Monday, April 8, 2024

Mine, fiction by Eleanor Keisman

A fragrant breeze drifted over me just as the pregnant woman passed by. I like to imagine it was her I was smelling. It surprised me how nice it was, like lilac scented soap. I always thought women who were that pregnant smelled gross, like swollen, sweaty flesh. When I thought of pregnancy, I thought of gas and leaky nipples, of a body oozing with double the fluids as it could handle. But the breeze around this woman smelled fresh and taught, much like the fit and hairless legs that carried her. Her hair was sandy blonde, straight, without tangles, fly-aways or frizz, and tied in a low ponytail. She seemed peaceful, like a body that had never cried out in existential agony before. Like someone that had never tasted their own blood in a fit of rage.

I was carrying a bag of groceries: salty things that burned my mouth, sweet things that sent my head spinning but ached in my stomach, crunchy things that felt good when I was angry and filled my ears with sound, soft things for when I wanted to sink my teeth into something, frozen things to stuff my freezer with, pretending I had a family to feed, bitter things that snapped me back to reality, and alcohol, for when I couldn’t bear to feel it anymore. A bag filled with calories that I didn’t want yet couldn’t stop gorging on. And though the frozen peas were melting, and I was only minutes away from my house, I backtracked: The scent of her spun me on my heels.

We were on a cul-de-sac, lined with houses, little and pastel colored and identical, as if made of ticky-tacky, like the song says. How many doctors and business executives lived in them? And how many lawyers? And how many dishonest ones, like mine? I hated the sight of it and had only agreed to move here in the first place because my husband had promised it would be temporary. It was near to the law firm, he said. It was affordable, he said, and would give us a chance to save money to move someplace not so suburban. He coerced me into giving up my financial independence and said it was teamwork.

And then it wasn’t teamwork. Then he had an affair, took the car, and never came home again, while I had a miscarriage and had to stay home every day. He called me a burden, said our marriage was a sham from the start, and turned himself into a hero for the charity of continuing to pay the bills, which, as he put it, I could never pay for myself. Now, isolated in the suburbs, the tepid puddle of my melted pride stagnating in the July heat, it turned out he was right.

The heat from the pavement rose through the soles of my shoes, baking my legs from the inside out. Still, I followed the pregnant woman, watching her cotton shorts swish and fan her with every step. She walked with a man of similar height, of similar skin color, and hair color. Their gait was synchronized, and they reached out their hands to one another at the same time, linking pinkies and swinging with ease.

And then the man laughed.

The woman had said something. He tipped his head slightly back and let out a ha-HA! It was almost a question, that second ha. The first, an unstoppable ejaculation – perhaps much like the moment that got them here in the first place – but the second ha had something fearful in it. As if her power terrified him and he sent out a call to those in his periphery to ask: Am I still a man if she has this control over me? May I still be the ultimate owner of this reality if I allow her half of it?

The HA lingered there in the air, echoing over his head, and then in my head. It started faint and then became high-pitched, glinting in my brain like a knife’s edge. A sound like that has a way of opening time sideways, extending within itself. Even in the linear space of a second, it held a depth that went on forever. It wasn’t even a human voice anymore. It raised itself above and beyond the tone of a question and pounded and screeched like a siren, causing my frustration to build. It felt like opening the door to my own house and having an alarm go off that I didn’t know the code for.

Or maybe there was no question. Maybe he just thought she was funny. Or maybe she hadn’t said anything at all, and he laughed at something he thought of himself, acting as both actor and audience. My husband laughed that way, and I used to get such a thrill every time I made it happen. But he was only using my humor to demonstrate how clever he was. Because who else would ever get my obscure references?

She didn’t do anything when he laughed, and the breeze felt once again hot and oppressive, the dwindling lilac scene was replaced with a faint odor of raw sewage. My swollen legs ached to turn me around back toward home, back to the airconditioned interior which would remain that way so long as he kept paying the bills, from wherever he was and whomever he was with. There were no phone calls or emails, divorce papers went unsigned. Me and my body rotted together in climate-controlled boredom, and no one laughed at my jokes anymore. I was pure passive receptivity, significant only in the requirements he felt were needed to keep me alive.

I’d been following the couple, trying to look inconspicuous, but when I focused back on the woman, I noticed that her hair was shorter. But her hair wasn’t shorter. It was him, with his big mitt-like hand, rubbing the back of her neck. He was slathering her with her own sweat, carelessly tangling her silky hair. I hadn’t seen her sweating before, and based on how she smelled, I couldn’t imagine it. But I was sweating, and because of that, I knew that she was too. I felt his hand on her neck as though it were my own. I felt his fingers, feigning concern, the palms of his hands, giving a touch that could be mistaken for security. They were firm and loving if you didn’t question why they lingered a little longer and held on a little stronger than they ought to.

