The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 3, No. 3

This Close

by John Son

      She tore off the wrapping and held the book up to her chest like a child's first puppy, her face angled up in a fit of joy, her eyes shut tight. I took off my jacket and hung it on the back of a chair, unbuttoned my cuffs and rolled them up to my elbows. I walked up to her and touched her bare shoulder, my index finger pressing the scarred button of tissue left by a long-ago immunization. Immediately, as if everything had stopped for a while, the world began to move, and like a china-headed doll with a clockwork heart Sara opened her eyes and smiled.
      "So," she said. "When are we leaving?"

      I was trying to play stupid (shrugged, loosened my tie) when something fell to the floor behind me—the light, clear tap of an envelope. Sara and I looked at each other, then simultaneously looked back over my shoulder. Because she was shorter than me she had to raise herself onto her toes, placing one hand on my chest for balance. I could smell the comforting scents of her body—sweat, perfume, shampoo, and something else I'd never been able to put a name to. It was a kind of feeling, like waiting in an empty room for someone to show up, and then imagining, then sensing, then knowing for a fact based on zero evidence that the person you've been waiting for is there on the other side of the wall, down on one knee, casually stroking what once belonged to you, be it rare stamp, child, or the woman who'd made your existence worthwhile.
      She gasped when she saw the envelope. It was the kind used for airline tickets, there on the floor beneath my jacket, a rectangle of faraway possibilities. She began jumping in place, as if gathering speed, and in her haste to get to the envelope she literally threw me aside. I stumbled to the right and fell into a sitting position on the couch, astonished by the strength of her resolve.

      We deserved a break from doing the same thing every day, and then a little differently every weekend. Variety is underrated. Plus we needed time off from our jobs, which respectively we'd come to find satisfied less and less any deep-seated lack or need than... what? Grinding ourselves down to bone? Building future waste? Slowly realizing we weren't topping the food chain? That in terms of voracious consumption something else had us beat?
      Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
       I grabbed Sara's hands and together we waltzed around the living room, giggling and wiping our noses from trying to laugh through them. Sometimes we just left the glistening mucosal evidence of our joy right there on our faces, mustachioed. We were like kids whose parents were on vacation, as if the cookie jar were open all night.

      The flight was a blank space of trust. We knew we got on and we knew we got off. In between we gave ourselves up to pharmaceutical bliss, popping two sleeping pills each. We had to be shaken violently awake by the stewardess.
      With our bags in hand, we stepped outside and entered air with—I didn't know how else to describe it—presence.
      "Get over it," she said. "It's the humidity."

      How could we not with a name like that? Educated, a bit lost, and so bored, we found high, sweet comedy in the ridiculous, which was anything sincere and shown face value. Hotel Coco: of course. Set askew between a gentleman's club and a strip bar, bulb signs still flashing in broad daylight.
      Sara hit the brakes and my drink flew out of my hand, spilling ice and Coke all over the dash, the seat, and my near-white chinos, purchased exclusively for the trip. Rolling down her window she set her elbow on the armrest and her chin in the palm of her hand.
      "Lookit," she said.

      In the doorway of the bathroom, hip-cocked inside a terry-cloth robe, a Hershey's Kiss of green towel sitting on top of her head. I paused, then continued fiddling with the wall lamps above the double bed. I got straight to the point and asked her how they worked.
      "What for?" she said.
      I paused again, then unbent myself from peering up underneath the lampshade. I looked at her, my head on the diagonal, like a dog's "huh?" She smiled, and did something to her body that reminded me of the red line on a barber's pole—all that apprehension outside the door, before you take a deep breath and go in anyway, like everyone else already inside. Then you close your eyes while the old man runs a blade across your skin.
      "Darkness," I said. "It comes yonder."
      She shrugged and pulled the towel off her head.
      "Your hair," I said, miming scissors. "You cut it."
      "Snip-snip," she said. "You like?" She brought her hands up and pulled the robe off her shoulders, where it hung for a moment on the cloth-skin friction before dropping into a damp heap around her ankles.
      "Whoops," I said, meaning not the robe.
      She followed my gaze and looked down at herself. The room's wall unit wheezed on while somewhere else a car alarm went off. Outside in the parking lot a couple went into a shouting match, followed by the muffled slam of a car door, then the gravelly slide of tires on loose asphalt. We looked back up at each other and I saw a muscle twitch in her jaw, and then that pervasive little semi-smile of hers widened tentatively into a grin. Her hands moved toward her hips, then thought better of it and went instead for their opposing armpits. Before they got there they lost their momentum and dropped to her sides, conceding what had already been done.
      "I got a little carried away," she said, a flush of red billowing across her cheeks, down her neck, and out toward her shoulders. "What do you think?"
      Except in magazines I'd never seen it like that, so revealed and unadorned—like plucked chicken. I wanted to tell her how unspeakably pretty it was. Instead, I did what any asshole would, and in the process nearly threw out my back.

