~This story first appeared in The North American Review (2011).
How he had knocked, Francine could not guess. But here he was. Or at least here was his head. Floating in the hallway outside her apartment, as if it had wafted over on the aroma of Mrs. Singh’s stir-fry. Here was the sun-kissed face from his Match.com profile. The broad forehead and faintly hooked nose. Somehow, though, it had seemed like the head would be attached to an equally rugged, sun-kissed body. Had it been presumptuous to assume, at the very least, a torso?
The two of them blinked at one another. Why hadn’t she thought to use the peephole? Then again, would that have painted the picture? Maybe the best thing to do was to back into her apartment, real easy, pretend she hadn’t noticed anything out here, go back to listening to big band music in the living room and waiting for her date to show up – her whole date.
“You can’t send a guy flirty emails for two weeks and then close the door in his face just because he’s different,” he said. He slurred his words, and he sank as if deflated, hovering over the carpet. Against its Persian pattern, he was like a genie. She caught a glimpse of his bald spot – another thing the photo didn’t reveal. No wishes to be granted today, it seemed. Down at shin-level, he tilted his face to look up at her, eyes bloodshot.
“Are you… drunk?” She felt a flush of shame about their electronic repartee, the quick-fire IM chats about politics and old flames.
“I don’t know why I bother with dating,” he muttered.
It now seemed significant that he’d left blank all of the slots for physical characteristics on his Match.com profile. Francine had assumed that he was simply too busy (i.e.successful) at his job as a trial attorney to bother. Or at worst, that he was unusually short. Which would have been okay – Francine had dated a jockey once, when she lived back in her hometown of Smoky Ordinary, Virginia. But this….
“Listen, Frank – I’m sure you’re very nice …” she said, feeling a little like she herself were the one deflating toward the floor. Their names – Frank and Francine – wasn’t that supposed to be a sign? Wasn’t that destiny?
“Don’t say it – don’t say I’m a great guy. Just put your lips together and blow,” he said. “Like Lauren Bacall.” And then he sailed upwards, toward her. She flung her hand out for protection and managed to palm his chin.
She had ordered To Have and Have Not on Netflix when he’d said it was his favorite movie, excited to watch it again, but this wasn’t quite how the romance had unfolded between Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. Her arm shook, such was the force of Frank’s approach, beard stubble scratching against the tender center of her hand. He smelled like whiskey.
“Frank, stop it. You have to leave.” He continued to struggle against her hand. Her arm weakened and began to fail, elbow bending in slow collapse. His lips inched closer to hers. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said, though she wasn’t sure who she was talking to.
She remembered her other hand then, bringing it up and maneuvering him into a kind of sleeper hold. She squeezed her arms around him and crushed him hard against her collar bone.
Frank made a coughing sound and then went limp. And suddenly she was just a woman cradling a head to her neck as if it were a sleeping infant. She was aware of the speed of her heart, the way it seemed to be throwing itself against the wall of her chest.
She pulled him away from her with both hands, and his panicked eyes searched her face. They were an amazing color, she now saw, dark, somewhere between brown and green, but with yellow flecks.
“I can’t breathe,” he gasped. He opened his mouth and sucked at the air like a fish. A bluish cast washed over his face and lips. Even the ferocious brightness of his eyes started to fade. It all happened so fast, and she stared back, stunned for a moment, unsure what to do. Then she thought to hoist him up in the air and maybe look for injuries, but her own panicked eyes wouldn’t settle on anything. It was like last month when Mr. Roth from Accounts had that heart attack in front of her desk, dropping to the floor like a bag of sand, and at first, her fingers refused to hit 911, fumbling with the buttons and grappling with the receiver. But she’d taken a deep breath and she’d done it, and she’d given him chest compressions and he’d lived. She could do this now, she thought, pulling a gulp of air into her lungs, as if she were about to dive for coins.
Holding his head carefully, she turned him downward and inspected his neck. There she could see that the force of her struggle had dented the bottom of it, as if it were made of clay. She clutched him and worked at the dent like a potter, finessing it back to the way it must have been before. The bottom, where the neck ended -- the skin there was so smooth and velvety to the touch, like a horse’s nose, not jagged as if his head had once been attached to something else.
