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Fiction Issue 2014 honorable mention: "And When Were We in Delaware?"

"I should have said, 'I'm so afraid that I will have to leave, and I know that you cannot help me.'"



That's what I want to ask her. If we were to meet I would say, "When were we in Delaware?" And she would say, "Last year, about this time." And I would say, "I don't think it ever happened. That weekend when we walked the beach and watched the kids surf the small waves by that jetty of rocks. Remember that? And we were on the rocks the size of small cars and there was a little girl climbing across the rocks after her friends. And she was the prettiest, and they were ahead of her and they wouldn't wait. Remember that?"

And she would say, "I don't remember the jetty or the rocks or the surfers." And I would say, "But they were there. That's where we turned around. But I don't think it happened either."

She would look at me and narrow her eyes, and I would wonder what she wanted to say because she always said that I didn't listen to her, and I wondered if instead of talking to me she wanted to hold my head underwater. But the listening. I wasn't good at it, but I tried.

"It's just my way," I would want to say. "If there was anyone that I could listen to, it would be you. And I listen. But you want so much. And that little girl . . ." A car would pass outside the window on Clark Street and a guy would walk by in a Cubs hat and I would watch and her eyes would watch me. "That little girl," I would say, coming back in from the street. "She was us. We've always been so alone."

Anne would drink her coffee, her blue purse with the orange trim there on the floor. "I like this place," she would say. "The light is bad, but the coffee is good." But really she wouldn't say this because she'd told me so many times before. Before we left Chicago for Philadelphia.

And that afternoon after we watched the kids surf, we walked back down the beach, past the fishermen with their poles stuck in the sand and them sitting on the backs of their trucks and on their plastic coolers. And we got in the car and drove the flat, sand-dusted roads until we came to a tower that rose above the pine trees. There were piles of pinecones in the shade and the sun there on the sand below the towers. And off in the trees, yellow and orange tents stood empty and hot and the smell of smoke from a smoldering campfire was in the air.

Tim was our therapist. He was a big guy and black. After seeing him we would walk up Walnut, pushing our bikes, and try to guess where he was from. "Maybe California," Anne would say. "Or maybe somewhere boring like Ohio."

"Massachusetts," I would say. "The northeast for sure."

And then my eyes would get lost in the movement of everything. There are silver and white and yellow and red and blue and light blue and orange and green and black cars moving up and down the hill there in University City, and there are people all over the sidewalks. The sun is on the cars and the people on the north side of the street and you have to walk at an angle because you are pushing your bike. All of this is going on and she hated that I couldn't pay attention. It was why we were seeing Tim. That and we couldn't decide on a good time to go to sleep and I liked air-conditioning and she didn't.

I could feel her beside me pushing her bike and getting pissed and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.

At the bottom of the tower was a plaque with a map and it told us that there were other towers up and down the beach and that they were used as lookouts to spot Nazi ships during the war. It said that soldiers had to stand at the top of the towers and keep watch all through the night and the day.

"Can you imagine the boredom?" she said.

"I cannot," I said, although I was thinking that maybe the guys fucked one another to break up the monotony.

After we climbed to the top I asked her if she would be afraid of the Nazis, and she said, "No. I would be bored, but I would also not be a soldier."

"You wouldn't make a good soldier," I said, staring off at the swells that curved and curved against the silver horizon.

"I wouldn't make a good anything," she said. I could feel her grinning at me, but I didn't turn to her. I put my hand on her bare arm and stared out at the water and knew without feeling that I would die one day and those kids were there, somewhere to the south, surfing those small waves that had rolled in from the sky, but the girl was gone with her family and asleep in the car on the way back to the hotel and she knew nothing of Anne and Ben standing at the top of that tower where soldiers once stood burning away the minutes.

I called Tim one Friday before teaching class. The weather was getting warm or it was getting cold and we'd seen him only once and I didn't know the rules. Anne was the student, not me, and we were going for free.

"Can I see you this afternoon?" I asked.

"With Anne?" he asked.

"No. Not with Anne. Just me." I was walking around the apartment because that's what people do when they make awkward phone calls.

"I have an opening at 3:45."

"I can do 3:45," I said. "I'll be there at 3:45."

I cried the whole time. I said, "I used to have so much confidence." I said, "There are these times when this happens to me. It's been happening since I was young." I should have said, "I'm so afraid that I will have to leave, and I know that you cannot help me."

