Blood for Babies

The nurse marks a yellow smear of iodine on my vein and tapes the needle down. In a moment, the blood starts to flow into a clear bag. The bag rests near enough to my hand I can touch it and it surprises me by being warm. Of course it would be warm. It is the temperature of my body, of my flushed cheeks when the handsome nurse across the room runs his hand through his exhausted hair. My nurse gives me a rubber ball to squeeze and moves the blood bag away from my hand, pretending not to notice I have it pinched between my fingers. The warmth is gone. I give the rubber ball a series of pumps and feel the rush of heat trail down my arm.

“I try to do this every year,” I say to my nurse, a girl with blue eye shadow and red scrubs. She leans against the machine and crosses her arms. “My dad is a blood donor. He used to tell us about the cookies he got afterward. It made me want to donate when I was young.”

My nurse gazes up at the face of the clock. “Uh-huh. We have Oreo’s.”

There is a pretty round nurse chatting with a blonde square-headed man reclining in the chair next to mine. The man on the donation chair has a red blanket across his lap, which adds a certain sweetness to the bond between him and the nurse. Before I got to the donation center, someone—I like to think it was the nurse—tucked him in. He’s hooked up to a clunky machine that makes pops and hisses as it extracts and separates an oily yellow fluid from his blood. He and the nurse are watching a music video on her phone, I guess, to try and keep the man awake.

“My blood type is O negative,” I say.

“We’ll do a test later to determine your type.”

“I know my type. It’s O negative.” I squeeze the rubber ball again, feel the prick of the needle in my stretching vein.

“If that’s the case, your blood will go to our baby bag.”

“Your what?”

She glances down and kneads the bag, massaging into place the blood that falls evenly down, down.

“The baby bag. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Your blood will go to babies.”

“Oh.”

No more handsome nurse. I can see him in his regular clothes outside the window that faces the parking lot. He wears a messenger bag across his chest and is maybe younger than I guessed before. Twenty-eight?

“How long until I can donate again?” I ask casually. But I’m not smooth about it. She already saw me checking out the handsome nurse and gives me a dirty look.

“Sixty days,” she says. I squeeze my ball and check the blood bag. It starts looking full.

Two bags slowly fill up with the clear yellow platelets in the chair next to mine. If I saw this blonde man anywhere else, I would guess he was uncomfortably close to passing out.

“You’re almost done,” says his nurse. The man smiles, his grin a little dopey from all the extraction.

“Do a lot of babies need blood?” I ask. The donation has me lightheaded too.

My nurse shrugs. “More than you might expect.”

I don’t know what I expect. I expect babies to be healthy, to not need blood from strangers my age, who only walked in one afternoon because it occurred to them giving blood was something that must be done once in a while. Do I expect babies to need blood from other babies? It forces me to consider the age and plasticity of my blood, which has recycled itself for twenty-seven years, which I have dumped senseless amounts of toxins into an embarrassing number of times. If I have any relationship with my blood, it can be summed up in one word: careless.

“What about that stuff, the platelets?” I nod to the machine making quieter sounds now as it slows down the process.

“Spoken for at St. Luke’s General. A patient there needs this particular batch.” She seems bored with my conversation so I hold back my next series of questions. Together we watch the blood stream out of my arm and into the bag that will be transported to some babies, somewhere near us or far away.

In another ten minutes my bag is full and the nurse pulls the needle from my arm. She covers the entry wound with gauze and lifts my arm above my head. I am instructed to stay like that until the bleeding stops. When the bleeding stops, I am escorted to the snack area and given a bag of pretzels and a bottle of apple juice. The platelet man is at the table, eating a Nutter Butter, watching a cooking show. We sit there like kids, woozy, peckish, under the watchful eyes of the daytime nurses disinfecting the chairs we left behind. The small room smells like a hospital.

“How you feeling?” he asks. Without the blanket covering him, I see he’s in blue scrubs. He slurs, just a little.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ve done this lots of times.” He smiles another foolish grin and I wonder how long it takes the body to replenish the oily matter that binds our blood together. We eat and I watch the cooking show. It’s something I know how to do. Eventually, the man in blue scrubs who donated platelets gets up and wobbles off down a hall that leads to the back of the building. I sit alone a while longer and eat a second bag of snacks while the women on TV spread icing on a chocolate cake and engage in inane banter. Nobody comes or goes.

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Rabbit

I started hanging clothes when the dryer broke. I don’t know what went wrong, but after an hour and a half of tumbling, our bed sheets still weren’t dry. We have two big trees in the yard that are perfect for a clothesline. I sank a nail into each and wound a strong piece of twine from one to the other. The taut line came up to my eyebrows, a tiny hay colored line that defined our green horizon. I draped the sheets and towels and our shirts over it and watched them wave like flags on the wind. I don’t know why I didn’t tell my husband.

He never goes out back anyway. He makes it as far as the garage, stumbling around in the dark like an anguished ghost that haunts the gardening tools. I never took apart the workbench or the board with nails and hooks that hold up his tools. The tools are still hung in an irregular grid, each empty hole between the nails a socket without an eye. My husband worries I will sell his tools now that he cannot use them. I have seen men with four fingers build cabinets with secret drawers and dovetail joints. A blind man can fix a deck chair.

The tools in the garage are rusty. If we need something fixed, my husband has me drive him to the hardware store. I walk him to the counter and watch him take over. He holds the broken object out in both hands, talking to the guy about what went wrong and how he suspects it happened. I watch the guy nod, then slowly catch on and begin to say “yes” and “ok” instead. It took me a long time to get used to that. It was like being on the radio when you were used to being on TV.

So that is how we fix things now. The tools in the garage are just there for him to visit, to put his hands on and sigh, like he used to, but deeper.

He trapped rabbits as a child in the English countryside. He had a terrier and knew the intricate knots of a snare that could pop a rabbit’s foot off. He says he will never forget the sight of the animals thrashing in the wire, caught in the invisible leghold over the entrance to the hole. We have a picture of that little boy with a rabbit slung on his shoulder. The boy’s eyes are sullen to the rabbit’s lifeless black beads, two dark pits that trap light down inside. But the memories, my husband assures me, are pleasant. I wonder if all memories change when you lose something so integral to your being, if I would remember restless legs with fondness if I were cut off at the knees.

We adjusted to the practical chores. I took over most of the hard ones. Driving, slicing bread, doing anything that requires a relatively straight line. My husband does the other things: fluff the throw pillows, feed the dog. Mostly he walks around bumping his knees on furniture. I sometimes forget to move chairs back after I vacuum. The bruises on his shins and knees stir up the guilt inside me, as if I was the one responsible for his loss, in some tertiary way. He refuses to get a stick even though our insurance will cover one. He says it would make him feel like an invalid, like something that was canceled midway through production.

“It would help you move around. Become an independent,” I say.

“I’m already independent. I can do everything like before.”

I catch myself watching him like one watches a baby learning to crawl, ready to leap forward and knock aside anything that stands in his way. But he is careful, walking with his hands facing forward, re-remembering the walls. I wait until he is seated by the radio before I bring the clothes inside from the new drying line.

