ISSUE #80 GUEST EDITOR Emily Lyon was previously featured as Storychord's Issue 36 writer. She is a writer, printer/printmaker, and flight attendant, currently living in Connecticut. She is working on finishing a memoir about a transcontinental relationship spanning from the Second Intifada to September 11, as well as a book about hummus, of which approximately 30% of her body is composed of. You can buy her letterpress-printed zines and papergoods in her Etsy shop.
SIMPLE HUMAN THINGS
by Stephanie Gruessner
When you return from your upstate New York college town, you discover that your parents have bought a timeshare and now spend weekends out in some picturesque little town with a bookstore passed down five generations, the guardian always an older man who insists on wearing high-waisted pants and an old-timey straw fedora. Your parents have taken to collecting shells at a local beach.
“You’ll take care of the house?” they ask. “You must have time.”
Issue #80 soundtrack: The Motion Detectors "Simple Human Things"
After eight years of education and a Ph.D. in philosophy, a redundancy only you find hilarious, you have returned to your childhood home to find that your parents have been seeing another, quainter home. They call you to confide about their finds and the rarity of a certain conch in these areas. You want to be happy for them, their early retirement, their blissful second life, but it depresses you. They were both in the insurance business for so many years, and in your absence, they have found another life that involves shells and small cottages and antiquing. These are not your parents.
The moment you graduate from college with a Ph.D., all the couples you have ever known move in together, buy puppies and kittens, and get engaged. They cruise the streets in smart, eco-friendly vehicles and look for houses and plan weddings with themes like “Sunset Beach” and “Alpine Elegance” and you love them to death as you eat peanut butter and jelly at your parents’ kitchen counter, your own sense of accomplishment a few letters tacked on some piece of paper and an admirable debt. On summer nights, you open the windows and stare out and wonder, Are they also pressing the answering machine button, even though there are no new messages?
In the mail, you receive one letter. In between walking the Labrador retriever, attending meetings, and planting trees in disadvantaged parks, a friend has found the time to get engaged. You are invited to the wedding. You are not sure how you feel about this or whether you will have the emotion to attend. Lately, you are forgetting what it is like to be human. Someone has replaced your body with a poor working contraption. It comes upon you when you are wound up in the phone cord, fumbling in your pockets for the sympathy you used to think you had. Who is this new cruel person who listens to the exploits of kittens and puppies like a broker making transactions on the stock market? Your friends are concerned. Somehow, you have forgotten what it is like to be around other people. Your psychiatrist says it comes from a lifetime of observing people and never interacting, but you also suggest it has something to do with spending inordinate amounts of time with dead philosophers in an academic environment.
When the wedding invitation arrives and grants you a plus one, you invite the only boy you like, Sam, though you hardly know him, but feel a certain sympathy that resembles knowing each other. You have never been able to guess his hair color. In some lights it is blonde or red or brown, and after a while you stopped guessing and sometimes you think that you keep him because he goes so well with everything you wear. He lives by the ocean, because everyone you ever knew picked up their belongings and moved down to the ocean and started referring to it as “real estate.” You tolerate this because he makes you laugh and feel like the wittiest person in the world. You imagine performing comic routines with him, like a sidekick, and it disturbs you that at twenty-seven and having completed a Ph.D. this is your top criterion for a relationship. It is not a relationship. It is transient baggage, just a suitcase passing by in its travels.
You arrive at his house by the sea, and he welcomes you in, and you haven’t seen him in months so he seems new. He is the sort of person you have to meet new every time. He hugs you and something jumps inside your lungs and he says, “Your skin is so cold, Sadie. It’s August.” He beckons to the stairs and tells you, “Here is the bathroom, make yourself at home.” You carry your dress over your arm like a waiter, careful not to wrinkle it with each step. Inside the bathroom, you drape the dress over the towel bar on the back of the door and step out of your shorts and tee shirt.
You are becoming half-human, the way you stand so close to the mirror when you zip up your dress, anticipating the train tracks the zipper will leave in your flesh. The dress encases you in chiffon, some flowy fabric with bright flowers, new sewn-on skin. You drag the mascara through your eyelashes, blink. Blink again. Then you slide on the tall shoes, the heels like delicate railroad spikes, legs shaking from the newfound pressure on the knees. You are going to a wedding and the boy is outside the bathroom door waiting for you to emerge unrecognizable, or still recognizable, just better, brighter, a brand new model, shiny as a toaster.
