Fiction by Saramanda Swigart

CONTRANYM

          Richard Thurston found himself in an Aston Martin dealership. He wasn’t entirely sure how he got there. Against his better judgment (he would need to sell the thing in ten months at the conclusion of his client study in Palo Alto; it would lose a third of its value when the tires left the lot; the Firm would pay for the same car as a rental; etc.) he bought one. In cash. Silver with deep red leather interior, the color of blood. Three-hundred-ten horsepower. It was small and very fast, a car built for one, and the solitariness of it suited him. He didn’t tell his family.

          After buying it he found himself driving, rather than going to work, along Highway 1, watching the big sky flatten like a postcard above the gray-worsted sea. Solitude let Richard seek the solution to mysteries of a deeply personal nature—the death of his son, for instance—by endeavoring to mentally collect all the correlated data and reduce them to digestible axioms. He was aware that these methods might not be ideally suited to a case like Charles’s death, but they were what he had. Here, for example, was today’s calculus:

1.              As a man of a certain time and ethos, he desired a son

a.              He got that son. He loved him because he had to, but he never really liked him (yes, he did find this difficult to admit, but we must examine our mistakes if we’re to find solutions)

2.              When he had daughters, he loved them. Utterly. And he liked them

3.              To hide this inequity, he behaved as though he loved his son the best

4.              He used to shadowbox with Charles. He let him win

5.              Charles thought he would always win

6.              He died

          Richard’s responsibility, he suspected, lay somewhere along this continuum. Exactly where—that was the mystery. Which bullet point represented the point from which recovery—return, restitution—had become impossible? Richard twisted in the seat to allow the leather to emit its strong, masculine scent. Something about the smell suggested solvability. There was a geometry here. He just needed to see it. Leveraging failure was what he taught his clients. Now he had to submit himself to the same rigor.

          His wife—she’d fallen apart after Charles’s death, and he’d advised her to take similar inventory, like the inventory he was taking in himself, because, frankly, he’d tried everything else and was out of ideas about how to fix her. Her brand of falling apart terrified him.

          Falling apart wasn’t quite the term. Fading? Vanishing? Or (she might suggest) a neologism? Insubstantiating?

          He’d sat in the living room with her, holding her hand. Her face was slack. She was dazed, and misery leaked and seeped from her in a way that seemed physically dangerous, like toxic runoff. She wouldn’t look at him. She’d been sitting like this for weeks, not showering; eating, wolfishly, only once a day. Richard and his daughters tiptoed around her. It wasn’t normal. She was prone to periodic fits, true, but they’d never been so dramatic or so obviously unhealthy.

          “Perhaps this is an opportunity,” he tried.

          “A what?” she stiffened. Then, fully registering what he’d said, her voice rose an octave: “A what?

          Her hand clutched. Unkind. He was afraid she would break his fingers.

          He tried again, a little desperate. “Whenever we are faced with impossible odds, instead of…giving up, we can look at them as opportunities to…revector our purpose.”

          She stared at him, astounded, disgusted. He pulled back. But these were his tools, he wanted to protest—the language of business, mathematics, science—and their impartiality, their democracy, comforted him, but not, it seemed, her. He had no other way of helping her. Then he made his worst mistake.

          Here in the Aston Martin, he cringed at the word he’d used to describe their situation, the death and its aftermath. Say it. He’d called it an “infelicity.”

          That’s when she really left. Drifted off. Out of the room. Off the planet. A look in her eyes like she was mentally simple but her emotions were a Gordian snarl. Wherever she was, she made her own weather, and Richard—also grieving—felt the need for more temperate zones.

          Charles’s death, if Richard was honest with himself, was not where the trouble had started. It started with Charles’s birth. Where a marriage starts and where it ends requires some detective work, like this:

1.              A marriage starts in a Perfect Place

2.              The Place perverts (or perfection was merely the perceived—not the actual—starting place)

3.              A slight wrong turn, almost imperceptible; another

4.              Each year the new path slopes more steeply downward, gets narrower, lonelier. But the faith of returning along the same route to the Perfect Place persists

5.              Tragedy strikes

6.              Looking around in the aftershock of that tragedy, one finds that there is no clear road through the rubble back to the Perfect Place

          But enough of axioms. Richard knew that Lily deserved more. Or different. A woman of letters, she deserved that language, the language of art, music, and literature. A narrative. He was not good at those.