It’s the little things that are hard for him. It bothers him if I change the hand soap in the bathroom from coconut to lemon, or if I let the batteries die in the kitchen clock. He never complains, but I catch him sniffing the pump with a disapproving frown, or standing in the kitchen holding his breath, anticipating the next tick like an absent heartbeat. He steps on things. Maybe not more than he did before, but now his tactile instinct is heightened and sharp. Last week he brought me a button that fell off his shirt two years ago and asked me to sew it back on. I don’t know how he knew which button he had found, but as he peeled it off the bottom of his foot, his exact words were, “Janey, will you sew this white button back on my grey shirt?” He can tell by the sound the cheap bulbs make in the lamp when they will burn out, as if the darkness he lives in lures our home through its unbroken tunnel one watt at a time.

I thought it wouldn’t matter now if I cut my hair. When I came home from the parlor he could smell the styling gel, the fancy shampoo. He felt my hair with his fingers and frowned. “I don’t like it,” he said. I reached for his face next, traced the crevasse on his temple the color of new skin. “Too bad,” I said.

I let it all grow back.

My eyes pop open in the middle of the night, surrounded in darkness at the center of the rabbit’s moonless eye. I slide my hand through the indents on his chest in search of a heartbeat. It bumps against my hand. I put my head back on the pillow. It smells like cool, fresh air, or wind coming off a frozen lake. After two years, I’m still the only one with nightmares.

I try the dryer again but it still doesn’t work. Summer is almost over. It will be pleasant to air dry for the remaining weeks. As I gather the wet clothes in my arms to take to the clothesline, a sputter catches outside the backyard window. I look to see my husband leaning against the mower. He toes the edge of the grass with his shoe and pushes off in a steady line, confident now behind his favorite tool.

The mower roars over my shout.

The wide lines of shorn grass are irregular, but it doesn’t matter to him. I watch him push forward like a hare headed for a trap, about to catch, but happy at the moment to be flying.

 

The Story of Real Person

Has it ever, in the history of Real People, been a good idea to mend old, wretched, unrequited love? Real People are not people in stories. Things don’t work out for Real People the way things work out in love stories. A packaged ending does not neatly appear before Real People. The last sentence of a love story might be their expression of a love that never died, and fade out to a description of the sun setting, the street slowing down, his face betraying some glimmer of a shared emotion and hope for the future. This is a beautiful finale for a love story! Wouldn’t the reader prefer one of these stories? Go away. Leave this tragic tale aside. Leave it to crumble or blow away or wait for the language to die so that nobody else need be subject to whatever you will find at the end of this story. Go read your story with the beautiful ending, when the man leans over to kiss the girl and the last rays of sun sparkle in a show of silent fireworks. Sadly, Real People are left standing in the street as a possum scurries under a car, a man hocks a glob of spit on the sidewalk, facing an old flame who, in the dimming sunlight, was easily confused as bearing a tender expression. But now in the drooping darkness a Real Person can see that the expression on his face was disgust and pity all along. A confession of this caliber is best done as the Real Person pitches herself off a high peak and shouts their admission to the old lover over one shoulder, so as to never face the consequence and total shame of clinging to a love for someone who doesn’t love them back.

The reader can think of many stories that feature unrequited love as a central theme, a literary ‘carrot-on-the-stick’ to drive the reader towards the answer to the question ‘will they or won’t they?’ This happens to Real People too, but in Real Life, it is neither comedic nor tragic, but it is very messy and rarely resolved in a satisfying way. Real People must choose a life of sorrowful remembrance, to fill the void with someone who will treat them good and kind. Or the Real Person will take the alternate route, which leads them right into the path of the old flame, where there is opportunity for confrontation and confession. Or they can go to jail. Real People understand the aftermath of a passionate speech, which would be so romantic if followed by a deep physical fusion between the two, but could also result in a lawsuit.

But this is not the Real Person we’re dealing with. This Real Person has goals, ambition. She is not dumb. She is merely conflicted. And you, my reader, are in charge of the outcome of this story.

The Real Person is the person in this story. She has her life somewhat together, like a Real Person who survives heartbreak would. She is not some two-dimensional character with three or four descriptive eccentricities, like the way she rakes her flyaways back on her head when she is anxious, or likes the feel of pins and needles in her hand when she sleeps holding her breast, out of habit. What kind of Real Person would she be if the author told the reader she orders almond squares from the bakery and scrapes off the slivered nuts before eating, seeking out the gooey texture of the pastry and not the almonds themselves? Perhaps positioning the reader to empathize and relate to her in ways predestined by the author is not fair for this character. She is a Real Person, and you can decide her best and worst qualities.

For the sake of narrative ease, the reader may choose the name of a woman they loved once and now find absolutely contemptible in every way. This will give the reader a chance to reevaluate their conceptions about the Real Person as they come to love her again, or at least acknowledge her imperfections as part of a greater, more complete whole. Her name will also create empathy for the character of the man she once loved, because the reader will be in the position of the man she confronts at the end of the story. Do whatever you want. But the name you assign her should be the most loaded name for a woman you can think of, a name that makes your heart quiver with a strong emotions—any strong emotion, really, because emotions that are brought up to their absolute peak resemble other emotions that, on a lower end of the emotional gauge, are the total opposite of the one you feel. Try it. Give this Real Person a name.

So which is it? Who is she? Is her name Miriam, or Jane, or Rachel, or Taylor, or Rue, or Hua, or Prophecy, or Paige, or Ming, or Donna, or Katarina, or Ash, or Jess, or Bette, or Susan, or Mona, or Louise? Have you said the name aloud, to make sure you are not giving this Real Person a name that peels off your tongue like a bitter leaf? Right now the reader probably feels many things for the character with the same name as a woman in their life, among these feelings is a deep respect for the authors craft and manipulation of the readers mind, an admiration for bringing up a painful past in a graceful way. What a gift! The Real Person in this story will bear the name of the woman whom the reader feels little charity towards, a cause to donate their passing affection to when the mind gets bored with something else. Now that she has a name, practice saying her name to yourself until the hard edge of your contempt softens a little.

Close your eyes and remember clearly who she was.

One day she disappears. Your Real Person stops being real to you and she becomes a character. I can’t tell you how it happens. She becomes a character you can point to and describe in one or two dreary sentences what it was like to watch her try on a sweater, or drive you around with sunglasses on, her arm stuck out the window. She becomes a puppet hanging off strings, dressed in signature clothes you will always remember her wearing, but the animation is gone. She hangs on her strings, suspended above your stage in the shadows until you recall a quality about her which is starting, in your memory, to fade. Recall her now, and the puppet springs to life! Her dancing legs carry her across the stage, waving wildly for your attention. All she wants now is a space in the sunshine of your memory, where she can live on in tact, mended at the busted seams and in her party clothes, in the wan spotlight where you will always be sort of thinking about her.

So that this story does not address the authors own case of unrequited love—a story nobody wants to read—let’s switch over to our Real Person and see what she thinks of the whole sappy matter. She wrinkles her nose at the bunch of cilantro glistening under the sprinklers of the market. Light bulbs, she heard once, are different in supermarkets. There are special light bulbs that make red apples look redder, green kale shine in verdant splendor, all thanks to the coating of the light bulb above. She tilts her head to the ceiling, distinguishes glows from the bulbs she thinks differ from each other over the pineapples, the oranges and garlic. She picks off a rotted brown leaf and stuffs the cilantro into a plastic bag. It has been five years since her heart broke, and then the two pieces that used to fit together changed shape and sizes, never to press up against the other flush again. What she feels she has now are two distinct hearts, one that grew and evolved and became more complete, pounding at her chest like a cannonball shot over and over. With this heart, she moved forward, got the blood flowing again, picked herself up and started over. This heart is the heart she uses to love herself, to love others, which took a lot of practice. This is a strong and powerful heart and the love in her life now proves it. This heart is a hard-won heart, and this heart refuses to be broken again. Now, when she carries love around inside her, it must pass a rigorous test of loyalty to be admitted beyond the heart’s iron walls.