He shouts through the bathroom door as you zip the dress.
“You look gorgeous,” he shouts.
“You can’t see me,” you say.
“I was guessing,” he says.
“I’m wearing a gorilla suit.”
“That’s going to clash with my tie, isn’t it?”
The two of you zoom off to the wedding site, which is close. It is a castle. No. It is a long, curved, two story building made entirely of stone with long, punched out windows facing the Atlantic Ocean. There are other guests done up in satin dresses and full suits, though they are sweating already through their neat white button-down shirts. The two of you stand at the back of the crowd on the lawn. You can feel his exhaled breath on the back of your neck. You know he is standing close. Because you cannot decide whether to move forward or backward, you stand in place. Inhale. Exhale.
All the other couples who are only engaged or less, like you, look on at the bride and groom and one of the readers starts listing off all the things that love is. Patient. Kind. Trusting. Hopeful. It’s a lot of things. The women lean their heads toward their men and the men all hold their women tighter. You’ve seen all sorts of people in relationships. There are ones who are placid in their love who go around saying, “We’re so blessed” with beatific smiles on their faces, and you wonder, what is wrong with their faces? These people seem to have lost something. Others seem to gain something. They need to touch each other, a stroke to the hair, a hand on the thigh, like some sort of compulsive affection disorder. They kiss in obvious places like the bank or the post office. No one is sure why. These are not romantic places. The closest you’ve ever come to romance is licking an envelope shut, and even that felt unrequited.
He orders white wine from the bartender. The bar is a table on an outdoor roof deck, covered in gravel and decorative plants. The bottles are arranged like an orchestra.
“Would you like something?” he asks.
You come back inside to the bride and groom dancing with each other to some slow, melancholy love song. You are increasingly aware that there are so few platonic songs on the radio. The DJ opens the floor and people pair up and sway.
“Do you want to dance?” you ask.
He orders a wine for you. Then a beer. He sets the drink down at your table. You trace patterns in the condensation of your water glass. A woman wearing black and white pinches dinner rolls onto people’s plates.
“So you’re a doctor, huh?” he says. “What does that even mean?”
“It means that given two paper clips and some gauze I can perform open heart surgery,” you say.
“That sounds incredibly unsafe.”
“You’re telling me.” You push the dinner roll around your plate rim with a fork. The bride and groom have left guest favors at all the places – cheese spreaders with the words “Spread the Love” etched on the handle.
“But really, what does it mean?”
“It means I spent far too long being educated.”
The dinner roll woman returns to the table and lowers your dinner before you, presenting it like a theatre performance.
“I can see that,” he says. “You’ve ordered the vegetarian meal. Are you vegetarian?”
“Oh, this? No, I just don’t know how to eat lobster,” you say.
“Now what kind of education is that? Let me show you how it’s done. You’ve got these tools and you snap the claw off right here, it’s kind of a struggle, but you’re trying to get to the meat inside.” He grips the lobster on his plate and pulls back one of the claws. He holds the claw before you, some sort of crustacean trophy, and you recoil a bit.
“You’re maiming it!”
“It’s dead. It’s lobster. The point is to mangle it as best you can.”
“I don’t like that.”
“It’s the circle of life. Just think of the vegetables that died for your meal.” He nods at the bright kaleidoscopic colors of the vegetables on your plate. You laugh at his joke and eat only the pasta.
Once, when you first met him and stood toes touching the edge of the sidewalk, he put his hand on your forearm and held it there. You thought it was such a tender gesture, how gentle, how forward of him, but looking back, you wonder if maybe all he was doing was preventing you from walking into traffic.
The best man forgets to make a toast, and now, after the dinner dishes have been cleared by that same diligent woman, he scrambles to the microphone to say a few words. It is not an impressive speech, because he can never seem to find the right words. He sees them imprinted on his mind with such eloquence, but the tongue slathers the words and they stumble out in a heap. Eventually, he picks up an empty glass and begins banging it with a knife and soon the whole room is tapping out the silverware and it sounds like rain pounding the roof and the bride and the groom kiss and then the whole world rises in standing ovation.
But, of course, it is not like that. Not always.
You had only known him a week that time he kissed you, which was years ago. You remember it being cold outside, your hands raw with cold. He leaned in and shocked your lips and you panicked and pulled away and said, “I’m a good girl, I am,” which is what Audrey Hepburn says in My Fair Lady, and which is, you discover, not an appropriate reaction in any context.