We fucked in the bed-and-breakfast before she took a shower. It was the last time and she said, "But I'd rather be clean." We'd just gotten back from the beach and the towers and all that salt in the air. I kept kissing her, and I took a step toward the bed and she took a step backwards and something changed in her mind. She opened her mouth and laid back and I knew that it was the last time. I knew it was the last time when she pulled her purple T-shirt over her head and unclasped her black bra and I knew it when she turned onto her side and pulled her legs up toward her chest like a child, but for moments between, I didn't know and I questioned the knowing as I looked down on her there, and then all the knowing and the questioning stopped and she turned to me and pulled me to her and I knew, like before, but the knowing didn't matter and it did not hurt when it was over like I expected it would. We lay there for an hour without the TV on and we did not hurt although she knew and I knew and the light from the sun was low and coming across the marsh with the tide all the way out and the earth showing black in the twisting creeks that flowed in and out like the ocean's breath.

"This is where we met," I would tell her. "I forgot," I would say.

"I thought that's why we were here," she would say.

"Maybe it is," I would say, "but I didn't plan it this way. That's not what I was thinking."

The foam from her coffee was laced around the inside of the black cup that was on the table between us.

"What are we doing here?" I would ask.

"I don't know. You're the one that asked me to come. I would have never asked."

"You know how to play the game," I would say.

"There is no game," she would say. "The game is over."

"It is not over. Even after all that time together, it was always a game, and it still is."

"Maybe," she would say.

"So who lost?" I would ask. "If it's over like you say."

"I don't care about winning. You won if that's what you want."

I would look out the window at the bus sitting there in traffic and the dark-headed man walking his poodle that looked like a Labrador.

In Tim's office, we decided to go to Delaware. Anne had her jeans on that zipped up the back and a blue-and-white windowpane blouse. She looked like the perfect Penn student. I was trying not to cry because that's about all I was doing by that time.

"It doesn't matter," she said. "He's the one that's going to decide anyway." She scratched her thigh just above her knee and then crossed her legs.

"What?" I said.

Tim chewed on his lip and leaned back in his chair. There was a small, round fan on his desk and he flipped it on.

"You are the only one that talks in here. It's all about you," she said, scratching her leg again.

"What?" I said.

"We come in here and it turns into a therapy session for you. Most of the time I think I should stay home."

I was thinking that she wanted to drown me. I wanted to tell her that I wanted to drown her and then keep her in the apartment and stay in Philadelphia for the rest of my life. I thought about saying it. Tim already knew that I'd been throwing things.

His eyes met mine and then went to Anne's. "I try to keep it balanced," he said.

"I know," Anne said, scratching her leg again. "It doesn't matter."

"You decide then," I said, dying to scratch her leg for her. "If you want to go, we'll go. If you don't, we won't."

Tim leaned forward, laced his fingers together and rested his chin on his knuckles. I wanted to unzip her jeans and put my hand down the leg and get that itch for her. That's about all I was thinking there for a moment as the fan blew the air toward us and toward us.

"I think it might be hard," she said, looking at the floor. "It might make it harder."

"That's true," Tim said, looking back and forth from me to her and then back.

"Yeah. It might be a bad idea," I said. "But it's going to be hard either way."

Anne looked over at me and she didn't say anything but she told me: I always knew this was going to happen. Even when I let you fuck me so many times when we first moved into the apartment. That time when I bent over in the kitchen and held on to the counter. And I wasn't letting you fuck me. I was making you fuck me, grabbing your ass and pulling you into me as hard and as deep as I could, but even then. Even when I asked about kids. Before you started saying I was crazy. Even then. I knew.

And I could see my face below the water and I wanted to say, I cannot control myself. And if we plan on going to Delaware my mind will have something to focus on instead of the leaving. We need a distraction. My mind, our minds, do not stop. And this. It will feel like nothing we have felt before. It will feel like someone is eating our flesh for hours and then days. I know this will happen. But in Delaware we might be able to trick ourselves real good and it will not hurt then.

Anne scratched that place below her jeans again and I knew that she had showered because I couldn't smell her. "I think we should go," she said. "I like it when he drives me places."

That night in Delaware I ate soft-shell crabs. There is something green in soft-shell crabs that runs into your mouth around all that white meat. Anne told me that she didn't like them, but maybe I would. I didn't. I will not eat them again, but that night I was not thinking about not eating them, or writing stories, or the families passing by the window.

Anne said she felt ashamed of her worries because of the size of the universe. She took a drink of beer and placed the bottle back on the paper tablecloth. I wanted to say something but I didn't know anything about the universe. I said, "I know what you mean," and I felt dumb but I also wanted to scream at the table beside us: "This is Anne and you have no idea how good she smells when she doesn't shower."

When the waiter came by to ask me about the crabs that I didn't like, I said, "They're OK," and I furrowed my brow to show that they were less than OK. And then I said, "Do you know what this girl wants to do?"

The waiter had blond hair and wore a pair of black skate shoes. I wanted to ask him about surfing, but I also wanted to tell him about Anne.

"With her life?" I said.

