“After Philip Marries Mildred” by Behlor Santi

missed connection After Philip Marries)
“Missed Connection” by Peter Groesbeck

Strawberry-scented lotion. It cost $10.83 at Sephora — money that could have bought steak, a bag of shrimp, or a box of chocolate. I knew better, yet here I was in the bedroom, slathering lotion on my legs. It felt like cold kisses. My skin became softer. I scolded myself for breaking my budget.

What would my husband say?

As the late-autumn sun lowered into the horizon, my husband came home. He entered the kitchen, his gas-station uniform smelling strong. He kissed me on my cheek, his lips raw, and he held my hips.

“You smell like a strawberry tart,” he said. “Making anything special?”

I pulled away and I stated that I was serving chicken stir-fry tonight. The kitchen’s light contrasted with the darkness of the living room. Since we had no TV, the house remained quiet — except for a car rolling down the street.

“Nope,” I replied. “Just homemade Chinese. Takeout is bad for you.” I laughed. “How was your day?”

“Pumping gas into car after car,” my husband said. “Forgetting that I want to be a writer.”

“Everybody wants to write,” I replied as I tossed cut-up chicken and veggies in the wok. “Publishers like to be choosy.” I looked at my husband’s blue eyes. They were so brilliant when I first met him, but tears and crow’s feet had overtaken their beauty. I urged him to get an MFA. However, my husband knew college friends who earned MFAs and worked at Starbucks and Target. He decided to write about working at a gas station. I had to stay on a strict budget.

My husband would eventually realize the truth.

After dinner, I retired to the living room with my copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Philip Carey’s failed quest to be an artist led me to my situation. I still smelled the expensive lotion on my body. In the back of our one-story house, I heard the shower run. Hot water and soap washed grime off my husband’s strong and finely muscled body. I wanted another night with him, even if he couldn’t make it in New York City, London, or Paris.

I slipped in a bookmark and closed the pages. Water continued to peal on the tiles of the shower. I left the dimness of the living room. In the bedroom, I took my clothes off, reminding myself to be more frugal — for my husband’s sake. I walked into the bathroom. It was misty, like a spring morning. As I slipped into the shower, my husband smiled at me, his blue eyes bright again. He held me. He kissed me with his softened lips. With Castile soap, my husband washed the day off my breasts, my stomach, my cunt. In that moment, I wanted him to clean me until I was perfect.

I didn’t smell like a strawberry tart anymore.



Behlor Santi lives in New York City and works as a freelance writer. She’s published fiction and poetry in such magazines as Cortland Review, The Dead Mule, and The Sidewalk’s End.

Read an interview with Behlor here.

“Ecdysis” by A. M. Rose

“At Last” by Peter Groesbeck

I’ve told a lot of stories about my very brief career in stripping.

I tell my female friends that it was a social experiment and I was doing some late-blooming rebellion. I tell them that it wasn’t very glamorous, most of the customers were awkward but the bartenders were nice.

I never tell my male friends.

To retired and working strippers I tell them that I wasn’t in it long, just to make some money after a living situation went south. Then I change the subject.

I tell the man that I date immediately afterwards that I was trying to prove something and trying to get rid of something. I tell him that I’m not ashamed of it, but it didn’t give me what I needed and it took too much, so I got out. I tell him that a strip club was one of the most depressing places I’ve ever worked in, and I’ve worked retail during the holidays.

I tell myself that I worked longer than I did, that I was better at it than I was, and that I was in control the whole time.

I know that if you tell a story enough times, you start to believe. I wait for that to happen.

While I wait, I keep the shoes in the back of my closet, a sort of insurance I never talk about. If it ever gets too bad, if I am really desperate, I can go back.

Part of me wants to go back. I don’t like how the story ended, it didn’t fit the narrative that I particularly like, in which I play Scheherazade in a T-back. That story takes on a dream-like quality when I tell it to myself, and I do, about a thousand and one times.  Hear, oh king, of a young woman who was always good at telling tales. She felt constrained by the stories that were told about her by lovers and her family. She finds temporary liberation in telling stories to men who pay her for the temporary fantasy she gives them.  She may not have been the prettiest, or the most experienced, but she was the cleverest and she knew the power of a well told lie. But, time passes and the young woman grows disillusioned with the doublespeak and puts her clothes back on, now wiser and with a wad of cash in her pocket. Finit. There is no room in that story for doubt.

But I do doubt. When I quit, I tell myself it is because I am scared after I see a customer snapping photos with his cell. I also tell myself that I am scared of it keeping me from ever getting a different job. Two years later, I tell myself that if I was really strong, if I really didn’t care what other people thought, I would have kept on going.  I had given in.

This is not a good story. I want to rewrite it.

Instead, I write papers towards a degree and cover letters towards a job and credit my success to the fact that I am very, very good at telling professors and interviewers what they want to hear. I treat the whole process like an investigative report—what can I tell them to make them tell me what I need to know to get what I want from them? In between my collection of part time jobs, I start a story about an anthropologist with the super-power to blend into whatever group she is studying. It is a sort of reverse participant-observation—she is observed, and therefore can participate.  One day, she looks in the mirror and sees nothing because there is no one there to tell her who she is. I don’t finish the story because I never finish stories.

My unfinished stories are always perfect, just like my unfinished undertakings. I know that I fear mediocrity more than I fear badness. One can be the baddest bad girl, or the worst writer, but to be somewhere in the middle? To try and then fail, not out of lack of effort but simply because when you dragged your sled up the bell curve it teetered then stopped on the hump—that is unacceptable.

One day in a class on research methods the professor makes a joke about going to a strip club, and I wince. I am not ashamed of having done it; I am ashamed of not doing it now.  I think, I have given away my chance to be really good at being really bad. I’ve always known that I’m not a good girl; I just play one for the sake of convenience. But I’ve been playing one for so long, I’m starting to forget.  Or maybe I believe it. Or maybe it was all a story after all. No—it can’t be a story, it’s needs to be real, it has to be real. I am Scheherazade and all of this is a just a framing narrative mistranslated.  The unfinished stories are only a preface, that’s not my real life.

So, a week later when a shiny new friend asks me to pose nude for a performance art piece I say yesyesyes and drag out the scary platform heels and body make-up. I rejoin the stripper forums on the web—I’ve forgotten my old handle so I make up a new one. I make up a whole new set of stories for the occasion that I recite to myself on my way to work. I remember some of the lies I told customers, how I felt like I was a puppet master pulling their sad strings. There is still something dark and jagged fossilized there, but I tell myself it is just a nasty side effect of working in a misunderstood industry and maybe some internalized sexism.  A very small voice tells me that this is my chance to prove that I am strong after all. I will tell a story that someone desperately wants to hear. I will finally finish my own character sketch. I will feel whole and real and complete.

I am fitted for the costume that is not clothes. I will wear see through panniers, the type wore by Marie Antoinette before her life went to shit. My hair will be piled up in a style reminiscent of Antoinette also, and I will control a peacock puppet. I’ll wear feathered pasties and a pair of very small feathered knickers. I’m supposed to represent bound womanhood, oppression…perhaps something about class and revolution. I joke and laugh with the artists and feel terribly proud of myself. I have to learn how to attach pasties. At the club we used to get around the tangle of nudity laws by painting fingernail polish on our nipples or sticking pieces of Band-Aid on them. At home, I practice standing very still in the shoes and paint my toenails peacock green to match the new pasties.  I will feel beautiful; I chant to myself, I will feel powerful. I will show them all that I am not what I am and that there are so many stories inside of me. I cannot wait.

