~This story was previously published in Puerto del Sol (2003).
When I met Robert he was crazy, going five million directions at the same time. I followed him down each and every path, trudging right along behind him all the way, stomping all the way back. The whole thing was super-fast—like one of those Matchbox car snap together loop-de-loop tracks.
By the end of the first month, he was moving in. Into I don't know where because there sure as hell wasn't any space in my one-bedroom. He seeped into nooks and crannies, into cracks, poured himself into the divots in the linoleum floor, reaching down and throwing some roots into the thin gaps between my floorboards. He took hold. And it worked, you know?
It was saturation point, mind you, month one. But I just keep taking and taking. That's how I learn. My friend Vivette tells me, she says, ‘Susan, you're like a motherfucking sponge.’ She says I'm one of those big ones you use to clean the tub with or the hood of your car. I'm a sponge waiting to soak it in. All of it. Whatever it is. Vivette says it's her job to come along and wring me out.
So there's Robert seeping into that, and reaching into this. And there I am sitting on the couch with my legs wrapped up underneath me, watching him. I'm sipping my coffee with two hands, holding the mug like I'm cold. I'm watching him watch the football game he always has time for even though it always seems like he never has time for anything.
I'm staring him down, watching him go five hundred million ways, and that's just sitting still. He's eating pretzels and opening a beer. He's shuffling some papers from work. Robert sells life insurance. He's good. He says it's because he understands people. He's alternately reaching out and squeezing the back of my neck. I sip my coffee again. I've been staring at him for five minutes straight and he hasn't once made eye contact with me. He has the phone beside him. He's trying to get through to his brother in California, but the line's busy which means that Danny's on the internet. So Robert is going every which way, then he yells--jumping up--"Touchdown! Yes."
He flips to the Discovery Channel, because he's also watching this thing on frogs, then to MTV, the Food Network, then he looks right at me looking right at him like I'm the only person in the world. There's some woman frying little chunks of ham in a skillet on TV. The woman is smiling and saying, "Believe me. It works," as she stirs the naked chunks with a big wooden spoon.
Robert says, "Babe. Let's talk. Remember when we would sit up listening to the trains? Remember that? Let's talk like we did back then." He looks at me for what seems like a long while but is probably just a second or so. We don't say anything. Just stare, smiling.
He turns back to the game. He mutters, "Face mask. Call it, call it."
He presses redial on the phone.
I say, "Okay, let's do that." He makes eye contact with me again, looking like he's making sure this is really important.
"Okay, Babe. How's your new job? How's that going?"
"Fine," I say.
I stretch out my legs so they're on top of his legs. I wonder if this all leads up to sex.
Then I say, "I was wondering what you planned on doing for Christmas this year. I mean, coming up. Do you want to try and spend it together?"
"Yes, I do," he said.
He looked at me then like that was all he had wanted to get to in the conversation. Christmas. Months off. And my inquiring about it.
Robert smiled then. I remember the little squinty lines under his eyes and how I thought he just worked too hard, too hard at everything. And we did have sex later. I remember it all. Robert had it all in those minutes--everything together in his head, a neat bundle--tied and stacked, alphabetized and collated. Later, something changed. All the interesting rough edges smoothed themselves out. But then, right then, he was beautiful.
We had sex, and the sex was good. How could I to see Jesse around the corner of my life? Jesse in the next few days saying hi and touching me on the arm. His smell lingering. How was I to see Jesse and me talking together so many late nights while Robert was off working? Jesse calm and magnetic. Jesse.
"Two at once?" Vivette said, "Two at once. What do you think? You're gonna divide like an earthworm? Dear, like you have time for this kind of thing. Like you even know how to have an affair. Come on."
And she was right. I was very bad at it.
I would call Robert and tell him I was going to be home late, then I would feel guilty and call Jesse and cancel my plans with him, then I would be alone and horny, wandering the streets. I did a lot of shopping in those months--spent a lot of time by myself for theoretically having two at once.
I was so sad, and every so often, Robert would have his beer halfway to his mouth or he'd be heading out the door all coat tails and pleated pants and he'd stop. Stop, look at me, and say, "Susie, do you feel loved?"
And of course that would make me turn away, blushing and mumbling--pulling on my lower lip. It would make me rush him out the door or get him another beer, depending upon the situation. Because I knew what I was about to do even if no one else did. I was going to take a nap, take a bath--long and hot, then I was going to call Jesse.
