Dressing for the Afterlife (A Short Story)

“I’m not cut out for kids, Mother,” Tracy said. “I’m not nurturing.”

“You don’t know that. Besides, children change you. They make you nurturing. And I would like to see at least one grandchild before I die.”

Her mother was 57 and being melodramatic, which is how Tracy justified her next comment.

“Mother,” she sighed into the phone, letting derision coat her voice before continuing, “if only grandchildren will give your life meaning, maybe you should reassess whether your life is worth continuing.”

Tracy’s phone beeped three times in her ear as her mother ended the call.

 

Five days passed and they did not talk.

Sunshine led Tracy to the botanical gardens after work.

Her phone rang near the dahlias and she answered it.

Her brother’s voice: “It’s mom.”

She drove fast and parked in the multi-level garage. She followed the red line on the linoleum floor.

 

In the ICU, Tracy’s father and brother stood together on one side of her mother’s bed, a doctor in a white coat stood on the other. Between them, on the bed, lay the tiny figure of Tracy’s mother. A tube in her mouth, taped in place, her eyelids closed, her arms wilted leaves at her sides, her palms turned up toward the ceiling. The hiss and click of the oxygen machine kept time with the forced rise and fall of her chest under the white sheet.

The doctor started over when Tracy walked in and stopped at the foot of her mother’s bed.

“Brain aneurism,” he said, looking at Tracy and letting the words sink in. Did she know what that meant?

It meant that somewhere in her mother’s brain, a blood vessel had burst and her skull was filling with blood, the pressure flattening her brain.

“She said she had a headache,” Tracy’s father said. “I made her take a nap.”

“That was probably the moment,” the young doctor said. He turned to Tracy again. “If she had come in right then, we might have been able to release the pressure on the brain in time. As it is…”

“I made her take a nap,” Tracy’s father said. “She slept for two hours. I checked on her, but it was two hours.”

 

The doctor left them alone. Giving them privacy to make their decisions, he said.

“What are they doing for her?” Tracy asked when the doctor was gone. She stepped forward and stood across the bed from her father and brother. She picked up her mother’s hand. It was hot as a stove burner, but it flopped like an empty glove.

“There’s nothing they can do,” her father said. “This,” he said with a gesture toward the tubes and the machines behind the bed, “is life support.”

“Can I talk to her?”

“They say she’s gone already.” David turned away from the bed.

“We have to decide,” Tracy’s father said. “Do we keep her on this? If she’s gone? If she did survive she wouldn’t be her.”

“She’s not her now,” David said. “She’s gone already.”

Tracy dropped her mother’s hand and crossed her arms over her chest. She looked at her mother’s slack face as she spoke to her father. I’m not cut out for this.”

“Nobody is, Trace,” David said. “But we have to. Dad wants to know what you want to do.”

“I want to talk to her.”

“She’s already gone, Trace.”

“You decide.” Tracy looked at her father.

“She’s already gone,” her father said.

 

Back at her parents’ house–the house Tracy and David grew up in–they sat in the living room as it went dark outside.

Tracy’s father and David sat together on the couch. Tracy sat in an office chair rolled into the corner. They looked at the carpet. Tracy thought about getting up to turn on the lamp. They sat with only the light from the street and lost sight of each other’s faces.

 

The next day, Tracy’s father drove them to the funeral home. Maybe he had cried all night, but he was in control now. He parked the car. “Let me do all the talking,” he said. Just like when they were kids.

“You don’t have to do everything, Dad.” Tracy put a hand on her father’s arm. “That’s why David and I are here.”

“Let me do all the talking,” he got out of the car and walked inside and Tracy followed behind David.

The man in the silk tie spoke just above a whisper and pointed them toward coffin options.

“We’re cremating,” Tracy’s father said.

“Of course, I should have asked. Urns then.”

Her father liked the urn with the cherry blossoms (“white petals on a wet black bough,” Tracy remembered that but she didn’t know where from) even though her mother would prefer the one with the seabirds in flight.

“I think mom would prefer the birds,” Tracy said.

The quiet man was pushing papers for Tracy’s father to sign. He stopped.

“She’d want the flowers,” Tracy’s father said. He reached for the papers and signed, one last time buying his wife the wrong gift.

“I am sorry for your loss,” the silk tie whispered, gathering the papers in front of him. “It was sudden, was it?”

“Aneurism,” Tracy’s father said. “She said she had a headache. I told her to take a nap. I checked on her, but it was two hours.”