Finally, Frank pulled in a deep gasp. She held him and smoothed the hair from his forehead. His pupils started to shrink to the right size. He remained limp in her arms, blinking, and his skin, now pinkening again, looked smooth and unlined. “Shhh,” she said. “Don’t try to move.”
“Where am I?” he whispered.
Francine let out a sad laugh. “How are you?”
The next morning at 6:30am, Francine met her friend Jessie at Cup-a-Joe, like she did most days. When Francine told her what had happened, Jessie gasped and slapped the table – “How did you get him out of there?”
“I offered to call an ambulance. But he wanted to take a cab home.”
“I know.” Francine shook her head, and then she shivered, still picturing the dead-fish color of Frank’s face.
They both sipped their coffee and didn’t speak for a moment. Normally, Francine loved this time of the morning, the cozy feeling of a warm low-lit room and the black, black pre-dawn darkness outside the window. She loved listening to Jessie’s exploits out on the town the night before. She even loved it when Jessie razzed her about staying home so much, going so far sometimes as to call Francine the worst divorcee ever. “You’re in a relationship with that flannel nightgown,” Jessie liked to say and roll her eyes and they would both laugh. But this morning, she felt cut off from her rituals like an astronaut connected by a cord to the ship.
“Well, don’t let one experience turn you off.”
“No. I won’t,” Francine said, but without conviction. She thought about the other two Match.com dates she’d tried – the guy whose ex-wife drove him to the date and also the guy who tried to sell her a new dishwasher.
“Just keep trying,” Jessie said. “Even this John the Baptist guy is better than Randy.” She rolled her eyes.
“Randy went to Harvard,” said Francine, her stomach getting hot. She didn’t want to talk about Randy, her boss, her married boss, who was her best friend besides Jessie.
“I know, I know. We agreed to disagree about him. I’ll stop.” Jessie pulled her phone out of her purse to check the time. It was a new yellow purse, something designer, like maybe Coach. Normally, Francine would remark on it, and Jessie would light up, ready to reveal a very obscure source she had found for deeply discounted goods. A place where even a couple of administrative assistants, like Jessie and Francine, could afford them. “Someday we won’t have to worry about the price,” Jessie was fond of telling Francine – though she didn’t say that as often as she used to.
“Well, almost time to go make another dollar,” Jessie sighed, tossing the phone back in the purse. “But hear me out first.” She scooted her chair closer to the table and leaned forward on her elbows. “I know this guy – Frank, was it? – came on a little strong. But that might not be such a terrible thing. Haven’t I always said we should be looking for ambitious men, go-getters?” She sipped her grande café latte, leaving another lipstick mark on the mug. “And think about it -- going bodiless could be fantastic. I mean, a body is a hassle.”
“But I like having a body.”
Now, Jessie touched Francine’s wrist conspiratorially. She looked around before she spoke. “He could be a good catch.” She sat up and counted off the reasons on her fingers. “He has, like, zero carbon footprint. He’s probably extra sensitive and enlightened because he knows what it’s like to be different. Plus, sex with him would be very ‘female-oriented’ if you know what I mean. It will be all about you.”
Francine laughed. “Why don’t you go out with him then?”
“Well, if you don’t want him, maybe I will,” she said, tilting her head, a mischievous grin on her lips.
Francine grinned back. Then she sighed. “But seriously,” she said, “what if I want a hug?”
“Hey, we can get hugs from our mothers,” said Jessie with a shrug. She leaned back in her chair and folded her arms as if to say the verdict was in – what else was there to think about? The body underneath Jessie’s curve-hugging designer clothes had been subject to piercings, tattoos, colon cleanses, Brazilian wax, acupuncture, and gravity boots. She’d done Pilates, Zumba, belly dancing, and spin classes. Jessie’s whole life revolved around her body; maybe she liked the idea that a man’s life could revolve around it, too. But then also, Jessie had never liked the men Francine chose, who she compared to Trappist monks or the Rain Man.
“I don’t know,” said Francine, partly to herself. “I like hugs.” She did wonder, though she dare not say so out loud, if it was time she started listening to Jessie’s advice. She was about to turn thirty-six, and people were trying to die in front of her; plus, it was true that her own choices didn’t seem so great now, when she looked back.