Jesse was an artist and because of that when I first met him he was almost always free. He was also always poor. So I'd stop over his place with some take-out. He would outline his next project for me. He made huge sculptures. They were so big he never actually got to construct any of them. He called it a post-modern dilemma. He just spent all his time drawing up plans, making lists of how to affordably purchase his supplies, rent equipment. This caught on and soon he had his lists and plans framed and displayed. The gallery opening was called “Jesse Works on Progress.” He got a couple big grants, and he was on his way.
After Jesse made it, the attraction started to sputter.
"Why is it," Vivette asked, "you can't love a man who has it together?"
I told her I couldn't love a man headed in only one direction.
"You like this twenty million directions and never up? Okay, okay," she said, "Go back to Robert. Whatever, whatever. Stay, stay with Robert. He never even knew anything was wrong. He never even knew you were gone. That's what you want? Go back, go back."
So I did.
But I still wandered the streets a lot. Shopping way too much. Buying little presents for everyone I knew.
Vivette's apartment is big and clean. Very modern. Vivette hates her apartment. She would much rather be at Robert and Susan's. Robert and Susan's place is cluttered and jammed with stuff: recycling waiting to be taken to the curb, half-full beers, half-full coffee cups with pleasant mounds of mold floating on top. There's artwork on the walls, sketches by friends, stuff from magazines. Pictures of Robert and Susan looking happy on vacation. Their apartment smells like heat and wood and spices and Kitty, their cat. Vivette goes there often, or at least she used to. Until lately. Robert. The soft smiles, the touches. The night they stayed up talking until two while Susan visited her mom out of town. Smiles. Touches.
Vivette had called him up because she was lonely, just back from Des Moines, and because she knew that he would be lonely with Susan out of town. Robert said, "Sure, yeah. Come on over. I'll cook us dinner."
After they'd had the second bottle of wine, Robert started talking about Susan, how hard it was to figure her out. "She's just so complicated, you know? It's like she wants everything and nothing--or she wants everything to look like nothing. Or maybe it's just that she doesn't want to see any seams. I don't know. I try really hard.”
"Oh Honey, Susan is a hard one. But she's special, you know? She's just very difficult to figure."
The mistake that Vivette made was moving her chair closer to Robert's. The mistake Vivette made was being alone for too long. The mistake she made was touching his knee and then watching him watch her. The mistake was that she knew exactly what he was thinking right before she smiled back at him. The mistake was she saw his face when it was all over, how it cracked and faded into regret. She saw how his face looked at hers thinking, how could you do this to Susan?
Robert was the same thing all over.
All over again. All over.
The cash registers rings and there's a high pitched jingle of a bell as Edna cranks a lever back and the drawer opens, coins sloshing in their bins. Fluorescent lights. And Edna always behind that register. Bright red lipstick, perfume. The All-Nite Diner. She's there chewing gum. Her nails a dull red--her hair, which should have gone gray--red. The red of her hair clashing with the red of her nails, the red of the red checkered floor, the red of her lips, her customer's chapped hands.
Edna piles her waitresses into these black and white uniforms. White shoes that squeak on the squeaky clean floor. And there's the smell of fall, then winter, then spring, then summer seeping through the slamming screen door. Again. Bam. Again.
Vivette works there. The floors shining and polished. The smell of Ajax when she opens up for the morning shift. The smell of eggs frying, and bacon. After that, all the people going to their jobs. And Vivette there to help them on their way.
She doesn't know exactly what happened. She tried hard. She smiled. Jack.
Jack. Big. Broad. Nice. He was nice. Vivette was drawn to him, his early a.m. breakfasts, his construction-site arms, his neck.
"Hey Vivette, you're my sweetie aren't you?"
And Vivette would blush and move closer to him. Move in with something strong and steel in him drawing some magnet in her.
Jack would laugh his bright, loud laugh. His eyes sparkling. Vivette didn't know what to do with him.
There were dishes clanking and the sound of customers. Chrome, vinyl. Green booths outlined the floor. Ceiling fans, and that door, after Jack let it slam on his way out.
So I was feeling restless and dissatisfied. Vivette said maybe I should get my ass in gear and do something about it. So I looked for a new job, asked Robert if maybe we could take a yoga class together, even though I was afraid everyone in the class would have on black turtlenecks and leotards. I didn't tell Robert that though. We put on some sweats and went over to the community college gym.