The performance is at an annual gala for a theatre company. It is at well known bar in a trendy neighborhood, the type that sells cheap beer and microbrews so that customers can affect poverty or patronage, depending on their inclination.  The theme of the night is Revolution. In the dressing room a stylist winds my hair through wire pieces, then I take off my clothes and put on my feathers.

One of the artists escorts me to the stage.  There is a placard with the title of the piece and my new stage name. There is some confusion when it is discovered that the raised stage I was supposed to stand on is very close to the door. It is an icy spring night and the cold air blows in each time someone goes out to smoke. The artists, trying to be kind, decide that it is too cold for me, and they move the performance space to the floor, near the speakers.

I don’t like being on the floor. It feels too close. I need to be above everyone. But I don’t feel important enough to explain this, it’s not my piece and the move is for my own good. This is a change I didn’t expect; when I stripped I was an independent contractor. I could leave the stage, I could leave the floor any time I wanted.  Too much drama would get me in trouble with the manager and wouldn’t make me any friends, but that was up to me. I set the scene. Now I’m a set in someone else’s play. That never occurred to me.

People begin to trickle in. I cock my hip and tug the strings of the puppet. The party-goers walk by. Some stop to stare, some look away. I want them to look, I want to see a reaction.  I study their faces, but they are curiously slack. Is it on purpose, out of embarrassment? Or am I just not reaching them?  I’m not used to this. In a club, everyone knows what they are getting into, I saw some nervousness, some appreciation, some disgust, but I almost always saw something. When I did figure modeling, the art students always had furrowed brows and pursed lips. Some of the people take out cameras. I wince. I don’t like that. The artists and I never discussed how to deal with photos. I should have thought of that. Cameras make me feel numb, I’m no longer telling a story, someone is taking down an illustration and will write the caption later.

I watch the people watching me, I watch the people not watching me and I don’t feel anything. I rotate the handle of the puppet strings and make the peacock preen and stretch its neck. The motions feel pathetic and small. I’m supposed to tell some grand narrative, what was I going to tell? I can’t remember exactly. This was going to be a revolution but I’m not moving anything.

The room fills. More people, mostly men, take photos. I’m not giving the audience anything, they’re just taking. There is nothing between us but empty space, cameras and an imaginary bird. My feet hurt.

This is all wrong. Not morally wrong, but incorrect, inaccurate. This character, this girl standing so still covered in feathers and other people’s ideas, she is not my story. I agreed to tell someone else’s story, a story about gender and clothing and 18th century class politics but I never really understood the implications of being a character in another’s narrative.

In 1935, Gypsy Rose Lee’s manager coined the term ecdysiast to describe her client’s profession. It comes from the Greek word “to molt,” used to describe invertebrates that shed their outer layer. I wanted to take off my clothes and discover that I was someone better, braver, more talented and beautiful the whole time. If I could just scrub off this layer of mediocrity and failure my life would be better. But here, I just feel naked. Not better or prettier or more interesting. I’m entirely myself from the particular shape of my breasts to the insecurity that clings to me like a birthmark. I haven’t shed anything but my illusions and I am naked as Eve.

I struggle to bring it all back together in my head, to pull the threads of this moment together into some kind of fabric to cover myself. How can I make this moment mine again? I am not supposed to be Eve post-fruit-snack, I am supposed to be Scheherazade on her wedding night and they are supposed to be the king. But how can I be Scheherazade when I can’t finish a story and start a new one? None of my stories are finished. I’m not an artist or a writer or a queen, just a naked girl. That is all that Scheherazade would have been without her stories, a naked girl, then a dead one.

The more strangers tell me how beautiful and daring and “so brave” I am the more ugly and cowardly and I feel.  I am facing my naked insect self and I know that this girl isn’t posing nude because she is brave, she is doing it because she is scared shitless.

I stumble home after the event feeling numb and bewildered. I can’t stand to sleep in the same bed as my fiancé, so instead I sleep on our disintegrating couch with an itchy afghan. While I wait to fall asleep, I tell myself the story of what happened. I am ashamed of how horrible I felt. This should have been fine. It was Art and I was surrounded by Artists in thrift store cardigans in a rather well-liked bar while a rather well-known indie band played. I used to strip to bad pop music in a place with sticky floors, surrounded by corn-fed frat boys. I try to find a corner on this puzzle, so I can piece the whole thing together. I need to control the way it is shaping itself in my mind. Every night, I find a version that I can, well, maybe not live with, but one I can tell. It is my bedtime story; I fall asleep repeating it like a mnemonic device. But by the next evening it has fallen apart again, like a book left in the rain.

After several nights of this I call my shiny new friend, bawl her out angrily and incoherently, then sink even more deeply into shame. For God’s sake, if I can’t emotionally deal with something so small and trivial, something I agreed to, then I should at least have the grace not to talk about it. I hate being so exposed; I hate the rawness of it all. I don’t do intimate conversations that I can’t control. I need to write the script, but it is all nasty improvisation.

Before I can pull together a suitable plot, life takes the driving wheel for a while. My fiancé’s stepmother dies, we get married, we move apartments, my sister-in-law gives birth and I start a new job. There’s one thing you can say for death, marriage, birth and work—it fills up your calendar and you forsake navel-gazing for filling other people’s bellies with casseroles.

I take the radio station playing all that noise, pack it up with my spoons and wedding dress and try to just swim through the next few months. When I break through the other side, I still can’t think about it, so I leave it, like the box of photos and old blankets. I mention it to a therapist, and then refuse to talk about it. She continues to bring it up gently, because she’s a bitch that way.

Strange little things begin to happen while I’m not thinking about it. I start telling people no a lot more, which is weird. I find that by truthfully saying no, I can truthfully say yes.  And when I tell the truth, writing down things that are true becomes easier. I join a writing group. The writers are awkward as hell but the barista is nice. A few months after writing regularly with strangers, I sign up for some workshops and begin writing more regularly with more strangers. When I read my unfinished pieces I feel ugly and insectile, letting them see the twisty wormholes of my mind, the imperfect cocoons I am spinning. Everyone is very honest and very, very kind. I go home and write more.

I gain 10 lbs. and care more out of habit than hatred. I get rid of about a third of my clothes. I throw away the bottle of perfume someone gave me that smells terrible on my skin. My body still feels like a rental property but now I am building a rickety fence and considering buying a fierce little dog to patrol the yard. I write about the little dog.

And then, on an extremely ordinary day, I finish a story.  I am so surprised that I hide it in a file folder that I look at suspiciously for months, expecting it to disappear or catch on fire.

It doesn’t.

When I take out of the file folder, put it in an envelope addressed to a literary magazine and drop it in the mailbox, I am surprised by how little I care. I had read the magazine and it seemed like a good fit, but I didn’t write it for them. The story is mine regardless of whether they choose to publish it.

I tell myself, that was all I wanted in the end, a story that was mine.




A. M. Rose is a writer in Chicago, IL, where she lives with her husband and their bookshelves. She holds a master’s degree in social sciences and spends her days doing research and writing for non-profits and her nights chasing down plots.

