Strangers

By Natalie Taylor

Do you remember when we sat on the top of that old tank in the park on the bad side of town and ate takeout burgers and tater tots? The tank had been there for years. Might still be, but I only went to that side of town with you. The green paint was graffitied with dirty words, and the edges of the welded-shut hatch doors displayed  the essence of claw-marks—a decade’s worth of kids’ fingernails scrambling to see what was inside the abyss of the tank.

It was almost dusk, and we sat on top of the upper hatch door and looked down the neck of the long gun into the woods, across the parking lot, and into the invisible, distant, ritzy neighborhood where we meandered in your Jeep when we had nothing else to do. The battered Jeep didn’t have air conditioning, so we would drive with the windows rolled down and point at the mansions and laugh at their monstrosity. But I knew you wanted to live in one someday. I could see it in your eyes.

My bare legs stuck to the hot, peeling paint of the tank. You had your ankles crossed; your white socks were stained with red dust from the playground. We had swung higher and higher until we were out of breath. I had ignored the pinch of rusty chains in my hip—I was too curvy for that. I wasn’t built for swinging on swing sets with boys anymore. Sorry, I mean guys, men.

You always hated it when I called you a boy. You wouldn’t even let me call you my boyfriend. You said it made you sound like a child. You said you were seventeen and no longer a boy.

“What am I supposed to call you, then, Andrew?” I asked you once. “My escort? My male suitor?”

You shrugged. “Just tell anybody who asks that we’re dating.”

I never liked that word; it was too temporary. I didn’t want to be a fleeting moment in your landscape. I wanted to be more than that even though I was only sixteen. I never said any of that out loud. But later, you let Ginny Clearwater call you her boyfriend, and that bothered me more.

We sat on the tank while the sun set behind us. You chewed in time with the chitter of the crickets. When we were finished eating, you held my hand, and our palms glued to each other with sweat. Our hands acted like suction cups, and when we let go, we never knew whose yellow wetness ran in rivers through our palm lines.

I knew I was in love with you when you didn’t wipe your hand on your jeans after we held hands the first time in that rated-R movie you snuck me into. I never told you how big of a deal that was to me—the not letting go of my hand thing, not the rated-R movie. I was afraid you would think it was stupid, that I was being overly emotional.

It started to rain, and we slid down the side of the tank and leapt to the ground. The dampening earth didn’t spray up dust like it had when we’d thrown ourselves out of the swings, giggling and rolling onto our sides to avoid broken ankles. Your laugh always trickled out of you from your belly until it finally brightened your face. I think that was what I loved most about you, but now I wonder if it was real.

We crawled between the painted-over, bulldozer-like tracks that hadn’t moved in years, that I wasn’t sure had ever moved. Maybe that tank had never been in a combat zone at all. Maybe it was always just a piece of playground equipment, something to climb and play on but never to take seriously.

We knelt there in the dirt under the tank while the whole park blurred around us. Your dark hair fell forward into your eyes. Your fingers cradled my elbow, pulling me closer to you when the thunder rumbled through us and lightning ricocheted off the setting sun. I wanted to tell you to kiss me, that it was time to quit playing the gentleman and just do it. If you were such a man, then how come we’d been dating for six months and you’d never made a move?

I thought about that while we huddled in the half-dark waiting for the rain to stop. I stared at you. I bit my lip. I willed you in my head to kiss me. It always worked that way in the movies. It never occurred to me to just kiss you.

Not long after that night, you broke up with me, and not long after that, I heard you’d had sex with Ginny Clearwater in the girls’ locker room at school. And not long after that, you told me you were joining the army. Actually, you didn’t tell me about the army thing. Ginny Clearwater told Joel Boswell who whispered it in my ear during study hall. I just pretended like I didn’t know when you told me offhandedly two days later in the hallway between classes.

Unlike most broken-up couples, we were awkward around each other because of the things that hadn’t happened rather than the things that had. But the night after Joel told me about your plans, I sobbed in the shower. I just knew that you were going to die and that I would never get to kiss you.

You didn’t tell me about the Ginny Clearwater thing either. I was in the bathroom stall directly across from the showers in the locker room that afternoon, not two weeks after you told me, “I think we were only ever meant to be friends.”

I stood there in the stall, imagining you pressing her against the slimy yellow tile, her freckled legs wrapped around your waist. I heard you. I heard her stifled moans, your involuntary grunts. I heard you tell her you loved her, a whisper-echo that refused to stop repeating itself.

I sat on the toilet seat and curled my toes up underneath me so you wouldn’t see my feet when you both walked out, breathless and steamed. I sat there for an hour afterwards until the janitor said I had to leave. My knees ached, and my shoelaces were wet.

Ginny was my best friend when we were small—I wondered if she ever told you that. She lived four houses down from me, and we would jump on the trampoline in her backyard while her over-protective mom watched out the kitchen window. But sometime before middle school, Ginny dumped me on the playground. She dumped me because I didn’t have blonde hair and didn’t like to paint my nails. It made sense to me at the time.

I wondered if her mom knew she had sex with you in the girls’ locker room every day after school until you graduated. I almost knocked on the door of Ginny’s house and told Mrs. Clearwater once. But by the time I’d thought of it, you were already overseas, and revenge seemed pointless then.

"I love grain" by Ashley Harrigan

“I love grain” by Ashley Harrigan

I went to the wedding even though I didn’t want to. I don’t know if you even remembered me being there. I sat alone, sipped red wine, and watched you dance with Ginny. After four years in the army, you and Ginny had somehow made it to that moment with Etta James’s “At Last” playing over the country club speakers. I didn’t believe it when I got the invitation in the mail. I had almost forgotten about you. Not really, but I told myself I had.