When we walked in all the people reflected off the shiny floor looked like one of us. Everyone looked out of shape but happy, and even the instructor, Mrs. Whitefield, looked more like she'd bring a Jello salad than cous-cous to a potluck. I relaxed. I just did what Mrs. Whitefield told me to. I breathed in; I breathed out. I reached as far as I could but not too far. I looked over at Robert stretching his head not even halfway to his knobby knees. He had a look on his face; he was determined. I knew he was going to relax. He looked over at me and smiled like he could see me for more than a second at a time.
Something cold and scary tingled at my spine. It didn't go away no matter how long or far I stretched.
Vivette hadn't had a date in over a year, and she was losing her shit. She was walking the streets and hearing in her head, Crazy Vivette. In hushed tones, of course. Crazy Vivette.
And that's when she cashed the savings bonds. That's when she knew she was leaving town. She was going to search for what--she didn't know. She simply knew it was time to con her grandpa's car out of his name and into hers. It was time to get on the road: slush, ice, whatever. She was off. And for some reason Des Moines made music play in her head. Soft, sweet music. Des Moines. Des Moines. Vivette knew Des Moines would hold all the beauty that hadn't ever come her way.
The morning she left rain fell onto the gray snow that covered everything. Five a.m. Vivette drove through the muffled town, by the hardware store and then the All-Nite on her way out. She stopped in the nearly empty lot outside the diner and honked twice. From inside, Jack lifted his head, waved. He didn't know it was her--it was dark out. He was waving to his own blurry reflection in the window and to the sound of possibility beyond. Her headlights searched the diner's smooth side, and Vivette was gone, icicles hanging from her mudflaps, her suitcase at her side.
Susan has bought a little present for Vivette's return from Des Moines. She walks up to her door. Second floor, brass knocker.
Vivette answers. They hug and walk into her clean living room, sit on the hard futon-couch behind the glass coffee table.
Susan says, "I think I really fucked up this morning."
Vivette says, "How? What? Could I at least get a welcome back or something?"
"Oh hey, I'm sorry. Welcome back. It's been so lonely here without you. Really, welcome."
"I told Robert he does too much for me. I told him that I just couldn't keep up. And I can't. I can't keep up. And I meant it. I really did. But I have to admit, when he started a bath and made me some coffee; when he got out of bed and turned up the heat, I wasn't complaining."
"Anyway, I said he did too much for me right before the whole soap incident."
Susan nods as she takes a small sip of the tea Vivette had waiting for her, "Robert was brushing his teeth and shaving at practically the same time. I swear. Anyway, he was flossing and smoothing on deodorant and reaching for the toenail clippers and whatever else he does in the morning, and he turns to me and says, 'What's this?'"
"What was it?"
"Soap. Okay? Right. This might be stupid. Well, then he holds up another bottle from the cupboard and asks the same thing. And I say soap again. And then he opens up the cupboard door the whole way. He says, 'Is all this stuff soap?' And I say, ‘Yes. Yes, Robert, it is.’"
Vivette sets her cigarette on the ceramic ashtray on the coffee table. She moves the little wrapped present Susan has brought off to the side and says, "But it isn't really, is it? I mean. It isn't all soap."
"No. Of course not. There's lotion and Q-tips and all kinds of shit in there. He knows that. But it was the way he stopped everything else and looked at me, then the cupboard, then me like he was seeing me for the first time ever. It was like he was considering for the first time ever all the shit he had done for me and all the shit I hadn't done back. You know, garbage, cat litter, dishes."
"Oh come on. What are you talking about?"
"I do stuff. But really, he does so much these days. He is really trying to change. I mean, he's always there for me. And me--well twenty percent. I've never considered what my end of the deal is supposed to be in this relationship. I mean, maybe I'm twenty percent but it's probably more like fifteen."
Vivette shrugs. "Remember Harold? He told me he just couldn't care enough. That's what he said. He just couldn't care enough to stay in a relationship for any kind of haul."
"Jesus," Susan said, looking at her thumbnails. "Maybe I'm Harold."
"No, no. That wasn't my point. Go on."
"Okay," Susan says leaning forward, "So I said it was all soap even though it wasn't technically true. And then he said, 'Well, why?' You know, by that time he was pushing things around in the cupboard, trying to read labels and decipher what was what. The thing is I saw him seeing me naked there in the tub with my breasts bobbing and shoulders that really haven't seen a push-up in months. I told him it was important for me to have a lot of soap."
Vivette lights her second cigarette and exhales. "Honey, guys don't understand those kinds of things. Soap. Powder. Bras. They’re all a mystery to them."