Francine’s ex-husband Nathan had been an engineer and a marathon runner, and he had never hugged her unless she asked him to. And even when she asked, his approach had seemed perfunctory – he squeezed tightly, applying uniform pressure until an adequate number of seconds had passed. Then he gave three quick pats on the back and released. He was the same mechanical way about sex and nights out and vacations. Being with Nathan had not been the way she thought it would when they met in that hiking group. It had taken years for her to figure out that just because he was in motion all the time, it didn’t mean that he was passionate.
The final straw had come when she saved up her own money for six months for an anniversary getaway at a five-star B&B on the Eastern Shore – he’d spent the whole weekend crabbing, coming back to the room reeking of fish and collapsing straight into a deep sleep. When she told him she wanted a divorce, his eyes had not filled instantly with tears. He had not studied her with naked despondency, or looked for the first time in their four years together like the expressive little boy version of himself she’d seen in photographs – the tow-headed, freckle-faced kid who laughed so hard he couldn’t keep his eyes open and who held insects toward the camera and pointed at them, his mouth in a comedic “o” shape.
These days, Nathan lived in Roland Park with his new wife, a petite redhead named Lindy, and their small son. Sometimes, Francine ran into them at the farmer’s market on 33rd Street, and he’d be holding the toddler in his arms and she’d wonder how she, Francine, was the one who now lived alone. Was that what she secretly wanted?
Why had Francine been spending so much time with her boss, Joe “Randy” Randalls, a married man, if she actually wanted what she thought she wanted – to fall into someone’s waiting arms at the end of the day? She had dabbled with the Match.com thing as a way of convincing herself that she wasn’t dating Randy. But weren’t they still, after a whole year, talking on the phone every evening while he drove home to the suburbs, and meeting occasionally on Saturday afternoons for a glass of pinot noir at Café Vino? Jessie claimed it was a real affair even though they weren’t sleeping together. Whenever Francine protested, Jessie said, “Well then what about the fact that Randy keeps you a secret from his wife? Huh? What about that?”
Now Jessie retrieved a photo from her wallet. “Who’s this?”
Confused, Francine said, “Um, it’s Tom Cruise. You’ve been carrying that picture around for years.”
“Aha! If this were a picture of his feet, you’d say these were Tom Cruise’s feet. But since it’s his head, it’s him. This is Tom Cruise.”
“Would you really go out with Tom Cruise’s head if it floated in here?”
“Just like that,” Jessie said, snapping her fingers.
After her coffee with Jessie and her nine-block slog in the bracing Baltimore wind, Francine made it to the ninth floor, where she worked at Accu-Sort – a company that sold parcel sorting equipment, industrial bar code scanners and mailing flats. She spotted the gigantic bouquet of autumn roses before she even got to her desk– a desk that sat outside Randy’s private office and that was separated from the corridor by a large glass wall.
As she worked her way down the not-yet-crowded corridor, skirting a janitor atop a carpet-cleaning Zamboni, she could see the flowers through the glass – an explosion of yellow, orange, and maroon. Randy, she thought, smiling.
He liked to say that everyday was Secretaries Day, and in the three years she had worked here, he had left perfume, scarves, leather bound journals, as well as knick knacks from the various foreign countries he visited for business. And for the past year, he had kept a framed photograph of the two of them – he and Francine—in the inside zipper pocket of his travel bag.
It had been taken that time they went down to Charleston, South Carolina for a postal expo, and they’d gone out on the balcony of the convention center, and they could see the Atlantic Ocean, and Francine suggested they take a self-portrait with her camera phone. She had never felt the skin of his face until he had crouched down and put his cheek next to hers, his long arm extending to take the picture. As he snapped the photo, the lens caught her sneaking a glance up at him, her own face flushed to a healthy pink and not from the wind that whipped her hair, either. Her dark strands touched Randy’s shaved head, though he didn’t look as though he noticed, his gaze directed right at the camera and his grin lopsided as if he were about to make a sarcastic comment – the kind of comment that made him the star of the expo, people bringing him drinks and slapping him on the back.
