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Fiction, by Laurie Stone



I remember a time when everything tasted good. Cold waves did not feel cold, and I couldn’t tell the difference between the human condition and a weather condition. The mountains rose up around the town where I lived, snow-capped and dense. Falcons, eagles, cormorants, and puffins filled the skies.

I remember our neighbor, who planted bulbs around her small house, with its green windows and gray shingles. I would run to her when I saw her, and we would kneel in the soil, planting gladiolus, tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils. She had a kind face and hard skin. There were dark grains on her leathery palms. I planted baby bulbs she gave me at my house, while my mother read the newspaper.

Do you remember the time you said, “There’s a bird in my room”? I was visiting your house, and I said, “Let’s get it.” Your room was white. It was a party dress of a room. The bird was on a curtain rod above a window. You said, “It’s an English sparrow.” It looked sad. You were proud of your cat for not eating it. I said, “I’ll get a towel around it and carry it outside.” I coaxed it from its perch, and it flew around, and you screamed in fear and hit the floor, holding your head. I said, “What are you afraid of?” You said, “That you’ll hurt it.” I said, “I won’t hurt it.” You said, “You really can’t be sure,” and I wondered at my confidence but not more than your cat had wondered how to get the bird in its mouth.

I remember a conversation I overheard in a bar that has stayed with me. Funny how some things remain and other things we let go. I gave my father’s watch to a man I hardly knew, even though I had loved my father dearly. A woman sat across from a man. She was wearing a sparkly dress that slid off her shoulders. He was wearing a bone at his throat—a carving of a lizard on a rock. She said, “I want solitude.” He said, “Argue with friends.” She said, “I seek escape.” He said, “Donate your bones to a museum.” There is so much loneliness in the world, I thought, if someone sits and talks with you and throws a friendly arm around your shoulder, you will seek this person out.

Around this time, I was drinking coffee strong and falling in love with people who brushed past me. One day, a man followed me. His hair was the color of sand, and his eyes were ice blue. A tattoo on his neck read, “Lucky,” in Spencerian script. I sniffed a towel and acted like I didn’t have a word for the thing we were doing.

I am remembering the time you cried in your kitchen. You were cutting vegetables, including onions, but you cried for a different reason. You wanted me to sit on the chair where your cat sat. I looked at your beautiful face. You said, “I must be comfortable with you. I usually don’t cry in front of people.” Your cheek felt like velvet. Your face was wet. I was happy to be liked enough for you to cry in front of me. You said your sadness was old, and I was surprised it was hard for me to see. I wondered if I was inobservant or if you were skilled at keeping it to yourself.

Earlier, you had run into a former student at a yoga class. The student was now a teacher of pottery herself. She had hugged you and said, “I was just talking about you with two friends. We were saying what a marvelous teacher you were.” The former student had said that, independently, the three of them had used the same words to describe you. I asked you what the words were. You said, “I didn’t ask.” I said, “Why?” You said, “It would have been indiscrete. I thought she would have told me if she had wanted me to know.” I have to laugh at our difference. I would have asked, but perhaps you prefer filling in the sentence in your mind. Perhaps you did not give it further thought.

The other day, I read an essay by a famous poet, in which he recounted spanking a woman with a hairbrush as part of their sex. He was deeply apologetic and disgusted with himself. What he described looked mild on the page, and I didn’t believe he knew his emotions. There is no practicing making do with less, as all of Beckett’s writings affirm. That is why they are comedies, I think.

A few months ago, I traveled to somewhere new and loved the feeling of being a stranger among strangers. It made the world soft, and everyone was kind. I walked down a street of houses in various states of disrepair and past a park with patchy lawns, then through a section where people were cooking on grills, and laughing, and listening to music, and drinking beer. I passed a man burning incense. He was tall and burley. His teeth were capped in gold, and there was a large gap between his front teeth. I said, “That smells so good.” He said, “Would you like some?” I said, “Thank you, but I’m on my way to a café to meet a friend.” I found the place, where a woman I didn’t know well was waiting. It was filled with people she called “hipsters” and “aging hipsters.” She said, “I’m an aging hipster.”

We ate expensive plates of tiny food. The drinks were served in old-fashioned glasses with sprigs of rosemary and salt along the rims. Our server was tall and rangy with splashes of purple in her blond shag. She had the same face as a famous singer who had recently died. I said to her, “You have the most fantastic shoulders I have ever seen.” Her torso looked suspended on a large wooden hanger. My friend agreed about the shoulders. The woman said, “If I wear shoulder pads, I look like a linebacker.” I said, “I would love to have shoulders like that.” My friend and I shared a third cocktail and talked about people we loved who were dead. There wasn’t enough time to get to them all.

I have a memory of my mother dropping my hand when she would see my sister at the school yard. I don’t think this really happened. Some women my mother’s age were grateful not to know what else they might have wanted. My mother was not one of them. At the end of Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist,” the starving man confesses he had no artistic calling, nor was he protesting poverty. It was just that he hadn’t found the food he wanted to eat. My mother was more along the lines of this.

In the new place where I live, a man on the street is collecting plastic bottles with one pink glove. My sister is taking prednisone for her cough. I realized I was in shock, and I didn’t want the shock to end. Some male fish can transform into females in order to reproduce. I heard the neighbor I knew as a child lived to be very old and had many children I have no memory of meeting. I’m on a bench, waiting for a tarot reading. I am waiting to use the word “love” without becoming sad about something. How are you feeling today? What’s on your mind, really?

  • Laurie Stone is author of My Life as an Animal, Stories, Everything Is Personal: Notes on Now, Starting with Serge, and Laughing in the Dark. Former theater critic for The Nation, critic-at-large on Fresh Air, and decades-long writer for the Village Voice, she’s editor of and contributor to the memoir anthology Close to the Bone. She won the 1996 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Her memoir essays and stories have appeared in many journals, including Fence, Open City, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, and TriQuarterly. Her short fiction and nonfiction’s been anthologized in They’re at It Again: Stories from Twenty Years of Open City, In the Fullness of Time, The Face in the Mirror, The Other Woman, Best New Writing of 2007, Full Frontal Fiction, and Money, Honey, among others. She lives in New York City.

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