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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
How she ended up like this, free of her double-walled sac and lurking in the bushes beneath his bedroom window, is still unclear. One day she was a healthy mixture of humor and pathos contracting at 72 beats per minute, the next she was discarded in an alley, broken and struggling to stimulate herself on her own. She tucks herself under crumpled newspaper and cardboard, hoping to shield the late night chill, but a sudden wind forces the stinging air under her makeshift cover and she shivers. Out of pure instinct, she pumps harder, hoping to warm herself, but her blood runs like a phantom limb now, moving through her system invisible yet still riddled with pain. If it weren’t for her own intrinsic rhythm, that uncontrollable jumble of self-excitable cells, she would have stopped long ago.
After nearly six months of living in exile, her impulses have become dangerous and unpredictable. She hasn’t seen him in weeks, but she knows he’s there. She can still sense him, still believing this nocturnal ache to be the pull of fate. She nestles deeper into the damp dirt, into the cavity her presence has carved out from these nightly visits. She doesn’t try to understand why she tortures herself like this; she’s never had the capacity for reason. She only knows she can’t live without this, this nearness, this ritual, as if it will calm the unexpected flutters that disrupt her fragile rhythm. She wants to tell him that she’s sorry, that she would take it back if she could, that to linger beneath his window night after night is an awful plaguing thing, the stabbing twinges proof she was never fully divided, about him or about them.
When she was younger, she longed to beat in the chest of a hummingbird, imagining how the adrenaline from 600 beats per minute would catapult her to giddy heights, that the singular desire to consume nectar would burn deep in her core, how the threat of continuously being hours away from starving to death would intensify her will to live. There wouldn’t be time to beat in futility. You would just know — reject the flowers that don’t give you what you need, that sweet liquid almost stronger than you can bear, because every drop is another second of your drastically short life. But now, in the shivering cold, she envies their ability to slow the world down when they can’t find what they need, to simply sleep through the longing and wait for another day. Sleep isn’t possible for her anymore.
She pulls the newspaper in tighter around her and is surprised to see drops of blood on the black and white print. At first, the blood excites her, a hopeful sign that her old life can soon resume, but she knows it’s just the darkness pooling inside of her. She is haunted by the effort it will take to revive that life. If she lives to be sixty-five years old, she will have pulsated and throbbed and pounded her way through 2.5 billion contractions. It’s more than she can fathom in the bitter night, and she burrows deeper, exhausted.
Somewhere a dog begins to bark, at a squirrel or a cat or, perhaps, at nothing. It barks and it howls until a rustling is heard above her, someone stirring at the window, finally. She moves from her shelter and sees a silhouette, hands cupping eyes as they peer through the glass. She knows it’s him, but as he stares at the moon or that incessant sound of loneliness, his face is hidden. She needs to see him, the fervent eyes, and that crippling lure, his supple mouth. Moving a bit farther from her nest, his face catches the light from his bedroom, illuminating his features. Even through the warped reflection of the windowpane, she can see, once more, that he is everything.
She palpitates an urgent tempo, wanting to drum him all the way into her recesses or to flush him completely out, until a woman appears, a stranger behind him, arms wrapped around his torso, pulling him back into their nest. She panics at this breach, and her impulses fling her out into the open, into his line of vision. A shrieking far more anguished than any dog erupts from inside the house. Startled and confused, they gape at each other, pointing and pumping and shaking, as if they’ve each flushed out a sniper, and then she sees it, her reflection, shimmering in the glass like a gory ghost, spawned out of arteries and veins and a bloody aorta, the cracked layers of withering tissue covered with sputum and urine and bits of garbage. She is nothing but a sickening gray slab of muscle and desperation.
The curtains are thrown shut and the image of him, and her own subterfuge, vanishes. She falters on the lawn and, for a brief moment, she remembers, the other arms, the other nest, so secret and so brutal. She envisions sinking into the earth, the early morning dew and blades of grass too heavy for her to hold. It would be so easy to collapse into the dirt with her mistakes and just let go, but the sirens and the stomping feet soon jar her from her stoppage, and she bolts.
Where she’ll go for now, she doesn’t know. Her impulses are getting harder and harder to control but, at least, they mean she’s still hoping, that her rhythm will settle, that she’ll be able to return to an integrated life somewhere, someday. Perhaps a fish, she imagines, as she roams the waking streets, a primitive fish like a codfish, the blood flow so simple, flowing in an easy S-shape at a painless 20 beats per minute, using more of the aorta and less of the heart, so effortless and so uncomplicated.
Donna Laemmlen is an award-winning screenwriter who teaches graduate film studies at the Academy of Art University. She recently completed an MFA in fiction at the University of San Francisco and her stories appear or are forthcoming in Fast Forward Press’s fifth anthology of flash fiction (Flash 101: Surviving the Fiction Apocalypse), SmokeLong Quarterly, Slice magazine, Switchback Literary Journal, and elsewhere.
*Tin House is now accepting flash fiction (under 1,000 words) for FLASH FRIDAYS. Please send to firstname.lastname@example.org with FLASH FRIDAY as your subject line.