          Richard settled more deeply in the car’s buttery leather. Okay. Lily had been a Classics major at Barnard when they met. She liked people and ideas, but she had no respect for physical things. He gave her gifts over the years: a watch, a pair of expensive sunglasses, a goofy keychain with a plastic cello on it, a heavy desktop lighter. She lost all of them within a week, or gave them away. When he gave her a record—Glenn Miller—she scratched it the first time she set a needle against it and shrugged, handing it back to him. He gave her books, which she read and carelessly cast aside—the spines bent, the pages rumpled—or gave away, or left on the subway.

          All this was exotic to Richard. His books were lined up in an orderly row, arranged by topic: electrical engineering, finance, macroeconomics, and then by author’s name.

          “Are these alphabetized?” Lily was incredulous the first time she stood in front of the bookshelf in his graduate apartment. After his electrical engineering degree, he had stayed at Columbia for an MBA, and his future was a bulls-eye in front of him. Lily wore a black sweater and knee-length suede skirt, in the style of the 1970s. She didn’t need future plans. She could be anything she wanted.

          “Yes,” he said, shy. At the time he couldn’t believe his fortune: Lily was a live wire, a bohemian, a sensualist, a student of letters, a cellist of some repute, in Richard’s apartment. Richard, serious and conservative and self-consciously even-tempered, worked hard and saved the waves he could have made for his future. He was dimly aware that women found him attractive, but he was never sure why. His life had a shape and teleology: He’d made his choice between business and politics—the options his parents gave him—and he knew whom, at least by type, he would marry. Then Lily…happened. She didn’t arrive, she happened. She was beautiful, smart, politically left-leaning. What, he kept thinking, was she doing here? She scared him. She riled him. This was their sixth date and, afraid of boring her with his own staid interests, he had planned a trip downtown to a jazz show, hoping that it was the right kind of jazz, for he didn’t know much about current tastes in jazz.

          “But there are only, like, twenty of them!” she said of his books, running her finger along the spines. “Twenty books don’t warrant a system.”

          “It’s easier.”

          “Easier!” Lily laughed. Her laugh was unrestrained: Her whole body participated in it. She bent slightly at the waist. In the kitchen she ran the tap on her cigarette. She dropped it into the trash and said, “What is this?” pointing down.

          “What?” Richard squeezed into the kitchen with her, looked into the trash.

          “Nothing,” she said. “Just an excuse. To do this.” She leaned in and kissed him very intensely for a moment. She smelled of a sophisticated perfume that pushed and pulled him at the same time. He didn’t know where to put his hands, so he put them on the backs of her upper arms. Then he moved them to the small of her back. Her sweater was very soft. She placed her hands on his chest and gently pushed.

          “Okay, time to go,” she said. But he didn’t move. “Let me go,” she said, wriggling from his hands. “This is a problem: You want to cleave and I want to cleave!”

          “What does that mean?” he said into her hair.

          “Contranyms. I love them,” she said. “‘To cleave’: to stick together. ‘To cleave’: to split apart. It’s a word that means something and also means its opposite.”

          He held her fashionable coat while she, delighted by his old-fashioned manners, shuffled into it. She was what he imagined a contranym to be, a thing—a thing’s opposite—and this multilayeredness thrilled him.

          After the museum they took a cab downtown and walked around Greenwich Village, looking for somewhere to eat. The streets were filthy. Long-haired students shuffled by, a downtown crowd, a crowd in which Lily moved with ease, panther-like, and a crowd within which Richard felt his most conspicuous. These were the people his father—a military man, an old-money bastion of conservative values—thought to be ruining America, and Richard had never bothered to question the contention. A post-rain mist fuzzed the cityscape.

          “Look at that linguistic oddity,” said Lily, pointing to a billboard for Rainbow Landscaping. Above it, an actual rainbow arched, its far end somewhere in the Hudson, and they paused a moment to stare.

          “What’s another example of a contranym?” he said.

           “Um, like ‘transparent,’ which means both invisible and obvious.” Suddenly Lily pointed, “Look!”

          Richard followed her finger. A well-dressed man had casually snatched a woman’s purse from out of a stroller. An uncurious baby watched the man from the stroller it had until moments before shared with the purse. The purse’s owner, gazing into a store window, didn’t notice. The thief cradled the purse and walked away at an unhurried pace. The woman looked down at the stroller. She looked back up, then behind her. “Did you see—?” she said to no one in particular. Down the street, a human-sized hot dog, shilling for a fast-food joint nearby, called, “Hey, hey!” in a teenager’s broken voice. His huge white hand gestured toward the thief, the fingers drooping. The woman with the stroller called “Get him!” Richard looked at Lily, and realized that she was pointing at the hot dog rather than the thief. She was laughing so hard she had pitched over. The hot dog began to run, encumbered and flopping, down the street toward the purse-snatcher, who looked behind him at his pursuer and broke into a trot. Lily laughed harder.