David drove when they left the funeral home.

 

For two days Tracy’s mother lay in a viewing room so friends could visit the body. Tracy didn’t go in. She’d already seen her mother dead in the ICU. It was too hard to think about looking at her now, remembering their last conversation. Anyway, she was already gone. Whatever lay in that room was just an abandoned shell, a molted skin.

Tracy’s father put in hours beside the body like it was his new job. 9 to 5 in a suit and tie, hands clasped in front of his groin as he yielded the room to each new visitor and stood beside Tracy in the hall. When the visitors left, he went back in. This way, Tracy’s mother was never alone.

“Why won’t you come in?” he said near the end of the second day.

“I don’t want to see her like that, Dad.”

“She’d see you if the roles were reversed.”

“I know it. But I can’t. Anyway, it’s not really her.”

“Of course it’s her.”

“It’s just a shell. She’s already gone.”

“That’s callous, Tracy. Hard. You’re not hard.”

“I think I am. I’m trying to be.”

“Don’t.”

“I said some things, Dad. Last time I talked to her. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“She felt bad too. Hanging up on you.”

“You knew about that?”

“You know there are no secrets between parents. We talked about everything. Right up to that headache she got. I got impatient with her. I didn’t want to hear about the headache if she wasn’t going to do anything about it. I told her to stop complaining and just go take a nap. ‘A damn nap,’ is what I said.”

“Oh, Dad.” Tracy stepped forward and put her arms around her father and pressed her cheek against his chest. He rubbed her back.

“Even if it’s not all her, it’s what we’re left with and after today you won’t see it again. Come in.”

Tracy nodded against her father’s chest. When he turned to go in the room, she went with him.

 

Tracy’s mother lay in a lidless casket on a table surrounded by flowers and candles.

“Jesus Christ, Dad. Who dressed her?” Tracy covered her face with her hands. Her mother wore a long red taffeta gown with a heavily ruffled bodice, a deep tear-drop neckline exposing her bosom, a gold linked-chain belt rounded her waist. She wore flesh colored pumps with five inch heels. Tracy almost laughed but she began to cry. “She looks like Aphrodite or a bad hooker. Dad?”

“I don’t know how to dress her! I picked what I thought was nice. I always liked that dress. She used to wear it when we went out before you kids.”

“That’s thirty years ago! People have been seeing her this way?”

“What does it matter? People didn’t come to look at her clothes.”

“Dad. Mom’s a classy lady. She looks like a joke. This can’t be how people remember her. She would hate it.”

“I always liked that dress,” her father said.

 

Tracy drove fast and made it to her parents’ house and back in under an hour. She came into the viewing room with the clothes folded over her arm. Her father was standing beside the body, his hands clasped in front of him.

“Daddy,” Tracy said. “I know you love her. She loves you. But she would want me to do this for her.”

Her father nodded and backed away from the body. Tracy handed him the arm full of clothes. He lifted them to his face and smelled them.

Tracy pulled a pair of sewing scissors from her purse. She stepped to the bottom of her mother’s evening gown and began to cut up the middle of the dress, along the valley between her legs. The scissors moved quickly through the thin fabric, over her waist, between her breasts and done. Tracy put the scissors aside and peeled the collapsed fabric aside, exposing the naked flesh of the body beneath. It smelled like chemical cleanser, but it looked like her mother. And it looked like Tracy. There was the same uneven hip bone, jutting out farther on one side than the other. There on her mother’s stomach was the same triangle of moles Tracy could now feel like burn marks on her own stomach. The body was stiff, the skin without temperature, like rubber, but she recognized it.

“Help me roll her, Dad. This way first. We’ll put the blouse on one side at a time. We can slide the skirt up pretty easily I think, if you lift her legs.”

Tracy’s father stepped forward and gave the clothes back to Tracy. She unfolded the blouse and threw it over her own shoulder. She took her mother’s shoulder in her hands; her father grabbed a hip. Together they rolled Tracy’s mother toward them, onto her side and Tracy draped the blouse over her mother and eased one frozen arm through the sleeve. They laid her flat. Tracy directed her father to lift her mother’s shoulders and she pulled the blouse under her mother’s back and eased the other arm through.  There were tears in Tracy’s eyes now, but she could see what she was about.

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The Reinvention Chronicles #1: Put Up or Shut Up

Rude Awakening

Guy_LombardoI woke up one day when I was 42 and realized I was 44.

