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Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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Fish Bowl

By Kyle Hemmings

I’ve been watching her from my wheel chair for the past two weeks, the new tenant in apartment 6b. They must have kicked the yoga teacher out. From my window over Avenue A, you get a good view of the uptown bus she waits for every morning, yawning, folding her arms, smoothing her plaid skirt or checking her black nylons for runs. Whenever a crowd grows around her she steps toward the curb, feet drawn together, her body, sleek as a gymnast.

I want to introduce myself, gradually work myself under her skin, a scraper under hard paint. I could meet her down in the laundry room, pretend to have a spasm, and drop my basket. Or, I could ask, do you have change for five quarters?

Oh, it’s not bad , I would say. A visiting nurse comes three times a week and the OxyContin works wonders for the pain. The accident? A drunk ran the intersection on Riverview. A T1 injury. But you see these hands? The grip of a bear. I work out. Exercise them every morning, squeezing oranges before I slice them. Give me a grapefruit; I’ll amaze you. One learns to compensate .

Did you know I was in "Murderball?"

She would throw back her long chestnut hair and laugh. I don’t even know what that is, she would say. Like a medicine ball?

Before the accident, I had a part-time girlfriend. She posed for me in my studio. We ate hot dogs at Nathan’s with the late-night drunks. She argued with the waitresses at Starbucks. After the accident, she said we’d still be friends. I haven’t seen her since I got out of rehab.

I am sitting in her apartment. Her name is Cynthia.  Her walls need painting. The cool blue in them contributes an uncomfortable edge. I am swimming the English Channel to bridge this distance. Backstroking. Spitting out water.

“It was really sweet of you to bring me these fruits. Max, right?”

“Just a polite way of welcoming you to the neighborhood.”

“Can you tell I’m a vegetarian? Well, on most days. Would you like some coffee?”

“Sure.”

Five minutes into this drab conversation and I’m in love. I’m focusing on the butterscotch snowflakes on her face, the pug nose like a poodle’s, the soft, thin tone of her voice.

“I take mine with sugar and no cream,” I say.

She’s from Boston. Attends NYU part time. Works as a paralegal to make ends meet. She was engaged. I think she got burned. When she talks about her ex-fiancé, the corners of her lips pull inward.

I notice some unpacked boxes on her living room floor, the photos of parents, relatives, one of her smiling in braces, the baby fat lingering on the cheeks.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” I say.

“Tell me about it.”

There is a an oval fish bowl by the dining room window; orange and red goldfish weaving toward the glass, away from it. I imagine those fish growing larger, angrier. The bowl bursts and the apartment floods. Water everywhere, breaking down walls, causing massive traffic delays, a national emergency.

That red goldfish grows into a blue marlin. It declares itself the mayor of New York City, just like on those cartoons. A cigar dangles from its lips. It wears dark glasses. It speaks in a voice full of phlegm.

“Until humans learn how to communicate underwater,” it says, “only fish can run the city council. Once these land creatures can speak to us as fellow citizens then I will elect humans as freeholders.”

I want to tell Cynthia not look at me as a classification, a person with a disability. I can do anything the average person can, only sitting down. I can get hard. I read the Kama Sutra. I can discuss the pitfalls of our policy on Iraq. I want to tell her that I’ve lived in this building for three years, and not only does no one talk to me, they don’t talk to each other.

For some people, I imagine, speaking to one another is difficult as learning to paint with your teeth.

I’ve got her schedule down pat. Every morning I watch her step on the bus. I watch her get off at 6:30 p.m. Yesterday, I wheeled myself out and handed her an umbrella in the rain.

“Really, Max.”

“Really, Cynth.”

I share TV dinners at her table: Fish and chips, macaroni and cheese. They’re heated in a gas stove that I suspect leaks. I tell her I’ll inform the super.

On the telephone, I start a conversation gingerly enough, but later, there are breaks, pauses. I can hear her coughing on the other end. When she doesn’t pick up the phone, I suspect she went barhopping in trendy Soho clubs, coming home with someone named "Bubba." I’m furious. I’m squeezing grapefruits. I smell of citrus juice. I can’t get hard.

She’s not returning my phone calls. It’s turning me into an obsessive, a Trekkie for Cynthia.  I decide to confront her, tell her I want to be more than friends. When a person says I just want to be friends, it means I like you but or you’re okay butyou just don’t measure up. I’m going to knock on her door. It’s evening.

“Oh hi, Max, come in. Want some instant coffee. Mocha flavored or regular?”

I watch her pour Evian water into a coffee maker. “Excuse me,” she says with a smile. She’s on the phone.

Is she talking to Tom Cruise? Bubba? It’s taking forever. She’s giggling on the phone. I’m gripping imaginary oranges, throwing them against a wall.

I shift my weight to the right and the wheelchair crashes with the sound of a wrestler pounding the mat. I hear a voice dangling from the phone, the patter of Cynthia’s feet.

“Max, what happened?”

“Don’t help me. I can do it.”

I close the brakes on the chair. I pull and swivel, craning and twisting my neck. I’m in the seat, sideways, the way fish squirm on land.

“Max, let me help you. Here.”

She slides two hands under my armpits.

“Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!”

“Huh? I’m only trying to…”

I wheel myself out, back to my apartment upstairs. Turn on some light jazz.

There is a knock. I take my time, pretend to fidget with the double bolt. She’s standing over me, lips slightly parted, hazel eyes crunched together.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes. Why shouldn’t I be?”

“Well, I’m not.”

“Have you eaten dinner?” I say.

“No.”

“Me neither.”

“I’m hungry,” she says.

“I’m out of fresh fruit.”

“I’m hungry,” she says.

 

Kyle Hemmings is enrolled in the MFA program at National University.

 

Photo "Goldfish" courtesy of Luke Champion.

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