Now she unlocked the glass door with Randy’s name on it, dropping the keys several times, her stomach flipping over, and she dumped her stuff in the chair -- her purse and the grocery bag carrying her fancy, painful work shoes that had the little heart-shaped cut-out on the toe. Randy had never bought her flowers before. She reached under the large orange bow, found the envelope, and ripped it open. What can I say for myself? I got nervous and had too much to drink. I guess something got “lost in translation.” I’d deserve it if you never spoke to me again. Frank
Francine read the card several times. She had listed Lost in Translation under “Favorite Film” on her Match.com profile. Her real favorite was The Wedding Planner starring Jennifer Lopez, but she never told anyone that, not even Jessie.
She heard Randy’s door open and could feel him standing at her shoulder. “So?” he said. He reached out a hand and drummed his fingers on the desk, and she could picture his lopsided grin without turning to look at him. “I’ve been waiting for an hour to find out who they’re from.”
“You’re never here this early,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut for a second, as if they could slow down her heart. But then she wondered if he could see her in the reflection in the glass and she opened them and tried to make her face look normal. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve decided to start going to the gym at 5am,” he said. “I can’t get onto the treadmill at home now that Trevor has discovered girls. He’s twelve years old and he works out every night now. Can you imagine?” What Randy didn’t say – didn’t have to say – was that his wife Carol, his sexy blond wife, was the one who monopolized the machine first thing in the morning.
“Well, good for you,” said Francine, a lump in her throat at the thought of Randy running. Maybe shirtless. Sometimes she could see the definition of his forearms when he took off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Maybe she could find out which gym he used. Maybe she could get a membership there. She could work out in public. Why couldn’t she?
People streamed by in the corridor on the other side of the glass. The gap-toothed boy from the mailroom knocked on it and waved at Francine. People were always doing that, and they had no idea how loud it was. Francine put her hand on her heart. “Who’s that?” said Randy.
Francine suddenly felt angry. “My lover,” she said. “He sent me these flowers.”
Randy gave two thumbs up. “Way to go, Champ.” And then he giggled in that adolescent way that she had always found so adorable. “I have the McDaniels luncheon today,” he said. “Want to come along? We just have to put in an appearance. Then we can cut out of there and go see a movie. No one will expect us back.”
She understood then -- Randy didn’t care that someone had sent her flowers. It didn’t change a thing. So long as he never touched Francine, he felt like he could develop as much of a connection with her as he wanted. And he was never going to touch her – not even a goofy high five.
“I can’t,” she said, surprising herself. “I have a doctor’s appointment.”
“Suit yourself,” he said with a shrug. “More Jujubees for me!” Then he went into his office, leaving the door halfway open like usual so that he could sing her songs he made up about the clients.
Francine did not send him funny internet videos or buzz the intercom in Morse Code patterns, and she did not change into her painful shoes. No one even sees my feet. She kicked off her damp sneakers and sat at her desk barefoot, spreading out her toes and rubbing them through the dense carpet fibers. It felt good. It seemed funny that in three years, she had never known what the carpet felt like.
She went online and searched for Frank’s law firm – Pulaski, Pulaski, and Bryan. After Randy left for the luncheon at eleven am, she gathered her things and walked out. She had never left so much as five minutes early before, not even when Randy was away in China or India.
She waited in the small lobby on Charles Street, taking note of the dark wood walls and the antique furniture. It was a lot different from the vast marble floors, full-height palm trees, and skylights in the lobby where she worked. She felt cozy here, like she might not want to go back out into the crisp November cold that had chilled her so deeply, right into her ribs. But she also wondered if what she was doing made sense. She decided not to speak to the security guard and try to go upstairs. If Frank passed through the lobby on his way to lunch, so be it. Part of her would be relieved if he didn’t.
When he appeared just a few minutes later, he hovered between two men in suits, all three of them laughing at something Frank had said. His face was clean shaven now. When he spotted her, his expression went slack, even while the other men continued to laugh.
“I’ll catch up with you guys later,” he said. And then he came toward her, gliding through the air, and he stopped, right at eye level this time. This man seemed to have a different face from the one last night, deep crow’s feet and parentheses around his mouth from laughing. He paused to collect his thoughts, looking speechless. “You got the flowers?”
“I did,” she said. “Thank you.” It seemed strange that she had already cradled his face in her hands, something so intimate. Something that even good friends didn’t do. She had never held Randy’s face in her hands.