I can’t explain it, but I swear to you it’s true: I had lost track of my age and truly thought I was 42 until, compelled by some small voice in my head telling me to “just double check that, buddy,” I scratched the math onto a napkin once, twice and a third time. Each time this, minus that, borrow a one, came out the same: 44. Thus began a high-speed existential crisis: Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, Acceptance, all in one day. Truth be told, I’m still working on the acceptance piece. I have reconciled myself to the fact I can’t do anything about the age I am now and I recognize that to be here, still aging, is better than the alternative.

But I haven’t reached all my goals yet and it’s later than I thought.

When I got out of graduate school in 1995, I thought I would become an author. I’d have a novel published by the time I was 30. But, instead, I acted on an opportunity to start a business with two friends and told myself that if the business succeeded I could become an author later and do it without having to rely on my writing to support my family. It was a good opportunity, it was a good move, it was a good experience. We succeeded. But when I became 44 that day when I was 42, I realized I’d forgotten to work on the other piece of the plan. To be clear: I hadn’t forgotten the plan, I had forgotten to WORK on the plan.

Until now. I’ve published a short story on Amazon. You can download it for FREE through Monday, September 29th. Free, that’s the right price for an unproven author, right?winnebago_cover

We sold our business last year. For other reasons, not related to any of this. But when people ask me if I had any reservations about selling the business and walking away from a success, I can honestly say No.

I find life gets stale if I don’t reinvent myself from time to time.

It was time to work on another goal. The original goal.

The Meter Keeps Running

I was 44. Now I’m 45.

  1. Dammit!
  2. No. It’s simply impossible.
  3. There’s no point in trying now; it’s too late.
  4. Look, God or whoever: let me succeed as an author and I’ll be a better person, I promise.
  5. I’m 45. So be it.

I still have my identity as a successful entrepreneur  with nearly 20 years of experience, and some days I think I should leverage that into comfort and security. Get fat and happy. But I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t pursue the original goal, the desire that is at the core of who I am. I’m working on my new identity. This is my new adventure.

Some of you may be saying you’ve heard this from me before. It’s true I’ve written about being a writer before. But that was about writing. This is about authoring. Publishing. I can write. I have written. Now I will publish. That’s the adventure.

Acting on the vision. Doing one thing every day to move forward. That’s the adventure.

Spoiler Alert

Here’s how the adventure ends: I succeed.

Here’s what makes it an adventure: I don’t yet know how I succeed. But I’m not going to wait to act until I know. I’m going to make it up as I go along.

Stay tuned…

In the meantime, did I mention you could download my Kindle Short for Free?

Thanks to Kelsye Nelson for inspiring this post with her post: “How Do You Become a Writer?”.  

 

Butterscotch

butterscotch candiesCruising the city one night in high school my friends and I stopped in at Pizza Hut. Against the wall, sitting alone, was a redheaded girl about my age. We made eye contact and I was drawn to her in the same way you may be drawn to stare at old photographs of relatives you never knew. You see something there, something familiar, though you can’t quite place it.

I went over to her and suddenly I knew her. Cheryl. My neighbor until I was eight years old. I played in her sandbox. We played Toss-Across and Operation in her living room. We rode the school bus together until I moved out of the school district. Kids were always mean to her when we were little because she was fat. Maybe they were still mean since she was still a big girl. Maybe that’s why she was alone.

We said a few things to each other. Hey, how you doing? Wow, can’t believe it’s you. What grade you in now? Nothing deeper than that, and then my friends were ready to leave. We drove around all night looking for connection but I spent the rest of the night thinking about Cheryl. I remembered her crying a lot. I remembered her dad. I remembered him being a real asshole. I remembered how he would chase Cheryl around in the street in front of our house with a wooden spoon in his hand. When he caught her he would yank down her shorts and beat her big bare behind with the spoon in front of all the kids who were watching and laughing. Usually he beat her just because she hadn’t come home on time, or because she hadn’t completed some chore or had completed it but had done it wrong. There was no winning with him. Kids were mean to her. Her dad was mean to her. She was surrounded by meanness. That’s what I remembered about her.