Read an interview with A.M. Rose here.

“If Only the Rain Would Come” by Natalie Sypolt

no escape (If Only the Rains)
“No Escape” by Peter Groesbeck

The little motel room smelled pink–fruity and warm from the soap, shampoo, all that woman stuff that Sam didn’t understand, but sometimes wanted to use when he was over at Hazel’s in the afternoon.

It was the twentieth day in a row without rain; too hot for May. Hazel’d left the bathroom door ajar as she showered and the wet steamy heat had pushed the fragrance of her out into the room where it hung like a cloud. Sam left the door to the outside open and lay down on the bed.  The air was thick and sticky, but the weatherman called for severe thunderstorms to roll in overnight.

He’d come right from work and just wanted to be still for a while, lay there with his arm tight over his eyes, pressed hard so he’d see dark spots. She knew he’d come, even though he’d told her no more. He’d told her to go find some undamaged man who didn’t have a wife, a kid, who could see her all the time in the light of day. She didn’t try to argue or convince him—just got that thoughtful look on her face and said, “I’ll see you on Thursday.”

The shower was sputtering and he heard Hazel cuss the slow stream and the cooling water. He hated having to bring her here because the Tallyho-tel was not such a nice place and he worried that it made Hazel feel like a whore. She never complained, though.

It was better when she could get away from her teaching job in the afternoon and they could meet at her neat little house out on Back Road. It was out a ways where no one was around to see his truck parked in front, and she had that little crick that ran back behind. After it rained hard, that thing would rage like it thought it was a river and Sam liked to just sit on Hazel’s back porch and listen and think about how this might be how it could have always been. If he’d paid attention to Hazel in high school the way she’d paid attention to him, maybe he would have married her instead of Kelly and maybe Hazel wouldn’t have let him join up, wouldn’t have watched him with a tear in her eye and a baby on her hip as he left for Afghanistan, wouldn’t have been so scared and skittish a creature when he came home. Likely, though, it would have all been the same, just with a different woman, and a baby with springy red hair instead of hair so white it almost made his eyes hurt to look at it. And he would have ruined Hazel just like he ruined Kelly.

Right then, Kelly was probably getting ready to go to work. She worked late shift at the hospital in the next county. She was the woman who came around and woke people up just when they got to sleep to stick needles in their arms. She’d taken the classes at the career college and got the job while he was deployed. She’d lived on the base for a while after he’d left, but then said she couldn’t stand it anymore, the community of women sitting around just waiting to hear who’d been killed. She took the baby, only a few months old, and went home to her mama, enrolled in school, and started figuring out how life would be without him.

He thought it was good at first, before the explosion that ripped off pieces of him, left the skin on his back a patchwork and thick scars on his neck that everybody stared at. Before his blood had seeped into the dirt and sand so a part of him would always be over there. Now the smell of hospitals and the sight of needles made his stomach clench.

Every money problem was his because he refused to go work in the mines. He was healed enough, sure, on the outside, and his daddy could have probably gotten him on. He was retired now, but still had friends. Sam would have had to take classes and get certified, but the military would have likely paid for some of that. He just wouldn’t do it. He’d seen enough devastation. Seen houses and cars and people turned to piles of unrecognizable trash. Craters and holes, bloody earth. In his head, he knew that coal mining wasn’t the same, but inside, it still felt like it was. He would not be part of that tearing down again.

He kept his hard, low paying job on the little asphalt crew in Morgantown, patching potholes and paving parking lots and driveways. From now on, he was only going to fix things that were already there instead of trying to ruin and destroy to make something new that was almost never better.

Kelly was right, though, in thinking some things would have been a little easier if Sam had come home more like the boy who had left and more like what they all expected. If he got a job that paid better money, for instance, they maybe wouldn’t be living right in back of his folks in a singlewide trailer, having to know what every other Crystal in the holler was doing. Having always to do just what his daddy and mama wanted. Having to look over at his brother’s place across the road and know he’s not there, that while Sam was in Afghanistan walking with death every day, it was his brother, his twin, who was dying in West Virginia from a cancer that moved so quick and ugly that by the time Sam found out and put in to come home and visit on a hardship, it was too late. All he could have come home to was a funeral, so he stayed because he couldn’t stand to see Walker laid into the ground, a wasted piece of himself.

Walker left those two boys, Andy and Solomon, and Sam did try the best he could with them. At first they’d felt like strangers. Sam and Kelly’d been gone since Andy was eight and Solomon was four. Now Andy was sixteen, just one year younger than his daddy and Sam had been when he was born. Sam didn’t know a thing to do for them, and when he looked at them he saw only the ugly parts of himself reflected back. Fear and anger and confusion. That feeling of being hemmed in and wanting to run.

Lisa, the boys’ mother, wasn’t of much account, hadn’t been even before Walker died, but now left the boys home alone more often than not.  Twice in the past two months Sam had been called by Tom Swentan, a friend from high school who now worked as a town cop, to come down and scrape his sister-in-law up from the Nowhere Bar and Grill where she’d passed out cold. Sam knew Tom thought he was doing the Crystals a favor by not running her in, but Sam wished he just would. He had enough of his own problems without having to worry about his dead brother’s drunk wife. And every time Sam took her home, she thought he was Walker and would try to kiss him or put her hand down the front of his jeans. The worst part, once he’d kissed her back, and thought for a minute about how it might be easier just to let himself be his brother for a while to see how that’d turn out.

Walker was always happy to stay here and work hard, party harder, be a Crystal through and through. It was Sam who was itching to figure out any way he could to go, until he did, until he went so far that all of him never could get back.

He knew that Andy and Solomon were heading for trouble. Hazel had told him how they both skipped school and then just yesterday, Chris Johnson had come and told him that Solomon had flicked a lit cigarette at his wife, Rachel’s, leg at the school house. Rachel was a new teacher, a friend of Hazel’s, and Chris said he wasn’t mad, really, but just thought Sam should know before those boys got too out of control.

Chris had come out to the job site, pulled up in his truck while Sam was shoveling down a pile of hot asphalt. They’d been good friends in school, him and Chris, but hadn’t talked much since they’d both been back. Sam knew from letters his mother had sent when he was oversees that Chris’ parents had died not too long before Walker, and that Chris had moved back to take care of his daddy’s lumber company. “It’s a sad time,” Sam’s mother had written. “A dying year.”

Sam also knew that Chris had visited Walker in the hospital right before he died, and then had been a pallbearer at Walker’s funeral. Of those things that Sam could never forgive, one was Chris for being there, and another was himself for not.

“I was just going to give you a call, but I come into town to get some things and saw you over here,” Chris said from the window of his shiny black truck. He looked just like always, just like he hadn’t aged a day. He was wearing those mirrored sunglasses and when Sam got closer, he could see tiny versions of himself reflected in the lenses.

“Glad you did,” Sam said. “I’ll take care of it.” Chris nodded and looked out the windshield. He seemed so easy there, his arm casual on the steering wheel. Sam couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so gentle in his own skin, so cool. Usually these days he felt like fire ants were crawling all over him.

Chris made some small talk then about the job, the parking lot of the new AutoZone they were getting ready to be paved next week. He asked after Sam’s mom and daddy. “And how are things with you?” he said finally, looking over at Sam with those damn bug eye glasses, and Sam knew that behind those lenses were soft, pitying eyes. “How are you doing?”