But even when she could feel the full force of the love this strong heart produced, the love was never complete. The second, smaller heart, the one she lost in the detritus and mud of an intense love that suddenly ended, beat too. Anyone can learn to live with two hearts. The second heart is not all that helpless, really. The second heart lives in secret messages. It has sprouted roots and grown a coarse skin around it, like a beet in a garden, throbbing underground. With tendrils in the dirt, her second heart soaks up the clues of everyday life and interprets them as secret messages to broadcast to the steely other heart, a plea to soften her, to fall in love recklessly again. Hidden information leads our Real Person around the city, tugging at the leash of her second heart. What our Real Person sees is a beat up paperback, but what her second heart sees is a message from the past. The Real Person is fed up with her second heart sometimes, wishing the heart would begin to see the world as logical and indifferent rather than sentimental. But, any Real Person knows it is necessary for at least part of them to be hopelessly romantic, even if the romance lives inside them alone. It’s one of our riddles.

At home, our Real Person unpacks the paper sack of fruits and vegetables, now somewhat dull under her home lighting, made homogenous by the flat glow of the kitchen bulb. She falls back on the couch and sighs, slips her shoes off her feet so her warm socks cool under the breeze of the slowly turning fan above. She picks a magazine off the windowsill from atop a pile of torn envelopes and leafs through the thin pages. She stops at Contemporary Arts and Culture, intrigued by the image of a huge green snake with yellow eyes staring vacant into the camera. The sculpture is seven feet tall, carved from stone and coiled menacingly around a warped Earth. She reads the caption. It’s you.

Her stomach falls. In the warm sack of fluids in her abdomen, breakfast bubbles and churns. She runs to the bathroom and vomits, the dairy curds fill up the toilet bowl, clenched up in the cold water from the temperature change. She wipes her mouth on her arm, leaving a snail trail of milky slime that pastes her hairs down to the skin. She stumbles back to the magazine and throws it in the trash, then removes it from the trash and throws it in the recycling. She needs fresh air, or to lie down, or both. Outside, in her socks, she sits on the porch in the shade and waits for the trees in her vision to steady themselves against the earthquake in her mind. Her minor heart bloats with secret messages.

You, the artist, are in town for a show. You have come back to torment her, to smear your success across her window of sanity. She wants to extract herself, to squeeze out of the city before it closes in. To hop in a car or plane before you arrive with your art and posse in tow, with your svelte girlfriend from some beautiful Caribbean island. Or maybe from Los Angeles. Nope. She should get out, get on the highway and go stay with her parents ten hours north, sleep until noon in the guest room and take up with dull but moderately handsome boys from her high school who work for Allen-Bradley and play in a ping-pong league on weekends. Here, she should find herself drinking big glasses of red wine and watching the convoy of fishing boats return from the lake, patched with discolored paint from the polluted waters at the edge of a collage campus, where the fishing is bad but the chance to impress girls is good. The Real Person with the name you gave her should find old photographs of her parents, standing beside a bicycle under a palm tree, or leaning out of a Cadillac to pet a Saint Bernard, photographs from before she was born, or maybe shortly after. She imagines this world in the photographs and longs to be dropped from the sky, from the time she is living in, and begin fresh in a time and place where the events in her life did not add up the way they did. It’s a silly idea.

Instead of all this, our Real Person makes a pot of rice and watches a TV show called When We’re Gone about the plants and animals that take over earth when humankind dies out. She sprinkles soy sauce and parmesan cheese on her rice and thinks about the last surviving human, how part of her is kind of jealous.

Night arrives. Our Real Person isn’t dumb. She understands there is love and there is Love. This kind, she thinks, the kind that makes her vomit, is Love. But the thing about Love is this: it changes, mutates like her two hearts, and one day feels the same as Hate. Just like you, reader, must have felt when you gave her a name. When opposite strong emotions converge, they feel pretty similar. Real Person is not interested in starting the process over again, but she imagines a chance to finally close a door and rest her little heart for a much deserved eternal sleep. She lays down in bed, chest pressed against the mattress. Before she curls into her favorite position, she listens to her two hearts beat softly against the mattress. The mattress is a drum. Her heart is a hand that taps the drum.

***

The day comes when she decides to confront you. She tells everyone so she will actually do it. Her therapist says this is a bad idea. Her mother says this is a bad idea. Her girlfriend says “who?” Her big heart says “please don’t” but her little heart, the stupid one, says “hooray!” Her dog looks back at her and thumps his tail. She puts her face in his neck and tells him exactly what she is going to do. He groans and lays down. He is never sure when she is being serious anyway. The day arrives and our Real Person has second thoughts. She paces the room. She drinks too much coffee. She takes a shower and turns the water all the way to cold. By the end of the day, she has prepared what she wants to say. She looks decent, too. It’s not something you would have picked out for her, but you barely know her anymore, so you don’t have a choice. Go ahead and imagine her now in a nice outfit that you would not have chosen.

Here we go, reader. This is your Real Person we’re talking about. She’s about to take a leap off a high peak and land on her feet or on her face. Here we are in the gallery, with the green snake from the magazine magnetically pulling the crowd of people into its pee-yellow eyes. The person Real Person is about to approach is you. Now you must imagine your best outfit, your most attractive friends, your most winning smile, and go stand by a piece of art you are proud of. Be brilliant and modest. Everyone is here for you. Real Person takes the last gulp of wine. She feels like an athlete, ready to sprint the long track, to run ahead at top speed as her peripheral vision blurs out the crowd. Her flyaways have gone rogue again and she rakes them back into place with one hand. They spring right back up.

Bear with me, reader. It’s almost time.

Say her name. Just for practice. Say it with a smile as she approaches you, awkwardly at first, then something in her step changes and she regains confidence, a confidence you saw in her when you first met at that party. You imagine Real Person in the same plaid brown skirt and thrift store white top she was wearing the night you met. How young you both were as the room swirled around you! How dear it was to conceive an origin story there, at some party, when both of you started a whirlwind ride with no clear end. Maybe I’ll tell that story next. Or better yet, I’ll let you tell it. As the sun leaves behind a periwinkle sky, Real Person comes forwards, looks into your eyes, and speaks.

Real Person says something you never thought you would hear, something that fills you with one of the emotions that fits right back into the space she left, in your own heart, your own life, like a puzzle piece.

She said it. You heard her. Don’t ask her to repeat it.

The room moves to give you space. It’s your story now.

What do you say back?

The First Humans

The older I get, the fewer stars I see. It must be the glasses, something in the lenses. Or the frightful thought: something in the eyes. On our backs in the camp, the start of the night sky appeared overhead. All four of us wore some kind of corrective lens. There were seven stars, and then there were eight. I counted as many as forty-five until I decided the number was less than I had seen in skies years before. Astronomers believe space is rapidly expanding, moving away from our galaxy faster every year. The first humans must have seen the night sky glittering with stars so bright, they could not have stared all night. If telescopes could see this and predict the distance of the stars over time, the fault was not in our lenses. It was definitely something in the eyes.

We left home without a lot of things we needed. We had enough food for a week for the weekend. Not one of us remembered the water. It was cold and humid in the morning. There was dew on the oven mitts, reflecting the sun in lime green drops, one bit of light at a time.