“I know,” he said, but he looked at you, imploring, and with the kind of vacancy that grows and pushes you out of consciousness. The next day you applied for a post-graduate degree in philosophy in some forsaken city in the tundra of upstate New York.
Standing beside him, you want to touch his hair, like a compulsion, because it looks soft and you’ve never touched anyone’s hair before. Not really. Or, perhaps what you really want is to just look at his hands or anyone else’s hands for that matter. It startles you how similar they look to your own. You could be one of these people. You watch as the dancers run their hands on their faces. They hold their hips with hands and hands to shoulders as if they were creating architecture with their bodies, and their feet follow and they move and sway and move and sway and you watch. You can see that for some this is effortless, this is ingrained, and this is the moment your friend looks over at you and says, “Don’t all girls know how to dance? I thought that was something all girls knew.”
Then you dance. Only, you don’t dance. The walls are lined with abandoned shoes and bags. Men unbutton their shirts, loosen ties. Women kick off shoes. During the slow dance, he catches hold of you and pulls you onto the dance floor. The last man who asked you to dance at a wedding dragged you to the floor as you protested.
“I’ve never danced,” you said. “I skipped out on every dance that wasn’t mandatory. I never went to prom. I’m physically incapable of this sort of movement.”
“C’mon. It’s fun. Give it a try.”
Every motion was a calculation.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Don’t you like The Temptations?”
It was “My Girl,” playing like that.
You didn’t even know his name.
Now, his feet push yours into the middle, beside the DJ’s table, and he guides your hands into place as you stand and make eye contact with his clavicle. There go the feet, sliding and flopping like dying fish to keep up with this slow clockwork motion. He lets the hand drop from yours and settles both hands on the small of your back. Even though he is perhaps drunk, it still counts. It means he chose you. You are not thinking about the girls he has practiced with before. The dance steps are new to you, and when he moves his hands lower you allow it, though it jars and terrifies you. There is never anything to do with the eyes, his face is nonexistent, just this whirling body closer than you had imagined. You shut your eyes.
“I’ll be right back,” you say, “I’ll just be outside” and peel away from the dance floor to the roof deck. Your heart stutters in your chest. You had empathy once. You gave the boys flowers in third grade, but it was third grade and you know now they had no idea what to do with flowers, but it does not justify discarding them on the concrete with their broken stems all akimbo, their petals scattered and bent and hurt.
At the door, the music breaks and out here, out in the throat of the night, all you can hear is the ocean tumbling and pulling back on itself. It fills your vision and dissolves into the sky, a panoramic dark ink reflecting slivers of the moon. Somewhere, down on the beach, there is a stranger with a flashlight that bobs and steadies, searching. You have abandoned your plus one. You rest your arms on the metal railing.
He does not join you immediately. He waits a little, and when he does locate you on the far end of the deck by the brick chimney flue, he leans his back against the rail beside you.
“I was halfway through the dance and I realized I was just slow dancing with myself,” he says.
“I hate when that happens,” you say, and never make eye contact. You are speaking with the evergreens.
“So what are you doing out here?” he asks.
So you tell him you are imagining the future in which you’ll be surrounded by twenty-nine cats all of which are named “Kitty.”
“I feel it,” you say, “I sense it inside me.”
“You’re being melodramatic,” he says.
You have a right to be melodramatic, of course. It is merely the judgment one gets without retrospection.
In your peripheral vision, he bends toward you and asks, “Do you want to get out of here?”
Then you turn to him and his face looks earnest, so you nod, and he guides you out past crowds of taffeta-wrapped dancers, down the staircase, the light pressure of his palm on your back, as if you were about to step into traffic.
The two of you drive to a sports bar at midnight, the walls adorned with alcohol signs and license plates and the tables and chairs lined with balloons from some abandoned birthday party. There’s a cake lying naked on the table, untouched, with the knife beside it, and all the chairs and tables are vacant as if somehow the partiers disappeared or that they never arrived in the first place. On one side of the bar, there’s a lone DJ positioned at a table, playing music that’s been played before, hits from the eighties, and the people on the floor flail to the beat.
“Don’t ever let me become that man,” you say, pointing to the white-haired man who smiles open-mouthed, arms linked with the two women next to him. They are middle-aged, one wearing a long denim skirt and the other a much shorter skirt. When they dance, their long hair lifts and waves.
