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Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"Cicada," by Judy Wilson (May 24, 2000)
"These are things my son taught me to care about. Saturday nights he taught me to feel the thrill of the drag strip. 'The trick,' he said, 'is to not blink when the lights go green.'"

"Lyris," by Tom Drury (April 20, 2000)
"She climbed down the outside of the bridge and stood on a narrow ledge. It was not a far drop to the river; it might even be a pleasant jump in the summer."

"Contamination," by Dalia Rosenfeld (March 22, 2000)
"Igor spends most of his mornings in a cave, across the street from the park where we used to grill hamburgers and toss Frisbees over each other's heads."

"A Catalogue of Change," by Piya Kochhar (February 24, 2000)
"In the early morning the girl looks at the lady's palms, which are pink with thin lines. The heart crossed at Jupiter. The mount of Saturn marked by a bursting star."

"Logic Game," by Doug Dorst (January 20, 2000)
"Lydia and her husband, Oscar, are giving a dinner party. They have invited eight of their oldest and best friends. The guests must be seated at the dinner table according to the following rules...."

"Girl and Marble Boy," by Edith Pearlman (December 29, 1999)
"Nina Logan stood facing the masterpiece. Its nakedness had unnerved the Lauras. Its beauty had been lost on the twins. Its politics had left the potheads cold. Its pose had sent her mother off on a mysterious errand."

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

June 21, 2000

The Limbo of Infants, by Sandra Riley

They like to go to Chi Chi's for cha-jitas, Claire and Tom, when they are off the island on an interstate, looking for a place to stop. It's a bright, sunny day. Inside, they settle into the vinyl seats, plastic menus in hand, the faint scent of marijuana smudged on their fingertips. They have the pink-tipped noses and sun-bleached hair of beach people, tiny granules of sand pressed into their car seats, at the bottoms of their pockets, hidden in the wrappers of gum. They're misplaced, and like animals out of their natural environment here in this budding strip-mall development, they look messy and unadorned. They have the same hair, shoulder length, the same pale blond color. The waitress is wondering if they are lovers or brother and sister. Just kids, she thinks. She likes them right off, at least better than the margarita-drinking salesmen she gets this time of day, in the quiet of late lunch mid-afternoon limbo.

The restaurant sits along Route 64. Cars whiz by in constant streams, north and south, a blur of movement all around the restaurant. Inside, Mexican theme music plays quietly from the ceiling. A piñata and streamers hang motionless. The bus boy leans against the wall with nothing to do. Tom and Claire crunch away on tortilla chips. They like the hot salsa, the way it fills their heads, the way it makes them keep eating.

He has just picked her up at the bus station from a trip home for her cousin's wedding shower, too early in the summer to have had to leave the beach. She's tired. They've been separated for four days, and so she moves over next to him in their semi-circular booth. She's missed the familiarity of his skin, which she unknowingly associates with sleep. They sleep well anywhere, if together, in a tent or in his handed-down Volvo at a rest area, limbs tangled and sealed together with perspiration, breathing into one another's mouths.

At home Claire and her mother dutifully stretched nylons over their legs in the heat of June and dressed in skirts and heels for the shower. They wanted to look put together. Her mother's hair, thin from too much of coloring, was carefully styled. Only an up-close scrutiny revealed her imperfections -- a tiny smudge of make-up under the eye or a thread hanging from a sleeve. In their car, always on the verge of breaking down (a timing belt, a distributor, an alternator, words defined only by sums of money), they held their cigarettes out the windows to avoid smelling like smoke when they arrived. But in the sterile suburban kitchen the briny smell of tobacco rose up around them, mixing with mint and her mother's perfume.

Their relatives have chosen the euphemism "free-spirit" to describe Claire's mother, because she had a child out of wedlock. But she is really not a free spirit at all. She's constantly worrying, constantly calculating, and only occasionally laughs recklessly with Claire, in the privacy of their apartment, over something only they understand.

Tom's and Claire's sizzling skillets arrive, leaving a trail of smoke behind them. Starving, she announces, and begins to assemble a fajita. She wears a tarnished silver ring on her left thumb that makes her hand look handsome. This summer Tom is going to teach her how to surf. They've talked about it, and he's bought her a used board he'll surprise her with when they get back. In the meantime they talk about something else. Her hair falls out from behind her ear as she's laughing. Her breathy, scratchy laugh, a wide ribbon of hair sloping across her face, and she's suddenly transformed, beautiful. He forgets sometimes his attraction to her, because she's so fun to be around.

The waitress refills their iced tea. There is only so much they can eat. They pay the bill, pooling their money, leaving a good tip. Then they are back outside where the sunlight is melting the tar in the parking lot and the traffic is a cacophony around them. They're satiated, stomachs full, back in the car, back on the interstate. He accelerates.

Tom is a junior at his parents' alma mater and Claire is at the neighboring state school. They met at a party. There are things they don't know about each other. That his older sisters don't like the sounds of her. That she has a distaste for his lack of ambition. In the fall, she wants to get her grade-point average up to apply to grad school, and he wants to take a year off and move to Alaska. Go, she says.

He doesn't write to her. She gets another boyfriend. Wait, no, first she waits for a response to her letters, and instead of worrying about leaving the stove or the iron on she worries about not having left on her answering machine. She rehearses speeches and listens relentlessly to Bob Dylan sing about his visions of Johanna. Then she gets another boyfriend. She gets accepted to business school. Tom tries to call her once, but it doesn't matter to her, because at the time she's all caught up with Steve Corrozzi. I love Steve Corrozzi, she says to her friends, years after it's true, only because it sounds so funny to her. Her twenties pass.

At thirty-two, Claire is fastidious about her appearance, serious about her job. She spends too much money on shoes and clothes. It's been eighteen months since she lost her mother, and the world has moved on too quickly. Thirty, she thinks, is too young to lose your mother, and like a kid who gets kept back in school, year after year, she's not moved on. Some days are worse than others. She's made an error at work, an oversight, a mix-up really, on a marketing report that has been put into the hands of two hundred and fifty sales reps. An exponential mistake.
Under florescent lights in the windowless meeting room, she's unable to brush it aside as just a mistake or to pass the blame or to shrug it off with an apology and a quip, as anyone else would. Instead she blushes. She confuses her words. Her explanation drags on too long. No one jumps in and saves her. She sees them looking at each other, a flake, she knows they're thinking, not very smart.

After the meeting, the inside of her jacket soaked with sweat, she slips into the stairwell, click clacking down seven stories. She has to get away for a minute. Outside she turns left, then turns around and heads right. She'll go to the bank, she decides, and check her account, a short confined task, then she'll go back in. On the sidewalk, in the glaring sunlight, something about that meaningless lunch comes back to her, a vague, blurred sensation, just the feeling she got from him or the smell of his skin, and his name, Tom Block, the quick, short rhythm of it. Oh, Tom Block, she thinks, and for her at that moment it's like looking into the face of a baby.


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More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Sandra Riley received her MFA from Columbia University. She lives in New York where in addition to writing fiction she works as an editor.

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