“Some good days, some bad,” Sam said and shrugged, as if it didn’t matter.  Chris nodded and stared out the windshield again.

“We should get a beer sometime,” he said. “Like the old days. Remember them?”

“I try not to so much,” Sam said and tried to laugh, but it came out wrong, not like a laugh at all, but a gagging sound or a strangle.

“Yeah, well,” Chris said and started up his truck. “I guess I better get back. You come by the house sometime, huh? Rachel’s a terrible cook, but we’d still like to see you.”

“Sure,” Sam said, though they both knew that Sam would never show up on Chris’ front porch. Hazel had told him that Rachel was expecting a baby, but Chris never mentioned it. They weren’t friends who shared good things anymore.

After he left, that whole day, Sam felt the fire building up in him. He didn’t even ask Solomon what he’d done, just grabbed him in the front yard and pulled him by the arm over to the old stump behind his daddy’s house.

“What’d I do? What’d I do?” Solomon was crying and trying to pull away, and Andy was coming up behind them, hollering at Sam to stop, but nothing could have stopped him then.

Out back was the stump from a big old maple tree that had been cut down when Sam and Walker were just kids. It was the perfect size to sit on while you leaned a boy over your knee for a whipping. Sam had been taken to that stump plenty of times, but not as many as Walker. Solomon was a big kid, but Sam was bigger, and stronger too, and full of rage and embarrassment.

“Chris Johnson had to come out to my work and tell me about you,” Sam said, spitting the words, hot and ugly. “You know how that felt? Having him out there?”

“I didn’t! I didn’t,” Solomon was gasping for air.

“You ain’t so big now, huh?” Sam had him over his knee and for the first few hits, Solomon still squirmed and tried to pull away, but then went limp and just whimpered. Sam didn’t know how hard he hit, or how many times. He didn’t know anything but how Chris Johnson looked in that big truck, that shame he felt when he saw himself in Chris’ mirrored glasses.

“That’s enough,” someone close to Sam said, but Sam didn’t stop until his daddy grabbed his wrist as he raised his arm up in the air for another smack. “I did say that is enough.”

Solomon sort of rolled off his knee then and crawled over to where Andy helped him up. Andy’s face told Sam that he’d kill him if he got half a chance, and probably Sam deserved it.

The commotion had brought both Sam’s parents out, and his Uncle Clarke and Aunt Ginny, too. Kelly was standing on their porch, holding their kid tight to her hip. She had such a look on her face, some fear but mostly disgust, and Sam wanted to bend her over his knee, too. And his daddy. He wanted to bend the whole wide world over his tired knee and whip it until he felt better.

“Well, Jesus H., Sam. You ’bout gave me a heart attack.” Hazel was standing in the doorway of the bathroom, a dingy looking towel around her and another wound turban style on her head. “How long you been here?”

“I don’t know,” he said, looking at her askance from under his arm. “A little while. I shouldn’t of come.” He could see her eyes going over him, taking in his dirty clothes and no doubt thinking of the dusty outline he was leaving on the bed. She didn’t say a thing, though.

“It’s hot. I think it’s really going to storm,” she said, standing at the open door and looking out for just a minute before going to the dresser. She got a big comb and he watched as she unwound the towel, rubbed her hair vigorously a few times, and then began pulling the comb through the wet strands. She had thick, curly hair, dark copper. Sam had some vague memory of her from high school, her hair a wild frizzy mess, but since then she’d decided not to fight her hair’s nature, or her own, anymore. “I am what I am, I guess,” she’d said. “No use trying to change it.” Most days her hair hung in bouncy coils. Sam liked to wind each finger up in one, coating his fingers in silky bits of her.

“Come here,” he said. “Please.”

“Hey,” she said, leaning over to kiss him. Her wet hair dripped onto his face, like balm to a burn.  “You’re burning up. You’re always so hot. It’s like you just keep all that heat from the day bottled up in you somehow.” She kissed him, her lips like fleshy fruit against his dry, sandpaper ones. He wanted her to say to him then, “What will you do for me, Sam? What can I ask?” because it would have been anything. He would have given her anything to just soothe him like that, for a little while. He wanted to agree to anything she asked then, when he couldn’t think about it. If she’d ask him to leave Kelly, to forget about her, his family, to quit his job and lie on her back porch all day, to just be still, he’d do it. He could do it then.

Hazel moved from him, and he reached after her, catching only the edge of the old towel. When she came back, she was holding a few pieces of ice from the ice bucket. She held them to his face, slipping the ice around his hot skin, over his eyelids and lips. Around his chin, down his throat and then to the scars on his neck, down into the collar of his shirt. “This is something Mary Magdalene would have done for Jesus,” he thought, and the feeling in his chest grew and swelled up into his throat like a choking sob or an ecstatic scream.

Hazel straddled him. She said his name close to his ear, said it again and again as if trying to remind him of who he was. He moved his hands up her calves, and then smoothing over her shoulders, his skin dark from the sun and hers so pale and freckled; her all soft, round curves. She let the towel fall to the floor. She, nothing rough or hard. The magic in Hazel’s glowing skin, her copper hair, the way she remembered the old Sam and believed him to still be somewhere inside. If she just would, she could make him forget what it felt like to hit Solomon out of control, to see himself in Chris Johnson’s eyes, to feel like the best part of himself was left behind or buried. She could pull his teetering body back from the edge, keep him from turning finally into ash. If only she would.

“Ask me,” he whispered. “Please, just ask me.” She laughed a little against his neck where she’d been kissing the soft spot beneath his chin.

“I didn’t know I had to ask,” Hazel said and moved her hand to the buckle at his waist.

Sam turned his face into the comforter as Hazel undid his belt. How could she ask if she never even knew?

He heard a low rumble of thunder from outside, the storm moving closer, and the pressure in the room was building as if to spark. If only the rain would come to push down the dust and wash it all clean. Or strong winds to blow it all down. A flood. A tornado. Some excuse to start again.



Natalie Sypolt’s work has previously appeared in Willow Springs Review, Kenyon Review Online, Queen City Review, Potomac Review, Oklahoma Review, and Kestrel. She’s had book reviews appear in Mid-American Review and Shenandoah. She is also the 2009 winner of the Betty Gabehart Prize, sponsored by the Kentucky Women’s Writers Conference and was shortlisted for a Pushcart Prize in 2010.

Read an interview with Natalie here.

“Smoking in Rented Rooms” by Sinta Jimenez

missing weeks (Smoking in Rented Rooms)
“Missing Weeks” by Peter Groesbeck

It’s early April in Philadelphia but the air still hangs frigid with the hollow wind of East Coast winter. We run together through the scumbag streets. Block after block of concrete and black window flying past. Our noses cold, our foreheads dry. There are no entrances to heaven, no shoots or ladders to ascend.

I push my body against his as we walk down the street, his arm around me. We hail a cab at Broad Street, City Hall visible down the avenue, to go towards Washington and 7th blocks and blocks away from the ivy league affluence of Rittenhouse. When we get there, he tells me to stand on a corner, in front of a grade school, while he goes to score.

“Are you ok,” he asks me.


“I’m ok.”

“I just don’t want you to come with me to meet the guy. I’ll be back soon.”