If we had Pat, he’d chop us some wood. If we had Courtney, she’d build us a fire.

If we had. If we had.

We drank beer so we wouldn’t think about water. Thoughts of water turned into thoughts of a lake of water, of a fresh spring that flowed into our campsite, as if we could will one into existence.

We wouldn’t make it through the weekend without water.

We turned over a stone with the beginnings of a sculpted leg. Da Vinci was just a torrential rain, we said. Michelangelo was a tornado of sand and wind. Lambs ears sprouted in the creek bed, where flat black spiders darted under warm stones when we were posed to step down. Drowned and dried up weeds looked like tattered clothes in a violent way, as if the dry rocks and trickling stream was complacent in a struggle. But they were only plants caught in a flood. But the only tattered clothes were on our legs.

To emphasize our group potential, each of us had a job at the site. The men strung ropes between trees with loops interspersed to hang wet clothes or—jokingly—ourselves when we got too thirsty. The women, used to their morbidity, rolled their eyes and cleared spider webs off the picnic table with sticks of fragrant cedar. Snowy ash from the fire fell into the guac. At least we remembered the guac. We heard a round of bullets fire into the woods, and somewhere in the park a bird left a space in the sky.

At night, a creature walked through our campsite when we turned off the flashlight. We held still at the edge of the woods in the pitch black. The animal moved slow as if stopping to pick fallen berries off the ground. I held my breath when it grew close enough for me to hear her grunts and grinding teeth. When she was beside me, I still could not see. The tip of a soft ear brushed my arm. Danger, fear of wildlife took over, that existence almost exactly like our own, but feral, indigenous. Life was meeting life in an arena with no rules. I closed my eyes to see the sun. I thought please be tame, please be kind as the ear ran across my arm, then my cheek. For a moment, the only thing in the world anymore was the connection of that fur and my skin, the meeting point between girl and unknown animal in the blinding dark. I felt like the earliest human, like I was meeting the world for the first time, like I could look up and the sky would be all white with stars.

Later, in the tent, I put my face into a moist armpit and felt the emptiness of the open night around us settle, turning, in my dreams, to water.

In the morning we left the site in damp boots and unbrushed hair. Our tents were wet, the floor was quenched, but we were not. At the nearby stream, we built a ship. We called her The Mermaid and released the ship into the drink. A maiden voyage, we shouted. Long live The Mermaid! The Mermaid went over a waterfall and drowned in the river.

What we never realized was this: The Mermaid was only a float prepared by thirsty friends. That the stars are there until they’re not. That fur and skin are the only separations between us and the deeper connective tissue of the world. That this life was our maiden voyage.

The Timepiece

Hanan looked at her watch at eleven o’clock. The timepiece on her wrist felt lighter than it used to, although the old silver was heavy with old fashioned gears and a thick glass face. When she removed it at night, she thought her arm would float up above her head and stay there like a helium balloon. But on her wrist it felt natural, a sheath she had grown into. By some miracle, it still worked. Hanan wound the watch each day until she felt tension from the main spring inside. At eleven o’clock, she tied her hair back, wrapped a burgundy scarf around her head and pulled on a long garment that touched her ankles. She was uncomfortable and hot. Hanan found her shopping bags and left her apartment for the crowded Friday market. Her feet ached in the women’s slippers that blistered her ankles until rivers of hot, clear pus burst from the skin. She longed to go home and change into the plush leather shoes made for men. Hanan wondered why men’s shoes were so comfortable when it was the women who did all the walking, while men sat in cafes, judging what was appropriate for others to wear.

The men in the square used to laugh at her hair until she covered it. They had laughed at her men’s shoes until she switched to the women’s slippers. The men in the square laughed at her watch—her father’s watch—but this, she refused to relinquish. Each time she walked by, the lazy men who sat on the roundabout curb chortled and gaped at the big silver timepiece wrapped around her wrist. A men’s watch! She wears a men’s watch! A woman must wear an appropriate watch, one that is dainty and covered with false diamonds or gold, or one that cracks easily like a woman’s emotions. Her father’s watch was wide, sturdy and discolored in places the silver had started to patina. The tick of the minute hand was loud and authoritative, appropriate for a man who wanted the world to know his time was important. Hanan ignored their comments, preferring to retreat into her personal history with the watch, which, her father said long ago, originally belonged to a powerful woman. Who was she? Hanan never knew.

Hanan was examining potatoes when a fisherman slopped a bucket of sardines beside her. A careless wave jumped the cart of ice and sloshed Hanan with the fishy juices.

“Smeh-li,” the fisherman said and continued the job while Hanan dripped with sardine water.

“Really?” she said to the fisherman, but he pretended not to hear her. Have compassion, she heard her father’s voice in her head, as she often did. You be quiet too, she told the voice. She paid for her potatoes and rushed home to change. Stray cats followed her at a distance, delighted by the odor.

Hanan unclasped her watch and patted the leather band dry with a towel. The smell endured. She set the watch on the windowsill to let it air in the sun. Hanan removed her dress and changed into jeans and a t-shirt, took the scarf off her head and let her curls of dark hair fall back into a natural order. The thought of changing back into cumbersome clothes on this hot day made her weary. Hanan dropped onto the bed with a sigh. A flea landed on her skin and she smacked it down. How did a flea get into her room? She glanced at the windowsill, where an orange cat perched, looking at her. Two pieces of soft leather hung from its jaws as the cat clamped down on the silver face of the watch. With a cry of protest Hanan lunged for the window, but startled the cat, who hopped off the sill and galloped out into the street, watch in its jaws. Panicked, Hanan slipped on the nearest shoes—the men’s shoes—and dashed after the animal. The orange tail slipped through her fingers as the cat made a sharp turn into the streets of the lively medina. Hanan raced after it.

***

When she was a girl, her father would let her wear the watch around the house. Back then it was heavy on her wrist, almost slipping off her on the tightest clasp. Before she could tell time, she stared into the face and watched the thin hands tick around the numbers, sometimes for a full hour, only for the pleasure of the movements. During the Revolution, her father’s work took him to rallies and secret meetings, or into hiding in Madrid or Lyon. When he left town, he would let her keep it, and she would sleep with it under her pillow at night. Each muffled tick of the hand was a reminder of him and his eventual return. As she drifted into sleep, lulled by the reliable stroke of the watch, she imagined her father lying awake at the same time, feeling his wrist for the timepiece. She would have rather lost a front tooth than lost her father’s watch.

When unrest bubbled in the region, each loud tock of the watch became a reminder of the fragility of power, the delicate line that separated life from death. Her father’s work during the Revolution cost him his life. With his death, the wisdom he taught her slipped into a similar fate, a little at a time, until Hanan had a partial graveyard of old values spread out inside her. Hanan now wore a scarf around her hair, traditional slippers on her feet, and covered her eyelids in black shadow. As the years went on, she betrayed her father by blending in, by doubting her own strength in the world. But through her transformation, through all the cultural rules she learned to accept, the watch remained on her wrist.

When watches were still a new invention, men wore them on chains in their pockets and women wore them on their wrists. As a little girl, Hanan laughed when her father said this, pointing at the silver piece wrapped around his wrist.

“You’re wearing a girl’s watch” she said. Her father smiled.

“That’s because it belonged to a fearsome female pirate,” he answered and unbuckled the thick leather strap, soft from time.