The back of my neck felt suffocated, smothered in a gluey coating, and no fresh air could reach me.

The smell of rot punched me in the face.

There was an icy, aching sensation in my hip as the frozen peas I’d bought melted. Cold water dripped down my legs, lukewarm by the time it reached my feet. The cake I’d bought to binge on was soggy by now, and the potato chips were crushed. My pace had slowed, but the couple never left my sight. I had to find out if he was laughing at her or with her, if his hands meant to cradle her or control her. A block ahead of me, I saw them turn up the pathway to a light blue house and go inside. They closed the door on their little box. A few moments later, an electric sound clicked, and the house hummed.

After an hour loitering in a zigzag pattern up and down their block, my groceries hung limp and warm at my side, and I decided to go inside. The door was unlocked and the airconditioned breeze washed over me like absolution the moment I walked in. I set my bag down in the entrance and stepped gently. It was like walking into someone else’s dream. The parquet flooring led into a living room with a dark wood coffee table, two grey armchairs, and a light blue sofa with beige pillows. And on that sofa, the lilac-scented woman with the sandy-blonde hair and the man with the big hands and the loud laugh, napped together.

The man’s hair had looked sandy brown, but up close it appeared darker. It was curly, lighthearted in the way it sprung across his forehead. He was curled toward her, but only gently so, making space for her belly, and for her breath. Up until this point, I’d known him only from the back and from his piercing HA of laughter, but asleep on this blue-sky sofa, he looked like something from a magazine. He looked gentle in a way that could only be staged. Men like that didn’t really exist, anyway, none that wanted me.

What sort of a person does a woman have to be to find a man like that? I wanted to know, to know her, to know how she got to be her. To know everything about her, inside and out. I needed to get inside and understand where her lilac scent came from, how it was possible to be human – ugly, wrinkled, greedy, weak, reeking with the intrinsic odor of fluids and cells – and still attract something that had love in it. She had to be made of some other stuff than I was.

I sat down on the floor, right next to her mouth, and sniffed her breath. She was so perfect, that there was none. It wasn’t bad smelling, or sweet smelling, or warm or cold. It just wasn’t there, as though she were a doll. I put my hand over his open mouth, and also felt nothing. They were perfect. Nothing to argue with, dislike, or offend. I put my mouth to hers and inhaled. I wanted to feed off her like a baby bird. I wanted to be the baby in her belly. I wanted her to be my mommy and teach me how to do it all again, only this time, better.

Neither of them moved. I inhaled until I was filled with the saltiness of her insides. They made me dizzy. I lifted her shirt and tried to crawl inside, but it wasn’t the warmth I was seeking. I wanted her to hold me, to make me a part of her so I could know, really know what she was and how I could be that too. I clawed at her belly, and she rocked back and forth from the weight of me. There was no movement from either of them, as though they were not only asleep, but paused in time, and waiting for me to join their lives. As though I were the baby they were waiting for.

I clawed, like a child trying to get attention. I pawed at her arms and linked my fingers through hers. I hugged her. I held her palms open to see if the secret to her was hidden there. I licked them, and then, I bit. First, I ate her fingers, long and gentle, and then once I got her stomach open, using a letter opener on the coffee table, I ate the baby’s fingers. Adorable fingers of promise, fingers made by love, fingers, not only that I was denied, but that no one wanted from me anyway. But these, I could have. I could swallow them and walk around with them inside me in defiance of my own undesirability.

Then I kissed his mouth to understand what she felt when she kissed him. I wanted to know what kindness felt like in flesh. I sucked and chewed on them and pressed myself against them with such force that it hurt my teeth. His lips were soft, and they made me wet, so I unbuttoned his pants and took off mine, sat on his lap, and rocked until I came. And then I ate them, and they were soft and crunchy at the same time. Then I ate his penis so it would always be with me.

I reached up into her chest, carved out her heart, and ate it, tears and blood running down my face and chest. She was what I wanted to be, and now I’d have her inside me. Both of them, all mine. I fell asleep on top of him, my head on his chest, my arm cradling her head, fingers tangled in her hair.

is an American writer living in Vienna, Austria. She holds a bachelor’s in Liberal Arts, an MBA, and is currently an MFA candidate working on her first novel. Her work has appeared in Litro Magazine, 21-MAGAZINE, and The Bangalore Review. When she's not developing her own writing, she's working on a series of translations of Rainier Maria Rilke from the original German to English. 

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