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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
She sleeps beside him, her body a jumbled outline under the sheets, bunched and heavy and comfortable. In an hour, it will be day. She will dress quietly by the chair under the window, her jewelry, a wristful of bracelets, jingling as she steps into her skirt. Standing over the bed, she’ll brush back his hair, maybe kiss him lightly on the cheek, and when his alarm goes off an hour later she’ll be gone, back to her job and her daughter, her real life.
Resting his head in his hand, Troy watches her sleep. Would Lissa ever do this with him? he wonders. Probably not. She likes him. She likes that he picks up the phone when she calls, likes that he has a steady job, that he’s clean and sober, that, unlike her ex, he would never hit her or humiliate her in front of her little girl. But no, this isn’t love for her. Not yet. Maybe not ever. She’s here because Troy goes to the same meetings she does and is free on Sunday nights when her ex has Joella. She’s here because Troy has not, would not, be so stupid as to say he is in love with her.
And yet he can’t stop staring, studying her, hoarding her. He was there the first day she came in, high and scared, hunkered down in sweats and a hoodie, a pair of drug store sunglasses covering a black eye. He’d only been a few weeks clean himself then, still out of work, still going around in combat boots and an old army jacket and crashing on friends’ couches. He’d waited almost a year, getting by on brief moments of eye contact in meetings, fragments of conversation over the coffee urn, until she’d ditched the ex and got custody of Joella, until he’d ditched the Travis Bickle look and started working for his brother’s construction company. He had waited for her to approach him after a meeting to ask for a smoke. “Our last bad habit,” he’d joked. “Yeah, unless you count coffee and cinnamon rolls,” she’d said. And then it took him another six months to take the hint and ask her out for coffee.
Now she’s here, in his apartment, not just for a few hours in front of the tube and an awkward make-out session on the couch, but all night. He wants to capture the moment, crystallize it, commit her every feature to memory. He starts with her ear. Her ear is in no way remarkable, but it is hers, and so he studies it, following the curlicues of cartilage and flesh until he comes to rest on a line of ancient piercings on her lobe, now healed and replaced with a single gold stud. He moves on to her cheek, wrinkled as parchment, and her kohl-dark eyelids, the lashes tinted the same artificial blonde as her hair. Then his eyes begin to wander, tracing the curve of her neck to her shoulders and on down to where she’s pulled the sheets around her chest. Gently, he lifts the fabric, folding it back once, and then again.
“Can we turn out the light?” she’d whispered the night before as they settled on his bed.
“But I want to see you.”
“Oh no, you don’t,” she’d said. “Trust me, honey, you really don’t.”
It’s true. Asleep and unclothed, Lissa’s body is too frankly human to be beautiful. Her sack-like breasts glow palely in the half-light, and between the sharp points of her hip bones a long red line of abraded flesh slices across her belly – a C-section scar, he thinks. Pregnancy, alcohol, speedballs, faded tattoos, half a dozen beatings that sent her to the hospital or a shelter: all these are written on her body. He’s heard her talk in meetings, knows that if he looks closely he’ll see the tracks up her arms, the jagged scars along her back and ass where her ex, blind drunk, once threw her against a shower door so hard she broke it. He knows, because he feels the same, that there is no place in her, no crevice of muscle or sinew or bone that isn’t in some way broken. And yet here she is, in his bed, quietly snoring.
Outside, a garbage truck shifts its gears, startling him, and he feels the first cold shiver of morning on his skin. He pulls the sheets back over them both, creating a small tent of warmth. She stirs in her sleep, opening herself to him, and he turns until they’re spooned, his back against her thigh and belly. As he closes his eyes, waiting for sleep, he feels her arm slip, numbly, automatically, over the small of his back, pulling him close. She sighs, her body shifting a dozen different ways to get comfortable, and then she’s snoring again, her face settled in the crook of his neck. He knows it isn’t him she’s hugging in her sleep. Maybe it’s Joella who sometimes climbs into bed with her on cold nights. Maybe it’s even her ex. Still, he thinks, her breath soft against his neck, maybe one day it will be me. Maybe one day she’ll let me see her in the light.
Michael Bourne‘s fiction and poetry have appeared in The Potomac Review, The Orange Coast Review, River City, Oakland Review, and other journals. He is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for the online literary site, The Millions. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife and son.