking up a residential street. He spotted a woman across the street, walking towards him. The woman looked over at the man and smiled. The man crossed the street and quickened his pace to catch up with her, but he was not fast enough. The woman had already entered her house and had closed her door. He knocked on her door. She opened it. He said, “I love you. Will you marry me?”
“No thanks,” she replied. “There is no tax incentive for marriage.”
The man went off and became a senator and passed a law that granted a $5000 credit to anyone who got married. He went back to the woman’s house and asked her to marry him again.
“No thanks,” she replied, “I have to wait until my mother dies.”
The man went off and killed her mother. He returned and asked the woman, again, to marry him.
“No thanks,” she replied, “I have to wait until after the big earthquake hits. I need to know whether we’ll all be buried alive or not. There’s no point in getting married if we’re all going to be killed tomorrow. Apparently, the Big One could move the entire city twenty miles west. East of it, the desert could become an ocean.”
The man procured several nuclear warheads, hooked them together, and planted them along the earthquake fault. At a safe distance, high up in the mountains, he ignited the bombs. Through the goggles of his hazmat suit, he watched the mushroom clouds eat most of the light. The earth split open along the fault. The city moved twenty miles west. A large swatch of desert collapsed into the yawning maw. The ocean rushed in to fill the void.
The man hopped a ferry back to the city and returned to the woman’s home. He asked her to marry him.
“No thanks,” she said. “I hate living on an island. I miss my mother. I don't care about the tax incentive. I do not love you. Please stop bothering me.”
The man scratched his head as he walked away. He saw another woman across the street who looked over at him and smiled. Encouraged, he quickened his pace to catch up with her—
Ferry crossing, Seattle to Bainbridge, Washington, USA. By E. Hudak.
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