Before the industrial era, women pirates controlled the river that ran along the southern border of the town. Hanan’s father told her stories of the ungovernable women who took the river as their own and ruled the waters with violence and compassion. Riches entered the city in the hulls of hulking boats, absconded from Italy, Spain, and the sub-Saharan nomads. Men stockpiled the treasure and transformed overnight from modest workers to living like pharaohs. They bought enormous houses and exciting clothes and wore diamonds and gold on every finger. As long as the pirate women—who had no use for material goods—continued to raid the Mediterranean sea, the city would brim with riches. This was the lifestyle, until the kings of other countries sent boats and men out to recover what was stolen from them. Roundups lasted years and many foolish men died protecting their ill gotten means. Only those who were discreet and resourceful slipped passed the search while everyone else was stripped of their gold. Hanan’s father tapped his watch with one finger and winked at his daughter.

“And they never could find all the treasure. Some pieces are still missing.”

Hanan’s mind filled with tales of the Mediterranean marauders, who inlayed ivory and gold in the city walls. She gazed at the silver watch with amazement. Her own father possessed an item of particular value. Who knew how the watch came to him, or his father, or his father before. Hanan longed for every detail.

Then the Revolution came. The old walls exploded, leaving only a cracked and colorless canvas for the soldiers to vandalize. Propaganda still flaked off in ugly tatters years after the fighting ended. When she closed her eyes, Hanan could still see the images of these stories imprinted in her mind from when she was a child, but when she opened them again the city was nearly in ruins. She wanted to go back, to be a pirate untamed by society, to be a woman who was more fish than human.

***

Silver flashed past a pen of chickens. Hanan leapt over pools of grey water feeding into the gutter. The medina ran through the city like an artery, pumping the lifeblood of commerce to the little roads and alleys that fed the seaside port. As she chased the cat past the half walls of the old quarter, where ancient women crouched in doorways and muttered prayers at passer-bys, she imagined she was in the old city under hanging baskets of silver and gems. Instead, more cats watched the chase from their window perches overhead, like tabby gargoyles, indifferent to the outcome of the hunt.

Suddenly, she couldn’t see the orange cat. She halted in the middle of the medina, the center at which all roads converged. When she stopped, she realized she had left the house in men’s shoes, with her hair down and legs stuffed into jeans. The whispers began, then grew louder until they filled her ears. She caught her breath and spotted the cat under a cart of onions. The cat had the watch on the ground and was licking off the sardine slime that still clung to the face. A-ha! She leapt and once again the cat picked up the timepiece and took off down a narrow side street, one that lead deeper into the residential slums. Hanan ran past closed doors made of heavy wood with great iron rings dominating the façade. Family quarrels thrummed on the other side of barred windows. The cat bounced ahead of her, its thin hips protruding, moving like pistons beneath the skin. Just as she was closing in on the animal again, the cat launched itself up to the top of a wall and disappeared down the other side. Thinking quickly, Hanan continued down the residential path. A few more turns and she was on the trail again, chasing the swift animal through the colored light filtering through the blue tarps that covered the narrow street. They ran between shops under banners of hanging green peppers and pale dead chickens, naked of feathers with beaks locked open. They skidded around corners populated by bags of black and red spices. They ran together between women with only their eyes showing, eyes that cut to Hanan’s modern clothes in disapproval. When she caught up with the cat at one final turn, it was by the river. Hanan was out of breath. Had she really run all the way to the river? The sparkling waters lead to the Mediterranean and out into the old waters once commanded by the pirate women. If the watch was swept into the stream, Hanan would never see it again. It would be fished out by a toothless old man who would pawn it for a net, or it would drown under the waves until the loud tick was silenced forever. The cat dipped to the water and released the watch from its mouth. Hanan dove to the bank to grab the timepiece and plunged her hand into the cold river, but she missed. She watched it sink to the bottom, the watch that survived her girlhood, the Revolution, and her father.

Before it touched down on the silty sand of the riverbed, something happened. The leather band stretched out. The face became an eye that studied her. Amazed, Hanan caught her reflection on the surface of the rippled water, her black hair spread wild around her determined face. Like the pirate women of old drawings, she looked dark and formidable. She just had time to gasp at her reflection before the watch made its complete transformation. As she caught sight of her fathers old timepiece again, the watch joined a school of sardines rushing by, and swam back to where it came from, where Hanan suddenly felt herself rushing towards.

Popular Modern Games

There is the one with the bowling balls. Not bowling. Only the balls and an open field or empty parking lot. Five or six people get together as at team and lob bowling balls at one another. So each team brings a bowling ball to an empty area at the designated meeting time. The Sparrows face off with The Tornadoes or The Unwed Mothers. On a good day, Big Man Boy’s show up and give them all a real work out. Using the finger holes in the bowling balls, each person must throw the ball at the other team in hopes that the opponent won’t catch it. Points are scored by catching the thrown ball, one point for using both hands, two points for using one hand, and ten points are awarded if you can catch the ball by sliding your own three fingers into the holes of the oncoming cannon. Tournament season is very short.

They call it Crazy Ball. The oddest thing is that Crazy Ball involves no balls or bats or oblong bullets that fly through the air. Nobody is really sure how Crazy Ball is played, but it has become a very popular sport among the young adults. Players have been spotted wearing makeshift clothes from leaves and sticks, digging holes in the backyard of friendly neighbors.

Twice a year, the ski team meets on the mountain. Once in December and once in mid-July. They don their poles and skis and line up together on the peak. The pop of a starter gun sends everyone into a frenzy, pushing and pulling each other to the edge of the peak. Hair in fists, jacket sleeves in teeth, they try to send each other down the hill while remaining on the top themselves. A whack to the face with a ski pole earns two points. Crossing the opponents skis before toppling them over is a six point gain. In the end the points don’t matter. Parents are separated from their children, who are light and easy to toss over the edge and watch them flail, skis tumbling over poles over snow pants over hats in a puff of fresh snow, down the steep side of the mountain. At the end of the game, the two remaining skiers on the peak of the mountain are escorted into the cocoa lodge where they undress and have a nice big window out to watch as the other players untangle themselves from the sticks and the snow, retrieve their escaped mittens and gloves.

The object of this game is to not look him in the eye. The old man in the doorway stares out at passerby, but if you make eye contact, you lose. Nobody has lost in recent years, but trust me. You do not want to lose.

If you can outrun the tractor, you get to keep it. All year a team of rag-tag mechanics work on the engine and body of the tractor. A favorite sport in rural townships, Run Away is usually played in an area of great historical significances. Battle fields with grave markers that stick out of the prairie grass or henge formations made of petrified wood are popular sites for Run Away. While one team works on the tractor, another team picks a Runner to train. They complete obstacle courses, weight training, timed sprints, distance jumps—the complete package if they want to survive the excitement of Run Away and win the super-charged tractor that chases them through the field.

For those with athletic minds, there is Competitive Contact Negotiating. Teams are given topics to debate and a chest full of blunt objects. The arena for Competitive Contact Negotiating is flexible, more so than other sports that have risen to popularity among those born unusual (the only exception being Blind Quest, which has a very strict set of rules). A team wins the debate by knocking the other teams unconscious with their rounded objects and then alerting the other players with a shrill banshee screech that simultaneously supports the thesis of their debate. Audience attendance is low this year.

Over the years, these sports grew out of a very human need. Traditional games evolved through wildly physical experiments that lead to the games we know today. And as the Sedentary Age set in like a cramp, we invented these escalated games to remind us of our roots. We play because at the center of our being we are hungry for human contact, determined to win, determined to feel something.

