Shuttlecock

The last snow falls over the city like a reverent hush.  With their faces tucked into their collars, the people on the streets aren’t talking as much as they might.  Sharp and I move over the thin, white blanket just a little slower than usual.  It isn’t the weather alone.  We have our own weather between us, a soft, silent storm building.

We cross at MacDougal and cut into the park.  Beside me, Sharp is watching his shoes against the snow as he walks.  The shoes are old, but the laces are new.  We were together, two days ago, when he impulsively tossed them onto the counter at a store across town.

He shrugged as I caught his eye, “I need a new pair.”

I had glanced away to watch two women bickering as they pushed out through the revolving door.  Valentine chocolates, stacked near the counter, were going for half off.  I’ve had enough sweets the last couple of months.

The park is beautiful in the fresh snow.  Yellow urine and tobacco stains are all whited out, homely mistakes corrected to make a tidy page of the morning.   We come to our spot near the fountain and use our gloved hands to clear the seat.  The fountain is still today.

“We have to clear the air.”

Sharp frowns into the distance.  “I hate that phrase.”

“I know.”

“Well, here’s the thing,” he says.  He casts me a quick glance, the frown fixed in place.  I know Sharp all too well; there’s a gentle pity in his brown eyes.  “I know you feel like Fiona is hurting our friendship, but really I think it’s you and me doing that.”

“I love you.”

“Well, I love you, too.  But this is about stupid, old school jealousy.  All friends have it and it’s nothing but trouble, you know?”

I look out over the park, feeling the needles of tears starting.  He doesn’t understand me.  Taking a a breath, I try again.  “Sharp, I know I’ve been short with you a lot recently.  And you were right the other night: I didn’t forget to invite Fiona over.  I decided not to invite her.”

“We spend more time together than most friends I’ve ever had,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been bending over backwards to make sure we get time to do our thing – you know, people watching and putzing.  I hate those guys who forget their friends when they get a girl.”

“Sharp,” I say. “I fell in love with you two years ago.”

One time, Sharp and I were walking home from a bar and we saw a taxi hit a homeless woman.  It happened so suddenly that it couldn’t have been avoided.  She just sort of fell into the street.  Everyone who saw it stopped in their tracks.  Sharp had worn the open mouth of an astonished puppet and, queerly, it made me giggle.  He wears that look now, but I can’t quite laugh today.

“I thought I was over it and then Fiona came along and it’s been eating me up.  It isn’t just that friend thing.  I just think you need to know.”

“Oh, fuck,” he says.  His eyes search my face, looking for a joke, then fall to his lap.  “You’re crying.”

“I know.”

He stands and turns away from me.  We’ve become the awkward staging of a Neil Simon play.  That thought will make me laugh later on, I tell myself as I scramble in my coat pocket for something to wipe my face with.

“The plus side of allergies is you always have one of these,” I say, holding up a used tissue.  “Although I think this one’s spent.”

He doesn’t say anything.

I turn on the bench and hook an elbow over the back.  “Here is the plain, unvarnished truth.  I fell in love with you and then I decided I wasn’t anymore. Didn’t feel that way.  And I know that Fiona is a perfectly fine person, but when you already have a reason to want to dislike someone, it’s not hard to notice their faults.  You and I have made days of finding fault in people.”

“I know,” he says.  He lets his shoulders down a little and turns to look at me.

His auburn beard is scotch kingly against the white morning, but his eyes are those of a sad fool.  Love is an astonishing thing.  I’ve been on his side of this mess before. Easing out a breath, I say, “I told you this because I can’t keep it anymore.  If you let it ruin us, I’ll never forgive you.”

He lets out a surprised laugh like a bark; the jaded park birds give him mild, quizzical glances.  Taking his seat again, he says, “For the moment, let’s put this aside.”

“Okay.”

“Hear me out.”

“I’m all ears.”

He rolls his eyes and glances away.  “Well, no matter what the motive, you can’t be cold and distant every time she’s with me.  I agree that she name drops a little.”