          “Someone!” cried the hot dog.

          Lily sat down on the sidewalk, laughing. “Do something,” she gasped.

          Richard came to life. He ran down Sixth Avenue, cutting the purse-snatcher off at Waverly. The two men stood facing each other, breathing hard. The thief was around sixty years old, well-dressed, his shoes polished, his hair neatly trimmed, one of Richard’s people, not one of the downtown set. As Richard yanked the purse from him, their eyes locked. The thief’s eyes were large, brown, kind, and imploring. He let the purse go. He looked like he might cry. Richard fished out his wallet and removed a twenty, handed it to the purse-purloiner, who accepted it, folded it in half, and put it in his back pocket. The man turned down Fifth Street without looking back. Richard let him go.

          When he got back to the owner of the purse, a small crowd had amassed. They clapped for him. The hot dog gave him a high five and the woman with the stroller said, “Thank you, mister,” and kissed him on the cheek. Someone behind him said, “The square saves the day.” He waved goodbye and jaywalked back to Lily. She was standing now, tall, regal, and gorgeous, and Richard felt pride and awe as he rejoined her.

          “Did you give him money?” she said.

          Richard nodded.

          “A kind heart,” she said. “Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty.” She took his chin in her hand and covered his face with little kisses.

          That night she fixed him beef stew in red wine and potato gratin. It was the first time she had been solely focused on him, solicitous of him. They ate very slowly, not speaking. He remembered, it seemed to him, every bite of that meal, and he often wished that food would taste that good, would mean that much, again. She stayed the night for the first time, nestled beside him in his tiny bed.

          They lay together in the cool dark of his apartment.

          “Tell me about the real you,” he said, awash in the recklessness that comes after intimate sex.

          Lily let out a plume of smoke. “What do you want to know?”

          “What are you afraid of?”

          Lily waited a long time. “Madness,” she said.

          “Your own? Or someone else’s?”

          “My mother was sick,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m like that.”

          He watched her, overwhelmed with the speechlessness that comes when you see another person’s soul through the mask they wear. However precious the mask, the soul is worth more.

          “If madness takes you,” he said, “I’ll come and get you.”

          “Like Orpheus,” she said.

          A new chapter. He was looking through a portal at his new life, a life transformed from black and white to such full and dazzling color he was almost blind. He was the same person, but he had been one thing. And then he was its opposite.

* * *

          At Half Moon Bay Richard turned inland, taking a winding highway he loved, past Christmas tree farms, into a canyon and up the side of a mountain, over to a breathtaking vista of a huge sparkling reservoir. Driving down toward it he lamented: If they divorced, what would Lily do? Keep the house, undoubtedly. Live there, alone? He imagined himself remarried, creating a more orderly life with someone simpler, but each other woman he conjured was Lily, Lily in the early days—Lily as she had been when they were first lovers. Other women were dull to him, not worth it. Once, for her birthday, he’d given her that new copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. She’d lost her old one. He hid a piece of paper right at the opening lines of the tale of Orpheus for her to find. On it he wrote a series of clues to common contranyms:

1. To withstand; to wear away ____________

2. To add fine particles; to remove fine particles ____________

3. One type; many types ____________

4. To inspect; to fail to notice ____________

          Later that week, they skipped classes and stayed in bed all day (his new life!). He scratched her head the way she liked, in a radial motion, and cracked each of her fingers as she held them out to him. She involuntarily fingered a cello suite against his arm. He knew he’d marry her. He yearned for the point at which he could respond in the collective. Yes, we’d love to attend. Thurston times two. Let me ask my wife if we’re available that night.

          “Weather,” she whispered, “dust; variety; overlook.” A kiss below his ear for each contranym.

          (To whom was he married now? It didn’t seem to be Lily anymore. She had folded herself down, folded herself again, banishing the old Lily to some remote part of herself. Richard, outside, saw that she was becoming her fear. And contrary to his promise, he had no ability to even find where to collect her.)