In The Earth

Then there was the gentle but healthy pressure to have a hobby. Hobbies are the most wonderful, Agnes says, stroking winsome nightshade vegetables, distracted. Eggplants the size of your head. Don’t you just love the first sign of tulips? No, in fact. Short bloom, premature wilt. Area bees avoid pollinating a flower that crumbles at the lightest touch, like a reckless girl. I prefer the hardy plants—the carpet of moss, the juicy aloe, encroaching mint on everything. The community garden is divided by my tendrils of invasive herbs.

Overalls are what Agnes wears, like a Communist uniform, as she manages the tomatoes. Rotating sunhats for Maude, whose face is a tight paper bag. I simply go in what I’m wearing, being rebellious. I use my trowel to puncture the earth. I turn and knead until I can add the bag of Soil Enhancer. My soil will be so enhanced.

I pour half the contents in the ground and look inside the bag. Curled grey fur rests half buried, eyes closed. Its tail wound over its legs, pinched up to its body. I lift it out of the bag. The soil around it is warm. In my hand, the baby squirrel shivers, unfamiliar with a gentle touch. I have made a discovery in the dirt, like an archeologist. I hold this abandoned relic to my heart, beating like a child’s footsteps. I sink into the garden, holding the squirrel in my open palm. The potato bugs dig away, fleeing my unearthing.

Amber alert. Sirens. Dawn seen in the woods through the pale beam of a flashlight. The meteor impacts my heart, sending my careful saplings into extinction. A clump of yellow hair blooms from the damp ground. My search has ended.

My tulip. My child.

The squirrel stirs, opens her eyes. I lower her to the garden and brush a muddy patch off her fur. She thanks me by doing the only thing she can do: disappear.

Brother and Spider

I wanted to invade my brother’s life, so I became a spider. My brother lives in another city. He drinks coffee and is gentle towards children. He is shy and intelligent, but he carries around a shame for both and therefore does not embrace either as part of his whole. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, or doesn’t talk about them. My brother has and always had a tender spot for living creatures. Each time we were together, pieces of single facts would gather and add one more quality to his personhood. He kept himself sealed up and collected, the reveal of anything was precious to him and it was rare form to witness his confessions. His coffee cups were deep, his pantry filled with jars of raw grains and meal. He was shy around me but I sometimes dominate, loudly and without apologies in public gatherings. In my new form I could observe without influence my little brother in his most comfortable. I crouched, tucked in a corner near where my brother sat, mug in hand and spine of book flat on the table. I was his sister. I was a spider.

Surrounded by the aroma of warm coffee with faint hints of berries, I relaxed in my new form and set out to build a web. There was no reason behind this decision, no explicit thought before I began to weave. I was not like my discerning brother who scrutinized every sip before it touched his lips. Choices did not spring on him. They were made. What kind of coffee was that? A dark and meaty Sumatra? A light Mexican bean? I hopped off my web to check. My brother was drinking espresso. Espresso! I thought. This had changed since we last met and he ordered a coffee with room for cream, which endeared me to him, as I drink mine black. He tasted his espresso by turning his full attention on the mug and criticizing each note of the bean, the roast, the fruit. He set the mug down without disturbing the thin orange foam at the top, which I would have sucked right off first sip. His glasses reflected the light from the window beside him and hid his eyes, which I remembered were sky blue when we were children. Beautiful blue, the old ladies pinched and cooed. What a handsome boy, they said, while my eyes became steadily greener like my fathers. True blue, baby blue, blue as the sky. My brother’s eyes were all the blues of innocence and beauty and his pupils like plush black clouds against the bright sky. I could rely on this blue, lean on it like a cane when we were together. My brother had the only blue eyes in the family. His lineage, his color, was singular. It anchored me to him and to our younger days. If it ever changed I would float free in the new color of his eyes without the surface of our shared history to land. Dependable blue eyes!

But I could see now they were not the same blue. They had waxed colder and paler, like water in the far north. My brother’s eyes were polar regions, glittering with boreal sun and blowing a frigid wind across the surface. They were two caps of grey ice that never warmed to reveal the marine beneath. I expected to see arctic life hunting, their coats turning white in the winter, dried blood on paws muddied to a cracked skein. Were the reliable eyes just underneath? Had his history—and therefore mine—become unhinged?

My brother was replaced twice before he was even born. Our mother was pregnant between my brother and I, but she did not carry to full term. She has mentioned this to me casually, like when she makes breakfast when I visit, her black and white TV sizzling on the counter. She said they almost adopted once, after me, but my father was too snagged by paperwork to follow through. I have felt this in my brother—a formless melancholy beat around him like a pumping heart, as if he felt responsible for the early failures of our parents. He might not even know these things if our mother considers me her only confidant. My brother and I don’t visit family at the same times, except every few years during crowded holidays, when information seeps like a tar we try to cover up. In our childhood, I was the reader. “You’re the reader,” my mother cheered. “You’re just like your mother,” my father barked. I was reading something they noticed, while my brother was not. From my hole in the brick of the café, I could see him reading a book I hadn’t read, and I did feel a slight embarrassment in not having read it before him. Older siblings never abandon this. My brother read his book, then closed it and leaned back in his chair. I spied from my web. He looked over the rail from the second tier of the café, which was situated in the larger market, and watched the flow of commerce below. The gradient of shops went like this: café, Italian deli, wine kiosk, cheese counter, hard sausage deli, and seafood at the end beside an open door and a rotating fan. I was startled when the other chair groaned under the weight of a man who had taken the seat. My brother greeted him and he sounded like our father, if we had known our father in his twenties. The growl of his deepening voice disturbed the surface of my web and broke an anchor. I drifted down on my sinking web and started to build a second. As I spun, I eavesdropped. Their chat was about things I was familiar with, and I came out of my corner just a little to listen to them speak. In low male voices they spoke of cooked meals, short essays, and the best way to combine gelato. They spoke of women and girls and the difference they saw between them. Mention me. Mention me, I begged. Talk about your sister. But he didn’t mention me. Was he not proud? Could he not see I had become a spider for him, because I loved him? I wanted to join them and tell them always combine cinnamon with tomato, always salty with sweet, and that some differences would get bigger and others smaller as they grew, aged and matured. I wanted to offer my experience. Of course, as a spider I could do none of this. A spider does not speak. She only listens.

My brother and his friend left and I was afraid he wouldn’t come back for his book that was still on the table. As a spider I could not follow him, book in arm, and rescue him from error. It pained me a great deal to let go of this desire. He did come back though, placed a second mug of espresso beside him and read again. He doesn’t only drink espresso, I thought, he has formed this habit of drinking at least two espressos in an afternoon! He doesn’t accept praise for his reading, or brag about his library like I do. He reads quietly and alone, but does not hide it from his friends. He reads books I haven’t read and hums to songs I’ve never heard. When he rolled up his sleeves, from my web I could see a tattoo I never knew about, faded in black line like it was inked years ago. How did I miss this? How did I miss my brother?

Was my memory already failing, or had my brother changed while I was away? I didn’t want him to keep changing, to keep growing up into this new person with whom I would need to trudge through the murk of conversation with just to find some trait I had once overlooked. My brother could not be the man he had turned into overnight. He could only be my imagining of him, drinking pale coffee and reading some novel I was quite familiar with, introducing topics among friends and relating to his family. He couldn’t be this person out of reach before me. He couldn’t still be my little brother.