She pictured Frank’s expression as he regained consciousness the night before, the way the worry lines had disappeared, the way the muscles had relaxed, like he’d removed a mask and this was how he really looked, how he probably looked in the morning before his thoughts began.
“I—” he started. Then he stopped and looked at the ceiling for a moment before looking back at her. “Can I take you out for lunch?”
“Let me just run to the rest room first,” said Francine.
In the stall, she dialed Jessie, who didn’t answer. “It’s me,” she said to the voicemail. She explained where she was and that she was going out for lunch with Frank. “What am I doing? I can’t believe I’m listening to you. You better call me in thirty minutes, just in case I need an excuse to escape.”
At the café around the corner, Francine studied the menu. She had been so lost in her conversation with Jessie at Cup-a-Joe this morning that she’d forgotten to eat her scone. Her stomach whined now in a high-pitched way that would have mortified her in front of Randy. “You… eat?” she said.
“A little,” he said. He smiled at her and then seemed to anticipate her question. “I don’t buy much in the way of groceries or clothes. Occasionally I enjoy a drop of whiskey…” he said looking sheepish. “I don’t hold my liquor well. Obviously.”
“Ha. Forget about it,” she said, waving the topic away with her hand. How on earth would she date a man who rarely ate? How would they celebrate birthdays or anniversaries without cake?
“Where’s Rhonda? She’s usually so quick,” Frank muttered, seemingly to himself. He turned to scan the room. He frowned for a moment, those lines she’d seen the night before appearing in his forehead.
“It’s okay. I’m sure she’ll be along in a minute.”
He sighed with frustration, and then finally turned back toward Francine. “But anyway, you liked the flowers.”
“They’re pretty,” Francine said, smiling. There was a pause. Was she supposed to say more? How expensive they looked? No way she was doing that. She was here, wasn’t she? Shouldn’t that be enough? “You’re not a kissing bandit. I guess that’s what you’re saying.”
“Oh, ouch.” He laughed. “Not normally.”
When the waitress appeared, out of breath, her curly hair escaping from a ponytail, she said, “Sorry for the wait, folks. The usual server called in sick today and I--”
“The lady will have the pastrami sandwich,” said Frank. “That’s what you wanted, right, the pastrami?”
“How did you know that?” Francine said.
“Your finger is pointing to it.”
Francine looked at the menu as if to verify what she already knew – that he was right. When was the last time a man had paid such careful attention to what she wanted? Maybe Jessie had been right that Frank would be more sensitive than other people. Maybe he would always treat her like she had saved his life. “Yes, please,” she said to the waitress. “The pastrami.”
“Wow, that’s so cool,” said the waitress to Francine, gesturing toward the floor, toward her Gucci handbag, a discontinued one that Jessie had found on E-bay. “Where did you get that?”
“She’s starving, so let’s get a move on, shall we?” Frank said with a sigh, his nostrils flared. If he had hands, she imagined he would have smacked one onto the table or waved her away.
“You got it, sir,” said the waitress, casting her eyes down, and she scurried off. Francine studied the waitress as she retreated across the dining room, sorry that the woman was having such a lousy day.
But she had to admit that his brusque tone thrilled her. She allowed herself to think about it the way Jessie would for a moment. Maybe he would be the kind of person who would take aside Mr. Walters, the man in 32B across the hall, who kept his door open all the time and wore nothing but boxer shorts and always wanted to chat. “Hey,” Frank would say to Mr. Walters. “That’s no way to act around a lady. Put some pants on.” Maybe Mr. Walters wouldn’t understand Frank’s abruptness, maybe afterward he would only say a tight-lipped hello in the mail room. But the two of them, Frank and Francine, would know his secret – that at Frank’s gooey, hot center, he loved her, that it boiled like lava and made him fierce. She pictured Jessie saying, “Hey, that’s more than you can say for Nathan or for Randy.”
When the plate of food arrived, Francine realized that she would be eating it while Frank watched. She put her napkin on her lap and hesitated. “Go ahead,” he said. “Eat.” She sawed the sandwich into quarters, mayonnaise squirting onto her hand, and she felt Frank’s gaze on her. Why had she thought this was a good idea? She began to sweat. Surely, she could just eat enough to be polite and then she could go … go where? Normally, she would go find Randy.
