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Then Am I
By Clyde Liffey
“Fly”, she said, she didn’t say that, how could she? she just told me to go. I went to the supermarket, my first and only hunting ground, stood in a central aisle surveying cans of beans.
“Are you going to pick something or are you here to admire the Goyas?” the stock boy said.
“Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.” I was embarrassed to be in the wrong for I’d had run-ins with that man-child in the past. An old lady blocked my path. I tried to be patient. Behind me – but there was no jam up and I was free to swing my basket nonchalant as I pleased in the wide open space between the aisles and the cash registers.
A few minutes later I was swinging a near empty plastic bag in the sunny street outside the market. I was free to go anywhere, there was nowhere I wanted to go. I went to the park to sit on a bench and watch the yellow-necked swans. There were geese, imports from the north, some ducks, no swans yet. An old lady sat on the other end of the bench reading or listening to some book of days. I gazed the far horizon. Some minutes later I felt someone settle next to me.
A full-faced young woman in a yellow print dress said “Hi”. I turned, noticed she had swollen or bloated ankles for I’m naturally girl-shy. “My name’s Sophia,” she said.
“Pleased to meet you,” she continued. “I’m new in this town. You can say I’m new to this continent for I was born in Hawaii and this is the first time I left my home state. As you probably gathered from seeing my book bag,” (it was on the ground near her magnificent ankles), “I’m a student at the university. Have you ever been to Hawaii?”
I nodded no.
“It’s not what you probably imagine. I lived near the water and loved it but there isn’t much opportunity for young people. That’s why those of us who can go to college on the mainland. The university here is the only one that accepted me. I can’t get used to living so far inland. That’s why I come to the park on Saturdays, to see the waves.”
The water on the pond barely rippled.
“I meant that as a joke. The park is soothing though. I need an occasional escape from school. I think college is very difficult. I want to be an academic someday. Living a life of thought means everything to me and yet I think I’m failing. Do you have any advice for me?”
For the first time I thought of myself as a townie.
“I suppose I’ll get over it. It’s just a matter of sticking to a schedule. The school wouldn’t have accepted me if they didn’t think I could do the work. No more beachcomber’s life for me – I’ll just have to accept that. Thanks, mister, I feel better already. What’s that in your bag?”
I’d forgotten that I still had my plastic supermarket bag. I rummaged in it expecting to extract my embarrassing prescription pills and pulled out instead a package of turkey jerky.
“That looks good. I never had turkey jerky and I haven’t had any lunch. Do you mind if I try some?”
I tried to open the package, failed. At home I would use scissors or a knife. I felt in my pocket. I didn’t bring my pocketknife.
“Let me try,” Sophia said. She took the package from me and strove to undo the plastic. It remained shut. “This meat must be well-preserved.” She half-smiled, not devilishly and not flirtatiously either, and opened the container with her teeth. She extracted two sticks, handed me one. I imagined I tasted her spittle on mine though of course her mouth hadn’t touched the turkey. She closed her eyes as she savored her snack. She was pretty in a way that wasn’t common in these parts. Her features were a mix of the races I imagine inhabit her island.
“That was good,” she said finally, “not what I expected but still tasty. Say, you look good for someone your age.”
“I’m not that old.”
“I just need to take my pills.” I reached for the plastic bag but the wind must have blown it away. A young boy caught it, looked inside, and, finding nothing, put it in a wastepaper basket.
“I wish this town were more diverse,” Sophia said. “I know the coasts and the inland cities are variegated, that’s a college word, it may not be appropriate but I can be free with you, my small benefactor.”
As she said this I saw a young black man half limp, half strut on the path around the pond. He noisily crunched an apple. There was something familiar about him that I couldn’t quite place. Suddenly he stopped, pointed playfully at Sophia.
“That’s Andre Boucher, the football player,” Sophia said. She kissed me extravagantly on the cheek. “Thank you so much. Your calm and sage advice helped me see things in the correct light.” She put her empty crumpled wrapper in my hand and ran off to join Andre.
I looked at the turkey jerky wrappers in my hands. There was nothing left. The closest wastepaper basket was already overflowing. I put the wrappers in my pants pocket, felt for the scrip for pills. It wasn’t there. I tried to remember what position Andre plays, wondered if he should have been eating meat and Sophia and I sharing an apple, leaned over and
The sun was much lower in the sky when I awoke. I felt a chill for it was early autumn. I started to worry about bench sores which my doctor warned me about. I got up, muttered, “I guess the swans weren’t here today.”
“Oh they were here and they were spectacular,” I heard someone say. I turned and saw an old woman on the bench feeding the ducks and a few brazen chickadees.
“You look familiar,” I started to say, thinking she might have been the woman from the supermarket or my original benchmate. Our eyes sort of locked. We were both on the verge of saying something. A distant car or something of the sort backfired. She returned her attention to the birds. I stretched, languorous as I could manage, and, feeling nature call, left the park.
It was dark when I got to Main Street. Feely McFeely’s Bar is one of my haunts. It was already full with the dinner and post-dinner crowd. This time I waved to the bartender and walked straight to the restroom. As I washed up I noticed my complexion was both sunburnt and sallow. I approached the bar intending to ask for a glass of water. Someone nudged me. I left.