When we moved away I struggled with the very real sense that I was abandoning Cheryl. Our last night in our house, when everything was packed into the moving truck and our sleeping bags were spread on the bedroom carpets, after dark, I snuck out and over to Cheryl’s house. I crept through the bushes to her bedroom window and on the windowsill I placed three Brach’s butterscotch candies in their golden cellophane wrappers. I was eight; it was all I knew to do. I hoped Cheryl would find them in the morning and somehow know that they came from me and somehow know that I was protecting her, that I was thinking of her even though I was gone.

I did think about her. But not for long. I grew up and I forgot her.

Bodies In Motion — The Final Chapter

Shadow in Lamplight

Photo by msheridan6

Owen did text and call Amy two more times. He wanted to hear directly from her what Debbie Arble-whatever had claimed was the truth. That she had given up on him. That she wanted something from a man that she did not find in him. But she didn’t answer. And a week after Debbie had come to him in the library Owen walked across campus to Amy Wheatman’s dorm on a Saturday night hoping he might see her and talk to her. In the darkness he walked the pathways through the fallen leaves.

At Amy’s dorm room, Owen knocked. No one answered. He knocked again as a girl came out of the room next door. “She’s not there,” the girl said.

“Do you know where she is?” Owen asked.

“Upstairs. There’s a party in Scott’s room. Want me to show you?”

“Yeah,” Owen said.

The girl led the way and Owen followed her to the stairway and up one flight and into the hallway. The lights had been dimmed, music thumped and people spilled out of a room halfway down the hall.

“She’s somewhere in here,” the girl said to Owen and then she ducked into the room and was absorbed by the swirling bodies there.

The noise of music drowned all voices and Owen scanned the room and the hallway. Then he found her.

Amy stood at the end of the hall, her back against the wall looking into the face of a boy who stood in front of her and pinned her shoulders against the wall with his hands. He was leaning toward her, the weight of his body holding her in place. The boy and Amy were talking at the same time, both of their mouths moving angrily. A few of the hallway stragglers were noticing the argument and edging closer as if drawn by the tension between the two.

And then the boy’s hand left Amy’s right shoulder and, in a flash, he slapped her across the face. Amy’s hands flew up and covered her eye against a second strike. But the hallway crowd had seen the boy hit her too and in a wave they broke upon him with a scream and pulled him away from Amy and lifted him and pinned him against the wall and a large hand from the crowd held him around the throat choking him. Others in the crowd pulled at the hand around the boy’s throat until they bent the fingers free and the boy ran from them, down the hallway to the stairwell and out.

Silhouette in lamp light

Photo by msheridan6

A moment passed. Girls in the hallway crowd ministered to Amy, touching her bruised face with their fingers. Owen took a step toward her, and then another and then he was running toward Amy. He pushed into the crowd of girls. He would get to Amy. He would hold her, heal her. But Amy shook free of the girls, she pushed their hands aside and in that moment her eyes met Owen’s and she shook her head. No. She jogged away from him, down the hallway, following the boy.

Owen left after that. He walked out into the night and drifted toward the center of campus; the main square and the fountain. Soft yellow light spilled from lamp posts around the square and a few shadows and silhouettes moved across the bricks. Near one lamp — half in the light, half in darkness — stood a boy and a girl. The boy’s arms hung limp at his sides and he bent his head and rested his forehead on the girl’s shoulder. The girl wrapped her arms around the boy’s shoulders and one hand stroked his hair. Owen could not see their faces. But he did not have to. He knew that the boy was Scott. And he knew the girl. She was Amy Wheatman.

Bodies In Motion — Chapter 4

The next afternoon Owen walked into the student fitness center wearing shorts and a t-shirt and carrying a racquetball racquet. Amy had called him that morning and asked him to play racquetball with her. He had borrowed a racquet and now here he was. He looked around the lobby of the center and spotted Amy watching the swimmers through the glass that looked into the pool. She wore a blue cotton tank top and black spandex shorts. Owen pored his eyes over the soft lines of her body as he walked toward her.  As he neared, Amy turned and smiled and then she laughed.

“Cute legs,” she said.

“Yeah, well. Yours too.” Amy held her own racquetball racquet and a can of new balls.

“Have you ever played racquetball before?” Amy asked.

“Once or twice,” Owen said. “But my dad used to play, so I get the gist of the game.”

“Your dad used to play? I don’t think that’s going to help you today.” Amy smiled and gave Owen a playful shove as they walked down the hallway to the racquetball courts. Owen swayed away from her with the shove and then let his body fall back against her small hand and bumped his shoulder into hers. “Scott and I used to play a lot,” Amy said.