“They’re probably third grade teachers,” he suggests, which means these people could be anybody, anybody on a Saturday night, drinking until they can sing karaoke, their broad faces sweating and smiling to the music. On the opposite side, the billiards are occupied by disinterested college students, boyfriends and girlfriends crammed onto stools in the corner or looking on as a couple plays a lackluster game of pool, the betting pile of quarters stacked to the side.
“They want you to think they’re great so you challenge them to a game,” he says. “But they’re not doing well at all. He’s better than her, but they both aren’t really playing for money. If they win, they just split the quarters between them, because they’re together.”
He holds his plastic cup of beer with both hands, the foam clinging to the rim.
“I only play with hundred dollar bills,” you say.
“Today it looks like I only have a twenty, though.”
You push aside the purple and white balloons and collapse onto a chair. Television crime show repeats flash on all the televisions, soundless.
He leans forward and studies the cake, then takes the knife and begins carving a slice.
“What are you doing?” you ask. “That’s not your cake.”
“Nobody is eating it. It’s past midnight. Trust me, it won’t be missed.”
He divvies a slice onto a napkin. “Here, this one’s for you,” he says and slides it over.
“I’m eating someone else’s birthday.” You stare at the slice, the purple icing border smudging onto the napkin.
“No one’s going to want to eat a piece that’s been touched.” He dips his finger in the frosting and licks his finger. “Eat up.”
“Oh, thanks.” You cradle the cake in the napkin. He does the same and takes a bite.
“Pretty good wedding cake, right?”
“I’m sorry,” you say. “I’m sorry I didn’t dance that much. I should have danced more.”
“That’s okay,” he says.
“I just get nervous.”
“I noticed that,” he says. “Do I make you nervous?”
“No,” you say.
“I only asked because you’re shaking.”
You glance down at your fingers, betrayers, these silly digits that operate independent of your will. “Well, maybe a little, a bit, microscopically,” you say.
“I think you should stay,” he says.
“I’m fairly sure the bar closes in a few hours,” you say.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know that’s not what you meant.” The pool table couple steps away to the bar. The boy leads her by the hand and she totters after him in four inch heels. “So let’s say I stay. Let’s stay I stay right here and we just live here at this bar and we never leave and we never miss each other and we never have to be anywhere else.”
“You want to haunt this place?”
“No.” You want to haunt him. Well, no, not haunt him, you suppose, but you want to be around him, because when you are around him it is not your life. It is another life. It is the life you never got to have before, and it’s stunning and it terrifies you. They don’t teach that. Eight years of higher education, they don’t teach you how to be around people.
“Then we should play pool,” he says, standing.
“I’ve never played pool before,” you say.
“There are a lot of things you’ve never done before, aren’t there? It’s not that hard. I’ll show you.” He takes your hand, your cold, shaking fingers and guides you to the pool table.
“Are you going to do that thing where you help me aim the pool stick?” you ask.
“Would you like me to do that thing where I help you aim?”
“Yes,” you say.
So he stands behind you and puts his arms on your arms and sights down the table to the unbroken triangle in the center. He is so close you can feel the contours of his face pressed against yours. Sound gets muffled, the DJ’s ballads plunged underwater, and so when he pulls away to let you break the rack, it is as if the music has surged just for you.
You hear the loud laughter of the people surrounding the bar, the electronic chaos of the video arcade, the incessant beat of those dancing, and a conga line of people supporting a woman outside the bar. As she passes, she shouts, “Make way!” Here, there are two alternatives. Half the people laugh loudly and lean onto each other. The other half feels the passing of the night, yawns, grows weary of this place and its small, tender group of citizens.
And you think, these people in the bar, they could be you, you could just as easily end up here, existing within this collective imagination at a place so bereft, so abandoned of reason that for one moment, yes, you could be exactly that girl you’d imagined yourself to be all those years ago when you looked into the future, and anyone watching the two of you, squinting down the green felt of the pool table, would see two people learning how to shoot pool, how to get the angles right, how to do simple human things.
Stephanie Gruessner holds an MFA in fiction writing from Southern Connecticut State University. She lives in Hartford, Connecticut and at any given time can be found in the nearest library.
John Bent is an artist, illustrator and designer. You can see samples of his illustration work at bentillustration.com and johncharlesbent.tumblr.com.
The Motion Detectors is one of several projects by Ian Schlein, a Connecticut-based musician who also records under the names Musical Chairs and the Aspersions. A compilation of Musical Chairs' singles, rarities and unreleased recordings is available for download or purchase on iTunes or via Jigsaw.