Fiction by Stephanie J. Cleary

After

  by Stephanie J. Cleary

 

            It wasn’t the first time Sylvia found comfort with Pauli. Sometimes she was so lonely for Jake, she’d curl herself into bed, roll up tightly, circle her arms around her knees and bury her face in the pillow and pretend she could still smell him there. His memory shrouded her, and she wrapped herself in it.

            Hours later, she would unfurl herself and walk down to the Angry Dog to get a drink. She’d gulp down a shot quickly, then sip another while the band played.

            If she closed her eyes, she could almost feel Jake beside her. It was the alcohol, she told herself, but sometimes, she was sure that if she opened her eyes she would see him there. Not Jake, not really, but a shadow of him called back by the strength of her sorrow.

            Perhaps harkened by the same spirit, Pauli would make his way through the crowd and sit beside her. He’d place his calloused hand over hers and order a drink and they would feel easier together. Eventually, the spell would break. Then they could speak to each other, both careful not to say Jake’s name. He’d crack jokes to erase the sadness from her pretty face and she’d laugh even if the punchline was weak because it chased the grief from his eyes.

            Eventually, the need to release it all consumed them. Pauli would signal the bartender for their tab. She’d wait while he settled up, nervous hands smoothing imaginary wrinkles in her skirt. His hand would fall to her back, guiding her out the door and into the soft glow of the streetlights.

            They’d stumble back to her apartment and she would let him worship her, kissing him when his mouth was near, pulling him close, surrendering to the need to be touched. She pulled her fingers through his curly hair and wrapped her legs around his body and when it was all too much she’d cry out and he would fall heavily on top of her, both of them satisfied for a while.

            She knew he loved her, and she wanted him then, in those private moments. But that’s what made it so terrible. Not the wanting. The wanting Jake and using Pauli.            

            Tonight was one of those nights. Sylvia spent most of the day moving listlessly about the apartment. She dusted and ironed and made soup, anything to keep Jake’s memory at bay. Finally, she gave up.

            She sat in the bedroom and opened herself to the sadness, but today was different. The room, so full of memory and emotion, was still. More than still. She felt hot, the room was stuffy. She rose from the bed and opened a window. A warm breeze carried the hopeful scent of spring. She stood there and let the sun shine on her face.

            Unsure of what to do, she fell back into habit and made her way to the Angry Dog. The band must have taken the night off, she thought. The bar was sparsely populated. It was unusual, but she sat at the bar anyway and ordered her drinks.

            When Pauli sat beside her, she told herself she wouldn’t let him take her home tonight. Not again. Not ever. She expected some sign of approval from the specter of Jake always there with them, but when she closed her eyes to look for him, she found herself alone. Jake was gone. There was only Pauli.

            They sipped their drinks and sat companionably together. He held her hand. He cracked a joke about what a ghost town the joint was and Sylvia laughed. She really laughed, she threw her head back and felt her smile stretching her face. The moment faded and she caught herself looking at him, really seeing him.

            His nose was too big, but it suited his face. A thin scar bisected his right eyebrow. He needed a shave. She reached a hand to his face and cupped his jaw. “Pauli? I’m ready to go. Take me home.”           

            At the apartment, the usual urgency was gone. Sylvia led Pauli to the bedroom. He sat on the bed, and she undressed herself. She watched his face as she shed her clothes. She pushed him gently down onto the mattress and she climbed on top of him, shimmying his trousers down just far enough. She slid her body into position and saw his chest tighten, then relax as she moved her hips slowly.

            Back and forth, she watched him. His eyes were closed. She leaned forward and placed a hand on his chest, tugging at the blonde down scattered over his skin. He opened his eyes, and she looked into them.

 

            The evening yielded to night as they lay together, neither wanting speak. Sylvia was thirsty. She wrapped herself in a sheet and made her way to the bathroom, filling a glass of water from the faucet.

            When she returned to the bedroom, Pauli was standing at the window, looking down onto the dark street. She didn’t know what to say. She started towards him, then turned back and sat heavily on the bed.

            Finally, Pauli broke the silence. “Should I stay? Can I?”

            She sighed, and he turned to her, angry. “Goddammit, Sylvia. What am I supposed to do? Keep going like this? I run into you at the store and you got nothing to say to me but hello, like we’re practically strangers. Like I’m betraying him, even if he ain’t around to know it. What am I supposed to do?”