"I know, I know. But he was standing there. And all I could see was myself alone for the rest of my life. I mean, it was so fucking quiet right then in the apartment."
"So what happened?"
"I said, 'Thanks for ruining my bath. Thanks for making me paranoid. Thanks for pointing out the soap problem, Robert." Susan looked at Vivette. "I mean there really is soap everywhere. I have a lot of soap. So kill me."
Vivette says, "I have tons too."
"I hate it that he tries so hard to understand me now. He just tries so hard at everything. He didn't used to do that."
"He does try really hard. You're right," Vivette says as she walks to the kitchen and back to the couch again with fresh cups of tea.
Susan whispers, "He said, 'It's distracting.' I heard him say it from behind the door as I walked down the hallway. And you know, then I heard him rinsing the goddamn bathtub. I heard him rinsing the tub. I just started to cry."
"Oh dear, it's okay. It's just a bad day, really," Vivette says touching Susan's shoulder.
"You know, I don't want to be happy anymore. I mean, I just want him to say, 'No. I won't do it.' Whatever it is. 'I won't rinse out the tub. I won't fix the lamp.' But instead I ask if he wants any more coffee when he walks into the kitchen. And do you know what he said?"
Vivette looks at Susan. "He said, no thanks."
"Right. Of course. He said, 'No thanks. I've got to get going, Susan.'"
"I told him though. I said, 'You know, Robert. All women have a lot of soap. We all do.' I thought I needed to tell him that. That it won't change. That part never really changes."
Vivette stubs out her cigarette. She taps the present to the edge of the coffee table and tips it into her palm. She absentmindedly shakes it and then pulls on the red ribbon. It falls away from the box. As Vivette opens it she says, "It's soap, right?"
Susan nods and says, "He looked at me then. You should have seen the way he looked at me."
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
The copy of Puerto del Sol with my story “Slow Fire Pistol” inside arrived at my house a few days before I left for a four-week residency at the Ucross Foundation. I decided to bring it along in case one of the other residents asked to see some of my work. It was a last minute decision. I threw the journal into my bag, got into my car, and drove from Pittsburgh, Pa. to Ucross, Wyoming. Fun.
I’m a pretty organized person. Ask anyone who knows me. Sometimes I’m called a control freak; other times I’m called a border collie. I can generally keep my shit really straight. But I was really nervous about Ucross. It was my first residency; I didn’t know what to expect from the place or the other artists.
The landscape was breathtaking and when I saw my studio I said (out loud), “I’m not worthy.” I unpacked my coffeemaker and my flask, my index cards and books and journal and computer, my hiking boots. My plan was to write a novel. I had drafted 50 pages of a story I was excited about. I thought I could really make it into something long. Before this, I’d mainly published only very short stories. Stories under 1,000 words. I’d spent most of my career writing flash fiction. Even “Slow Fire Pistol” was a crazy-long endeavor for me.
I turned on my computer, went clicking for the story I wanted to expand. Ready to get to work. Nowhere. I pushed in the CDs I’d brought with me, figuring I had just saved it there. Nope. I looked for a hard copy, no. Called my husband to look for a hard copy. Nothing. The story had vaporized. (To this day, I have never found any version of this story.)
There I was with four free weeks to write in the middle of the high plains of Wyoming without the story I wanted to work on. I panicked a little bit, sure. I paced for a while. At one point I opened the copy of Puerto del Sol and reread “Slow Fire Pistol.” This time through the character Vivette started to interest me in a new way. I had a vague idea of why she’d gone to Des Moines when I wrote the story, but then, I said to myself: Why Des Moines? I decided to explore that part of the story, the part you don’t see in the short story here.
The story of Vivette became the story of my debut novel Reconsidering Happiness published some years later. The characters Robert and Susan also show up in the novel in slightly different form. I wrote a full first draft while in residence. It was an exhilarating and productive creative experience. My fellow residents threw a little party to celebrate when I hit 60,000 words.
ABOUT SHERRIE FLICK
Sherrie Flick is the author of the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume, 2004) and the novel Reconsidering Happiness (Bison Books, 2009), a semi-finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her flash fiction appears in many anthologies including Norton’s Flash Fiction Forward and New Sudden Fiction. Her stories have been published widely in journals such as North American Review, Ploughshares, Quarterly West, Northwest Review, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, and Booth. She has received grants and fellowships from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Ucross Foundation, Atlantic Center for the Arts, PA Council on the Arts, and PA Partners in the Arts. She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in Chatham University’s MFA program.