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16256715SMALLBad Habits

When it got late, the boy could guess I would make him leave soon. I was as alone with my drink as I always was. He tapped the glass with a dirty fingernail. Then he studied the fingernail and heaved a series of sighs. I covered my drink. I didn’t want to see what would come out of him. I figured his fingernails were too long, so he was thinking about his mom, who usually cut them. I didn’t know where the clippers were; I had always bit my nails to the skin.

 

Reflection Is as Reflection Does

As I broke the news of the boy, the wifely woman sat stunned in the din of ex-girlfriends. I could see her working out which was the mom, from my half-truths. All I could recall of that woman were words, the unfortunate turns of phrase: “just slip it in,” to the question of protection. I hadn’t told the wifely woman everything about my past. Some things I didn’t know, clearly. Occasionally the truth would reveal itself to her before me, as if it knew all along to whom it should belong. I said she should look in the boy’s face to guess the second helix. Later, they would stare into the mirror together, crossing paths.

 

I Guess That Meant We Looked Like Life

In the hospital, people smiled at the boy and then looked sadly at us and turned away. After a few such encounters with pity, the wifely woman hissed in my ear, “I think they think he’s the one dying.” The boy looked like death, both harbinger and sentenced. It had rubbed off on him from his mom. His mom had a body I couldn’t recall even confronted with her mortality. In the hall, the wifely woman and I held a hand each, swinging the boy when he lifted his feet. She knelt and straightened his hair as if the roots of his problems grew in his head. He watched her mothering with his mom in his eyes. I sneered until we got out of there, to make sure people knew we were all the same, we three.

 

Not Just a Drinking Game

I slipped away from the past and the soon-to-be-past to find somewhere dirty to cleanse myself. I woke in the cupped hands of alcohol, unsure where I’d been. In the morning shadows, a bar stretched and contracted. In my hand shone a quarter. The wifely woman looked ravaged, as in ravaged—at least I’d remembered my destination. “You won and you lost,” the wifely woman said without rising, illuminating nothing. The quarter left a scarlet circle on my palm. I wondered if the circle cousined her scorn. “Did you find what you wanted?” she asked. I hoped I’d needed those twenty-five cents. I hoped they’d meant something.

 

And Yet Girls Can Fool Themselves

During my lunch break, I went to bother my therapist. A surprise visit—I liked to sneak-attack her. She was on lunch, too, but I knew she ate in her office. Her one little slip, besides, or in combination with, sleeping with me. She wouldn’t open the door until I told her it was an emergency, I’d developed a responsibility. When she let me inside and asked her question, I said, “I said ‘a.’ ” I said, “Still, I may be a father.” I explained the half-white boy’s claim on my past, the chain from sex to my future. Me and commitment she knew two ways over. “So what can I do?” I asked. She said, “I don’t give advice, remember? I’m a therapist?” I reminded her of the session I hadn’t paid for. She said, “I could slap you, for both me and the boy. But would that make a difference?”

 

The Old Language Was Dead

The Xanax kept me so close I couldn’t tell if I was its friend or enemy. Work battled away in the background. I stared at my telephone, feeling calm. Well, I thought, ring. I didn’t have a project worth calling for, only a set of slogans. I made simple romance, whoring out words that wouldn’t marry. For a furniture line, I wrote, “Cushioning blows.” I wrote, “If you love sofas, a love sofa.” I was out of practice. I imagined love on the love sofa. I snuggled with the drugs. In the morning, I had driven the boy to his blood tests. I wrote, “A Lazyboy by any other name.” But the boss had a moratorium on Shakespeare. I read the label in my hand: “Three times daily.” I waited for the phone to ring. I wrote, “Home is where the love sofa is.” I wrote, “The way to a man’s love sofa is through his stomach.” But that was missing the point. I had to stop writing prescriptions.

 

Asians Didn’t Plant Apples

The question of the boy had zero answers, but it never stopped asking. Such is life, I said when the boy asked how long it would take me to love him. I wasn’t completely cruel—this was a conversation of stares, a lesson of clinging to pant legs, nothing aloud. When we talked, the boy talked about death and I talked about the living living, like that cliché might fit into the lock he’d forged. He wore the wifely woman’s favorite pot on his head, and I recalled Johnny Appleseed, my childhood wish to sow America. He was only shielding himself, but I played along, waiting for growth to grow in his wake.

__________________

mssmallerMatthew Salesses was adopted from Korea at age two. His latest book is a novel in flash fiction, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (out Feb 2013). He also wrote The Last Repatriate and the chapbooks Our Island of Epidemics and We Will Take What We Can Get. He married a Korean Korean woman and has a Korean American baby, and writes about his family in a column for The Good Men Project. Stories and essays of his appear in The Rumpus, Hyphen Magazine, Glimmer Train, Witness, American Short Fiction, Guernica, and others. Follow him @salesses.

Adapted from I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying by Matthew Salesses. Copyright © 2013 by Matthew Salesses. With the permission of the publisher, Civil Coping Mechanisms.

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