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HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO FIND LOVE THAT WAY

 

by Malcolm X. Gainor

        

                                                                                          

Orange and brown mix and make freedom in the autumn. Trees can scrape off skin if you get too close and this is exactly what Jeffrey finds out as he walks past a mangled set of trunks and branches. The tree that cuts him stood along the sidewalk he made for himself; he started on it right after he and Kalida broke up for the first time.

"Ah shit," he said, seething through his teeth.

He stuck his thumb in his mouth to gather some saliva on it so he could salve his wound. After pooling spit on his finger and rubbing it on his arm, he mustered up enough courage to think about the bravery needed to open his car door. However much bravery it was though, he would still need to tap his reserves because the most hectic part of his evening had already begun inside, with Kalida’s blood tinged wine glass atop his aged oak countertop.

"She used to know what a coaster was for," he thought, as he remembered that his mom told him things would change.

#

Jeffrey's feet caused the brittle leaves below him to crackle and crunch, while he approached his rusty reddish-brown pickup. This chassis of the car was nothing like the sidewalk, he kept up the appearance of his stone path because deep down it helped him maintain a certain proximity to Kalida. The truck, however, looked like an unkept toy. Once loved, it now had paint chips, dents, and scratches that spoke more about its owners' tendencies than the age of the car. As Jeffrey felt the click in the handle of an opened door, Kalida seemingly appeared at his doorway.

"Don’t forget my dissertation."

She screamed this as the car door was opening and her yell rattled Jeff, making her suitcase fall upon the cold hard cement. "Trips Into The Dark" and "Civil Rights, What's Next?" quickly became decoration for his lawn. It had always puzzled Jeffrey why Kalida, as a white woman, had chosen these topics to write about. It was okay to care, but it just wasn't hers. Kalida turned away from the door just slow enough to see the papers get held up by the blades of grass, but fast enough to relieve herself of the moral responsibility of getting them. Jeffrey went and got them instead. This was the way things were: Kalida ran and Jeffrey chased. But she never ran from him and he never chased after her. He took pride in the fact that he never chased after a white woman. He may have jogged, but never chased.

It was evening when he scratched his arm and the sky was a soft blue, but mixed in with the gray clouds it resembled two colors that got too close on a painter's palette. Ivanovo, Russia was the only place in the world that had this kind of color and it is part of the reason Jeffrey ended up staying here after their last conference anyway. Snow feathered its way onto the warm corners of his house and sat there, on the windowsill and porch, waiting to be shoveled and dug out again by hand in the morning. Jeffrey shivered, it was cold outside and he needed a hug.

He hugged himself all the way back to his rickety and torn mesh screen door. The paint on the doorknob crumbled into his palm as he squeezed it and tugged.

Jeffrey said, "You ever ask yourself where a thought comes from?"

 He dropped the bag on the ground. Kalida was in his biggest single-seater chair.

"What'd you say?" she asked. 

"Your thoughts," he repeated, "Where you think they come from?"

"Well, honestly, we're primed from birth to think a certain way and then when you mix that with a little underage conditioning, because every child is growing up too fast, you start to understand the prime. Now what the prime is… that's to be debated an-"

"Damn, I hope this isn't your plan for tomorrow."

A sentence that eked over the skin of his teeth, was enough to stop him from noticing her reaction. She sank away as he grinned. He chuckled to himself as she all but disappeared from the conversation. She stared at him—through him. To the other room where her luggage was, then back to her lipstick glass. Kalida silently whispered a prayer for him to do something unforgivable, just so she could leave. The knob on the stereo held its breath as it waited to be spun by Jeff, even it couldn't have guessed what was coming next.

Empty space in the room began to swell with music. Staring at the bottom of her glass, a rumble erupted  deep within her belly and she swallowed it, along with the rest of her anxiousness. His mind was still outside with the rust covered pickup and cold, cracked cement.

"You know what you want for tomorrow?" he said.

      

"Hopefully we don’t have to do that again."

"Ummm… the only reason we had to do that last time is because you just couldn't get enough of the people at the conference."

"Sooo, I’m irritating Jeffrey because I chose to take advantage of my opportunities?" She said this questioningly, knowing that she struck a nerve.

Then she got scared, and thought about how scared she was, not for herself, but for him. Afraid that he would not know what to do with himself once he acknowledged how anxious he really was. With a deep heaving breath and a smooth eye roll, he changed the subject.

"Would you like some more wine?" he asked, gesturing at her glass as he got up. Talking as if it was their first time meeting, reverting to homely manners was his emergency escape. The path to the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc was laden with traps and puzzles. Jeffrey had to figure out a way to respectfully escape her gaze if there was even a way out. Perhaps this was the aforementioned "white gaze" so many had mentioned. Or maybe his gauge for knowing when someone had enough of him was just non-existent.

