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Nominally Concerning a Shirt

A section from a story about two people negotiating.

The clouds!

When I'm in this mood I look for blame in others. My friends aren't really listening to me. That company never paid me, and my family is fucked up. My ex-girlfriends screwed me over. The country is at war and my landlord is a bastard. And everyone is stupid.

Alas, everyone else is home asleep; the problem is with me. So I wrote a bit, and felt better, and this is what I wrote, part of something longer.

.  .  .  .  .  

On the way to the subway.

“You will be loyal, right?” She was wearing green pajamas. She meant, will I cheat?

I thought of a moment, a few seconds long, from three years ago. I lived with Kate then. Kate was visiting her family and I was visiting a friend who had just been stung by some affair, and we were drunk to the point of collapse. She stripped off her blouse and pulled my head to her breast, all in one motion. I remember that warm flesh brushing my face. I stepped back and shook my head. I was proud to be desired, prouder of my denial. It's just basic decency, but I believe most men would have had a bite and savored the regret.

I took the shirt from where it was hanging and pressed it to my face. A plastic button touched my nose. The cloth was still damp, and smelled like her shampoo, a chemical tint. Standing near the open window, my chest was cold.

“It should smell better now,” she said.

The electric coil in the oven had a low orange radiance. She dropped four pieces of bread on the grill.

I know I can be sexually loyal. I wonder about the loyalty of spirit, after someone knows you, and you run out of good stories. That's when people have kids, I guess.

The record reached the end of its long groove and began to skip, low static out of the speakers. She went over and flipped the album, began to play the other side.

It could be worth it to try. Each year I feel more acutely a sense of being not my own but spread out, distributed among my friends, as if I have stored my memories not just in my own mind but in theirs as well. They way they remember me, the way they tell me about myself, is me.

When someone travels out of the range of conversation, through death or angry departure, whole sections of my mind go with them. Letting that happen as much as it has seems too costly a way to live. Maybe now I want to keep at it, trudging through boredom, biting my inner lip to keep from getting numb, even faking it when it's not there.

She had small creases on her forehead, wrinkles at the edges of her mouth. I'm only two or three years away from the same. She was making toast in the oven. I said “Yes.” It came from hope more than truth.

“'Yes' about what? The smell or the loyalty?”

I pulled the still-buttoned shirt over my head, and for a fast moment my world was filtered through gray fabric, like being underwater.

As I surfaced, head coming through the collar, I gave her an annoyed stare. She was handing me the percolator, so I took it. She was laughing at the face I'd made. The damp cloth was cold on my skin and I shivered. She asked me if I knew how to make coffee, and I said I'd never heard of it. She tried to pull the percolator back out of my hands, and we fought over it, until I won.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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