THE HAS BEEN
Dahlia the African Queen kicked off her heels and sat at the bar with the guys. Kemp looked her over, sipping a yellowish fizzy drink. She asked, “Gin?”
He said, “Ginger Ale.”
Kemp gave her a stare as if she should know the answer already. Then he stared at the bartender until she noticed. He said, “Something real this time. I forfeit.”
Rudy said, “That means you owe me one. I’ll take a gin an tonic on his tab.”
They hammered down a few doubles before Dahlia wove her skinny hold around Kemp’s thick tree limb of an arm. Her nose rubbed his earlobe, her words breathy. The barefoot queen led him away from the bar. The drinks imbued him with what blood could not, and he stumbled out of her rhythm, an ex-cop, an out of practice human, once a husband, now a has-been. The lights darted, the strip bar the inside of a spinning top like the tilt-o-whirl he used to ride on with Mary in their twenties during the Soenoh summer festival. This was no festival. Two women licked half-folded dollar bills and stuck them to their nipples. The men spread their legs extra far apart, their bids in their fists.
Kemp dropped into the private cushioned booth. She removed his leather jacket and pushed her palms against his chest wall, fingers latched over his mountainous shoulders. Her knees straddled his thighs.
This is okay? Yea, good.
A kiss to his prickly jaw. Another kiss to the neck, a soft bite, teeth tugging on his skin. Her bare skin smelled acrid as nail polish, earthy as wet petals. The silent beats between the song’s pounding percussion seemed to follow her lead.
You don’t need to cry. I don’t like to cry. You can smell my hair.
She undid her black bun. It bounced and unraveled. She guided his hand to her slender neck, warm even under such calloused hands. She flattened her nose into his, lips just atoms apart, her unsaid words and air feeding into his sad mouth.
You smell of wet cherries. You smell of hot gin. Please, just hold me.
She curled into his lap and hung around his neck. She held him, smaller, yet swallowing him from the center outward.
You are home whenever you wish to be. Say it, and it’s so. Mary is just in the other room putting together her lesson plan and she’ll be back soon, you have to leave. She isn’t really there. She isn’t really anywhere. But Mary needs something. Whatever it is you can’t offer it. You’re out of a drink. You need a refill? I need to go home. I need to see if my son is home safe. Your son can take care of himself. Take care of you. I have to go.
A Rudy-requested-tune screamed on: from the top of the ocean, yea-ah! From the bottom of the sky, god-dah-am! Well-I-get-claustrophobic, I ca-an! You know that I can!
Kemp emerged from a humid darkness. Men headed toward the bar. Rudy headed toward the door.
The parking lot was beneath Kemp’s feet before he knew he opened the door. Dahlia the girl much too young was texting.
“Work phone?” he asked.
The sidewalk was still but undulating. He said, “Why don’t you come back to my place instead? I got movies.”
She said, “Everyone’s got movies.”
She said, “I know you didn’t mean it like that. You know I like falling asleep next to you. I feel safe around you.”
She said, “Another night.”
But you gotta make money. You don’t need to make it like this. Maybe not, she said. She says. She’s saying. Are you gonna tell me some more I need to respect myself? He said he was wrong when he said that. I know it’s more complicated than that.
She kissed his cheek. “You’re a lovely man. Night.”
The night was last Thursday, far as he knew, and Mary wasn’t resting in the nicest grave he could afford. He should have asked Mary for her number after he approached her at the café around the corner. She graded papers over coffee. He asked to join her, a brief distraction from his head. She asked what was on his mind. He should have asked for her number when she said she had to return to those papers, and he left. He did not return to the conversation for another year. It was a good year alone but it could have been an extra year with her. It could have been the one year they needed for her to quit teaching elementary and move onto high school, to work alongside their friends. Just a little more time and Rudy or Margie might have had her convinced.
His son’s bicycle was propped up against the front porch stairs. He ambled over the seat and sat, feet fumbling to catch the pedals. He gained some forward momentum. The bike wobbled. The sidewalk came on faster than he expected. The drunk middle-aged man lay sprawled out, forehead scraped and bleeding, realizing he had left his jacket at the bar.
THE DANCER, THE INVADER
Daphne kicked past the dozen pairs of heels Dahlia the African Queen might wear if it was her night. But it wasn’t. She played Daphne tonight, dashing through the rain in her flats, black leggings, black blouse, and a leather jacket roughly her age. The car ride across town lasted the first three songs of an album Rudy loaned out to her months ago that she only just now started listening to. She sat outside Kemp’s house allowing the fourth song to finish. I’m on the road to god-don’t-know, my brain’s the burger and my heart’s the coal. It’s closing time.
