Fiction Fiction 2009

Least Resistance

Holding her hand in the coffee shop, I realized how close I’d come to blowing it with the one person in my life who needed me. Her family was back in Oregon. Her husband was distracted, about to lose his reputation and business if he couldn’t pull it together. And here I was, listening.

Six months after she dumped me, Katie started calling the house. She said she missed me, that she felt like she’d lost her best friend. Finally I told her about my affair with Mary Ann, to try and scare her away. But Katie was persistent. “I’m worried about you, Justin,” she said. “How old is she?”

“So how’s UConn? You meeting any guys up there?”

“It’s illegal,” she said. “If she’s married, that makes it adultery.”

“Shut up.”

“I mean, how would you feel if you were him?”

“I already know how it feels. Remember?” She’d left me for an ex-friend from Nonnewaug High. I’d driven out to her house one night and his Le Mans was parked in her driveway, her Christmas-tree lights blinking over his hood.

Katie sighed, and I waited another second, then hung up. I thought we were done, but two days later she called and said she’d be there for me when this was over, and I thanked her just to be civil, though I didn’t see how we could ever be together again, considering how immature our love was. Life had always been easy, and was going to continue to be easy, for her. She didn’t know the struggle of real people. But I was learning. In my heart I couldn’t imagine ever being through with Mary Ann.

I told Mary Ann I’d never go back to Katie.

“I don’t blame you,” she said. “You have to learn how to trust again.”

I watched to see if she was relieved at all about my resolve. We held each other’s eyes, and I understood, when she leaned in and kissed me lightly, that she’d misread my sullenness. “Keep talking,” she said. “Men don’t learn how to talk about pain.”

I could see that she needed to listen. “She liked jewelry,” I said. “She had all these little jewelry boxes in her room, so I bought her this one giant one. It’s like four feet tall with two swinging doors, solid oak. And she breaks up with me a week before Christmas. By the time I realize we’re not getting back together, I can’t return it. So I gave it to my mom, and now, every time I walk by her room, I see that damn jewelry box.”

As I spoke, I watched the vertical blinds that closed us off from the daylit world, their color that of fingers on a flashlight lens. I wondered if Mary Ann had seen how close I’d come to choking up. Yes, I still ached, but more than that, I recognized that we were connecting yet again—more undeniable evidence that she and I were made for each other.

“Wait here,” she said, and in a moment she came back from her bedroom. She handed me something smooth and cool. “It’s a worry stone,” she said. “It helps you not be inside so much. Hold it when you’re upset, and let it take the bad energy.”

I rolled the stone in my palm. It was the black-green of an avocado, and I recognized it but couldn’t remember from where.

“Where did you feel it?” she said. “The hurt.”

I looked into her big pale eyes. “It’s like you forget how to breathe.”

She took my other hand and held it to her bare chest. Her heartbeat was almost something I could hold. We stayed that way, and her breathing deepened. She closed her eyes tightly, as if against an awful sound, and a trickle of coldness seeped through me.

“Sometimes,” she said, sitting forward, “God, it’s like it just happened. Sometimes he’d nurse so hard I was raw. I’d be in tears by the time he was done.” She stared down at the old braided rug, with its frayed threads and little spills, and might have been looking into the past. “The morning after we lost him, I was so engorged, I had to pump. My body didn’t understand that he was gone. I pumped six ounces and then had to pour it down the drain. That almost killed me. I would’ve given anything for another bloody nipple.”

I pictured her at the sink watching her milk disappear, my story a pathetic whimper next to hers. I looked at the stone again, and then realized where I’d seen it before. Looking for matches one day in Nick’s box, in the little top drawer where a mechanic keeps cigarettes, soda-machine change, his Snap-on account book and receipts, I saw, way at the back, the twin of this little stone.

Presented by

Wayne Harrison’s stories appear in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, and The Sun. He teaches at Oregon State University.

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