Two Flash Fictions
When I first met David I was fat--I mean, fatter than now. How clearly I remember that day, as if it never happened but was only a daydream I’ve played over and over, polishing every tiny moment into shining perfection. In the slow-mo of an instant replay I can see every heavy gesture, the charged dance of attraction, the dawn of recognition between us. Like ancient weighty swamp monsters in some primeval mist we circled one another, just to the left of the Yves St. Laurent and behind the Armani. It was a muggy day around the Fourth of July.
I worked in an office near Penn Station back then and shopped the stores on my lunch breaks, scouring the racks for panties size 16 and bras with a padding in 44 or 46. It’s expensive to shop for unusual sizes, you know. They make you pay more when you’re special. And for a receptionist at a third-rate collection agency, lingerie can be a hungry habit to feed. Fortunately for myself, however, I’ve always made it a practice to steal something equal in value, give or take a few pennies, to the thing I’m actually buying. They never think you’re a suspect if you pay for things at the counter.
I’m just palming a bra in my special color--peach—about to drop it into my Macy’s shopping bag, when I notice this guy staring at me between two racks. Slowly, I slide the bra back onto its hanger, turn to inspect some vulgar black babydolls. The guy doesn’t look like your typical undercover, but who knows? Maybe they’d started hiring guys who looked like serial killers to patrol the women's panties. I mean, with guys like that lurking around, who had time to think about stealing?
As our eyes meet in that instant between racks, something in his glance makes me think of my first sexual experience, which also took place in a department store. I was about six, trailing after my mother, bored and nauseous in this bright windowless place where even the air seemed trapped. In a resentful stupor I got separated from her and soon I was surrounded by staring mannequins who all had one face. Fear rose in my throat, dragging vomit behind it. I stood perfectly still and looked at my feet where they met with the floor.
A man appeared, a tall man in a black coat, coming toward me through the racks of women’s clothing. He jerked open his coat. Inside, there was a pink snake stuck to the front of his pants, silly and fake-looking like someone wearing a stick-on nose. He moved closer until the snake was inches from my eyes. After a while he closed his coat, hurried away. Later, I was reunited with my mother. She was frightened, angry. She hit me, the first time.
So I’m examining the black babydolls, hoping this guy isn’t employed by the store, when he walks up behind me and grabs the very bra I’d been filching right off the rack. And just stands there. I can feel his breath, hot on my neck.
“You want this?”
The man is talking to me. I turn to face him, keeping my eyes on my feet where they connect to the floor. The man himself wears filthy work boots, shocking atop the little-girl pink of the carpet.
“You want this?”
I look up. The man has black eyes like holes. His eyes are all I can see. In them I see anger and fear and some intention so strong it almost knocks me back against the nightgowns.
“Look.” He jiggles the bra in front of my face. “You want this, I’ll get it for you.”
I almost laugh, and not just with relief. There’s just something undeniably comic that there exists in this world a man who wants to buy me underwear. I mean, the guy might crazy, but he isn’t blind. He isn’t even bad-looking if you go for that sort of unkempt, driven look, like I do.
We gaze at each other. What does he see? Time gets longer and longer, then stops. I’m pretty sure by this point he doesn’t work for the store. If then he is what he appears, this is a moment whose importance can barely be told. I stare and stare in his black eyes till I can see his emotions, bright and quick like shadows passing over the sun. The sun is black. I have never been sexually wanted.
Gerald does call on Thursday. He wants to “see the sights.” He’s Canadian, very precise in his speech. Okay, why not? She’s never been on the Circle Line. Why would she have? She’s from New York.
They meet on the pier, a long walk from the subway in her new pumps. It’s a freezing, windy spring day. She’s wearing her best dress, green silk with embroidered white flowers. Gerald is waiting. His black wool coat flaps open in the wind. He kisses her before she knows it and his breath smells like fish--cold, underwater life.
“Hiya, Ruthie!” Nobody calls her that. Her family says “Ruth,” one syllable falling down a hole.
Gerald buys the tickets. The boat is huge; they go down and down to the lowest level—to see better, he says. They stand on one side as the boat starts up with a gnashing of metal; below, the water gets whipped into a violent white froth. She leans over. So easy to take a little hop, to lurch with the boat and be gone under the suds, washed clean like dirty laundry. Maybe her problem is survivors’ guilt, like she read about in Life. But what has she survived, really? Brooklyn?
The boat bumps free of its berth. The piers and warehouses along the river shrink back. It sails north, past a toy-size Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Pan Am Building. Everything looks so perfect from this far away, a picture postcard, the greatest city in the world. This must be how outsiders saw New York.
“Look, Ruthie. Those are our football fields--Columbia University! We’re going to win too--‘55 is the Lions’ year!”
She nods encouragingly. The boat passes a small island in the middle of the river. Signs are posted around it. NO WAKE.
“Don’t jump Ruthie!” She looks at him quickly, but he’s joking. She smiles and he moves behind her, putting one arm around her on either side as if to protect her, but really it’s more like he’s pushing her closer to the water, trapping her between himself and the rail of the boat. He rubs his pants front against her behind.
She turns to face him. His eyes are a cold blue, glassy, strangely non-moving. They don’t match his smiling teeth. Does he think he can trick her? Does he think she doesn’t know about boys?
“C’mon, Ruthie, let’s see the inside.”
The boat is almost empty, just some tourists clicking their cameras at one another. There’s a concession selling hot chocolate in mugs with a picture of the Circle Line. She wants to use the Ladies’, but Gerald is pulling her toward a little white door flush with the wall, like a door a child would cut out of a box.
He opens it. It’s a storage room for life vests and rafts, dark and cluttered. They go in. The door clangs shut and suddenly Gerald is kissing her, his tongue pointy and hard, almost dry. His breath has a truly horrible smell, like a whale or a squid or something that rarely comes up for air. He pushes her against the wall and squeezes her breasts while trying to lift her dress like he has a thousand hands—an octopus. One of them leaves her to pull down his zipper.
Oh dear, she should not have come in here. What should she do? What did she do last time? Last time, Arnold said he would marry her if anything happened, but nothing happened. She liked Arnold, how he always says she looks like Elizabeth Taylor. His red sticky mouth. His red sticky thing digging a new subway tunnel inside her, a new line that ran all the way into Manhattan. Should she run out of here screaming? Would they call the police? Turn the boat around? But was it a crime if you were on a date? Didn’t that mean you’d agreed?
Gerald has got his pants unzipped and his thing is poking at her under her dress. She pushes him away, which only sends her falling backwards, right into the hole of a circular life raft. He’s on her in a second, yanking down her panties, jamming his thing in with amazing precision. She thrashes and manages to get up, feeling around in the darkness for the door. She finds it, flings it open. There in the brightness, right in front of her, is the Statue of Liberty.