“But how could you like someone like that?”

He shakes his head, “And you were right when you said she dresses too nice for me.”

“Oh brother.”

“Well, what I’m getting at is this: Probably the perfect woman for me is you if you had a vagina.”

“Thanks.”

He laughs again and I want to laugh, too, but I bite my lip and look away.  “Think about it this way. How many times do people who get along as pals still enjoy the same level of comfort after sex?”

“I don’t know,” I say.  “Has this become a Nora Ephron script, may she rest in peace?”

I surprise another laugh from him.

“Besides,” I say. “I didn’t tell you to open up a hypothetical about us having sex.”

“Open up a hypothetical? Is that like a hypodermic?”

I bite back a grin.  “So what are you trying to say, shitbird?”

“I mean, dummy, that we’re lucky.  If I met a girl just like you, she and I would still never have quite the same friendship.”

“Because the sex?”

“Because the sex.”

I turn on the seat, my whole self aimed straight at the fountain across the way.  The snow flakes are getting big and feathery.  “They say that’s a sign the storm is almost over.”

“The snow?” he asks. “We’re talking about the weather?”

I look at him from the side of my face.  “Well, I’m not crying anymore.”

“So, you’ve loved me all this time,” he says.  “Whenever we’re out together, drinking and yukking it up, you’re undressing me with your eyes. I’m not even good looking.”

“I’m never undressing you with my eyes.”  I squint at him. “Not even now.  Besides, what do looks have to do with it? You think Fiona lets you have sex with her because of your abs?  Attraction is based on more than looks. You should know that.  You’re a smart person.”

“I do know that.”

“Well then?”

He straightens in his seat, too, so we’re both trained toward the fountain.  In our years, we’ve never had to look at each other to weave humor between us.  “But you think of me when you touch yourself?”

My eyebrows climb my face. “Actually, not at all.  Do you think of Fiona?”

“She and I have a great sex life.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“No,” he says. “I think of Julie Andrews.”

“I know. You told me that once.”

“And you still loved me?”

It isn’t hard to imagine that we’ll come out of this okay.  Even though I’ve been confronted anew with my feelings since Fiona came into the picture, in many ways I’ve had a long time to find a sort of peace with them.  This isn’t a new burden for me, but time will tell if Sharp carries it heavy or if he carries it light.  For the moment, we must do what he and I have always done and kick it between us, always keeping it in the air.

“I’ll make an effort to like her more,” I say.

“And I’ll try to tone it down, not be so charming around you.”

“You’re off to a great start.”

Our Lady of Perpetual Snark

As she walked home, she thought first about a woman she wanted to punch, a woman with one front tooth that stuck out more than its mate, whose face went soft as pizza dough when she looked up at you with her mouth hanging slack.  Those thin lips were always gaping open, their owner saying something like, “That was mean, Hawkins.”

Then her mind drifted and she was trying to remember what she had in the pantry because it seemed like a soup kind of night.  Though there were still some leaves on the trees, the October twilight was cold.  The chill had chased people off the sidewalks, so she was alone for the twelve blessed minutes until she got home.

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Everyone at work called her Hawkins, which was her own rule.  She hated her first name.  It was a soft name that never fit her personality.  Even her mother once said, “If I’d known what a mean bitch you’d turn out to be, I’d have named you something like Myrtle.”

“Nice, Ma,” she’d said, laughing.

The two of them could always joke in that way.  A friend of hers once asked if it hurt her feelings and that was the first time she ever stopped to consider that it could.  She shook her head at the time, said, “No, that’s just how we are.  Honest.”

She had to explain that to Denise from human resources all the time.  It came up again today when she was called in to talk about the latest report Leslie had filed.  Leslie was the dough faced idiot who sat across from her, dusting her resin lighthouse collection with her dirty lunch napkin while she talked to customers on the phone, the wire of her headset vanishing into her neck fat.