The wind pushes down and against me. There’s not much room for chivalry in addiction, in street corner copping but there’s plays at tenderness. He doesn’t want me to go with him in case he gets arrested. In case he gets arrested at least I’ll be able to go home and sleep in my own bed.

Soon I see him, smiling, coming down the sidewalk with a saunter, almost cheerful. And even with his skull cap and his heavy black jacket, the grace of his face seems to purify him from his acts, a mask over the scar tissue.

We cruise again though the city, weaving in and out of traffic, but this time without the itch. His pockets are full, my expectations are loaded. We are dead on arrival.

We get home he brings out a plastic bag, full of little bags, and throws it onto the coffee table. Four grams of herb, two grams of blow packed tight, and then two thin, light blue packets of scag stamped with the words “Day Off.”

He hits the stamp bag with his fingertips as he settle down next to me on the couch.

“How much was it?” I ask.

“It’s very cheap. Did you know that?”

A bare light bulb flickers and revolves above us as though it were the sun.

“Last year I was hella sick and had to go to the emergency room. That doctor’s bill cost me almost five thousand dollars. All to check if my appendix was burst and to give me a shot of morphine. It was just the stomach flu. I could’ve gotten this for five dollars and forgotten all about my tummy troubles.”

“Just five dollars?”

That’s the price,” he says with a bitterness, cutting like sunlight through Afghan clouds.

Our evening goes late into the a.m. smoking cigarettes and herb rolled with tobacco, listening to Lou Reed.

“Man, I wish I hadn’t lost my Iggy Pop cds.”

“Have you ever heard The Birthday Party? One of Nick Cave’s early bands. I think you’d like them.”

I look into his eyes and wonder how dark the world looks to him right now. He’s done enough to feel warm but not fall into the nod. The contraction of his pupils makes the color of his eyes even more vivid. There is no full, darkened center, only color where light invades.

I kiss his face. I linger below his eyes where the skin is thin, incapable of deception.

“You’ve been with a lot of beautiful girls.”

“I don’t know about that. Really, you’re it,” he says.

I choose to believe him.

“I’m scared of how it’ll be when you leave.”

“We’ll be cool,” I say.

I hold onto his slim shoulder, tattooed with a black dragon that continues down his arm and upper back, the black ink drawing a high contrast against the whiteness of his skin. I tell him to look up. His eyes look suddenly translucent like.

“There’s a lot of men out there who want to fuck you,” he says.


The room pulsates, the air sweats.

We are denied safe passage.

We hold hands in our restless sleep. Half awake I feel him tossing next to me, scratching his neck and arms, kicking his legs, withdrawal bringing the itchy blood. My throat is dry and sore. I put my hand flat against his back. His skin is too smooth. His skin is an impossibility.

“When are you going,” he mumbles, eyes closed.

“I don’t know. In the next day or two.”

“You could stay.”

We are escape artists, conspiring in the underbellies and alleyways.

It isn’t until late afternoon until really wake up, groggy and heavy in the comedown. The air is cold and we move slowly under the covers.

“How do you feel,” I ask him.

“Alright. Shakes in a bit but I already know I won’t be able to piss for a while.”

“Maybe later –” I begin.

“Yeah, don’t worry. We’ll pick up later.”

The view from his bedroom window is grim. Power lines and television satellites lie akimbo on concrete rooftops. My nose is raw.

I look at the emptiness of his room, the old discolored blinds, and the white walls encrusted with the drunken distortions, frail lies, desperations, hostilities, prayers and sexual penetrations of past tenants. A pleasure arises in me from this human incoherence emanating from the walls. It seeps from the decaying brick and mortar, makes itself visible only to me.

“Have you ever gone on a fancy vacation with someone?”

“No, never,” I lie.

“Should we go to Argentina?”

“The dollar goes far down there.”

I carry on with him. To forget the comedown, to distract from the itch.

“We should go to Carolina too. I have friends with a house in Asheville. They’re raising chickens,” I say.

“Let’s do it. Fresh eggs in the morning, delicious,” he smiles.

All the words make fantasies of a future of things nearly impossible, likely improbable. We proceed under the influence, accepting delusion as truth, accepting narcotics for whole grain.

With other men, who I knew I wanted to be with for a while, a disgust always mechanized in me. An automatic default jogging my apathy, preventing further emotion, and nothing, absolutely nothing could bring me back. Neither petition nor memory. But I cannot do that with him. I can tell. I cannot retreat from his body. I won’t be able to turn it around.

“I’m going to get dressed. Get out there and bring back some water and cereal.”

He walks out the bedroom door to the bathroom.

I share a secret with his room, without distinction except for two o-mamori hanging on his doorknob from the Shrine. I’d discard the immaculate for this damaged space, any time, any how. The walls seem softer after, submitting like a victim or disciple.


We walk through the streets of brotherly love, high out of our minds again, laughing and kissing, on the verge of tears. We’re alone in a shrouded continent, in the schizophrenia of hope.

We pass by a brick row house with an open upper window.

“Ah,” he says.


“That smell,” he nods towards the window.

“What is it?”

He smiles widely. “Someone’s chasing the dragon. Doesn’t it smells like flowers?”


My last night in Philly we go without the drugs. We have dinner in the arts district in a restaurant we cannot afford.

“It’s a very big world. We had a very small window,” he says.

I surprise myself. I start crying.

“It’s the wine,” I say.

“Come sit with me for a second,” he says, sliding over in his booth.


“I am trying here, I’m trying to understand and not to be sad,” he says.

His body burns like loaded gun.


All the trains, solo car rides, subway stations, taxies, buses, boats, and airplanes I’ve taken to reunite with past lovers are bittersweet memories when I really think about it. When I really think about how many I’ve left and have also left me behind. I recall the reflection of my eyes on those naked windows of travel, the light of streetlamps seen from a plane, the fading pleasures pursued in hotels and apartments around the world.

I am the last person on the bus.

I hear the sound of the motor revving, then driving away. Driving away. This is the sound of leaving. Us both leaving each other again for works and lives that must continue apart. Leaving each other maybe only to follow other people into the dark, into other beds, in our separate cities.

But I think one more time of his worn room. The historical blocks go on for miles in Philadelphia but not all have survived the way his row house had. After I leave I will hunger for the nakedness of that room that we filled with the vibrant, choleric air of our bodies. Maybe some other time, in another season, in another city, we’ll be together again, smoking in rented rooms.



Sinta Jimenez is a writer and fine artist. Her paintings and poetry have been published in several literary magazines including The Truth About the Fact, Forth, and The Black Boot. In 2000, she was a recipient of a National Association for the Advancement of the Arts Award in Short Story. She lives in Los Angeles.

Read an interview with Sinta here.

“Be Still” by Deb Moore

bartok's bed (Be Still)
“Bartok’s Bed” by Peter Groesbeck

I feel him slide into bed behind me.

The expanse of bed on the other side is normally a broad, smooth landscape, like the Salt Flats of Bolivia or the I-355 toward Wichita. Unless I throw a leg out over the covers on a sweltering summer night, the span of sheet, blanket, and comforter on the left remain unbroken and undisturbed. The saleswoman had called it a California King, but I use only the merest sliver of real estate; I crowd the outside edge of what would be the Nevada border.