Owen heard the echo of racquetballs slamming against the walls of the courts and the squeaking of sneakers on the polished floors. Bodies thundered inside the tiny pen-like enclosures and the air was filled with the smell of sweat and rubber.

“So are you good?” Owen asked. He and Amy had reached their court and he opened the low door, waited for Amy to duck through, then followed her in and closed the door behind them.

“I’m not bad,” Amy said. “Why? Are you nervous?”

“No, just want to know what I’ve gotten myself into.”

“Shouldn’t you have asked that before? Maybe when I invited you? Why did you say yes?” She opened the can of balls and pulled one out and put the can in the corner of the court.

“It sounded like fun. And you said how much you liked it. So — I don’t really care if you’re good at this. It’s just fun to play, right?”

“Absolutely not,” Amy grinned. “I want to win. Don’t you?”

“Just serve,” Owen said.

Amy stepped to the service line and rocketed the ball off the wall with a deft flick of her wrist. It caromed back toward Owen, sailed over his head and bounced against the back wall of the court and then bounced forward past him and rolled and stopped against the front wall.

“That’s a point,” Amy said. She walked up to the front of the court and picked up the ball and returned to the service line. “That racquet you’re holding,” she said, “it’s to hit the ball.”

She turned and served again.

This time Owen jumped at the ball as it sailed toward him and he got his racket on it. But the ball skidded along the side wall before hitting the front of the court.

“Gotta hit the front wall first. Another point for me,” Amy said.

Her wrist flicked and the ball was sailing at Owen again. He smacked at it. Good contact this time, but off target. The ball shot forward at waist height and spanked Amy in the right butt cheek. She squealed and then turned grinning at him.

“Are you flirting with me?” She said.

“I’m sorry,” Owen said. His face felt hot. The ball had rolled to him. He picked it up and held it out to Amy.

Instead of taking the ball from his hand she danced up to him, rubbing at the spot on her bottom where the ball had hit her. She pouted. “I think I’m going to have a bruise, Owen. I’ll tell everyone Owen bruised my pretty bottom.”

Owen’s face burned now. “Oh, God,” he said. “You’re too much. I’m sorry.”

“My sweet ass.”

“OK. OK. I said I was sorry.”

“You are blushing. Beautiful! Am I embarrassing you?”

“Just serve,” Owen said.

“It hurts a little. Can you check it for me?” Amy pushed her hip to the right and pulled out the waistband of her shorts.

“Serve,” Owen said.

“You are embarrassed.” Amy’s dark eyes flashed and her eyebrows jumped as she sized him up. Then she shook her head and smiled and turned and served again. Owen’s return sailed into the ceiling.

They played for an hour. As Owen settled down he managed to score enough points to make the match interesting. But it wasn’t close. They played three games and Amy Wheatman won them all.

“Good game,” Owen said as they stepped through the door of the court and back into the hallway. He held up a hand for a high five.

Amy slapped her hand into his and then in a single movement she grasped his hand in her fingers and pulled his arm down and around the back of her waist. She pressed her body against him. Owen felt her heart beating in her stomach as it pushed against his.

Amy brought her face close to Owen’s. “You got beat by a girl, Owen,” she whispered.

Owen leaned his body away from her and looked into her face. “That’s OK,” he said. “I had fun.”

“You got beat by a girl,” Amy repeated.

“Yes, I did. You’re good.”

Amy relaxed her grip on Owen’s hand and she directed his arm from around her waist. They stood facing each other now, just their fingers loosely locked together. Owen’s hand was sweating and he let go of Amy’s fingers and wiped his palm dry on his shirt. Then he wanted to reach out and hold Amy’s hand again, but she had started walking so he fell in beside her.

Amy turned and walked backwards in front of him. “Will you tell people you got beat by a girl?” She said as they walked.

“Yes, of course,” Owen said. “Or, you know, if it comes up. I don’t know why anyone would want to know. Why wouldn’t I?

“I just thought it might bother you,” Amy said.

“It doesn’t.”

“Not even a little?”

“I don’t care if I win or lose,” Owen said. “I had a good time. That’s really all I care about.”

Amy spun on her heel and walked beside Owen to the lobby. They agreed to meet at the library later. When Owen said good-bye, Amy Wheatman did not respond.