As soon as she sat down, Denise adjusted her glasses and opened with a textbook question, “How do we find a way to coexist, since both of you have the right to expect a comfortable work environment?”

Denise was a pretty girl, always wore nice clothes from places like J. Crew or the Gap, tossed her hair-do around the lunch room like a Kennedy at a fundraiser.  Hawkins considered herself lucky not to be on Denise’s friend list.  If you were, she’d make you look at pictures of her latest bride’s maid gig. All those girls with thin arms and drunken eyeliner, captured forever trying to Dougy with some sass.  No, thanks.

Hawkins knew the drill.  She knew how to talk to people like Denise.  Clearing her throat gently, she put on her smooth customer service voice.  “Well, Denise, I think it’s common for there to be friction between folks in close quarters. I also think Leslie’s a bit hypersensitive.”

“She said you muttered…” Her eyes dropped as she glanced at the report.  “She said you muttered ‘ugly bitch’ under your breath when she looked at you.”

Hawkins laughed out loud – mostly because it was true and a little embarrassing, but also because she liked to see proper, swing-bob Denise using words like that.  She composed herself, decided the game was up.  “Look.  What you mutter is private.”

“Then why mutter it at all?”

“Because sometimes something is so true and so annoying, you have to say it out loud, but you know it’ll cause problems, so you mutter it.  Out of courtesy.”

Denise looked at her for a long while.  Her office was small, so the silence was condensed like soup out of a can.  Considering her options, Hawkins decided to throw in a little water.

“Well, she does have super good hearing.  I’ll give her that.  How about I go to the printer room the next time I need to mutter something?  Because I promise you, it isn’t in me to suppress it when I get that irritated.”

Whether or not she liked the suggestion, Denise seemed to accept it.  Looking a little flattened, she turned back to her computer and said, “Just try to remember why you’re here.”

The walk home took her along the expressway and she paused as always at Mt. Carmel Triangle to light a cigarette.  She leaned against the fence while she smoked, looking at the statue of the holy mother and child.  The Madonna had been painted badly so that her eyebrows looked like woolly caterpillars.  Still, her face wore the calm wisdom that comforted people.

Hawkins shook her head, said out loud, “Right, bitch. Motherhood’s a piece of cake.”

At home, her kids were staring at screens, hunting down gangsters and popping off hookers at a hundred and twenty miles an hour.  If she was lucky, the oldest remembered to empty the drainer and maybe, just maybe, wash the coffee pot for tomorrow morning.  It wasn’t likely.

“Wonder if Baby J ever got sent home for stabbing a girl in the hand with a pencil?” she asked the evening air.  “Maybe he had it coming.”

If her Grammy could have seen her talking to the two of them like that, she’d have made her cut a switch from the forsythia in the back yard and she’d have welted up her ass cheeks something good.  Hawkins glanced up into the glowering sky, but her sense of guilt was short-lived as something like a defiant smile played at her lips.  Still, she fished into her hip pocket and found some change, dropped it softly on the broken tiles at the feet of the Madonna.

She finished off her cigarette before moving on, glancing back once and catching the last of the twilight making a sort of magic on the statue.  They didn’t seem to mind her grilling them.  Maybe they knew how much her feet hurt by this time of day.  Or how annoying Leslie was in the morning, when her energy was peaking after a breakfast of sugary, whip cream covered coffee from McDonald’s.  The thing about people like Leslie that pissed her off was how they pretended that each day was a fresh slate.  She always parked it with a bright smile, saying good morning like today they were finally going to hit it off.

She dug her hands into her pockets, leaning into a cold breeze that cut over the island.  On the air she could smell garbage and spicy food.  It quickened her hunger and she walked faster.  Before long she reached their little house with the metal awning over the door, rusted and bent but still some comfort on rainy days.  The door was unlocked, like always, so she pushed into the warm hall without breaking pace.

Two of them were playing video games, little boxes of cereal open on the table in front of them.  The oldest was sitting in her recliner, Indian style, painting his nails carefully.  He glanced up at her when she entered.