She knocked on the door feeling oddly like the girl four years prior to stripping, the boyfriend circling her like a batter’s bludgeon, his shoulders tensed but squirming like a cheek full of chewing tobacco. Her Antony was the bronze Italian, the knotted hunk of a tree. He liked her lips and her tits. She loved his primitive language. She shaved any part of herself he wanted shaved. He said she didn’t need the friends she wanted. He was a jackal, how he snickered one second then howled another. She might have enjoyed how he hit her as much as he held her, if not more. Antony was hairless, raw inside like a cob of corn eaten through until there’s nothing left to pick at. His jacket stunk. His breath was warm like sunlight.
Nothing existed before any moment with Kemp. He stood in the doorway, well-built as the very house she wanted to enter just as badly as she wanted to avoid. A creature of the opposite sex was not going to ensnare her. But a considerable amount of years had passed before she knew Kemp existed and she wasn’t sure why that had to be the case.
“Aren’t you coming in?” He took a step back into the dim hall light, revealing a scrape along his forehead and hairline. His temple was yellowish, darkening. “It’s nothing.”
He took her leather coat, the very one belonging to him that he had left at the bar, and hung it on a hook above a pile of shoes. Chest hair groped at the neck of his white tank-top. His thick flannel bulged where the sleeves were rolled up just above the elbows.
She gave his arms a squeeze and kissed his chin. She liked how her hand looked against his bruise. He insisted, “Really, I’m fine. I’ve started some tea in the kitchen. Go sit, I’ll be there in a minute.”
The walls and the air between them teemed with ancient warmth. The house hugged her in every way she longed for since relocating to Soenoh five years prior. Some spots felt cold, vacant almost, where photos were once placed, the wall now bare. Their sequence and variety were off, mostly of his son, gaps of school years. One photo captured Kemp in his first years in uniform, thinner, decked in black.
The walk from the entryway past the kitchen and into the somehow larger yet emptier living area felt similar to revisiting the hope chest in her closet. The living area swelled outward. The tube television atop a coffee-table-turned-TV-stand was offset by unused wall space. The couch was too large and too far from the tube, tucked into the furthest corner.
Unfolded laundry occupied the space of an adult-and-a-half. Daphne finished with the plain white T’s then started on the jeans.
Kemp stopped at the threshold with two faded mugs, one reading, wor l ‘s gr atest da. The other featured a baby-sized handprint.
“Throw the rest on the floor,” he said. He held out the mug, waiting for her to take it.
“I’m almost done. Pull out one of those stools.”
She referenced the purposeless barstools stacked beside the dustiest bookshelf she’d ever seen. Hardback and softcover spines stood out to her: Growing your own garden. Beloved. Chicken soup for the soul. An End to PANIC. Managing your anxiety. Ascending with both feet on the ground. The depression workbook. Kemp had mentioned to her months ago his penchant for avoiding anything involving turning pages, much less, words. By the looks of it the television would run until the day it could no longer run. One side of the couch, the side she worked on clearing, featured a deep groove where he had dug his own little crater. The leather was cracked.
She said, “There. Done. You sit down. I’m going to change.”
“Oh. Okay.” His tone suggested he wasn’t any closer to predicting her actions regardless of her staying the night twice a week. This was the closest version of a date they’d meet halfway on. His son stayed at a friend’s. She’d drive over. And despite the house’s stagnant decoration she discovered something new each visit.
She returned in gray sweats two sizes too large meant for him and a tiny red tank top meant for her. She enjoying showing off her shoulders and neckline since he favored kissing those parts of her.
Kemp sat in his crater the way he might when she weren’t around but his face suggested anything but contentment. He always appeared nervous before she joined him for tea and a movie. The stiffness in his stomach. The stillness in his chest. An hour in and he would grow into her a little more. They would retire to his bedroom, the emptiest room in the house. A bed. A dresser. A lamp. One color. Blue. Light blue. Dark blue. Lighter and darker blues. She would wrap herself around the tree trunk of a man. He groaned more than he spoke coherent sentences outside of the bedroom. Her most cherished moment was the look of puzzlement in his eyes when he breached orgasm, as if the feeling were foreign, unknown. His back was solid as brick. And he had a cute ass. “For an old man,” she’d joke when he stalked off to the bathroom.
An illness crept inside her when he’d vanish to the bathroom. The sheets were wrapped around her but the room almost fought off her presence. She assumed the feelings of an invader.
THE HAS BEEN
The bruising had lessened. Kemp’s eyes were perkier than usual. He hadn’t stopped by the strip bar since her last night over. Tonight they went at it in the bed for a couple rounds. They spent their last couple waking hours exchanging words.