          On his birthday, in response to the book with the contranyms, she’d left a hand-written, hand-translated poem by the Roman poet Catullus in his Global Economic Environment textbook:

Give me a thousand kisses; Then a hundred;
Then another thousand, then a second hundred.
Then yet another thousand, then a hundred.
Then, when we have kissed a million kisses
Their great number will cast a spell over us,
So no jealous naysayer, bent on evil, can interfere
When they see how many kisses we’ve shared.

          So that was the Perfect Place. Where, Richard pleaded, did their path back become rubble? He had only one answer: Charles.

* * *

          Years later Richard used to overhear Charles and Eve, his oldest, giggling in her room. Eve worshipped him, as younger sisters will. He had her completely under his thumb. If Charles ate a peach, she had to have one too. He learned to play the drums, so she picked up the drums and started that awful band. It tortured Richard to imagine what she might have achieved without Charles around distracting her. Her exceptionally high IQ, wasted.

          The two of them used to look at one another and say, “Meaning Machine.” They generally said this after something Lily or Richard said, and Richard disliked the secrecy of it. He never asked them what it meant.

          Now, driving his Aston Martin, Charles dead, he wished he had. “Meaning Machine.” He wanted one, whatever it was. He was an early tech adopter, and he imagined this machine as a recent innovation, one that might be due for Series A funding. Richard would feed data into one end of this machine. The Meaning Machine accepts the data, processes them, and spits out an answer. All of his syllogisms, in they go:

1.              I had a Perfect Place

2.              I wanted a son

3.              I got a son

4.              I lost the Perfect Place

          The Meaning Machine accepts this chiasmus. It emits sounds like a modem. It’s a black box: Richard can understand the input and output but can’t know how it works inside. It whirs, clicks, and hums. Wheels inside it spin, and lo, out comes the orderly solution. He had it, he lost it. Ergo, ergo, ergo…

          What he feared most—and here, Richard found his car was traveling faster than was strictly wise, over the expanse of the reservoir, just as his son had been driving too fast next to water when he died—was that there was no solution, that Lily’s chaos was the truth, and his orderly thought processes were the delusion. That no matter how much he rescrambled the data, reshuffled the questions, reframed the narrative, he would never learn from this life, this death.

          Before he knew it, Richard found that the Aston Martin had returned him to his bijou rented bungalow. He pulled the ridiculous car under the car park and spent a moment, as he often did, before the bougainvillea that frothed up around the doorframe. Its prettiness settled his mind, like snow on a chaotic landscape. Once inside, something directed him to the bookshelf in the living room. He pulled Lily’s copy of Ovid out from the books the house had come with. It was one of two books he’d brought from New York. He let the book fall open at Orpheus. He didn’t know what she’d done with the list of contranyms he’d hidden there. He pushed the book back into its slot. He pulled out Global Economic Environment, the one with her poem in it, the only textbook he didn’t sell once he’d graduated. The lined paper, covered in its girlish scrawl, still marked the spot between pages 146 and 147, both covered with graphs. The graphs served as odd, poignant counterpoints to the poem. They were pragmatic. They were, perhaps, the naysayers mentioned in the poem, the ones bent on evil. Since that birthday, so many years ago, the graphs and the poem had seemed to Richard symbols of the confluence of his practicality and her whimsy, the intersection of a magical Venn diagram, within whose fragile perimeter lay the Perfect Place. After Charles’s death, while he couldn’t bring himself to open the book, he found himself touching its embossed spine, over and over, as though searching for an answer in braille.

          Outside, evening fell. The moon was there in the little water feature in the courtyard. The one palm rattled in the breeze. Richard tapped a pen against his thigh, wondering, not for the first time, if he could find his way back to Lily. What would it take? In some quiet part of himself he knew the answer. Orpheus whispered from the pages of the Metamorphoses. Lily was lost in the hell her mother had created, and he, the hero in the myth, would have to transform himself to find her. He would have to venture down past the syllogisms, beyond the bullet points and the puzzles, down into her chaos, and retrieve her.

THE END


Saramanda Swigart is thrilled to be writing fiction exclusively after years of writing advertising copy and corporate literature. She completed an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Alembic, Border Crossing, The Broken Plate, Caveat Lector, Diverse Arts Project, East Jasmine Review, Euphony, Fogged Clarity, The Literati Quarterly, OxMag, The Penmen Review, Ragazine, Superstition Review, and Thin Air. Her work has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train and a 2017 Pushcart Prize nomination. Saramanda is working on translating some of the more salacious stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Saramanda teaches at City College of San Francisco.