But he was. He was something else, greater and more resolved. I could not grasp his new qualities and habits, or where he developed his reading taste. But I could still be a sister to him. I could draw him close enough to feel the mixture of difference between us, swirling around like two-temperature air boxing in the sky. I could be his sister, which gave our relationship meaning and weight. I could show him what I know and what I loved and he could show me more of his, and we could learn to understand each other. We could talk about our parents, what went right and wrong and what it looks like on the other side of pain, on the other side of art and love. I came out of my crouched place in my corner and threw up my arms to him. I opened my mouth to say I am proud, you are special, important and kind. You are my brother and always will be. Go forth and be loved. I stood on many legs and grinned at him, arms above my head and web half complete behind me. Surely one thing has not changed. Surely he still would never harm a living thing, even a spider. Even his sister. He grinned at me and I had bliss. I opened my arms wider and my mouth wider with joy and the last thing I saw was my brother holding his hand up to me, saying hello, and then, as it came down, goodbye.

For Calvin

Whales

To say that Joey was passionate about whales would be a flawed statement. Having no prior interest in the creatures and possessing only those facts learned in short, trivial ocean units in science class, it seems strange that one morning he would suddenly have complete access to their ethereal songs drifting through the warm waters of the open ocean. When Joey woke that September morning and heard the whales calling out in his head, booming through the macrocosmic Atlantic sea, he couldn’t speak. This is normal. The channels that opened to the whales put on hold his own verbal pursuits, as if the human mind were unable to behold such different languages at once. The whales faded in, building up operatically while Joey lay perplexed in his bed. He spread out his arms and welcomed the sounds as distractions from his daily life, his parents, and his education. Cases such as this most frequently occur in children and it is believed that no species in particular is more recurrent than another. The typical course of an open auditory channel with an animal or group of animals varies from case to case, the only real consistency is the resultant, individual human silence. Joey could not have known he would become connected to the whales, or on the very same day another pathway opened between a young girl in India and family of silverfish. That story did not end well.

For Joey, life was still relatively normal. He was often satisfied to have completed another day as a young boy while listening to the stunning, drawn out conversations of the whales sounding out through his head. In silence, he continued to eat with his parents, oblivious to their worried glances at one another. He smiled at the bus driver on his way to school, where he could be left largely unbothered—his silence unnoticed in the loud, overcrowded classroom. It was different than having a persistent ringing in ones ears. Whales come from further off, and yet Joey felt them extremely close. Unlike a ring, or a buzz, these were large bells or distant horns. They may as well be coming from the body itself. If Joey had access to the oft-dismissed medical reports on his condition, he would have related to the description of their connection being like an underground network of tunnels, an acoustic labyrinth where sound would not be still.

After first searching for the source of the sound with no success, Joey began trying to understand what the whales were saying. He spent time distinguishing the old from the young, the males from the females, the lonely from the vibrant. Whales are slow. They are cold to the touch. Their giant heart beats only several times a minute and the passages within those muscles are large enough to swim through. Unlike the volatile three-hearted octopus, whales are very sincere. Sometimes their honesty is awkward and unproductive, which leads many to believe they are stupid. It takes a single whale a very long time to say something—hours even—because whales are in no rush. They still have plenty to talk about. Weather conditions, water quality, parenting techniques, and regular digestion seem to be favorites, although for one entire day Joey listened to the desperate pleading from a young male to mate with a certain female—an enlightening lesson on the cruelties of wild maturity.

His silence persisted. His parents waited anxiously for their son to speak and tried not to pressure him. They tried to be progressive and agreed that this was part of his developing personality. If he wanted to remain silent, then damn their need to hear his bright young voice before he was ready. Still, they would sneak into his room at night to investigate the cause of his quietude. His mother always checked his breathing first, then checked for drugs. Half empty cans of aerosol or suspicious pharmaceuticals would alternately horrify yet relieve her, but there was nothing. His father checked the bookshelf first, never sure if he was looking for backwards propaganda or sensible Buddhist literature, and checked his sons breathing last. Both parents found nothing, not even a word written down on paper nor an article misplaced from his boyish routine could clue them into his silence. They called the school, questioning a series of teachers who all said he was turning in his homework completed on time, and never disturbed the class. One science teacher confessed that Joey had eyes a particular girl, but appeared too shy to confront her.

****

To finish “Whales”, find it on Axolotl, Pear Drop, and See Spot Run.

What Holds Us Together

Most of us already knew about the kiss. Friends told friends in confidence, all while keeping the secret away from the friend who would be most affected by it. We wanted to see what happened first, so we all pretended to forget about the kiss Mariah planted on that Olympic equestrian. She and Dan sent their kids to camp to work on their marriage. Hell, we all sent the kids to camp that summer, some of them to the same camp. A great pain, we discussed at the Yentz’s party one evening, to want everything for your child and to lack the skills or knowledge necessary to provide. In our childhoods, we learned in school and we learned at the library and then we learned on the street. The things we wanted were mostly within reach. When we wanted something better for ourselves, our parents said “tough,” or, “get to work then, Matthew.” I became something I had to work for, while our friends were groomed for their careers by private schools and Ivy Leagues. Camp was for sleeping outside near a fire, or at it’s most luxurious, sleeping in a musty spider-filled cabin with nine other kids. We know today how dangerous spiders are. How corruptible counselors can be. How nobody ever puts out the fire before they fall asleep. We became weak and fragile vessels that held our children inside us, because if the world came at them with knives out, we had to take it for them. We sent our kids to camps with dorms, stocked pantries, and positive reviews. Our wives warned them not to let anyone touch their privates.

With everyone’s kids off building character, getting feasted on by mosquitoes and giving each other bad haircuts, we decided we were all overdue for a good, long, drunk together. The Yentz’s home had a mountain view. Big picture windows framed by rustic wooden beams allowed us a splendid view of the waves of green, patched with skinny firs the sun painted gold and blue, and let the warm sheets of light fill the room as we sipped our cocktails and thought privately about what our kids were doing.

The Yentz’s sent their daughters to regatta camp.

My wife started with white wine, then switched to red if the party lasted after dark. She leaned against the emerald granite island in the open kitchen and held her glass like a freshly plucked tulip. Her awkward elegance was charming, one of the reasons people liked her so much, and in her dark jeans and blue tank-top under and open white shirt she radiated this rare harmony. I tuned out of my conversation with Lauren for a second and watched my wife from across the room.

“Hey, Matty, are you still thinking about golf this season?” Lauren Yentz leaned forward onto the back of the couch in a way that made his biceps throb. If one were to look only at his hairy forearms, one might think he was in the middle of climbing the flat face of a rocky range with no safety gear. Instead, his hands clutched a hilariously small cup of orange juice. If kids ever made fun of Lauren for having a girls name, they sure wouldn’t today.

“Golf,” I turned away from staring at my wife. “I’m not a member.” Lauren disturbed a pillow at the end of the couch with one large hand. I couldn’t help but think the word minotaur.

“I can get you in.” He left the pillow alone and turned, leaning his back against the couch. “We pay our rates and then some.”

“Tempting,” I said and did a half-hearted push-up against the back of the couch. I almost spilled my gin on the plush seat. “I’ll run that by Gill.”

Lauren nodded and threw the orange juice back down his throat. I expected him to crush the empty glass in his meaty hand. He nodded toward Mariah and Shelly talking in low voices against the east wall, lit by the far reaching light of the picture window on the opposite side.