A few bites into her sandwich, Francine saw Jessie, in the flesh, working her way across the dining room toward them. She stood up, wiping her mouth with her napkin – what on earth was Jessie doing here? Francine introduced her to Frank.
“How funny to run into you,” said Jessie. “I’m on my lunch break,too.”
“Why don’t you join us?” said Frank. He turned to look for the waitress.
“No, no. I couldn’t.”
“She can’t,” said Francine.
“I insist,” he said.
“Well, okay,” Jessie said, acquiescing quickly enough that Francine understood it had been her intention all along to join them, to see Frank for herself. Francine squinted at Jessie for a moment – was she wearing more lipstick than normal?
“I’m not sure how much longer I can stay,” said Francine, looking at her watch in a pointed way.
“I just got off the phone with your office. Randy said he’s taking a long lunch with his wife. So don’t hurry back.” Francine knew, of course, that none of this was true, and she kicked Jessie under the table.
Francine returned to her sandwich and felt herself sulk. Jessie always acted like this thing with Randy wasn’t real. But Francine knew it was – she could feel it in her gut, a tangible thing, like she’d swallowed a sand dollar.
Jessie and Frank embarked on small talk. She asked where he worked, and when he told her, she said she knew someone who worked in his building. “Oh, Mike,” said Frank. “Mike is doing triathlons now.”
“Mike?” said Jessie, laughing. “The last time I saw him was at Steve Tabor’s cookout; he weighed 300 pounds.”
“Oh! Steve’s cookouts are legendary!” said Frank, laughing.
Francine didn’t know any of these people. She glanced back and forth at Jessie and Frank like she was watching a tennis match. “Cookouts are fun,” she interjected at one point. She turned to Jessie and muttered, “I mean, unless someone crashes them.”
Jessie only pursed her lips and tilted her head, as if to say Don’t be silly.
The next thing Francine knew, Jessie and Frank were regaling her with descriptions of Steve’s famous Memorial Day cookouts on the Eastern Shore – scores of children, dogs, and tipsy adults scarfing up crabs and chili dogs. The piles of discarded crab shells grew to the size of weighty Mike himself. “It’s better than it sounds,” said Frank, turning to Francine. “I’ll have to take you next time.” Then he laughed and winked at her. “Not by force. Only if you want to.” Francine laughed in spite of herself. Before she’d thought about what she was doing, she reached out a hand, as if to put it on his arm. Then she stopped and withdrew it.
She tried to picture herself arriving at the large picnic as Frank’s girlfriend -- approaching a big white porch together, everyone waving hello to them, Frank hovering beside her, everyone treating them as a unit. It seemed possible in a way it never had been with Nathan, who would have been checking the oil in the car or wandering down to the water. She was surprised to discover that even the imagined prospect of this longed-for companionship made her stomach drop out, as if her chair had tipped backwards. She lurched forward a little and her actual chair squeaked on the tile floor. Jessie kept on talking, but Frank glanced at her and smiled as if to ask if she was okay.
If even the idea of companionship terrified her, maybe, she thought, she ought to do the exact opposite of every impulse she ever had.
When the check came, Frank said, “Don’t worry about it. I have an account here.”
“That’s not fair,” said Francine, smiling.
“Fairness is for suckers,” he said with a wink.
A sensation like happiness swirled in her chest, a funnel cloud.
Outside on the street, Jessie walked between the two of them, still chattering away to Frank. For a moment, Francine tried to crane her neck forward so that she could hear the conversation. Then she stopped in her tracks. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and then opened them. “Jessie,” she said, maybe a little more emphatically than she intended.
Jessie and Frank, who’d kept going, both paused and turned to look back at her, both of them with wide eyes.
Francine didn’t move, but stood there and smiled at Jessie in what she hoped was a pointed way. “You go on ahead. I’ll catch up.” She gestured to the sidewalk before them, which stretched toward Baltimore’s Washington Monument.
“Oh,” said Jessie, her mouth open for a second. She glanced at Francine and then at Frank and then at Francine again. “Right. Sorry.”
“It was nice meeting you,” said Frank, smiling.
She stood there for a moment before she ambled down the sidewalk in the direction of her own office building.
After Jessie was out of earshot, Francine wrinkled her brow and smiled apologetically. She said, “Was that too--”
“Took you long enough to ditch her,” Frank snorted.