“That was rougher than usual.” Daphne clarified, “I’m not complaining.”
“I didn’t see you. I saw Rudy. Were you by this week?”
She repositioned herself so that her chin rested on his chest. “I get you just came. But can you gimme a little more than a word at a time?”
Air filled his lungs and he held it for a few counts, releasing through his nostrils until his chest rested at a level lower than before her request.
He said, “I’m really quitting drinking for real this time. I’m having trouble sleeping.”
By the look in her eye she digested his words. Quitting drinking.
“Does this mean I get to see you less?”
She said, “Trouble sleeping. Hmm. You’re probably not used to not blacking out.”
“I still wanna see you.”
“It’s not the age thing, is it?”
“I just said I still wanna see you.”
“You’re not gonna hurt my feelings. I can take it.”
“I know you can take it.” He pinched her midriff.
She smiled. “My boss says you’re old enough to be my dad, says you’re a pervert.”
He lay on his back staring at the ceiling. “Yeah. Well. Your boss sounds like the pervert.” The ceiling’s texture revealed an assortment of shapes the eye could reinvent into evil faces and disfigured animals. He said, “I guess you’re not that much older than my son…I guess that means he’s sleeping around…Shit, I don’t even know if he likes girls.”
“You might as well be my boy’s age. And I don’t even know if he likes girls.”
“I’m sure he does.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say that.”
“It’s okay. I know what this is. It isn’t the same for you. I’m okay.”
“That’s not what I meant. I’m sorry.”
The more he said it the less it meant but maybe that could change. The apology could mean more with time. After all, time had its effect on things. Oftentimes, not good. Sometimes good. He swore to himself he meant it. He spent much of his youth chasing names. His first love, Betsy Jane. She grilled cheese meaner than his mother. Left her for Bonnie Jean, a waitress. Bonnie Jean would circle his regular table. Do you need food? A drink? You look like you need a drink. Left her for Betsy Bowns, the girl behind the pizza counter. Betsy slapped dough. Left him for a taller, darker man. Kemp spent four years alone. Made the distance from his apartment to the college. From class to security then home. Then Mary Jane appeared grading papers outside their regular coffee spot. Another year before he asked her out. First date, he played in his mind, Mary Jane Klement. A month in she was pregnant. Fourteen years passed by at an unfair pace. Couldn’t he just do it over once more? Same results, just once more?
Each female preceding Daphne’s known existence he saw the future with, lain out, patterned with destruction and momentous moments. Daphne was darker. Slinkier. Younger. With Daphne he went blind, heard only a heart beating; he tasted coffee bean sweat and crushed, tangy petals. He lost count of his breaths. He hung his jacket and left it there. At her collarbone his knees vibrated.
Tomorrow would be another day without his Mary. Kemp would sink into his lawn chair on the back porch, beer in-hand, his ass in the grave. He would sweat through the winter sweater his step-mother gifted him to celebrate the day a prostitute gave birth to him then sold him to his father hours later for a ticket up north because his father didn’t want her to stay, and neither did she. Kemp’s step-mother had said over the phone from the retirement facility he placed her in across town, “It’s still an important day to celebrate.” He would stare at the dead, frosted grass doing his best not to think about everything he always thought about. Why’s the shooter a white boy? Always a boy. Always white. Most of the city was white except for the neighborhoods that weren’t. The blacks, the Latinos, the Asians he could never keep straight between Japanese or Chinese or Vietnamese or Taiwanese, or were two of those the same? The Russian families, or the Hasidic Rabbis strolling through Kindheit Park up the street, that nasally talk, the hocking-spitting throat noise with their consonants—Kemp missed walking among the people of this city with his uniform on. Any other year he grieved the badge with his wife and the timeshare and the plans to travel and navigate her lineage, as her father had mapped out in his final breaths. The best of him he buried with Mary. His son’s broken hand on that lonely anniversary unraveled each carefully sewn stitch from the gape that never quite finished healing. His son was out wherever with the truck, didn’t matter.
Night arrived outside the single bedroom window. The fog peered in on them falling asleep. The fog always came, swallowed children of Soenoh whole. Nothing to be done about it.
Somewhere beneath the windowsill the darkness seemed especially patchy; if he stared long enough it moved. It buzzed around like white noise on the television. He was twenty-something talking to Mary over the phone during the year they live apart and he raised their son while she finished grad school. She asked him, “What’re you doing at the moment?” Her voice was mostly static so it was difficult to discern what words were said but so long as the conversation remained the typical kind they engaged in he could guess here and there.