At six o’clock Owen was in the library. He found a table and spread his books to save a seat for Amy. At seven o’clock he was still alone and he texted Amy but she did not reply. At eight o’clock he checked his phone again, but there was nothing from her. At nine o’clock he was still alone. At ten o’clock the library closed and Owen went back to his dorm room. He texted Amy one more time. “Did I miss you?” he wrote. “Where were you sitting? I was in the main room.” His phone stayed silent.

The next morning he tried her again. Texted her and called, left a voicemail. He said he’d be at the library again that evening. Six o’clock, main reading room, she should come. He got the same table as the night before, spread his books and waited. He read. He grew tired and put his head down on his books to rest. He dozed until a chair moved and something rocked the table. He lifted his head and looked up into a grinning face. It was Debbie.

Owen had never seen Debbie smile before. He looked at Debbie’s teeth. They were baby teeth, tiny in dominant gums. He sat up straight and looked around for Amy Wheatman, but he didn’t see her.

“Where’s Amy?” he said.

“Not coming,” Debbie grinned.

“What do you mean?”

“Not coming.”

“Why?”

“You’re a dope.”

“Where’s Amy?”

“Not coming. How do you not get that? Not. Coming.”

“No, I get that. Debbie. But why? Not coming why?”

“Because you’re a dope and I was right about you.” Debbie said. Her smile was gone and her lip curled as she spoke to Owen. Her tiny teeth glinted.

“Is she in the library? You’re here?” Owen said.

“She sent me. She’s not coming. Don’t call her anymore.”

“Wait? What? What is going on?”

“I was right and Amy finally sees it and says don’t call her. I said I would tell you.”

“Why not? You were right about what?”

Debbie’s face pulled back into a smile again, her heavy cheeks tugging open her plump lips. She was enjoying this, and this was the moment she’d been waiting for most of all.

“A man who doesn’t want to win is not worth your time.”

Debbie stood up and smoothed her coat around her globe-like body. Her arms were short and her fingers barely reached the equator. She gave Owen a last look full of triumph and then moved out. She sidled between the tables in the reading room and then disappeared between the bookshelves and was gone.

…next, the final chapter…

Bodies In Motion — Chapter 3

Debbie herded Amy off to the library and Owen returned to his own dorm. When he walked into his room the curtains were drawn across the window and the room was dark. The air was thick and humid and it smelled of breath and sweat and the recent secret movement of bodies. Owen switched on his desk lamp and in the dim light he could see two pairs of feet entwined in the jumbled blankets of his roommate’s bed. In the bed lay Owen’s roommate and a girl. She was not the roommate’s girlfriend. Owen could see the girl’s naked back, and her long bare legs. The blankets bunched loosely across her butt, giving her at least that small privacy. The roommate and the girl were dead asleep.

Owen pulled his books out of his backpack and held them high above his empty desk and then let them go. They hit the desk top like a rifle shot. The feet in the bed flinched and then the roommate and the girl writhed and groaned and stretched themselves awake.

“Roomie,” the roommate said to Owen.

“I’m home,” Owen said.

“I see that,” the roommate said. He looked at the girl; she was lying comfortably next to him, putting her fingers through his unkempt hair. The roommate slid his hands under the covers and groped her and she giggled and he rolled on top of her. Owen turned away from the roommate’s naked backside. The girl whispered something to the roommate who rolled to his feet and pulled on his jeans.

“Yeah, we should go somewhere. I’m starved. Here’s your clothes,” the roommate said and tossed a wad of clothes to the girl in his bed.

Owen sat at his desk looking into an opened physics text book and he waited for the roommate and the girl to finish dressing.

“We’re going to eat or something,” the roommate said. “You never saw me.” He and the girl brushed past his desk and out the door. Owen heard the girl laugh as the door shut behind them and then the muffled sound of their voices receding down the hallway and then nothing. He got up from his desk and opened the window. Fresh cool air flooded in and cleaned the air inside the room.

Owen was at his desk reading later that evening when he heard a knock on his door. He got up and opened the door. In the hallway stood his roommate’s girlfriend Kim. She was a short, dark-haired girl with a round face and eyes like a tortured kitten. She wore a long t-shirt that covered her almost to her knees, but her legs were bare and on her feet she wore a pair of pink fuzzy slippers.

“Is he here?” She asked. She wrung her hands nervously in front of her.

“I haven’t seen him,” Owen said.

Kim stood in the hallway and looked down at her pink slippers. She looked down the hall for a moment as though she was expecting the roommate to appear at that instant. Then she looked past Owen into the empty room.