This new presence next to me has altered the landscape, his weight causing my body to slide downslope toward the center of the bed, away from the edge, and into the valley where my hip meets his.


When I was 11, my grandmother Smith told me that she believed every woman eventually reached a point when she realized she would be sleeping alone for the rest of her life.

“And when it happens to you, you’ll be glad,” she said.

I had asked why she and my grandfather had their own beds, instead of sharing a bed like my mother and father. When I grew older, I just accepted that the arrangement was probably a nod to an old-fashioned form of birth control that had outlived its usefulness. As a child, though, it made sense to me that my grandmother could rest only if she was alone in the bed.

This was because Grandma Smith suffered from bad nerves. It was a family affliction, and Grandma’s older sister, Weimer, never left home without a travel bag full of prescription tranquillizers. Unlike Weimer, though, my grandmother was Pentecostal; Grandma Smith and the Lord didn’t approve of anything more powerful than the occasional Bayer aspirin.

“Weimer has turned into a pill-head,” my grandma would say.

Although she spoke often of the state of her nerves, I never understood the nature of my grandmother’s affliction. I knew, though, that even if my brother Butch and I were not the cause, we were almost certainly an irritant. My grandmother believed in children being seen but not heard, and she preferred to see them when they were out in the yard.

“You kids are on my nerves,” she would say. “Go outside.”

My grandmother lived in the last house at the end of East B Street, where the asphalt ended abruptly in a grassy field, and where, in midsummer, switch grass grew hip-high to the adults. Full of snakes, ticks, and chiggers, it served as well as any fence.

Across the street from Grandma’s house, a young couple moved into a mobile home smaller than a school bus. He worked nights at the shoe factory. His wife slept alone, without so much as a tiny dog for company. With the great stretch of overgrown field on the one side and a phalanx of neighbors on the other, she slept sound and unconcerned. Then one early morning, the husband returned home from work to find the door to the trailer hanging open. Alarmed, he leapt up the steps and into the darkened trailer, calling out for his wife. Other than being startled by his shouts, she was unharmed. She had been sleeping peacefully in a bedroom in the back.

He chastised her for being so careless and for frightening him so.

“But I locked the door,” she said. “I remember.”

She was just as certain when the young man found the door open a second time, a few days later.

“Have you seen anything suspicious?” he asked my grandparents.

“We’ll keep an eye out,” Grandpa Smith said. “She’ll be fine.”

After the young man walked back to his trailer across the street, though, my grandparents seemed less sure.

“There ain’t no reason for anybody to be coming up into the house like that unless they’re up to something,” my grandmother said. “Raymond, maybe you should load a gun, just in case.”

And so my grandparents left their porch light on all that night and the night after, and both kept a sort of watch through the diamond-shaped window set high into the front door. Three mornings later, the young man came home to find the door once more swinging back and forth in the morning breeze. Inside, his wife had been waked by the squeal of the hinges and sat upright and stock-still in the bed, too afraid to climb out to see if she was still alone in the house.


Sometimes, when we were between places to live and there was nowhere else to go, my family stayed at Grandma and Grandpa Smith’s house. Grandma might have been short-tempered, but my brother Butch and I loved staying there. All my good feelings about Grandma’s house, though, vanished at bedtime. Without enough beds to go around, when we stayed over, I slept with my grandmother.

Grandma’s nerves were especially sensitive at bedtime. Even my blinking while sharing her bed was enough to cause her pain. She was disturbed by my every movement, no matter how small—every eye-roll, every deep and burdened sigh that her request for quiet compelled me to make. Sleeping with Grandma was an exercise in pretending to be dead.

“Sister, BE STILL,” she would whisper.

And I would lie motionless, unable to tell in the absolute darkness if the ceiling was six feet or six inches from my face. For all I knew, the man who had been breaking into the little trailer across the street might at that very moment be standing at the foot of the bed, watching me as I tried not to wiggle my grandmother awake.


The dread of the young couple living in the tiny trailer traveled up one side of East B Street and back down again. The police were called, and although they gathered fingerprints and interviewed the neighbors, they had no leads.

“Maybe the wife is doing it,” someone said.

Porch lights shone through the night at every house, and these—along with the street lights and natural gas yard lamps, lit the neighborhood like a carnival fairway.


It was my grandmother who suggested that the young woman sprinkle the floor of the trailer with flour when she went to bed. They were sitting together on the porch, my grandmother peeling apples, the young woman sitting, anxious and exhausted, beside her.  On the step below, Butch and I gnawed the apple skins, eyes on our little metal cars and the pocked concrete.

“Just spread a thin dusting on the floor, like you would on the bottom of a cake pan,” Grandma said.

I looked up at her, shocked at the thought of purposely tossing flour onto the floor.

“Then maybe you can tell by the footprints who it is,” she said, “but probably not. You can sure tell what he’s up to, though.”


For a few mornings after that, the wife’s first chore every day was to sweep the undisturbed flour up off the floor. Then, just after daybreak on the fourth morning, my grandmother drew the curtains of the big picture window. She could plainly see, even from across the street, the open trailer door and the absence of the young husband’s car in the drive.

“Raymond! Come quick!”

They hurried across the street and stopped at the stoop, confused to find that the flour was undisturbed. Grandma called out for the young woman.

“This beats all I ever seen,” my grandmother said, and reached for the knob to climb up the wooden steps and into the darkened kitchen.

She stopped with one foot on the bottom step and one still on the ground.

“Why, look here,” she said. “This door is still locked.”

The young woman appeared in the doorway.

“Girl! Have you not been pulling this door to at night? You’ve got to pull it shut until it closes tight or you might as well leave it wide open.”


The night my husband Carroll left me, he threw open the door with force enough to make it bounce back on its hinges. He leapt off the porch and onto the stoop, taking the last two steps in one great gazelle-legged stride. I watched him sprint across the yard to the road where his truck was parked and as he ran, a car cruised slowly by. When the car on the street was positioned in line with Carroll, I lost his every detail. The headlights cast him, instead, in inky silhouette. For the briefest moment, while poised mid-stride and mid-air, he was stock still. Time stopped, and I couldn’t have said for sure if he was running away or toward me.

For a while after he left, I didn’t sleep. Hannah, who was ten, started sleeping in the bed with me. My aunt had given us a kitten who liked to nap in the crook of my knee, and I brought the dog into the house and up into the bed with us. Girl, cat, and dog stayed in my bed for two years, but it seemed to be a great many more than that before I was able to sleep again.


I dreamed that Carroll came to my bed. I felt him spooned up behind me, just as I have in the past been aware of a sleeping kiss or a caress before waking. I reached for the lamp and rolled over in bed, surprised to find him there.

He squinted against the light, and after a few seconds rolled over and brought one arm up to lay it over his eyes, palm up, fingers open.

I give, he seemed to say.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, sitting up. “How did you get in?”

He sighed and sat upright, swinging his feet onto the floor. He rubbed his head briskly with both hands and I watched his back—freckled and smooth, wide between the shoulders and narrow at the waist—ripple with the motion.


He stood and stepped into his jeans, zipping them, but neglecting the button. Then he walked around and sat at the foot of the bed. He reached out and placed his hand on my ankle.

“Try not to be afraid,” he said. “It’s only me.”

There was a phone in my hand and so I dialed 911, feeling as I did that I was the one who must have done something wrong.