#

Leaning forward and driving his feet into the ground, Jeffrey barely got out of his brown sinkhole of a couch. It was thirteen-year-old and the same color as a potato sack. In some spots it was itchy and in others, it was supple and snug. As he weaved around his living room table, he thought about what he would have to cook tomorrow. Luckily for them, he always cooked. As a rustic treat now, he'd now be cooking over an open flame because the stove had gone out a couple of days back. Their food would smell just like pine needles since he used fresh pine wood from his yard for all of his fires, but Kalida may have been allergic. He wasn't truly listening when they talked about this.

The bits of forest wood made the living room glow and ebb orange as Kal watched Jeff pass through the kitchen doorway for the drinks. He made a right and disappeared behind some bricks and a television. She yelled from the other room, "So we're back together for a conference in Russia?"

Her yell was more like a raised "inside voice" because the echo of his house made her ears furl in on themselves with disgust. "The ascetic Eurasian lifestyle chose him" as he would say, which meant that he was a "minimalist" by his terms and "just another guy who couldn’t furnish a damn thing" by hers. Jeff never answered her, instead he walked back into his living room, gliding on his hardwood floor with white socks and a half-empty cup. He drank some of her wine as he was pouring it.

#

"Remember three and a half years ago, I thought you needed to stay in Russia to grow, well, be with me to grow I mean," he took a deep breath and let it out. "But you went back to America… and you did well."

"Thanks, I didn’t do anything, but thanks."

"Why you fighting me, Kalida?"

"The fuck are you talking about?" she said.

"Nothing, nothing." he gave her that look, the pleading look that told her he had enough of being alone.

She took her glass and drank it, what was left of it anyway. Swishing the wine around in her mouth like  mouthwash, she swallowed the dry liquid. When she stood up out of her chair, she drew Jeffrey's eyes even though he had seen her walk in.  He had always been amazed by her body. Her breasts sat up perfectly and bounced just a little as she stretched her arms out. She flexed her legs and while on her tiptoes her thighs looked plump, but soft and her hips were firm. They filled every inch of her pants; he wondered what it was like to be her chair.

She dressed modestly in jeans and a buttoned blouse but everything hugged her curves. Her skin looked like it could melt away at a touch and it made Jeffrey remember how gently he caressed her. He compared her body to a black woman's body because of the shame he felt in finding her so attractive.

"You got something on your pants."

"Jeffrey, I’m not playing this game with you."

Her sarcasm washed away to reveal a layer of warmth underneath.

This layer wanted to heal Jeffrey.

#

Kalida walked from her chair to the armoire the television sat in and grabbed Beloved by Toni Morrison out of his selection. Jeffrey started tapping his fingers on his sofa and ran his hand along the seams of the fabric. Kalida heard this tapping, and before she could open the book, she glanced over at Jeffrey. His muscles danced in his arm all the way up to his broad shoulders and his eyes were fixated on the TV. His mustache sat thinly draped over his supple-looking lips and his eyebrows were furrowed. She remembered how he used to place this focused look on her. It was like their bodies remembered each other, remembered where they were. He was soon up against her and they were up against the couch and the chair and the table and the armoire. They, together again, were one for a short time.

"I don’t know if you got a girl, I’m fucking you and it feels like I'm sixteen again."

 

"Shut… up," Jeff said, breathing deeply.

 

"Excuse me!"

 

"Just be quiet, real quick so I can focus," he mumbled nervously.

They slowed to a halt and Jeffrey started sweating now for another reason. He laid over her and they stared at each other and he gave that same mannerly smile he'd give. It seemed like Kalida’s prayer from earlier was answered.

 

Kalida got dressed and walked to the door. Jeffrey was still standing in the room, naked.

 

"Kal!" he yelled.

 

She never answered him, but her mumbles on the phone could be heard from the back of the house.

 

"Open your car door, I need my shit!"

He walked out to the living room with nothing but his pants on and a loosely buckled belt.

"Wait, where you going?"

"What does it look like? I’m leaving."

"Why?"

"You know why: I’m not explaining this to you. Open the door!"

"Alright, here." He tossed her the keys from the coffee table. One of the spots they were together on.

"So you can't open the door for me?"

"Look, I don’t know what you want from me, but you've been against me this whole night and now you’re leaving. I’m not opening a damn thing."

Everything up until this point was at top speed, a whirlwind of time. Now, things were just slowing. She walked out of the house barefoot with only her blouse on and slammed the screen door on her way out. Kalida's feet were open to the outside air and all the dead leaves from the blood-stained tree in his yard stuck to her soles and fell off with every step. The door to the truck made an old creaking noise as it swung open and she leaned in to fumble through his middle console. Her hands gripped the wood and immediately knew what it was. Pulling it out, she slammed the car door. Slowly walking back into the house, she thought of where the nearest piece of paper would be, carefully dodging the tree on her way in. His lips turned into a frown when Jeffrey saw what she had carried in.