“Can I sleep here again?” she asked.

Owen backed out of the doorway so she could come in. “If you want,” he said. “Come on in. I’m just reading.”

“OK, thanks, Owen,” Kim said. “I’ll be real quiet.” Kim scuffed her slippered feet past him and went to the roommate’s bed. She pulled back the rumpled covers, kicked off her slippers and climbed in and pulled the blankets over her body. She curled into a fetal ball and lay quietly facing the wall. Owen went back to his desk and began reading again. It had been half an hour when there was another knock at the door. This time when Owen looked into the hallway he found The Bishop standing before him with a violin in his hand.

The Bishop was Dan Bishop. He lived down the hall from Owen and he was known on the floor to be full of advice for everyone on every topic. All of the advice was bad advice. The Bishop had no experience with anything he weighed in on, but that never stopped him. He was especially forthcoming with advice on women and people humored him, but no one took him seriously since all of his supposed girlfriends went to other universities or lived, unverifiably, in Canada.

“I gotta come in,” he said and he didn’t wait for Owen to agree. He simply stepped forward and turned his wiry frame and slipped past Owen. He crossed the room and sat down on the windowsill, his back against the glass. “You have to listen to this for me,” he said and he lifted the violin to his chin and began playing. He wasn’t bad, but it was late and the squeal of the strings shredded the delicate quiet.

Owen waved his hands at The Bishop and Kim sat up in the roommate’s bed.

The Bishop stopped his bow and looked apologetically at Kim. “Hey, Kim. Sorry. I didn’t know you were here. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“I wasn’t sleeping,” Kim said. “Just waiting for him.”

“Yeah. I haven’t seen him,” The Bishop said. “Owen, I just wanted to talk to you. I might have met someone.”

“You’ve been to Canada today?”  Said Owen.

Kim laughed out loud and The Bishop raised a middle finger at both of them.

“I’ve been to the student union, asshole. She was in the coffee shop and I actually went up and talked to her. She’s a music major and I told her I played the violin. She was interested. I’m going to write her something. A song.”

“On the violin?” Owen said.

“Why not on the violin? I’m good. You’ve heard me play.”

“Yes. I didn’t say you were bad. I just don’t know how many great seductions have started with a violin.”

“I think it’s sweet,” Kim said from the bed.

“There you go,” said The Bishop. “Thank you, Kim. You are very wise.”

“She’s a girl,” Owen said.

“Meaning what?” Kim said.

“Meaning just – If something sounds romantic you guys love it no matter how corny the idea is. If he walked up to you and started playing the violin, I guarantee you wouldn’t go home with him,” Owen said.

“If I liked the violin, I might,” Kim said. “I would appreciate that he did something for me. That he knew what I liked and did it for me.”

“You’re very encouraging, Kim,” said The Bishop hopping down from the window sill. “I’m going to work on this. I’m going to do this.” The Bishop opened the door. “Thanks again, Kim. Fuck you very much, Owen.”

When the door closed, Owen looked back at Kim. She sat in the center of the bed, swaddled in the soiled sheets.

“You can’t encourage him,” Owen said to her. “He’s going to make a fool of himself.”

“What’s wrong with romantic?” Kim said. “You should appreciate that. Of all people.”

“What does that mean?” Owen asked.

“Oh, come on, Owen,” Kim said. “You’re just like him.”

“What does that even mean?”

“It means you guys would both rather fall in love than get laid.” Kim lay down in the bed again and rolled again to face the wall. “Believe me,” she said from the shadows, her voice muffled by the pillow, “it’s a good thing.”

…chapter 4

Bodies In Motion — Chapter 2

campus leavesThey did see each other, Owen and Amy. Walking to classes; in the coffee shop; the library; resting at the fountain at the middle of campus. In the sudden moments when Owen would pick Amy out of the crowd, his heart would leap in excitement and he wondered each time if Amy was as excited to see him or if he was just some annoying presence that she could not get free of. But Amy Wheatman always smiled and always came to him and so he began to believe that she was pleased to see him.

Debbie, too, was always a presence just off to the side or just behind Amy, watching. Owen accepted Debbie – the way one accepts a blemish on the face of a loved one — though he never spoke to her because she never spoke to him.  But even with the dour cloud of Debbie always on their horizon, Owen and Amy spun closer and closer to one another and two weeks after they’d met at the party Owen was in Amy’s dorm room.