I walked back to the grocery store. “Mister, will you give me a hand here?” I heard someone say. I walked into the parking lot, saw a car with its back end jacked up. I helped the man mount the tire, held it while he tightened the lug nuts in the dark. When we were done we stood under a streetlight. The man thanked me profusely. It was my stock boy antagonist. He took off his work gloves and handed me a stack of coupons for coffee and beans. When I accepted them I noticed that my hands, and my pants where I’d rubbed them, were filthy. A lipsticked woman in a black dress, white shoulders bare in the evening’s cool, slinked by, sat in the car’s passenger seat. “Gotta go. Thanks, again,” the boy said as he jogged to his car to join his date.
I didn’t reach my building till it was nearly eleven. My woman and I live on the eighth floor. When we first moved in, both of us no longer young, more than twenty years ago, I imagined I could walk the steps from lobby to lodgings. I’d start off fast, energetic and unfocused as a puppy. Between the second and third flights my strides would gain energy and purpose, provide enough inertia for me to reach the top. Back then I expected to live three score and then one more but expectations are not entitlements.
The apartment was empty. I turned on the light, washed my hands, drank a glass or two of warm tap water. There was a note on the kitchen table:
It was real, too real. Don’t try to find me.
I left the note on the table, took out my coupons. They were expired.
Twenty minutes later I was ready for bed. I checked my pillbox. It was empty. For the first time in decades I’d spent a full day without my meds. I wasn’t sure what the effect would be. Nonetheless I went to bed unconcerned. Indeed I was almost happy.
I just shrugged my shoulders. Tara then squeezed my right arm and kissed my right cheek and stuck her tongue in my ear while Paula squeezed my left arm and kissed my left cheek and stuck her tongue in my left ear.
"Don't you like that?" she asked, tea rose faintly rising off her skin.
"Yeah," I said, feeling turned on but really weird. Then they got up from the bed and pulled on their clothes.
I started to have wet dreams about the Rosenberg sisters. In classrooms I would often daydream about them and hope that each day would be one that they'd invite me over after school. I grew less likely to hang out or play sports with the guys. I got low grades on tests. I often heard the word "allure" in my head or whispered it to myself. The twins had allure, I felt their allure, and I knew it was the allure of sex.
One day Paula met me after school and asked me to go home with her.
"Where's Tara?" I asked.
"My mother took her to Florida for a week. So you and I . . . we'll be home alone. Is that okay with you, or do you need Tara to interest you?"
"No, it's okay by me to be with . . . just you."
Walking the half-mile from school to her house, Paula was silent, almost sullen. My attempts at humor fell flat. At her house she offered me food and Coke as usual, but we passed on them and went up to the bedroom. Paula threw herself on her bed, lit a cigarette, and lay back on the pillow.
"I want you to come here and lie down beside me," she said.
"Okay," I said and did as she wished. She offered me a puff on her cigarette. I usually declined, but this time I accepted and sucked the harsh smoke into my lungs. I coughed and blew the smoke out in a rush.
"Ugh!" I said.
Paula smiled and said it would get easier with practice. "Take a small puff and breathe it in slowly."
I did as she told me and felt pleasingly dizzy. My ears buzzed and I felt a tingle in my veins.
"I could teach you a lot," she said. "So could Tara, but not now." She puffed on her cigarette and blew a smoke ring at the ceiling.
"You know why she went to Florida with my mother, don't you?"
I didn't have a clue and looked over at her and furrowed my brow.
"You are the only one I can talk to about this, but you've got to swear to keep it a secret."
"Okay," I said
But she said, "Swear."
"I swear to keep the secret, I swear."
"Mother is taking Tara to have an abortion. That rat Jack got her pregnant, and they're too young to get married."
I was puzzled. I knew you were supposed to use a rubber to avoid V.D. and pregnancy. I'd figured Jack must be having sex with Tara, but how did she get pregnant?
"The condom broke. Just when Tara was ovulating. I'd told her never to screw at that time of the month, but Jack put pressure on her and threatened to leave her if she made him wait."
I'd never heard Paula talk like that, though she was the tougher of the twins.
She put out the cigarette in the ashtray on her bedside table. Then she put her arm over her eyes and started to cry. Without thinking, I stroked her other arm and said everything would turn out okay.
"Don't you see? Don't you see?" she said. "Nothing can ever be the same. We're twins, but I'm practically a virgin and Tara's having an abortion. We'll never be the same."
"But you're so different, even if you are twins. You don't look alike or think alike. I never even understood why you both like me."
"Both like you? Yes, we do. Tara thinks you're cute, and so do I. But I first liked you because you're sensitive. Tara only liked to tease you. Now I just want you to hug me."
I hugged her and she put her head on my shoulder and cried softly for a little while.
After a while, she stopped crying and began to breathe deeply and hug me tightly and then she drew me to her open lips and gave me my first wet kiss. She kept on kissing me and caressing me and we both grew more excited until she slipped off her panties and pulled off my Levi's and she rolled onto her back and guided me into her. She screamed a lot and that worried me until I started to feel better than I ever have in my whole life.
"Thank you," she said about five minutes later. "Now please leave me alone. You can let yourself out. I just want to be alone." She rolled over on her side away from me. I waited a minute and then did as she'd asked.
Out on the street, I looked back at the closed door, and I knew that would be the last time I'd ever be inside the Rosenbergs' house.