by Courtney Maum
It started on a Tuesday with a discussion by the mailbox. Because there’s no cell phone service on the mountain, the only way to get in touch with the other writers is to actually go and find them, or leave them a note in the small, tin box each conference participant has been assigned. You go to check your mailbox and he is checking his. The mailboxes are placed so close together and so low to the ground, you both have to kneel on the carpet to see into the box. You peek into the view slot. He peeks into his. It looks like you are praying.
You laugh about it and stand up, empty-handed. It’s a ten day writers’ conference, what type of mail were you hoping to receive? Yet you both admit you were hoping to find something special in the box. You discuss leaving a note for one another so that you’ll have a happy feeling the next time you kneel down.
You introduce yourselves. Courtney, Ian. You talk about your towns.
A silence comes and your brain clenches. You want to touch his hand. Ian adjusts the strap of the bag on his shoulder. You notice a twig on the carpet. He says, somewhat abruptly, that it’s nice to meet you. That he has to go to class.
You stand alone in front of your mailbox. Other people come in and out of the parlor holding paper cups of coffee and doors for one another; going out of their way to say thank you for nothing; for holding the door; for letting them walk through it; for being in the same place at the same time and being human.
It’s the ring, you think. The ring is a damper. He’s not even there and yet is he there, your husband. You’re a woman out of bounds.
You’re still standing in the mailroom. The twig’s still on the floor. All around you there’s the jubilatory feel of new beginnings; of strangers wanting friends. You feel unexceptional. You don’t need new friends.
You wonder what it would feel like to be single in the midst of all these writers, every day up writing, wanting the same thing. You remember how exciting it used to feel to fall for someone. The twists, the climb, the turns. It was a small moment, this conversation with the poet. But you still know what it feels like. The conversation burns.
You’ve been married seven years already, almost to the day. You live in a log cabin in the countryside where there aren’t any catcalls, no insinuations. No one has wanted something from you—with you—in so many years.
But there had been something with the poet. Now there will be nothing. The scenario you discussed, about leaving notes for one another, is not going to occur. And even though you know this is a good thing—the right thing, because you love your husband—you’re undone by the extinguished potential of the moment, like a child who has just been told by a waitress that they’ve run out of the one thing he wanted, and everyone coos and touches his elbow and says, that’s o.k., sweetheart, we’ll find you something else.
You want to go back minutes earlier when the current was still humming and he hadn’t seen your ring yet, when you weren’t one week short of your thirty-third birthday, when you didn’t have a joint bank account and a True Value savings card and the resolute knowledge of what there was and wasn’t in the domestic fridge. When you were younger, you were such a romantic. What has happened to you that you have conversations about the fridge?
All day, you feel resentful of your husband for being reproachless. If he’d done something wrong in the past, if he’d treated you poorly, if he was anything but good natured and supportive of your dreams and your career, you could re-structure the future: transmit an innuendo, tell Ian you were game. But you’re not that kind of woman, and there are other, single writers on the hill. The pinnacle of your flirtation has already been reached.
There is the lack of sex, though. All day long you think about it. It’s thrice monthly at most now. And yet, when you stand alone in front of the mirror with your clothes off, you think you’re worth touching. Your husband never says that you look beautiful naked, he takes it for granted that you know you do. But you need to hear it while it’s still true. You tell him all the time that you still find him good looking. Why can’t he say the same thing about you? You want to be touched reverently, or challenged, but you don’t have the courage to put these desires into words. You spend most of your time with your husband feeling disappointed. It’s probably your fault.
You go to a lecture on undoings. You arrive there late. Afterwards, you go back to the small dorm room that you share with an unfriendly woman from Miami and fantasize about fucking down the house with the poet from Penn State.
You call your husband using the Internet. You think of this call as preventive medicine. You hear his voice, you ask him, how is everything doing in the house. You feel better talking to him. You know that if you call him every day, you’ll be accountable for your actions, and that this is a good thing, it’s the thing you should do. You remind him that there isn’t any cell phone service on the mountain. That this might be one of the last times you call.
As the days accumulate, you fall into the same circle of friends as the poet. You find him standoffish, which intrigues you. One evening, you go to a bonfire. You end up standing next to him, encircled in a crowd. He is young. How young? You don’t want to know. At the bonfire, he’s wearing a red shirt and swapping jokes with a famous author. You like Ian’s jokes better than the authors’; they’re much shorter and they don’t all have to do with sex.