            She said nothing. She sat on the bed and dressed herself slowly. Methodically. She pointed her toes and rolled a stocking up her left leg, and then her right. She clipped her garters back on. She leaned over the jumbled mass of blankets for her skirt, an inky puddle of silk on the hardwood floor. Long legs once again covered, she moved on to her blouse. Her hands were clumsy. The pearl buttons seemed unfamiliar to her fingers, as though a different woman had taken it off.

            As she transformed back from blushed and bare to demure and dressed, she snuck glances in the long mirror at Pauli.

            He was nude, his pale legs a stark contrast to the deep finish on the chest of drawers in front of him. He had both hands on top of the dresser, and he was drumming the fingers of his left hand. His right hand was inches away from a photograph. He picked it up and the drumming stopped. He ran his thumb over the glass frame and questioned her, “When did you take this?”  

            She looked over his shoulder at the picture. The picture was of Jake and Pauli. They were at the Angry Dog. The image wasn’t centered on them, it was a wide shot of the bar. The boys, her boys, sat on stools, blissfully unaware of the cameraman. Jake leaned over in the seat, his image captured just as he slapped a hand against his thigh. Pauli sat next to him, head back and mouth wide, laughing.

             “I didn’t. Remember a couple years ago when Mack showed up at the bar with that camera? He thought it was a hoot, shooting pictures of everybody. He took it that night.” Her voice caught in her throat, and she took a quick breath, “He gave it to me, well, a few weeks after…you know…after.”

            Pauli held the photo to his chest. He closed his eyes tight and bit the corner of his lip. “I know you miss him, but I miss him, too. He was like my brother, you know?”

            Sylvia gave him a sad smile and turned back to the mirror. It’s not as though she didn’t understand.  Of all people, she knew how much Pauli missed Jake.  When the telegram came bearing the awful news of his death, she was devastated. For three days, she hardly spoke a word. She didn’t eat. Her hair became a knotted mess. A kindly neighbor called her mother, who had to take the train all the way from Ames to look after her.

            “Let’s don’t talk about him, Pauli. It’s bad enough…” She stopped looking sideways at him and concentrated on putting her hair back together. Her grips had come loose and long strands of shiny brown hair had fallen in her face.

            Pauli put the picture back on the dresser nudging it back into place with his thumb. He sat on the bed facing her and brushed her hair back behind her ear. “I hate that you said that. Why would you go and say a thing like that?” He held her shoulder, turning her towards him. “I love you, Sylvie.”

            She raised her head and looked at him. His blue eyes were bloodshot from whiskey and welled with tears. She saw the hurt there, and she turned from it. From him.           

            He moved from the dresser and snatched his clothes off the floor. He dressed quickly, stuffing his socks into his pocket and shoving his bare feet into his shoes. He was crying. He turned to her once more as he walked out. “This doesn’t have to end like this. We could be happy, you know. You and me.”

            She wanted to say something, but there were no words. Instead, she watched him walk out of the bedroom, across the living room, and out the door. He slammed it behind him.

            Without him there, she was free to get up. Through the tiny peephole on her front door, Sylvia watched him walk down the long hallway. His shoulders slumped. His jacket, so crisp when he walked into the Angry Dog, was wrinkled and his pants had lost the crease on the seam. 

            Her heart felt heavy in her chest, but the weight wasn’t the familiar burden of grief. The further he walked from the door, the more she worried he wouldn’t be back. His trudging steps had an air of finality.

            She put her hand on the knob and turned it. The mechanism inside clicked, and Pauli stopped. He turned and looked back towards her door, brows furrowed, tears wet on his face. She froze, her hand a vice on the brass knob. His eyebrows, knit so tightly, inched upward.

            He wiped his cheek with the back of a shaking hand and her name was a question on his tongue, “Sylvia?”

            “Come back in Pauli. Come back to bed, baby.”

 

Stephanie J. Cleary is a Writer's Workshop student at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. Her work been published or is forthcoming in The 13th Floor, The Metropolitan, Nature's Companion, NEBRASKAland Magazine, Gravel, and These Fragile Lilacs. She reads books like an addict, loves the Fourth of July, and makes the best egg-salad sandwiches on the planet.