       Now it's manta rays. Sara's attitude was, like, dolphins, manta rays, whatever. Things change. She paid and jumped in with all the others, none of whom seemed to notice the difference either. They stood waist-deep in the blue water, enthralled by the knowledge of a bargain, and the gentle secret kept by the dark shapes slipping wordlessly between them. Sara had her hands alternately clapped to her cheeks or double-stacked over her O-shaped mouth. She couldn't seem to decide which—fear or ecstasy. And even though I stood on the pier and watched, leaning against the sun-hot railing with a breezy smile on my face, I felt the same way too.

      Like atmosphere gone awry, and just enough lighting to keep from running into things. Bilevel flooring. Enough glass block to consider it—if you didn't already—tacky from then on. A waitstaff on the bored side of beautiful. The same was true for the bathroom attendants. I was afraid someone might reach around and tap my equipment for me.
      Four dollar signs and a black star in the left margin of our Fodor's: we highlighted it, then tried it. The food had composition, but barely enough to engender taste. I couldn't tell if it was Cuban or Italian.

       But the drinks were strong and abundant, invariably graced by little paper umbrellas Sara couldn't get enough of. She opened them over her head and hunched down as if caught in a downpour, then pulled her head back and looked around all wide-eyed. Suddenly she lurched forward and exploded into laughter, her chest nearly touching her knees. While in this position she slipped the little umbrella into the purse by her feet. I told her she was fucked up, which she failed to appreciate. She gripped the edge of the table and leaned toward me, her elbows extending up and out like wings, her face narrowed down for better aim. I braced myself. She opened her mouth and let out a deep, cavernous belch, ringing a bell of silence at least two tables out from us.
      "See," I whispered. "See."

      It was terror wearing a smile. Mobs of revelers jostling into each other, shit-faced and abandoned. Tourists, locals, illegals, retirees, egregiously whacked-out collegiates, individuals you could only describe as suspect. A seething crisis of music. Sara at my side. Sara grabbing my ass. Sara laughing and pointing and saying oh but did she feel suddenly godawful sick—or great—she couldn't tell which. Bright, shiny cars drifted by in a slow pageant of whumping bass and frustrated machismo, the street's façade inverted on all that chrome and waxed galore. The only way to deal was acute alcoholism, an ounce of this, or a vial of that, and so every other car wafted forth a strange perfume of car deodorant, incense, and a version of heaven's reward. Someone honked at a stopped car in which a beautiful woman sat in a swimsuit, triggering a collective wail that flew up into the night sky, only to vanish like prayer through the moon. And Sara, she was a little overcome. She brought the back of her hand up to her forehead and swooned against me. And all that tenderness and all that warmth—I should've choked it out right then and there.

       We decided to drive back to our hotel room. Though once Sara and I found the car we commenced arguing about which of us was the least sober. Things got quickly out of hand and we fell into a little mash-mouth up against the side of the car. I had one hand pressed up under the curve of her ass and the other on the back of her neck, pushing her mouth into mine rather than onto. She was likewise plastered against me, her hands groping their way up to my thinning hair. Unexpectedly she proceeded to pull the shit out of it. Did she want me to stop? Or was this a function of passion? Either way it hurt. I groaned and moaned and she did too, the combined groaning and moaning buzzing our lips. People whooped in approbation as they drove by. Privacy became an issue and we scrambled into the car, speeding off in the direction of the hotel.

      The air was a cool, damp seventy degrees flowing in through our open windows. Sara was leaning into my lap, giggling at what her hands were doing. She suggested I never again purchase button-flies. Traffic was nil, except for us, which was fortunate considering the way I was bogarting both lanes. Then we hit a curve, a shallow loop bypassing a palm tree. I imagined civil engineers comparing cost estimates for uprooting the tree versus paving around it; it being the nature of local government to take the more expensive route at all times, the tree remained. But though my head probably contained more tequila than simple H2O at the time, I was conscious enough to consider how expensive our trip was turning out to be. In fact our dwindling funds must have been foremost on my mind. Why else would I have ignored the primal image of the palm tree? Why else would I have tried to cut our costs by driving straight through it?

       A nice, quiet interval post-impact. Nothing but the insectile tick of an engine's last moments. And then the rest of the spiderwebbed windshield caved in on its own weight, spilling down onto the floorboard and waking us out of our dream. We didn't look at each other, mostly because we weren't aware of each other. We just knew we had to get out of the car. Once we got out, though, the situation didn't necessarily improve.
      For example: Sara's head. I'd never seen it like that before. From my vantage point across the roof of the car it looked . . . despondent? No, disembodied. In fact it was a soon-to-be memory awash in blood. Candied is how it looked, which is how I last remember her—contrary to expectations.
      And how did I look? Could she even see me at that point? And if she could, did she recognize me? Or was I just some stranger with one arm—though I didn't know it yet—missing? At the time I tried voicing some of these concerns, but produced only a bubble of blood.