When the police arrived, they found him still sitting at the foot of the bed. He stood when they asked him to, and he placed both hands behind his back so that they could fasten the handcuffs. Then they led him, barefooted, down the stairs and out into the street.

“I don’t understand,” I said to their backs. “Why is he here? Ask him how he got in!”

Carroll didn’t look at me as they loaded him into the back of the cruiser. I watched the police car turn around in the parking lot, and kept watching as it turned onto the street and disappeared over the rise.

When I turned to go back inside I saw Carroll, standing barefoot in the living room.

“I came because you let me,” he said.

“You let me in.”



Deb Moore‘s work has appeared in AY Magazine, Harvest, Nebo, Mundane Jane, Nuclear Fiction, Recession Fabulous, The ATU Writer, and Tales of the South, in addition to contributions to titles from the lifestyle and instructional publisher, Leisure Arts. She teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas.


“Sex Studies” by Christopher James

I couldn't.wait (Sex Studies)jpg
“I Can’t Wait” by Peter Groesbeck

I met Nina when I was twenty-one and she was sixteen. Nowadays, that would be borderline illegal, but then it was okay.  I was at university, thinking about dropping out, and she was finishing school. She was French, from France, her parents had moved to London only a year earlier. They made me have dinner with them, and sent Nina to her room to do homework while we ‘talked.’ They were okay with my age, they said. Nina’s mother thought it was good for girls to have a sexual relationship with older men, she said. I didn’t say we’d not had sex, in order not to disappoint her. I spent half the dinner blushing.

“If you ask me,” said Nina’s father, “schools should teach you much more about sex. One of the most important things in life, and schools don’t teach you anything.”

“We watched a video,” I said. I don’t think I was really ready for this conversation, like a Sunday driver being dropped into a Grand Prix. “They were playing volleyball on a nudist beach. Miss Jones taught the class. I think she was a virgin.”

“That’s not sex,” said Nina’s father. “That’s only mechanics. This video, what did it teach? That the penis becomes hard when it fills with blood, that you grow hair in puberty, that sperm pierces the wall of the womb? That’s not sex. What do you do if you want to make a woman come? If you suffer from impotence? How do you eat a woman out? How do you talk frankly with your lover? What do you do if she bleeds? If you bleed? How do you introduce a discussion of anal sex? How do you ask for oral sex? School, all it teaches is the Pythagorean theorems of sex. Where do you go when you want to learn the art, not just the science? Hmm? Meanwhile, I spent half my life not knowing how to get a woman, half my life not knowing what to do with her once I had her. I thought there was something wrong with me. The first time I had sex I thought I’d broken my penis. Why hadn’t school prepared me for that?”

I definitely wasn’t ready for this conversation. I think I’d had sex with maybe four girls before I met Nina, none of them for very long. I wasn’t a virgin, but certainly not fluent. Nina’s mother and father probably had more sex before breakfast than I had had my entire life. They were talking to me as if I were an equal, but I wasn’t. Perhaps, on reflection, they knew that. Perhaps that’s why they talked to me so.

“Because school didn’t prepare you, darling,” said Nina’s mother. I couldn’t imagine a school preparing anyone for thinking they had a broken penis. I got the idea they’d shared this discussion before. I wanted to feel mature for being part of a conversation about sex with proper grown-ups, but my maturity was undermined somewhat by my blushing hot pink throughout. Yes, definitely Nina’s mother and father knew what they were doing, embarrassing their young daughter’s boyfriend so mortifyingly. That must be where Nina got it, later on. To this day I can’t imagine their casual conversation about unsheathed penises and anal sex etiquette was accidental.

Nina and I didn’t have sex together, as it happened, until she was eighteen and I was twenty-three. I understood. I had a friend whose parents were alcoholic; he’s never wanted to drink his whole life. She wanted to wait, and I was comfortable with that. If we had sex, there was a feeling we’d have to discuss it over dinner with her folks. We got married when she was nineteen. She was young and innocent and I used to write her long poems full of words I pulled from Roget’s thesaurus. I stayed away from her parents as often as possible. It was hard to reconcile their frankness with Nina, a shy virgin bride.

Then Nina sold a Freddie Mercury-signed condom in the wake of his death, made a lot of money, and almost overnight she changed. The dark side of commercialism unearthed a hard-core bitch within her psyche. She grew a lot harsher, a lot less innocent. A lot more like her parents, in fact. She developed a Bettie Page fixation, had her hair cut like the 1950s bondage porn star. She pushed me to have rougher and rougher sex. She liked nipple clamps and being punched in the tits and tying my wrists behind my back to my ankle.

I lost my mojo, frightened of the new Nina. For ten years we stayed married, but we had sex less and less often. She became harder and harder. I didn’t.

For example: She had an impersonation of Whitney Houston she liked to do. She’d throw her hands in the air and say “Not in the face, Bobby, not in the face.” When Rihanna was in the news for being battered she updated her impersonation. “Not in the face, Chris, not in the face.” When Whitney died, while the rest of the world watched Kevin Costner and Alicia Keys at her funeral, Nina pulled out her Bobby line again.

She got angry with me at the drop of a hat. Nina’s father and mother were right about at least one thing. Nothing in school had ever prepared me for sex and women. Most of this happened in the days before Google was a verb. I didn’t know who to turn to for advice. The two of us tried to sort our problems out on our own, and we made a big fuck-up of it.

We stayed partners in the shop, but had papers made and signed to turn our informal co-ownership into one contractually bound. I think we were both afraid of losing out to the other one in the inevitable break-up. We felt safer behind a piece of paper. Nina arranged a schedule that guaranteed we were never both present in the same place at the same time, pinned it proudly on the notice-board in the shop’s office. Another piece of paper to feel safe behind. This was before we even separated. We took our prompts on marriage guidance counselling from TV shows, from magazine articles, from self-help books. We mished and mashed conflicting ideas together and hoped that we could somehow muddle our way back to being a happy couple. It never happened.

Nina started wearing bondage gear as part of her everyday wardrobe. She began talking about how a person went through different stages in life, how it was difficult to find somebody ready to go through the stages at the same time as you. Is the man you want to fall in love with the same as the man you want to have children with? She didn’t even want children, she’d heard the argument on Oprah or something similar. A realization – she turned into her parents, perhaps. She took another man to bed, a tattoo artist who’d cultivated two-inch diameter holes in the sides of his nose. I saw the two of them, the two holes in his nose, yes, but also Nina and this man, their bodies wrapped around each other in my bed. Nina must’ve started yoga. Her ankles were behind her ears. She knew I’d be in the house on that day, at that time, it was part of her schedule, so presumably she wanted me to see her infidelity. Even so, I was ready to forgive her, to let it go. It was Nina who finally suggested divorce.

After such an adversarial marriage, our divorce was surprisingly gentle. Neither one of us wanted to give up half the shop, so we didn’t. The schedule set up to avoid seeing each other formed the backbone of our divorce. It was the most successful arrangement in our time together, something Nina’s lawyer told me she was photocopying to pass on to other clients. Some couples are proud of their children. Nina was proud of an excel spreadsheet that made sure we never had to see each other.