“You know they’re talking about it,” he said. I lifted my drink and peered over at the women, close friends in our circle for as long as we all knew each other. Dan was demonstrating his free-throw techniques to a cluster of men in the driveway. It felt weird to watch him dash around outside while we talked about the equestrian. “Do you think he neighs?”

“I don’t think it’s worth talking about,” I admitted.

“Terry says it happened again, in a more…illicit setting.”

“What? A stable?” I asked, suddenly picturing Mariah in a skirt cut up to her thigh, ducking into a barn with the handsome Olympic trainer.

“She wouldn’t go into detail.” Lauren excused himself to the kitchen for a refill and I looked for the women again by the wall. They had disappeared. Gill came over and we clinked our glasses together.

“Here’s to a childless summer,” she sighed and sipped her white wine. “Do you think they’ll make friends?”

“If they don’t, we’ll have to send them back,” I said. Gill cracked up. We finished our drinks.

On my way to the water closet I passed a dark shadow in a dim room. At the toilet, I held my breath to save myself from the heavily perfumed air. I thought the shadow in the room seemed odd and out of place. I passed the room again and leaned in to inspect the shadow. It was still there, backlit by the big window, reading a thick book. It glared at me.

“Hi,” I said. “Sorry. Didn’t think anyone was in here.”

The young man did nothing. His black pants were frayed at the cuffs and he sat like the dignified owner of a dilapidated manor, the whole house awash in his shadow.

“Part of the Yentz clan?” I asked.

He shifted his weight and uncrossed his legs. “Sometimes,” he began. “They pass me around.” He sucked in one cheek like he was biting it and stared at me, feathering the pages in his book with his fingers. His eyes never left mine. I tried to be polite, but my vision darted around the room instead. The walls were bare except for a few tacked up items, unsettled and unsure of themselves. “Aunt Terry says somebody’s having an affair,” the nephew noted, as casual as if we were discussing baseball. “I heard her spill it this morning,” he smirked. “Those idiots think I don’t listen.” A draft came through an unseen open window and fluttered the images on the wall.

“Right. Well, nice to meet you,” I pulled back and turned to leave.

“Who are they?” he called.

I hurried back to the party. Gill handed me a drink.

“Did you know the Yentz’s have a nephew? And he’s here? He asked about Dan and Mariah.”

Gill swirled her white wine around, uninterested in my discovery.

“Sure, why not?” she said and waved at a friend across the room. There was something about the nephew that seemed improper, socially unkempt like it could be brushed out with the attendance of a few good parties. I wondered why he wasn’t away at camp, or why the Yentz’s kept his presence a secret tonight, or how a trivial crumb of gossip could lodge in his mind like a cud.

We continued to drink. The party had grown to it’s fully mature size. Gill stood with Terry at the picture window, watching the colors from the sunset change to darker hues. The men were moving between the basketball game in the driveway to the kitchen sink to gulp down more water. Once, I looked down the hall toward the bathroom, hoping to see the young nephew stick his head out of the room, his mussed black hair a clod of shadows against the pastel walls. Everything in the house matched, with lurid knick-knacks tucked into corners like goblins in the shadows. I searched for Mariah, suddenly sympathetic to her position—in a room full of friends, most of them clued in to her extramarital escapade if only by a fine tuned ear—yet unable to discuss it openly. I realized I hadn’t seen her since I saw her with Shelley, and that some of her other close friends were also missing from the party. In the dim light, the shapes of the men—the doctors and the golfers and the swimmers—dominated the area with their big chests and voices. It was a group I inherited with my marriage to Gill. She had the money, however small it might appear to some of our wealthier friends. We had what we had.

The men all came in from the driveway and fanned themselves with the wine enthusiast magazines scattered around the common area, cooling the sweat on their necks. Dan was beaming at everyone and no one, like a flashlight that had fallen to the ground. His sleeves were rolled up over his forearms and he looked less pudgy than when I last saw him, although he was never exactly fat. I sipped my gin on the couch with some guys who were locked in a conversation about ski resorts. I missed my son and daughter, who would be either just coming home on their bikes from a friends house, or sitting on the front porch together watching the fireflies, talking about things my wife and I could not access. I searched for Gill, but she had disappeared.

A shadow passed by the picture window, darker than the early night outside, and I recognized the nephew. My glass slipped from my hands. Gin-covered ice cubes and a few drinks’ worth of lime rinds spilled to the floor and slid under the couch. The men looked up at the noise and someone brought me a towel.

“Oh shit. It just fell out,” I said to Dan, who helped me scoop up the mess.

“Don’t worry, Matt. It’s just a drink.” We knelt on the floor and retrieved wayward ice cubes from underneath the couch. Dan carried the mess to the sink and rinsed his hands. I followed with the soaked towel. All the men were suddenly gathered in the kitchen, staring at the nephew and staring at Dan. The sanguine chatter of women was missing.

I approached the sink as the nephew said, “that’s just what I heard.” Dan’s head was hung between his shoulders and he gazed deep into his amber drink. I watched the liquid for ripples, not wanting to look at his eyes. His muscular body looked suddenly deformed in this awkward moment. He was just a pinched face on a mass of misshapen meat. The blur of gin drifted through my brain like a sail across briny water and I wondered how long it would take us to talk about this moment in the future. Finally, Dan sighed and threw back his drink with one gulp. He set the tumbler on the island and poured another, three fingers full. The nephew leaned against the sink, sober as a nun.

“I knew,” Dan said at last and we all silently released our breaths. “She told me it was over. We’re seeing somebody.” Half the drink disappeared down Dan’s throat and he shrugged, now feeling drunk enough to open up about it. “Have you seen the guy? I know she has a thing for horses, but this guy really loves horses.” The rest of the drink disappeared. “He has one tattooed on his forearm.” Several of us chuckled uncomfortably, picturing the Olympic trainer on his mighty steed, a horse’s flat face peering out from his sleeve with big, dead eyes.

“It’s probably in a wreath,” someone offered.

“Or rimmed with cursive letters!”

I laughed a little too hard and choked on some spit. We came back to life. Dan laughed earnestly, restored to his inflated form, his wrinkles smoothed over.

I needed Gill. It was dark outside the picture windows and the mountains turned ink black in the distance. I wondered if people were walking around outside, looking up into the lavish home, seeing a group of grown men bent around each other, leaning into or away from the moment of intimacy that dropped in the room. Gill wasn’t there. A tune drifted from below our feet and I found the staircase to the finished basement. I felt like a diver on my way down, about to enter the mysterious caverns of the ocean where beautiful fish gather after an evening spent in coral reefs, somewhere they could disappear. Halfway down the stairs the catcalls began. They snapped their fingers at me, knowing I was helpless to their taunts.

Blue moon, now I’m no longer alone without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own.

But the words were sung through smiles, through whoops and laughs. My wife snapped and swayed. She closed her eyes and leaned into it. Her voice dipped and rose and wavered out of tune, but her spirit was invested. The women lounged on the fat couches, reclined on the plush carpet, or twirled each other around in pairs. Mariah swirled past me and brushed a wine-scented finger beneath my chin. Those who knew the song sang together, and those who didn’t kept a steady beat.

I was dumb with joy.

Gill danced with one hand on her hip and the other spinning gently through the air. The women cheered and began again, pulling each other to their feet and dancing all around. I set my drink down, wrapped one arm around Gill’s waist, and grabbed her hand with the other. As I sent us spinning in a circle, navigating the drinks on the floor, she opened her eyes. The women cheered. Her red wine lips half parted.