~This story previously appeared in Gargoyle (2009).
Any man with a ponytail, any man twice our age: this was our thinking way back when, what passed for thinking. Any man changing the marquee after hours as we rode the streetcar past the second-run movie palace. One of us swaggered off at the next stop, dirty slush up to her ankles but so what, her baby-fat body not yet a bulb she’d blown, winter white not yet her favorite color.
In the aisle of the theater, rows of faded red velvet seats, rank and file, observing
like cattle. Forget-me-nots, in the carpet.
Spring came. She tried all things. Which when we think about it now, how quaint.
Pregnant once and never again. Cramped for weeks after.
She went away. She came back. Everyone who’d stayed looked the same, terrific, inexhaustible. She left again, and when she returned everyone had vanished. She was in need but the buildings were mute. Mother dead. Father too. The sister she never had. Cinema Lumiere an expensive isolation.
Slowly the flowers release themselves from our fingers.
Nostalgia one tough slog. Along the avenue the trees are still beautiful, naked with snow so pale they’re like girls’ boys, premature. With perfect recall she is falling down drunk and laughing on every corner. A moving van mesmers by, its crew anxious as suitors while on the sober cul-de-sacs, behind closed doors, a euphony of TVs make mockingbird song.
For all that, she manages to inhabit herself enough to play well with others, get and hold a job.
At the Ministry, the jingle-jangle of intergovernmental meetings fits her public-complex ambivert excesses so swell. It’s official: she is a definably valuable human resource, there is a memo that says. The way she likes her coffee, the endless upgrading of skills, the steady paycheck, the backaches, stomachaches, benefits – she is the usual dichotomous self of the acute-stage, sleep-deficit employee, her private enterprise thrives like a hothouse weed. Stuffed away in her cubicle she is her own dream board, she has if not friends then allies, she networks like crazy. Madam Prime Mover. Wee Willie Dinkum. Among the addendums everlasting, she has her peace plan.
It is working. Is so.
Still she dreams of clean breaks, a start date that says Now instead of this confusion with Then. She begins to dream her old apartments, dreams she loses the baby in a pile of old newspapers, a mausoleum of distracted words. Hopeful. Hopeless.
The returns policy. Must have the receipt somewhere. The one that says, If Opened, Item Cannot Be Returned. Some way of determining Best Before, or Best After.
Meanwhile her apnea episodes spike and spike and spike. And each time she wakes she wakes extinct, tongue draped over her airway, uvula collapsed, the once-stately architecture of her slumber a ruined ghetto, remnants carted off, tourist trinkets hawked cheap in the grottos of penny remorse.
Nothing a long hot shower, a good dubious look in the mirror won’t cure. One, two, buckle her shoe. A tonic sick-day hike past bungalows, parkettes, the shallow heaven slung with wire conducting information loads, low-grade illuminations. She is Only the Lonely. There will always be Last Tango in Paris. Another Deception. A sky shorn of cover opens its deep blue wi-fi throat until, in the splendid manufacture of her hypnagogic hallucinations, light hisses off the metal-glide surfaces. Office towers, car windows, a woman’s unfettered lip gloss. Shush. There, there. Such solemn deflations. What’s left is what only the wind gathers. A bouquet of swings swinging in a playground.
At the office the next day and the next she continues to be continued, neither here nor there. Weeks pile on like tinder. Hang-fire months. Eventually somebody notices and it goes straight to the top. There is The Conversation. Lunch-room plots abound, subplots, repetitions. She gets her well-deserved time off -- no really, the Ministry insists.
Problem is, boredom afflicts like flies. Her leisure hours a fistful of loose change, like words of pity instead of coins pressed into the leathered palms of the homeless. Words like, Forever. Forever. Each one subtly distinctive. Though they boomerang back, knock her flat on her moribund kister. From the chaise under the smoke bush in the yard, days a certain violet shape, gravid. Nothing leaps or cries out to be saved. There is only the innocent spite of the hydrangeas, the way with callous indifference their frivolous heads ornament the empty morning.
Pins of sunlight needle down.
At bedtime her continuous air pressure machine, her better half, keeps her going, her airway forced open. For this she wears a mask. Boo. Let loose upon the world, all she did was turn in, early.
Still we do what we can, we keep the faith, and every spring irises return, dwarf reticulate among the vestigial snow. We keep it coming, remember her in summer, a white dress shawled with rain, a celluloid flicker. Amaranth, belladonna. We dream a place she left, forever notwithstanding.
She dreams we little fuckers ignite.
She has her own ways of being true.
Her wraparound shades won’t save her, nor the love she ever made or waged. What she sees, we see blind. Peas in a pod, everything we look at looks the same. Our love like our fury binds and abides.
Maybe if we did the math. Acknowledged the strapping teenaged daughter. Husband. Mother-in-law. Snug as bugs in some enchanted-in-the-usual-way abode not far from where she and we were once one together. Throw in nice neighbors. Just try. Fatloads of good. Stones in a stony field. What any of them do all day we have no idea. We know no one who knows her. We refuse to. We simply, simply refuse.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I wrote the story “All We Did” over something like two years of much obsessive rubbing and tending and scalpel wielding, putting down to work on other things and picking back up. I had some idea in mind — short, with dual and dueling voices, a character so riven by the past she’s not present. Some images that felt — what. Combustible?
Over those two years I kept turning away from my core conception. I tried to develop, to adopt more traditional realist conventions. I tried poetry. But this whatever-it-was chafed and tugged. It felt neutered and unreal, pitifully domesticated as a conventional story. And while it relied heavily on lyric compression and sonic devices it was however insistently narrative.
I kept turning around. Returning, I dug in deeper. I said what the hell.
This little story about the after-effects of an abortion is its own beast. When I read it now, it surprises me. I like it pretty well.
ABOUT ELISE LEVINE
Elise Levine is the author of the story collection Driving Men Mad and novel Requests and Dedications. Her new novel Blue Field is forthcoming in April 2017. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have also appeared in publications including Ploughshares, Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, PANK and Best Canadian Stories. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including a Canadian National Magazine Award for fiction. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and directs the MA in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University.