“I’m glad you could make it, Ellie,” you said at the reception with your arm wrapped around Ginny’s waist. She smiled at the room, ignoring us—you’d probably told her all about our relationship. She probably laughed at me for never kissing you. She seemed like the type of person to think that that was my fault instead of yours. Maybe it was.

I smiled back and hugged you and let you kiss me on the cheek, right next to my earlobe. I was wearing the earrings you gave me for my seventeenth birthday, and I wondered if you noticed. The kiss was a quick whisper of hot breath that made my fingertips prickle. I relived that moment from your wedding for a month, making it into something it wasn’t. I tried to remember if you had ever even kissed me on the cheek when we were dating. You hadn’t.

I was wrong about you dying in the army. You hung yourself in your apartment bathroom you shared with Ginny ten years after you got married. I don’t know what you were thinking doing that to yourself. I don’t know why I would know; we hadn’t talked in years, but I feel like I was supposed to have a deeper understanding of you. I always thought I had that before.

That night in the park as we huddled under the tank and listened to the plinking of rain on metal, you put your hand on my lower back and said, “We’ve got the whole world right here, Ellie.”

“What do you mean, Andrew?” I asked.

“Just look,” you said staring out into the rain. And I nodded and looked and I thought I understood you.

That’s why I’ve spent half my life trying to forget you. Since your wedding, I’ve moved away. Got married. Got divorced. You probably never cared to know about any of that, but maybe you saw it in the papers or heard about it from your mother, who heard it from mine.

The last time I saw you, it was a few months ago. I was in town to see my parents, and you had your three-year-old on your hip in the grocery store. We made eye contact, but you looked away like you hadn’t recognized me. So I ducked down the frozen food aisle and pressed a package of peas to my flushed cheeks.

* * * *

Ginny found your body. They put her in the psychiatric ward at the hospital after your funeral last week. I went to see her yesterday. I’m not sure why I went—if it was more for her or for you. Maybe it was really just for me—now that you’re gone, maybe I can finally figure out why you chose her and not me.

I sat with her for a long time, not really speaking. But she didn’t notice. Her eyes looked straight through me, projecting the image of your dangling body into the corner of the room behind me. I could see it even without turning around. She does love you, you know. I think your whole life, you’d been pushing that away, or maybe just running.

I went for a walk tonight. It was long past midnight, but after seeing Ginny, I started feeling like I’d been there looking over her shoulder when she stumbled into your bathroom. I know you were nearly bald, but I imagine that your dark hair was falling forward into your eyes, like it always had, as you dangled from the steel shower rod.

It was snowing tonight, like it does here once every ten years or so. I walked past the old bagel shop on Baker Street, the one that burned down when you and I were dating, and they never built anything to replace it. Instead, the bagel people rebuilt over on Maple. You were disappointed; you always said that there was something poetic about a bagel shop on Baker. I thought it was cliché. But I liked when you said things like “poetic” because it made you sound more human. But it was cliché for me to think that.

As I walked, the street lights let off a funny yellow glow that looked like it should’ve been warm but wasn’t. And there, in front of the old concrete slab and dried-out bushes of the old bagel shop, was an old man standing in the middle of the sidewalk. I guess he wasn’t really old, maybe only ten years older than me. His arms were outstretched. He was crucifying himself on the wind. The snow was piling itself up against his worn-out loafers, like he had welded himself into the landscape. But he wasn’t shivering in his green cargo jacket that hung loose on his shoulders.

“Hey mister, what are you doing?” I said. My voice was ripped away from me in the swirl of snow. His eyes remained closed. Not squeezed shut—there weren’t any creases in the corners of his eyes. He was relaxed, like he was actually asleep on his feet. I stared at him for a while thinking about how composed he looked and how I wanted to touch him, wanted to know what he felt like. This man, seemingly unaware of my presence, had me transfixed.

I slipped off my yellow glove and held my hand out towards his face. I couldn’t stop myself. I reached forward, closing the gap between us. His beard was surprisingly soft like cotton, but his pink skin was like the cedar panels in my house. I cupped his jawbone, mesmerized by the contrast in textures and how suddenly small my hand looked.

I found myself thinking about that night when you and I were sitting on that green army tank looking down the barrel of that big gun. I had been pondering sweaty hands and how much I wanted you to kiss me. I had been imagining living in a mansion with you someday.

But what were you thinking about? Were you wondering why you couldn’t bring yourself to kiss me, or were you already undressing Ginny Clearwater in your mind? Did you already know that you would join the army to get away from everything in this town, including Ginny, only to come back and find her waiting for you? Were you already feeling the things that you must have been feeling in order to hang yourself in your bathroom shower fifteen years later?

The snow fell faster as I buried my fingers in the stranger’s graying hair. Whole minutes must have passed before I noticed that his green-tinged eyes were open and tracing the lines of my face, taking it all in. He didn’t pull away. He didn’t even move. So I leaned in and kissed him on that place between lips and cheek, on that intimate spot that can be construed as two things at once. I lingered for a second with my eyes closed, breathing in the air that surrounded him. Then I let go and walked away, pulling my yellow gloves back onto my frozen fingers.

Now I’m back in my old childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, and I had an urge to tell you about that, about the man in the street that I kissed. I needed to convince you that it was real. And I want to tell you that I’m going to go see Ginny again tomorrow. I need to convince her that the man she sees swinging from a rope in her hospital room isn’t really you. It never really was.

 

Natalie Taylor is currently an MFA student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is the design editor for Permafrost Magazine. Her work has been published in Prick of the Spindle.

Advertisements