The wind had died down and the late autumn sky seemed bluer than it ever had in the sticky summer months. If she hadn’t left the office, she wouldn’t have seen this sky today. She’d be at her desk, hunched over the glow of her computer, working on spreadsheets for Randy’s accounts. Or maybe she’d be sitting shoulder to shoulder with him in a darkened movie theater, noticing each time he shifted to cross his legs, a little gnawing rodent of hope in her stomach. Maybe, she thought, there were times when it wasn’t good to know exactly what to expect – especially from yourself.
Frank’s sparse hair glinted in the light, and he squinted at her, smiling broadly, showing his small, straight teeth. He grinned and started to speak. “All right. I think I’ve squared things with you—” But she didn’t let him finish. She took his face in her hands then and kissed him on the lips, the first kiss she’d had in she didn’t know how long. The yellow sun warmed her skin and she could see its glow even behind her closed eyelids. There were no hands on her back to anchor her to this spot, and his weightless face shifted with the movement of her own palms on his cheeks.
Frank kissed back, and when they’d finished, he studied her with fluttering surprise. He floated further backward a little, like a man who’d opened his apartment door to something impossible. He lingered for a stunned moment, and in the sunlight, she could see tiny, lucent versions of herself reflected in his eyes.
Her chest was light like when that jockey she’d dated took her out on a racehorse, urging him forward with his crop – her knees buckling when she’d finally, gratefully disembarked.
“What’d you do that for?” Frank said, doing his Bogart impression.
“Been wondering whether I’d like it,” she said, Bacall’s response.
Frank grinned when he saw she’d gotten the To Have or Have Not reference, and he carried on with his impression. “What’s the decision?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“It’s even better when you help,” he said, quoting Bacall’s next part.
“Hey, that’s my line,” Francine said. “You stole it.” She reached out to shove him, instinctively going toward the shoulder, and then redirected her hand. She shoved his forehead with her fingertips instead.
At first Frank’s brow furrowed, and then, slowly, a worried smile settled into the corners of his mouth. She’d forgotten how easy it was to crush him.
He recovered after a moment. “Okay,” he said, nodding a little.
“Okay,” she said. They grinned at each other as if they shared a secret.
He winked and then sailed away, back toward his office, weaving between the people on the crowded sidewalk and finally zipping right over them and disappearing in the distance.
As she walked down the block to catch up with Jessie, at the pace her legs could carry her, Francine imagined the sensation of needing nobody. She began to run as if she might lift off the ground and fly.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I have long wondered why a photo of my head is considered a photo of me. My head is a pretty small percentage of my real estate. How much of my head could be cut off in a photo before someone would say, “That’s a photo of the top of Kathy’s head” (instead of “That’s a photo of Kathy”)? That was part of the inspiration for the story. The rest came from dating websites, which I viewed as “shopping for heads.” There were legions of us singletons scrolling past head after head in our searches for mates.
But of course, a concept is not a story. So what was this piece besides a funny joke about a woman opening the door to find her date is exactly as advertised – a head? The hard work of the story was to understand Francine. Why might she be the worst person to deal with this? What made it hard for her to connect in a romantic sense? Ultimately, I discovered that this was a pretty conventional love story about imperfect people trying to find each other, trying to unlearn what they thought they knew. It even has a happy ending.
Normally, rejections take a while to arrive – often months after submission. This one would get rejected quickly, like in a few days. But at the same time, when The North American Review accepted it, it happened fast, too. In addition, it was accepted after only a few tries of sending it out. It’s mostly a happy ending for the story. However, later, when I put my collection together, no publisher would accept the book with this story in it. I heard over and over that a collection with realist stories in it could not contain a magical realist story. But why not? I thought. The themes were similar. Why did it matter? I stubbornly kept sending it out. But after a year, with heavy heart, I took it out. The collection was accepted almost immediately after that. It was great, of course. But I did always feel sad that this one duckling was left behind. So I’m delighted that this story can find new life on Redux. Thank you, Redux!
ABOUT KATHY FLANN
Kathy Flann’s short story collection, Get a Grip, won the George Garrett Award and was published by Texas Review Press in the fall of 2015. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Crazyhorse, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New Stories from the South, and other publications. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria, and Le Moulin a Nef in France. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.