Anne's chest bloomed white and red and she smiled with her lips. She had big lips and thick, black eyebrows and a way of looking at you that made you want to fuck her and drown her at the same time.

"I don't know," the blond waiter said.

"She wants to be a window washer in Chicago. That or she wants to watch movies all day. Mostly she wants to watch movies."

The restaurant was loud with the kids of the families talking about the sand castles they built earlier that day, and the little girl from the jetty was sitting by herself and her parents were at the bar ordering light beers.

"So the crabs are OK?" he said, looking at Anne instead of me.

"Yeah. But that little girl over there." I caught his eyes and then nodded over my shoulder. "Can you tell her that she can eat with us if she wants?"

The waiter ran his eyes over the heads of all the sunburned people. "What little girl?" he said.

"The one sitting alone over there," Anne said. She pointed to the table with the girl. She was drawing on her place mat with a purple crayon.

"I don't see a girl. All the little girls are with families," he said, starting to move away from us.

I pushed my seat back and stood. Anne was not embarrassed. She wanted me to say something. I yelled for someone to turn off the goddamn steel drum. Someone did but there were the kids still talking about the sand castles. I stuck a crab in my mouth and its legs scraped against my face as I stepped onto my chair and then onto the table. One of its pincers clamped onto my right nostril and my eyes welled over.

"You see that girl right there?" I pointed to the little girl with the crayon in her hand. I bit into the crab and tore it apart and threw half of it on the floor. Suddenly I noticed that her parents were at the table and so were her older brother and her younger sister. The light beer was on the table too. They were all drinking it except the little girl with the crayon. "That little girl," I said. "She cannot forget her loneliness and when she tries to keep up with the other kids when they are out on the jetty, she cannot and that doesn't even matter. The thing is, when you are at the beach, and the loneliness won't go away. Even at the beach. That's when it's the worst. And then, when she grows up and she moves to the city and she finds a boy that has the damn loneliness too and they spend a year together, she will feel that the loneliness is gone, but someone should tell her. I am telling her. Little girl, I know you will not listen to me because you are lost drawing on your place mat with your purple crayon. But do not seek out another one like you because you will end up like us. Anne and Ben.

I bent down to my hands and my knees and threw up the crabs that I'd eaten and they splashed onto the wooden floor and then the universe put them back together and they ran out the door on their little tippy-toe legs.

The guy with the poodle that looks like a Labrador walks back by, now across the street, and I wonder how many times the dog has peed in Lincoln Park.

"It's hard to pee when people are waiting on you," I would say. "If I was a dog, that would be hard to deal with."

Anne doesn't care about what I'm saying. She's thinking about getting another cup of coffee because she's afraid five minutes ago was the best she will feel all day.

"Don't think about coffee anymore," I would say, leaning forward, shaking my head. "I'll buy you another cup but it won't feel the same."

"I know," she would say. "It's a lie, but it's all I have most of the time."

"Heroin used to lie to you much better than that."

"Don't get into the heroin. This story has absolutely no focus."

"Just you wait. Sometimes I hate you more than anything. I've been talking about drowning you."

"That's nice. I always thought that about you."

I push the table away and it bangs into the table beside us and the table beside it bangs into the fireplace. There was a guy sitting two seats over but I moved him before I started this scene.

I can see her from head to toe and I say or I would say or I say, "I'm not writing anymore." And I start to cry although a moment before I knew that I wasn't going to. "I quit," I say. "And I'm making more money and I don't want to be a cave painter anymore, like you said. I don't. I quit—the writing, the painting, whatever you want to call it. I did it for you, but for me too. And I've been thinking about what our kids might look like. Just one. A girl. And I've been thinking that we should watch her close when we are at the beach."

"But you are writing right now."

"Only because you aren't here."

"That's a lie. You shouldn't lie to yourself."

She looks at her watch, the one that her mother gave her, and I know a lot more than that. I know things that everyone else doesn't know.

"I should go," she says.

"You cannot go. I won't let you. I drove six hours to see you, or I flew. I can't remember." I step to the side like I'll block the door. "This is my story and I won't let you go."

"Yes, you will. You know you will." She stands and puts her bag on her shoulder. I grab the coffee cup off the table and throw it against the fireplace.

"You already did that in Philadelphia," she says.

"Well, I didn't do it here."

"I'm going." She takes a step toward the door and then stops. "I like the names you chose for us," she says.

And I don't watch her leave. I see the cottonwoods in Lincoln Park in the spring and all the cotton on the sidewalks and the streets, the way it blows when the cars pass. And the lake has the same swells as the ocean, but it is not the ocean, it is Lake Michigan and Anne and Ben are not in Delaware. And Ben, he is not in Chicago. He's back home. But Anne, she's there walking the streets, the cotton-covered streets with her hair curly and catching everything as it falls.

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