“Sitting.” He sat in the way his mother would sit and, for that precise reason, readjusted positions. “What’re you doing?”
“Thinking about getting in the shower. Long day. Don’t really feel like it though.”
The house was a mess, she’d say if she were here and wasn’t on the other end of the landline, eight-hundred miles out of reach.
He said, “Honestly, I don’t feel like talking tonight.”
“Oh. Okay. Well.”
“Sorry.” He was sorry.
“No, it’s okay. I have things to work on. And I have to get up early.”
“I’m terrible, aren’t I?”
“No, you’re great. You’re pretty terrific.”
“I can hear you smiling.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s bullshit.” She said bullshit sweeter than it should be said.
He said, “Goodnight.”
She said, “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
He waited until he heard her end disconnect. He waited a bit longer. Then he waited for so long that he lost the meaning of listening to the silence. The spot beneath the windowsill was buzzing. It did so regardless of him noticing.
THE DANCER, THE INVADER
Daphne’s left rib glistened with aquasoft, a thin layer over her fresh tattoo, an outline of a maple tree. She told Kemp, “It’ll get shading in a couple weeks. Just be careful you don’t touch it. It’s healing.” She laid on her right side, sheets draped over her lower half. She said, “I wanted an oak for the longest time, to have the branches skirt kinda under my breast. I’m still gonna do that. But I chose a maple instead ‘cause they don’t snap when they bend. They’re stronger. That’s the tree I wanna be.”
Kemp traced the curvature of her hip and the little divot between the bone and the midriff. He said, “That’s the tree you wanna be, huh? I guess snapping’s bad. I don’t wanna snap ya.”
“I don’t think you would if you could.”
“You don’t think I could?” His finger circled her navel.
She said, “You’re not that kind of man.”
“Should I be?”
She placed her hand atop his to halt its circling. She said, “I don’t think we’re on the same page.”
The slow realization washed over his face as the brow lowered in concentration, and the mouth shut as if sucking in a breath. He turned to stone.
She said, “It’s okay. I just. It’s something I learned when I put myself through therapy. It has to do with my ex.”
Antony the ex. Antony the bruiser. He taught her to dance and dress and walk and blow and ride and take it like his other girls. And he’d said it to her the night he found her packing her things; she could run away to another guy or another town but she’d still be that dumb stripper. Do what you know. Do what pays. Do what you’re good at. Do what you are. Just another dumb bitch, good for nothing but a night or a nice shiner. And damn, could he hit. He’d smack her head right outta the park. Homerun, Antony.
She said to Kemp, “You’re not that. You’re good. You’re what a real man is.”
THE HAS BEEN
He’d do just fine not thinking about his sex drive until the day he’d find a photograph of Mary in a bathtub, her tits full and the nipples poking straight out. He’d think, damn, she had a great pair. But look at that neckline. And her soft jaw, her little smirk, how multifaceted that mouth was in all its expressions. She had roughly a dozen different smiles she could wear in a moment, and his insides would flip. His erection was full soon as he found that photograph, and he masturbated every night in their bed until the photo inspired him less and less, and the bed was colder than the previous night. So he’d lay back with his eyes closed and his junk in his fist, tugging away at it trying to recall how her mouth twitched at the corners when she breached orgasm. Or how she sounded. Ever since he upgraded his flip phone to a smartphone he hadn’t taken much interest in figuring out its finer perks but he knew how to type phrases into an Internet search engine, phrases like “naked women” or “naked girls” until photos of strangers appeared before him in the darkness, the glow on him almost as cold as the bed but less familiar, more arousing. He’d get bored of the photos until the videos offered sounds, the ones he’d forgotten how they tickled the fibers in his ears. He would watch the whole videos until he practiced at cumming twice then three times in a sitting, or laying, rather. He’d lay in bed with the sheets over his body touching himself to the deviant acts of women he couldn’t hold. And he’d discover phone chat lines and speak with them until he needed to see them, and he’d frequent the local strip bar until one caught his fancy. He’d watch her dance and go home and fall asleep, forgetting all about how his junk felt in his fist. His junk. It felt like junk, something throw away. Something insignificant to her dancing. And her first night with him he thought of nothing else but how warm she felt inside. And what’s that? Just release. Just release. And he’d lay there afterward and stare into the darkness and she’d speak to him from the ether, in between his sleeping and being awake, in that sliver of light between two eternities of nothingness, his beloved Mary would ask him how he was. He’d say, She’s nothing to me, I just don’t know where you are anymore. And the bottle of Scotch in the cabinet above the fridge was all it took to quiet her. To sink him into oblivion where nothing visited him. He’d sink until nothing hurt and everything felt wonderful again.