“It’s not one you like,” he said. “You said this one chipped bad.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, princess, well that’s good to know.  I got a fancy dress ball this Saturday.  You mind picking up my diamond tiara from the dry cleaners?”

He laughed. “You have a good day?”

“You clean up in the kitchen at all?” she asked, sinking onto the sofa between the younger ones.  They peered at her quickly, then back at the screen.  She snatched up a cereal box and gave it a shake.  “You little fuckers hungry or did you already eat?”

“They’re good,” Shawn said.  “And I did clean up the kitchen.”

“Oh really?”

“Yep.  And Ru-Ru came by and dropped off a pizza, so I put it in the oven.”

Hawkins sat up, “You didn’t turn it up to high, did you?”

“No, Mom,” he said. “I know about the oven. It’s on three hundred.”

She shrugged, eased back into the flattened cushions.  As an afterthought she glanced at him, saying, “Well, thanks.”

When she was fifteen, she got pregnant with Shawn.  His stupid dad hung around just long enough to stick him with that name.  The other two came a good long while later.  Hawkins always said she was too smart to want another kid after Shawn, but now and again she forgot herself.  In a lot of ways, she and the boy had raised each other.   When the others came along, he helped a lot, always seeming to know how tired she was and that her fuse was short.  Sometimes he said something smart and it made her see herself.  One day she had to get around to thanking him for real, but not until he was old enough to get it.

Just in the last year, since he turned fifteen, he’d changed on her.  Most times he wasn’t willing to help anymore with anything.  She had to harass him to pick up the messes and get something on the stove.  And it took everything in her to make the little fucker go to school.  He said they were all calling him faggot and he didn’t need that shit anyway.

“Yes, you do, dummy,” she’d told him.  “You need to finish school and then you need to go to college.”

“I forgot about my trust fund.”

She heard him, but she pretended she didn’t.  It was true that she had no idea how she’d get him into college.  His grades were good, despite his absences, but that wasn’t enough.  Instead of arguing about that, she’d taken up the other issue.

“If you don’t want people calling you faggot, stop wearing girl’s jeans and makeup.”

That had made him cry and even though Hawkins liked to pretend nothing ever hurt, seeing his mascara running down his young face was like looking in the mirror when she was that age. It just about broke her into a million pieces.  She set her jaw.

“Anyway, why do we care what trash thinks about us?” she said. “When you’re my age, you won’t remember half the cunts you went to school with and whether or not you’re queer won’t matter anymore because by then you’ll have friends who like queers.  Get it?”

He’d given her one of his looks.  His eyes were exactly like her own, small and brown and really sharp.  Her Grammy always said she had a way about her that was worth more than gold.  It amused the old woman.  “You got that peppery stare that makes bitches sneeze.”  Hawkins never got the joke until Shawn got old enough to give her the look.  It always made her glance away.

Tonight, while they sat eating pizza in the little dining room off the kitchen, she found herself looking at Shawn now and again.  Under his eyeliner and his shaggy hair, he was as good-looking as his father.  He was tall and slender and had full lips that were quick to smile, but pretty even when he was sad or thinking hard.  Her boy was self-possessed like herself.  With him, you only ever knew what he wanted you to know.

In the silence between them, her thoughts drifted to the Mt. Carmel statue.  She wondered why she stopped there every night and looked at the mother and son.  It had seemed for a long time like it was the perfect place to light her cigarette, the mid-point on her walk home.  But since Shawn had started to change, she’d been studying the figures closer.  Some nights she had dreams about when he was as little as the Baby Jesus.  It was the kind of dream that was so mundane and so real, it felt more like a memory.  Maybe it was.

She was sitting on her mother’s sofa late at night.  All the lights in the apartment were out, except that the Christmas tree was lit.  In the rainbow glow of the lights, she could make out her baby in the bassinet near her knee.  She was drowsy and he was sleeping peacefully.  The two of them were all alone and outside you could hear the traffic on the expressway and you could hear the wind.  Howl.