ANOTHER MAN’S TREASURE
Luke lost his arm overseas. Melanie told me where, but I’m too embarrassed at having forgotten to ask again. When he opens the door, the stub emerging from his t-shirt is the first thing I see. “I came to feed the cat,” I say. “Shouldn’t you be in California?”
“Next week,” he says, face a maze of smooth folds. “But come on in. Mel’s at her book club. It’s nice she found an office friend.” He leads me down a hall dotted with family portraits, tells me to wait in the library.
I’m thumbing through The Corrections when he returns with a wine bottle under his stump, glasses in his hand. “Hope you like red,” he says. Before I can offer to open it, he’s got the bottle between his knees, white-knuckled hand drilling and slow-dragging a corkscrew to a sensual pop. He pours neatly as a career sommelier.
“Thanks,” I say, setting down the book. I knew Melanie read it for last month’s meeting and hated it. “What a clunker,” she’d said during one of our two-hour lunches.
I’d gotten it from the library the next day. I can’t shake those cotton gobs the mother stockpiled, mountains of prescription-bottle stuffing. That’s me all over: I save corks for nonexistent mosaics, drop soap slivers in a jar by the sink, fill the junk drawer with bread-bag twist ties. Hoarding, my husband called it before upgrading to a wife whose youth ensured a love for the new. Me, I believe what they say about one man’s trash.
“Delicious,” I say against the wine’s bitter bite. When she told me about the club, both of us two martinis deep on a Thursday afternoon, Melanie shook her head. “Mostly fussy old ladies,” she’d said, “but it’s the only time Gerald can get away from his wife.” I knew him as a beefy, winking bartender at the Applebee’s by State Farm where she’d treated me my first week on the job.
“Vinification’s a hobby,” Luke says, “but I usually drink it alone. Mel prefers gin.”
When I go on tiptoe to touch his lips with mine, we forget to set down our glasses, and this is the moment I’d imagined. Head fizzing with wine, I feel solid, normal, useful, whole. Lovely, he says, you’re lovely. For a shining moment, I am; lovely as he nibbles my ear, lovely while he presses against me, lovely until his stub cups my elbow, a thing I could get used to, but startling just the same. Just skin, I think, and I’m fine until it moves against my jaw. Such a small thing, a shrug, but that’s all it takes to bump his wrist, sending his glass to the tile.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “so sorry,” stacking fragments on my palm, thin shards running with rose. While he gets a rag, I gather the wreckage, chunks and slivers and splinters of glass lovely in a certain light, lovely from a distance, but nothing worth trying to save.
I was the woman in the red PT Cruiser, heading west on Main. You were the man at the bus stop: gray slacks, stiff black belt, black silk dress shirt shining like oil. I was going to work and so were you, according to your briefcase, which looked heavy. I’ve made eye contact with plenty of strangers, forgettable ones with blank faces, but when I passed you going thirty it felt like you’d spotted me all the way back at the stoplight, half a football field away, with your eyes the blue-green of the sea I grew up by, or even earlier, while I applied my mascara and then poured my bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats. I don’t mean to imply you’re a stalker, or that I’d be into that. What I mean is you felt so familiar I wouldn’t be surprised to learn you’d watched me come screaming into the world, dripping with primordial goo. That you watched my three-year-old self chip a baby tooth on the coffee table, or saw my first boyfriend give me my first sloppy kiss. Maybe watching slid a blade of jealousy sideways through your rib cage and up, where your heart is. I hope it goddamn did.
All I know for sure is you were waiting for me at that bus stop, not some stupid crosstown transfer smelling of wet socks and spilled coffee. And I blew right by. Please believe me when I say I’ve never been more sorry. All the way to work, I mourned us. The dumb joke you’d make during our first dinner at Pita Jungle (something about a shivering chicken). The timid way you’d invite me upstairs after our third date, hiccupping and helpless to stop, both of us laughing as we bumbled up the stairs. We’d sip wine on your green plaid sofa, jazz on the stereo, your hand on my knee, then losing itself in my hair. We’d set our empty glasses side-by-side, and you’d be gentle with my buttons. After, we’d lie together on the hardwood, too spent to move to your bed. You’d lay your head in my lap and tell me everything I already knew about your life. Because I’ve been watching you a long time too, ever since the corn mazes and 100-year blizzards of your childhood. You’d talk of your first and second heartbreaks, though the third was the worst. Damn her for taking your ring but not your hand and prancing off to Mexico with your brother.
In the parking lot at work, I dropped my head against the steering wheel’s tooled leather and cried. We could have had it all. We would have, if only I’d stopped.
Marcia, in the cubicle over, showed me this site. I promised her that if it works she’ll be our maid of honor. If you are the man I think you are, you’ll write me back.
So I know it’s you, tell me the color of my eyes.
It flurries their first night at Joshua Tree. Though it’s April, there’s a chance they’ll freeze, making everything more exciting. While she works the tent poles, he teepees firewood, flicks it into flame. Inside the tent, she unrolls a double sleeping bag.
At the bar where they met two months ago, he’d woven between her co-workers to buy her a rum and Coke she didn’t want and refused to drink. She’d been warned about the garrulous Navy men and brushed him off, but he’d hung around for hours, introducing himself to her colleagues, arm-wrestling the nation’s leading immunologist. Finally, she accepted a glass of house red. “So, you’re a neurobiologist of addictive disorders?” he’d asked, repeating the title she’d rattled off to scare him. “Take a good look, baby. I’m all the research you need.”
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” he says now, thrusting arms through the tent flap to crab-walk under her sweatshirt and squeeze. She shrieks at the press of each cold finger.
Outside, flurries become squall. He’s set two canvas chairs by the fire. Flakes catch in the wings of hair fanned over her sweatshirt. He opens a fifth of whiskey, takes a slug, then hands it to her so she can invite its heat into her belly.
“Tomorrow we’ll hike 49 Palms,” he says, a knit hat tugged over his high-and-tight. He’s on a ninety-day leave and in another month will be swabbing the deck of an aircraft carrier making its slow way to Guam and back. She wants him to leave and doesn’t. He’s like no one in her world. Some days that’s good, necessary even; others it seems the vast ocean already lies between them.
She sets the whiskey down. “What’s at 49 Palms?” He describes a waterfall and its guardian palms, low-lying barrel cacti that line the path, bare of their signature yellow flowers.
Snow forms a hazy nimbus around their fire where the white flakes wink out of sight. He grasps the arm of her chair; drags her close over ground gleaming like bone. The whiskey bottle is close enough to the flames for its label to smoke and curl.
“It’s an oasis,” he says, his arm around her shoulders, which shiver violently. All she has to do is ask for his jacket, but she wants him to offer it, an experiment with no control group, in no way fair. “You think you’re lost in the Mojave, then you smell water. Like air after lightning.”
“Ozone,” she says, reaching for the bottle. The glass is scalding. She jerks back, hissing.
“Ouch, give that here,” he says, drawing her thumb into the cave of his mouth where he tongues the blister, prolonging the sting. The burn needs ice, salve, a bandage, but before she can say so all sensation rushes to the pad of her thumb, its brilliant circle of pain. Nothing to do with science, the way snow still falls but she’s reeling, boneless, soaring, whiskey-warm from the outside in.
Katie Cortese is the author of GIRL POWER AND OTHER SHORT-SHORT STORIES (ELJ Publications, forthcoming 2015). Her work has appeared in Day One, Gulf Coast, Carve Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Visit her at www.katiecortese.com.