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Lit On The Side

By Neil Crabtree

For a moment, I regretted what I’d said. Her face twitched around the eyes and she looked away, blinking, like someone awakened from a faint with smelling salts under her nose. Her mousey blonde bangs fell across her forehead as she shook herself. No one else in the café noticed, though right there at our table, the static had built to a point that if you touched either of us, the zap would hurt your hand.

“I don’t understand,” she said, leaning forward. “You slept in my bed two nights ago.”

“There’s nothing wrong between us that way. Physically, we’re fine.”

“Then what?”

“It’s a question of communication, I suppose.”

She picked up her latté . Paul McCartney sang a silly love song in the background. At the counter, two teenage girls in eyeglasses and boots tried to order something that was cool but didn’t taste like coffee. Frozen, one said. With extra whipped cream, said the other. They wore tight blue jeans stuffed with nice behinds. The server kid in the black shirt flirted with them and made them giggle, amazed at his good luck. Another couple sat side by side at the back of the place, looking at the screen on a laptop, their eyes getting big as some new shocking image materialized.

“I’m sorry, Brenda, “ I said. “You’re a wonderful person. I enjoy being around you, enjoy sharing things with you.”

She waited for me to go on, hope showing in her brown eyes.

“Then, what?” she asked.

“But,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Your writing sucks.”

“What?”

“Your stories. Each one gets worse than the one before.”

“Listen to you.”

“I’m sorry. You asked me to critique. The last one, God, it’s like you were drunk or on drugs. I can make no sense of it. I can’t read any more.”

“I told you it was a draft.” Her anger narrowed her eyes, made her look tough.

“You said it was a rewrite.”

“Oh, go to hell,” she said. She stood up and for a second I thought she might toss hot coffee on me. “I thought you were different, Travis. And I guess you are, in a sick kind of way. Watch my coat while I go to the Ladies.”

My eyes followed her walk to the back, stuck to the tight leather skirt with a fashionable slit, revealing her dark mesh stockings. She looked so good in that outfit I started to believe I’d made a mistake. Then I thought of her sentence structure, trying to describe a simple beach scene, the words coming out so you couldn’t tell if she was outdoors or in. What happened two pages ago repeated as though she had no memory of writing it, or had cut and pasted in such a loose manner she surprised herself with new text that appeared out of nowhere. Stay with the plan, I told myself. Don’t cave.

Marcelo from our writers group came in, looking stoned as usual, a bent manila folder stuffed with papers in one hand, the stories group members submitted last meeting. In ten minutes, we’d have to head over to the branch library, where Mrs. Danaher would ask us to comment on our peers’ efforts. Marcelo wrote strange sci-fi stories where Humans struggled against the Machines that ruled them, not very original, of course, but made readable by the sexual tortures used during interrogations. I called to him.

“Join us,” I said.

He looked at me and the two empty chairs.

“Brenda’s in the bathroom,” I explained.

“Ah yes. Brenda. Such an interesting lady. Can I leave my papers here? I’m dying for a macchiato.” He set down his burden and headed to the counter. I sat with Brenda’s coat and Marcelo’s papers, thinking of looking inside of each for clues to psyches I didn’t understand. Brenda wrote long emails and exploded in bed after two martinis. Marcelo posted a blog that linked to porno sites, humor columns and websites of other sci-fi writers. They call it “speculative fiction” on the Internet, and his site’s title was Speculator, with a Robot holding a busty blonde from behind as thematic graphix. He’d self-published one novel and published several stories online.

I wanted to look into the manila folder, read what notes he’d written on my last story, “Columbine Sunset”, but by then Brenda had come out of the restroom and found him standing at the pickup counter. He threw open his arms and gave her a big hug, and she kissed him warmly. I didn’t even think they knew each other, and yet there I sat while she squeezed him again and looked at me over his shoulder. I had an uh-oh moment, clairvoyant in its intensity. She whispered God knows what into his ear.

They laughed as they approached, Brenda leaning into him, so he almost spilled his macchiato.

“We’re leaving, Trav,” Brenda said, picking up her coat.

“You coming?” Marcelo asked, waiting for me to accompany them.

“I’ll be there. You guys go ahead.”

“Sure. It’s almost six. Don’t get locked out,” he said.

Mrs. Danaher locked the door to the conference room promptly at six o’clock, out of courtesy to the group she said, though more than once traffic kept out people who had driven across town. There’d been more than one confrontation over it, always coming down to the conclusion that there had to be something wrong with all of us, to put up with such a goofy old biddy just to get someone to read what we’d written.

“Don’t forget your folder, “ I said.

“Oh, right,” he said, scooping it up. “I put some good remarks on your little beach scene,” he said to Brenda.

“Really?” she asked. “You liked it?”

“I loved it,” he said, looking to me for confirmation. “The way the narrator drifts in and out of consciousness. Man, it made me feel high just reading about it.”

Brenda gave me a look that reminded me of Judge Judy, an afternoon show I’d watched in a waiting room somewhere. The judge found for the defendant, and I, the plaintiff, now faced punitive damages.

“Marcelo, do you like vodka martinis?” she asked.

“I drink Absolut straight from the freezer,” he said.

“Well, this is your lucky day, my man.” She took his arm as they headed for the door. She turned and gave me a full-metal jacket smile, right between the eyes.

I felt the coffee in my stomach re-percolating. This had gone off course, but somehow I’d ended up alone, away from Brenda, just as I’d planned. I would have preferred her to be hurt and lonely, but what the hell.

I checked my iPhone for an email from Elaine MacIvey. Now that woman could write. I looked forward to seeing her again at Breadloaf. She’d emailed me a color photo of a nipple, taken holding a digi-cam in one hand, the aureole light brown like my coffee and cream.

Below that text showed what seemed to be an excellent review of “Columbine Sunset” with four flashing gold stars at the top. It made me laugh. If she’d walked into the room just then, I would have given her diamonds, in a pendant shaped like my heart.

 

Neil Crabtree lives in Miami, FL, and offers commentary through his daily blog, Believable Lies. He is completing a novel, The Barricades of Heaven, and a short story collection, Isolated Incidents.

Photo CoffeeCup courtesy of Paula Jensen, Dilworth, MN.

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