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May 29, 2017 | Fiction

Gravel

Shannon Heffernan

Gravel photo

The kid in the blue baseball cap was digging through the playground gravel again. He carefully selected a few rocks and sat them in a line. He was focused and when his mom said it was time to go, he screamed.

There’s a playground across the street from my work and I spend my lunch breaks on the bench, a respite from fluorescent lights and stale air. I’d come to know the families, the kids that were mean, the kids that were clumsy. The parents who always make their kid apologize, and the parents who praise their kid even if they’d just sliced another kid down the middle and smeared their vital organs across the slide.

It seemed like the parents knew me too. The mom with the twin redheads, scooted over, leaving me my favorite spot on the bench. When you are a woman, you can stare at children. You can come to the park everyday and you won’t freak anyone out. You’re not scary. Sad maybe. Maybe they worry you are lonely. Maybe they think you long for what they have and they feel bad for you. But no— you're not like a man, not a threat.

This is a benefit of being a woman. It’s supposed to make up for the fact that when you are 36, your husband will leave you for a girl in her twenties. Before he shuts the door behind him, he will say you should still be friends. Fine. Sure. Whatever. You’ll lock the door behind him.

***

On the weekend I met my best friend for an early lunch at a place close to my house. She ordered a whiskey even though it was 11 am. “I don’t get out much,” she shrugged. She hadn’t been away from the kids since her second child was born six months ago and she had the crazed look of someone who’d spent too many years in the woods.

“Forget about him,” she said. “He’s an asshole. No, a hemorrhoid on an asshole.”

This was why I liked her. Her empathy is as blunt as a car crash. 

“You should have a drink,” she said.

“I’m going to be alone forever,” I said.

“Do you know what I’d give to be alone for even a little while?” she asked. “This is the longest I’ve gone without another human being literally hanging off of my body in probably a year. ”

The waitress finally came over and took our our order. My friend ordered me a whiskey.

“Look,” my friend told me, “you have plenty of time.”

“Plenty of time to what?”

She cocked her head, as if to say: Come on, you know, don’t make me say it.

This is a benefit of being a woman. Your body gives you a deadline. You won’t be tempted to waste time.

“And besides,” she added, “If it doesn’t work out for you to have kids, maybe it’s better anyways. They’re monsters.”

I put my elbows on the table, and leaned my face into my own hands. “I’m not sure how to start over,” I told her.

“I read that when you are with someone for along time, your brain actually gets addicted,” she said. “Even if you don’t like them. It’s a chemical bond. Evolutionarily it’s a way to keep families in packs.”

“I don’t need a faux-science lesson. Just tell me what to do.” “You need a fling. You need to break the bond.”

***

I went on a date. It was easier than I thought it would be. It turns out that if you have the internet, there is always some man, somewhere who will touch you. This is supposedly a benefit of being a woman. It is suppose to make up for menstruation. Or the pay gap. Or, I don’t know, maybe thong underwear.

I met him at a fancy sandwich shop-- a place full of truffled this and pickled that. I lied on the date. It was a way to have intimacy without being intimate. To move, while staying still, like on a treadmill. I told the date I grew up on cattle ranch in Wyoming. A lie. I told him I’d broken my arm on two different occasions. A lie. I told him that in highschool I was the hula hoop champion for four years straight. That one’s true. You have to mix things up sometimes.

I went on another date. On four more dates. And seven after that. Bald men, tall men, men in khakis, men in t-shirts with the names of their own post-punk bands, men who lived with their mothers and men who had swanky lofts. I was practicing impermanence. Or maybe I was practicing my own permanence, while everything else around me changed.

Most of the men I saw only once. But there was one I saw twice. He was polite and mild, with the kind of plain and inoffensive style, that no one could like or dislike. When I went back to his place, I left my shoes neatly at the door so they’d be easy to find. I didn’t stay all night. It seemed too silly. We were adults, with jobs and schedules. We had the comforts of our own homes. The pillows that were just so, the shower knobs we knew exactly how far to turn. And I had no desire to share a bed, now that I had finally stopped sleeping on the right only. Instead, in the heat of July, spreading body out wide in the middle of the mattress, no room for anyone else, in shape of an X, like a starfish.

After the awkward fumbling of our sex, I followed the line of my clothes, like breadcrumbs, back to the door. My tidy shoes waiting to take me home. I liked my home. I had been practicing saying out loud when no one else was there, “This is my house. I live here with me.” But still all these weeks later, my husband had not come back for all of his clothes. And sometimes I opened the closet door quickly, expecting to catch a jacket and coat in some incriminating act together. But they were always still. As unblinking and unembarrassed as he was.

***

The late nights of dating left me tired and rushed in the morning-- throwing together lunches with random bits from the fridge.

On a Wednesday, during my lunch break, I went to the park and balanced a bruised looking PB&J on my knee. Watching the families at the park was a lesson in rituals, parents like clergy. The ritual of healing: where does it hurt? Let me kiss it. See you’re okay. The ritual of forgiveness: Say sorry. Say it like you mean it. Okay now, you tell him it’s fine, and shake his hand. Go off now and play.

And then there was the same kid, still, everyday digging through the gravel, picking out rocks and setting them out in a line. He came over to show his mom one. She was sitting on the bench next to me. I nodded the nod of a friendly stranger.

“What have you got there?” I asked.

“He loves rocks.” the mom said.

“Fossils,” the boy corrects, “They’re fossils.”

He held up a tiny brown rock, shaped like a tube.

“It’s a crinoid. They’re from the ocean. People call them sea lilies. But it’s actually an animal. Even though it stays in one place.”

I made a face of exaggerated interest.

“People think to be an animal you have to move. But you don’t have to do anything to be animal, except sit there and be an animal.”

“Well I guess I’m doing a good job at being an animal,” I said. “I guess,” he said.

***

My husband showed up in September. He rang the doorbell to our home, like the visitor he was.

“Are you here for your jackets?” I asked. “I came to see you. I miss you.”

“It’s been months.”

“I made a mistake. I’m sorry. I’m back now.”

My husband sat on our couch and waited to see what I’d say. I wished there had been an adult to instruct us. “Shake his hand. Go off now and play.” I was suddenly tired and wanted to go back to my bed and lay myself out wide like starfish. Starfish can reproduce asexually. They can break off one of their arms and make it into a family. This is a benefit of being a starfish.

“I think we should talk about things,” he said. “Tell me how you’ve been.”

When I feel confused I try to make simple statements: I’ve been fine, actually. I’ve gone to so many new restaurants. You look tired.

When I run out of statements I ask questions: Have you seen any good movies? Did you end it with her or did she end it with you? What was there to end?

When I can’t process the answers to questions, I make commands: Stop crying. You should sleep on the couch. You should have a cup of tea. Lock the door before you nod off.

Even with him down the hall, scrunched up on our tiny couch, I still found myself sleeping on the right side of the bed again. I left early, before he woke up. I turned off my phone. That night I slept at the best friend’s house. When I turned my phone back on I saw that he had left a message. My husband’s voice was gravelly. Words lined up, like rocks.

Delete it. Smash the phone and bury it. And one day, after many years, when you truly are old, dig it back up like a fossil. Plastic doesn’t age, and it will look like it did when you left it. Lay out the broken pieces in a line and follow the line like an arrow. See where it points. See if it points to where you are. 

image: Aaron Burch


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