Helen, my girlfriend now, thinks I tell the story of my divorce all wrong. “You only concentrate on the beginning and the end. It’s all you ever care about, beginnings and endings. The whole way you describe your marriage is centered on its failing. You don’t talk about any of the middle parts. There must have been good bits in the middle, that’s the way to remember a marriage.”

“Even a failed marriage?”

“Especially a failed marriage. In fact, that’s the only way to remember anything. The ending and the beginning are all men ever concentrate on. For example – you told me about World War Two. You talked for twenty minutes about why it started, you talked about why England won for twenty minutes. Anytime you talked about what happened in the middle of the war it was only so that I’d understand the ending.”

“I told you about the football match. That was in the middle.”

“Right! That’s what you should tell me. That’s what you should think about. The soccer matches. That’s much more important.”

“Football, honey. Not soccer.”

“If you ever wrote your biography it would have ten chapters on birth, ten chapters on death and photos of your wedding and your divorce.”

A story from the middle of my marriage, long before our divorce

Nina took the tube at rush hour, which meant that she hated it. She queued to get through the gates and listed people who deserved cancer. The man with the wheely-case in front of her should get brain cancer. The woman who’d brought her children with her should get ovarian cancer, serve her right for procreating. The old man afraid to hop on the escalator, so slow, should get lung cancer, or liver cancer, or bowel cancer. Old people always deserved cancer. There was a reason why old people had free travel outside of peak times.

She was behind the old man all the way down the moving stairs. He stood on the left instead of the right. At rush hour everybody did that. HIV from bad blood transfusions for all of them. She got past him at the bottom of the stairs, on the way to the platform. She turned left, walked to the end, where it wasn’t so busy. The train was late. The train driver should get ebola for Christmas, bleed through his skin, his eyeballs should fall out.  She bumped somebody pushing through the crowd. “Mind it,” said the bumpee.

“Fuck your mother!” said Nina. She took a minute to berate the bumpee. “Talk to me again and I’ll stick my hand down your throat, grab your pea-sized testicles and rip them up through your esophagus, leave them hanging out your mouth like your senile grandmother dribbling because she’s lost her tiny mind. I’ll staple your lips together so you can’t swallow your testicles back into place, for the rest of your life you’ll have balls banging against your chin, you’ll know never again to speak when you’re not wanted. You fucking ballchindangler.”

Nina stared for long enough to make her point, then carried on heading left. She kept an ear open, hoping the bumpee would dare to say anything. She hoped he would challenge her understanding of human anatomy. She’d never stuck her hands down anybody’s throat before. She reached the end of the platform and the old man was there. She watched him stumble forward, watched him fall to his knees, watched him slide off the platform and onto the rails.

“You stupid old man,” she said to him. “You’re going to make the train late.”

“Help me, please,” said the old man. He looked scared. He was small. Standing on the rails his nose didn’t even reach the platform. He was just a pair of frightened eyes hovering over the G in MIND THE GAP. Nobody else noticed him, they were wrapped up in iPods and free newspapers and Harry Potter books.

“Help yourself. Don’t you watch TV? Didn’t you read Seven Habits of Highly Successful People? You don’t get anywhere in this world relying on others. If you want something to happen you’ve got to go out there and make it happen. Take me, for example. If I waited for my husband to make a success of our business I’d die poor and failing. My husband doesn’t have what it takes. My husband is a loser.”

Helen: In this story, does she talk about you often? Is this a true story, or did you make it up? It feels like a fairly biased interpretation of events.

Me: Shh. It’s a true story. Let me tell it.

The old man wrenched his arthritic fingers up to the edge of the platform, where they clawed above the H and P of MIND THE GAP, tensed and white, like he was hanging off a cliff in the movie remake of  a popular Western TV series, having been thrown from a runaway stagecoach.

“I’m going to die if you don’t pull me up. The train will hit me.”

“Pah!” said Nina. “I have problems of my own, I don’t need to deal with yours.”

So Nina left the old man and he was hit by the train. Nina watched the eyes of the train driver for as long as she could. It was a woman, a larger woman, who looked too big to fit into the tiny train driver’s cabin at the front of the train. Nina saw her from the tunnel, concentrating on stopping the train in the right place on the platform. This is one of the train driver’s greatest responsibilities, to stop the train in the right place. She didn’t see the old man until she’d hit him, and then his blood flew up over the windscreen.

The old man saw the train a few seconds before he felt the train. He had time to think about his life. In that second, Nina saw what he saw. She saw him in the thirties, not even in double figures yet, playing amongst bombed out estates in the East End. She saw him in the forties, learning to dance to the American dances, quite a ladies man, leaving buttons undone on his shirt. She saw him in the fifties, taking his son to the park to feed the ducks, taking his son to the cinema to see the latest thing, a feature length animated movie, taking his son bowling, helping his son push the ball down the aisle. All of it a waste of time, Nina thought, his son had problems with his brain and didn’t understand ducks or cartoon princesses or the rule that says you can’t cross the line on the bowling aisle. She saw him in the sixties, when his son died, and he went to the funeral in a black leather jacket like the Rolling Stones wore. Later, when his wife died, and he went to her funeral in the same jacket. She saw him in the seventies, and the eighties, and the nineties, and the noughties. He changed with the fashions, a little slower each year, until he stopped changing and started wondering what was happening to the rest of the world, wishing he could keep up, and finally not even noticing that the rest of the world was changing around him.

Some people on the platform saw him, some didn’t. There was a jumble as information was passed from the observant to the unobservant, and then a pause. The train doors stayed closed. The people stayed where they were, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for someone to tell them what to do. The train doors opened, people were asked to leave. A voice from above told people this train would not be leaving this station. It advised passengers to seek alternative routes to their destination. Nina was ahead of the crowd, already on the way to the Piccadilly line.

She spent exactly five minutes thinking about the old man’s death, wondering if she should take the rest of the day off work. She decided not. She remembered that the old man had been wearing an old leather jacket, wondered if it was the same one he’d worn to funerals in the sixties. She didn’t think his death was a loss. When you stop changing, you’re already dead.


Helen: What’s interesting to me is not whether that story is true or not, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But I know that you and Nina are getting close again. I’ve heard you talking to her on the phone recently, getting ready for the new store. I’ve heard you laughing. I’ve heard the pauses. So what’s interesting is that of all the stories you could’ve chosen to tell me from the middle of your marriage you choose to tell me one that reassures me you think Nina is a cold heartless bitch.

Me: Helen, honey, there’s nothing happening between Nina and me.

Helen: I know there’s not. It’s just nice that you wanted to reassure me. It shows that you care.

Saying I do care, emphasising the do, suggests I’m contradicting something Helen has said, rather than agreeing with it. Helen told me once that emphasis and excessive adjectives are sure signs a person’s lying.

Me: At my age, honey, you have to care.

Suggests I’m getting old. Shifts attention from one sensitive area to another. Helen seems to accept it, or maybe she’s just putting this conversation aside – we can revisit it later if I want.

Do I want to revisit it later? Am I getting closer to Nina again? We were in love once, that doesn’t all just go away. But how could I want anything from Nina now that I have Helen, lovely, wonderful, beautiful, smart, perfect Helen?




Christopher James lives and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. His stories are found or forthcoming in Tin House Online, Camera Obscura Online, the Times and the Smokelong Ten Year Anthology. He is always but always failing to work on a novel.

Read an interview with Christopher here.