They sat at opposite ends of Amy’s short couch, facing each other, each with one leg bent in front of them on the cushions, their knees brushing together. The quiet of the dorm hung over them with a weight and Owen felt that they were the only two people within miles of that spot. Owen looked across the length of the couch into Amy’s eyes. They were, Owen thought, the cause of the great quiet that surrounded them: two black holes into which the universe collapsed. Amy Wheatman pulled at him with those eyes, looking out at him from underneath her eyebrows; she nipped her lower lip between her teeth. He felt the gravity of her and he knew that if he let go of the couch he would float into her and that was everything he wanted and yet he did not know how to let go even as he was pulled by the force of her.

Owen had been in a situation like this only once before. Then he was in high school in a dark bedroom with a drunk girl who had kissed him and taken off her pants and spread her legs to let him touch her. But when he had, the hot and lake-wet crater of her that met his fingers terrified him. He had left the drunk girl in the bedroom and gotten away. Now, here with Amy Wheatman, he felt he might be close to another chance at a turning point, but as powerful as was the allure of her, as rigidly as his body strained to reach to her and into her, he found the fear that if he moved to her he would not know how to move in the landscape of that new world, or worse that if he moved to her he would find that there had been no invitation after all and he had simply and horribly misread the signs, was stronger and so he sat paralyzed and they whirled in that magnetic storm for maybe minutes or maybe centuries until Amy Wheatman smiled and said slowly, “I want you to read to me.”

“Read to you?”

“I want you to read to me. I like your voice. You sound like someone on the radio. I’ve wondered what it would be like to hear you reading to me.”

“What would I read?” Owen asked.

Amy pulled a textbook from a stack on the bookshelf beside the couch and handed it to Owen. Owen looked at the cover and saw the title Male Sexuality: An Explanation Through Exploration.

“You want me to read this?” Owen said.

“I do,” said Amy. “Will you?”

“This?”

“Why not that? It’s what I want. To hear.”

Owen opened the book to the introduction. And because he wanted to be where Amy was and wanted her to want him there, he began to read.

“’At first glance the sexual male seems easy to understand, but beneath the surface lie complexities that disrupt lives and relationships. Why can men be so distant in bed? Why do thoughts of sex play such a powerful role in a man’s identity? Why do men equate sex and conquest and what are the consequences in the lives of women? Can a man dominate and still love a woman? Respected psychologist Steven Traner’ – OK, that’s enough of that.” Owen closed the book and tossed it onto the rug where it skidded to the center of the room.

“I have now read to you,” Owen said. He looked again into Amy Wheatman’s face to see if she was satisfied. She nodded and then she rose from her end of the couch and slid to the middle and sat against Owen’s thigh. Owen could smell her – the warm, soft flowers of her skin.

“Do you know what my last boyfriend said to me?”

“What?” Owen asked.

“He said that sex was the only thing he liked about me.”

“Oh,” said Owen. He did not like thinking of her with another because it confused him about what his opportunity might be. “And where is he now?”

“He’s gone. But he’s around.”

Owen nodded. His mind was racing. He strained inside his body to reach for her, or to bend his face to hers. But despite her closeness, he was not certain she wanted him to do that. If he put his arms around her now, what would the outcome be? Is this the moment when he should act? He could not move.

“Do you want to know what I liked about him?”

“If you want to tell me.”

“I liked a lot of things. For a while.” Amy placed her hand on Owen’s open thigh as she spoke. “And I liked sex. Did you want to know that?”

“I don’t know what I wanted to know.”

“You can tell me what you’ve liked too, you know. With girls.”

“OK,” Owen said. But he knew there wasn’t much to tell.

Amy Wheatman looked at him through a long silence. Finally she spoke again. “He comes around because he wants me back,” she said. “Scott. My boyfriend. Ex.”

Another long silence settled over them. This time it was Owen who broke it. “Did he read to you?” he asked.

“No. He never did that,” Amy said with a smile.

“Give me a book, then,” said Owen. “Another one. No textbooks.”

Amy turned and pulled a small book from her stack on the shelf. She handed it to Owen and settled in against him again.

Frankenstein?”

“Read it,” Amy said.

Owen opened the book to the first chapter and had just finished the first sentence when Amy’s door opened and a voice croaked Amy’s name. It was Debbie.

Debbie’s circumference filled the doorway and despite Debbie’s dark intrusiveness, Owen felt suddenly relieved.

“Library,” Debbie said.

Chapter 3…