Ian leaves to go pour himself another beer from the outdoor keg, and you stay by the bonfire and have a boring discussion with a petite non-fiction writer who wants to leave her job at a newspaper and write freelance. You tell her not to leave her job. You tell her, you won’t appreciate health insurance until you don’t have it.
Ian doesn’t return. You try not to look through the bouquets of people in the dark for him, because you don’t want to be caught looking for him by him. At the same time, you don’t want to continue the conversation with the non-fiction writer if he isn’t going to come back. He does come back. He offers you some of his beer. Instantly, you feel more engaged in the conversation you were having because he is there.
You love your husband. Even if things have dulled in recent years—there are a lot of silent meals for example, simple pasta dinners, he never seems to realize that you want to be asked questions— he’s kinder and gentler and softer than you are, and his compassion keeps you sane. Plus, you own real estate together. You have carpets. A cat. You have this whole life.
You need to make the conditions less hospitable for a mistake. You force yourself to leave the party, and as you’re walking back to your dorm room in the dark, you think that the best thing that could happen is that Ian makes out with someone else, and that they become inseparable for the remainder of the conference. The non-fiction writer has nice eyes, nice hair.
The next day you avoid each other. You put your attention into the morning lectures. You go to read in the library, and he’s there. You don’t talk to each other because it’s a library. You sit down at a desk with a pile of manuscripts and even though there’s an entire room between you, his presence is a seer.
That evening, there’s a comedy reading followed by a dance. You read. So does Ian. His poem is based on a conversation that you had last night by the fire. You told him about the time you met Corey Bryant at a birthday party when you were fourteen years old and visiting a friend from Lower Merion, and everyone said you should get with Corey Bryant because he was going to be famous, and you didn’t, but another girl did, and now she’s two hundred pounds and has three children and is divorced.
It wasn’t a good story. That much was clear to both of you. When your story ended, he said, “I think you mean Kobe.” You laughed. Together, you envisioned a parallel life for Corey Bryant, the older, unsuccessful brother to the rich and famous Kobe. You imagined him living in Maryland, working at a fax and copy shop. You laughed and kept going with your ideas about his life.
He turned this conversation into a poem called “The Ballad of Corey Bryant.” It was funny at first, but then it turned sad. There was one part in particular about Corey walking home from the copy shop looking at smoke stacks. You felt like you were taking that walk home next to the disappointed brother. You felt like you and Ian were the only people in the room.
After the reading, you go to the dance. You dance around each other, the way you did when you were an adolescent. Dancing and talking with every person but him. Towards the end of the dance, you start moving closer. You finally tell him how much you liked his poem.
The bartender puts a hand-written “closed” sign up on the kitchen pass-through that functioned as a bar. You know you shouldn’t say anything, but say you’d love another drink. The bartender assures you he’s all out, it’s over. There is a pause with the mucky character of a before and after moment. You look at Ian, finally. You remember something a teacher said that morning about not writing characters who stand in place furiously contemplating something. You have to make them act.
Ian says he has gin and lemon bitters in his car; it comes out like a confession. It’s the lemon bitters that get you, the bitters and the smoke stacks. You agree to go outside.
Outside, it has started raining, but you walk slow, unrushed. You go to his car. He has parked facing the mountain. The moon is high and your skin feels clammy after dancing, and the rain.
You sit on the back bumper with his trunk door raised above you drinking out of wax-lined Dixie cups. You watch just-formed couples stumble on the gravel path that leads back to the dorms. It starts to rain harder. The August night feels cold.
And then he tells you that he has a crush on you. That he can’t take it, the fact that you’re married. He says you’re a once in a lifetime girl. That he has to know what it feels like to kiss you. He asks. He has to know.
You turn into the heat beside you. You do not say no.
Courtney Maum works as a verbal identifier in New York City, inventing names for products and brands. Her fiction has appeared in Slice Magazine, Construction Magazine, the Agriculture Reader, Black Heart Magazine and others. She’s currently working on a collection of comic meta fiction. Ha! cmaum/twitter.com
Art by Margarita Korol.