"A pencil," he said blankly, staring.

"I am a people-pleaser if you didn't know, Jeff, and my therapist says whenever I feel like I am urging myself to please someone, just write it out."

 

"C'mon you don't need that."

 

"I do… just give me a minute."

 

"No."

 

"Huh?"

 

"What do you mean no-"

 

"-I said no, Ok. No. No more of this shit, this is what made us break up the first time. This time just tell me please ok, please. Two professors, I'm sure we can talk it out"

Jeffrey met her at his screen door so it never got the chance to fully close. Kalida's back half was still exposed to the outside air and her feet were straddling the threshold of his door. Her thighs got goosebumps and so did his forearms. Jeff turned around and clasped his hands together as he hung his arms over the back of his neck and leaned his head back in exasperation.

"How did this even happen, again?" he whispered.

Kalida heard him but agreed to tell him anyway.

 

"Give me a second to write it out and then I'll read it and we can talk about it."

He nodded in agreement.

 

"Hey, can you listen while you write because I have some stuff to say too before we do this and go back to sleep."

"Sure, I just need my pants out of your room."

 

"I'll get them."

Jogging back to the room, past his sofa and fireplace, he came back with pants eager to talk and listen. Kalida slipped into her blue jeans and put pencil to paper to begin writing.

 

"I didn’t mean to put pine wood in the furnace," Jeffrey confessed.

Kalida shifted a little bit but kept writing.

"Honestly, I know how you are around pine wood, I just don’t know what to do sometimes. I feel so stuck inside myself y’know. It’s funny I used to think that somewhere deep down inside of me I was gay but I didn't know it yet. Like it was a secret hidden from myself. What kind of nigg-"

Kalida didn't even budge, she'd heard him slip before and kept writing. Her whiteness was never glaring to her.

"What kind of person would think that? I mean I knew I wasn't. I would even talk to my friends about it and some would say, Yeah you are, accept yourself. or some other bullshit like Get a grip, you just need some ass. I think what scared me the most though was the fact that I could exist so separate from myself. That I could not know anything for sure, for sure. Just a well-educated guess. But living out here helps me, sometimes being alone can be a good thing. Sometimes for miles I see nothing but that white blanket and I wish I had given myself more time to go deeper, past the pain… I can't… I don't…fuuuuck. Y'know I did DMT, it's a drug that simulates what it's like to be born and…"

"Jeffrey, stop"

 

"Kal, look I’m trying to tal-"

 

"I don’t want to hear anymore," she says while still looking down at her paper.

"Kal, Kal," his eyes are fixed on her again. "Okay look, just listen." He grabs the wrist she's writing with, and she snatches it back.

 "This is not what I’m here for. I'm not your mom."

They just stared at each other. The air in the room squeezed them closer. Then a car horn shook them back to reality.

"Read what you wrote," Jeffrey said.

Kalida braced herself, breathed deeply and held the paper up to her eyes. Then she started to read.

"People are the devil to spiders and I think Jeffrey is the devil to me. I'm the spider of course, and he's the devil. There is no person in this equation. I came to his house because I wanted to try something. I don't know what exactly, but I wanted to give it a chance. I had sex with him. He didn't have sex with me. I used to accept whatever he had to say. It was always him, but now I think it should be me. I think we need each other though. When I first got here, I felt how alone he was. His pain and his misunderstanding almost drove me to tears, but I won't run. When there was a conference here the first time, I never let us go home. I never let us stop. No wonder he wanted a break from everything, including me. Here I go, people pleasing again in my own journal entry. Jeff is just such a jackass sometimes, he knows that everything I do is for him but he keeps piling shit on. I thought he'd be tired of watching me be his pack mule. But he doesn't feel that. At all. In fact, I think if I were to be terminally ill and on my deathbed, he'd throw in one last secret, just so I could carry more shit that he didn't have to. But I already called my ride and I'm spending the night somewhere else. I'll be back tomorrow to eat with him, but after this time, I don't think I'll be eating with one person for too long anyway."

 

The car horn honked again and Kal walked outside, letting the screen door bang shut on her way out, but it didn't fully close. The cold air crept in and nestled on Jeffrey's toes. If he tried to stop her, she would've stayed. Instead he watched her silently from afar like a movie, she got in the car and disappeared down the street, with her bags where he first dropped them. The fire was still crackling and the television was still on. All the brown in his house now felt muddy rather than mahogany. He stared at his door for a while after that, then went to the freezer to take the meat out and let it thaw for tomorrow.

 

Malcolm X. Gainor attends Tuskegee University and comes from South Florida where his immediate family also lives: his mom, two sisters, and grandma. Malcolm is a poet, playwright, and songwriter. "As a writer, I believe my purpose is sort of like catching fireflies. To grab the bright, burning emotions of the world and put them on display before they extinguish. And once free, I can start back over with an empty jar."

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