       The cops pieced together the chain of events, took up the scattered links, and came up with a string of facts, said: "This is what happened." Apparently upon impact my half of the windshield buckled inward, spraying a million bits of glass into me. I was left with a system of scars across my chest, neck, and face, begging for explanation. So while I was slamming forward into the steering wheel and at the same time transforming myself into a human pincushion, a shard of glass sliced through my right shoulder joint, compelling the departure of my arm. In accordance with the laws of physics, said arm then continued onward in a flat arc over the accordionized hood, trailed by its own arterial splatter, ultimately thunking down past the palm tree, just short of the road's returning loop. After noting the condition of Sara's head (see STRANGER) I must have somehow listed over toward the road in a drunk, shocked, bleeding, comprehensively busted-up, one-armed way. Spurts of blood marked my route, which Forensics was able to follow like last year's dance craze. Though right when I got to the road I slipped on my arm (which my slipping on it seemed to squish it out onto the road like a bar of soap) and fell headfirst. At that point in time I broke my neck. All I could do was close my eyes. Unfortunately they later opened.
      But Sara! She fought on, the trouper. Walked straight for the light coming toward her and as it split in two, vanished. According to the truck driver she came out of nowhere. He could only blink in disbelief, undermining the necessity of hitting his brakes.

      He went on to say she reminded him of his own sweet Griselda, his six-year-old daughter, his pigtailed pride and joy, his still alive. Seems whenever he returned from one of his cross-country stints she'd run up to him with her arms outspread, squealing in delight as she vaulted into his arms. Except Sara'd been moving in this drag-footed sort of way and was completely red from the blood percolating out of her skull. And though, yes, her arms were outspread too, like an angel returning home, he was pretty sure she didn't recognize him. They'd never met before.

      But what her vision was remains undetermined. Though I wonder if she felt anything, I mean aside from pain. Did she experience joy? Rapture? Did she think eighteen wheels and two tons of air conditioners was the light she'd always been looking for?

      I woke up in a huge roar, strapped flat on my back. A face appeared before me and moved its mouth—major plaque accumulation, coffee stains. I had the distinct impression I was attached to more things than I thought possible. Suddenly everything tilted, including my head. Across the way on a gurney unattended, covered . . . Sara? Was that her? Was that her? No way! There just didn't seem to be enough there! And past that through a window, what I at first thought was a great, black, star-filled sky coming to get me, then realized before going back under—whoa! That's ground! That's Miami, F-L-A!

      I wasn't sure what manta rays liked to eat, but there hadn't been enough of Sara to bury. Good old Bill Sydlowski drove me down to the beach and then rolled me out to the edge of the pier. When we thought no one was looking I gave him the signal, and there she went, over the railing in a fine, gray cloud. If the urn hadn't slipped out of his hand and splashed into the water no one would've noticed. But the judge understood and threw out the case. Even saw him wipe a tear from his cheek.
      I never saw Bill again, though I know he's out there.

      (A man's voice.) "Hello?"
      "Hold please."
      (A woman's voice.) "Hello?"
      "Yes . . . this is Sara."
      "It's me . . . Merritt."
      "Hello, Merritt."
      "Hi. Hello."
      (I always get a little stuck at this point. Like, am I going to fall for this? And exactly how far can I suspend my judgment? I'm pretty sure the woman at the other end of the line is thinking the same thing.
      Two-ninety-nine per minute, whichever credit card you use. Thankfully Sara had insurance, with me as the solitary beneficiary.)
      "Sara, how are you?"
      "I'm good, Merritt. How are you?"
      "I'm here. Where are you?"
      "You know where I am, Merritt."
      "I do?"
      "Yes, Merritt."
      "Let's for the sake of argument pretend I don't."
      "Now, Merritt . . . Merritt?"
      "Yes, I'm here."
      "How are you, Merritt?"
      "Sara . . . I miss you."
      "I know you do, Merritt. I miss you too, Merritt."
      (They don't hire idiots at this place. They're all trained to say my name after every statement and they've never—not one of them—failed in that regard. I understand the psychology and I'm grateful.
      But sometimes it gets annoying, the psychology, the way it walks into your house and acts like it owns the goddamn place.)
      "You don't have to say my name every time."
      "Sorry, Merritt?"
      "Forget it."
      "Merritt, what's wrong, Merritt? I'm right here, Merritt. Talk to me, Merritt."
      "My name's not really Merritt."
      "It's not?"
      (Depending on my mood, the skill of the operator, or the sound of her voice, these conversations vary in length.)

      Once in a while I get these phantom pains in the blank space where my arm used to be. And other times, while shaving, I lose myself in the mirror's reflection, caught tracing the history of scars across my face, remembering key events leading up to where I am now—wheelchair bound, in the house where I grew up, listening to the ceaseless yapping of Babbage, my parents' stupid, toy-sized dog. One day I may accidentally roll over him.
      So I stare—what else am I going to do? And I'm kind of amazed, really, that I'm here, though in a way I wouldn't have chosen. They rebuilt this bathroom to my specifications—nonambulatory. You normal people would have to duck to use the mirror.
      I'm alive in the worst possible way, the one-armed wonder.
      That's me!
      I lean forward, closer to the mirror, and squint through a rising steam. I'm curious and inquisitive.

      What? What was that?
      (A little closer.
      More, more.
      Closer still.
      speak into the razor.)