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Fiction: Fire

By David A. Goldstein
Published in ART TIMES September 2015

There are people who have no capacity for happiness. My empathy is reserved for people who have known happiness and lost it.

We were sitting in her quilting room, the rearmost room in a small apartment overlooking Broadway, the main street running through downtown Portland. I’d known her only an hour when she invited me back to her apartment.

“Want to see my leg?” She said

I nodded that it was O.K.

She rolled up her pant leg. I didn’t know what to expect but it wasn’t so bad.

This was an odd first date but when you begin dating at fifty-five all dates are a little odd. Being quietly plugged in to the ending of a person’s life is a very different experience from beginning with a person at their beginning, your beginning.

“They took a graft from my hip. Skin’s a little tight but it’ll be all right.

The skin was a little raw and blotchy but I was in earnest assuring her that it didn’t look too bad given that the operation was only six months passed.

In our first telephone conversation she told me that her husband had been killed in a fire… aboard a ship he was working on. In the eight years since, she had no relation with a man.

Yet here I was, only a year from divorce…divorce from a wife I’d been unaccountably happy with, thinking, one happiness could be replaced with another.

“For the first two years I just rocked” she said, “I sat in a chair and rocked.”

And the odd thing was, I was here with Patricia only because Sarah…Sarah whom I’d found so attractive…hadn’t returned my phone call. More than a week had gone by; I assumed she wasn’t interested.

“I think I need a dalliance.” She said.

I looked at her with incomprehension.

“A dalliance… not an affair. An affair is six months…” she said. “ A dalliance is a long weekend and then you part… or maybe it’s three times”

I cocked my head. I was evaluating her. At fifty-two her beauty had faded. Sadness had attacked her. It was easy to see who she had been and I do not know whether it was the woman now before me or the image I imagined of her before sadness struck her that caused in me a slight sexual stir.

I know I had been interested in Sarah because one thing was very clear: She had kept her beauty. Less clear was Sarah’s heart. I do not know if it was a bad heart or a good heart; after one long Sunday brunch together, all I knew was that it was unrevealed.

“Oh, I’m all talk,” Patricia said. “I know that”

Had I been more immediately and obviously interested in the invitation would we have spent the first “date” in bed together? Certainly, I genuinely liked this woman… or was Patricia merely sending out false feelers—my acceptance of her offer countered with withdrawal.

Sarah was clearer here too: “I have to get to know someone before deciding anything”

Though Patricia interested me I had this great fear… that once she undressed I would be disappointed…not interested. It was not failure of performance I feared for I could always perform; rather it was that she would fail to continue to excite me. Sex had always been partly an aesthetic experience. There is no denying that that is not a small part of what has stirred me, and I was fighting with the realization of aging; my own and the women around me.

“What do you think?” Patricia said.

“About what?” I said, although I knew about what.

“Oh I don’t know, nothing in particular”

“Those are really incredible colors,” I said putting my toe as a pointer on the quilt spread out on the floor.

“She’s a redhead”

“Who?”

“The woman I’m making it for. She wanted some orange in it.”

“I’m afraid to disappoint.” I said “And, ya know I don’t want to be disappointed, I mean I don’t want to have sex a few times and… and … you know… have things not work out.”

“We can be friends.” She said. “I’ll have my dalliance with someone else.”

But it had been eight years for Patricia and she had not even half a dalliance yet because it was clear what she wanted… the same thing I wanted… to go backwards in time and be in that singular lost place: happiness.

So I left her, and everything unclear. I hugged her which is not something I do very often, I stroked her hair just once and I brushed her cheek with my lips but even though she had touched and stirred me I left her late on a Saturday afternoon to go exercise at my health club. I could have chosen to ask her to have a drink with me instead.

When I returned home there was a message on my answering machine.

“This is Sarah. Sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier. My week’s been upside down.”

I took note of the unsaid. No “call me” no “lets get together,” just a pro forma “sorry”

I had told Patricia about Sarah. Fact is I told her that “if she calls me back at this point, I’m not interested”

“What if she has a good excuse?” Patricia said

“Well if she’s been in the hospital, but not ‘I’ve been busy’. She owed me a return phone call if only a message telling me she was busy. She showed interest…set up an expectation. I think she owes me that.”

Patricia agreed but it is easy for a woman to agree with the perception of a rival’s misbehavior…I knew that.

Once I had taken the message from my machine I was faced with the reality of deciding: did I want to call Sarah back?

That night I read in the Sunday times about a man, who the day after his divorce became final, appeared at his wife’s home and said:

“We were meant to be together for life”

They re-entered a relationship that lasted until they died although they did not remarry.

I thought about the possibility: could I do that?

I thought about Sarah, the way she had distanced me. Patricia, the quilt maker, had a more random intricate pattern.

Patricia showed me her leg because she wanted to know if I could accept her weathered, bruised body. I knew at the time what she was doing. And she knew I gave her a response that was uncertain… not to confuse her but because I was uncertain. And when I hugged her it was because I felt warmth toward her but, too, it went through my mind that her breasts had survived misfortune…but still I did not know whether I could accept her fifty-two year old body and spirit.

Her symbolic self-mutilation spoke not only of her love but the charring her spirit had taken. She was not present when her husband burned to his death. On the seventh anniversary, she lit a candle for him. She placed it in the center of the floor in her bathroom. Got into a warm tub. I am sure she cried. I know that she remembered how they took baths together, talking as the water grew cold.

She stepped out of the tub. Slipped into pajamas. Brushed passed the candle on the floor. The bottom of her trousers began to burn. She just looked at it… not understanding.

“I thought about rolling on the floor” she said “ but I couldn’t… I just watched my pajamas go up.”

She did know to call a friend. By the time the friend arrived, the fire was out, Patricia was in shock and the leg was burned through to the bone.

Sarah’s skin was intact, this I knew but it concerned me, that the buried scar tissue was a much greater threat.

“She hasn’t matured… that’s why she looks so young… hasn’t felt… being blocked… can keep you young…but there’s a price”

A friend had said that about my wife. True… who knows? I think so…seems so…looking around me… other women I have known… in the past… Observation of women I encounter… now… maybe so… something to consider. If they look “too good” its because they have felt little, suffered not enough.

I mulled over it for about a day: whether to call Sarah back. Did I want to know Sarah or did I already know Sarah?

I began to replay our luncheon conversation in light of the new information about her, her apologetic return phone call, that had withheld information.

“I’m tired of being the third wheel,” she said. “All my friends are married… I go out with them…. or their partners…. Almost every week.”

“Doesn’t that create a little…a… sexual jealousy problem?” I asked.

“Oh, ” she said. “I even take hot tubs with them…we’re just good friends.”

I didn’t say, “Sure you are.” Fact is I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

But one thing I knew: Sarah was teasing me…expressing interest while simultaneously not returning my calls.

Ten years ago I would have been waiting by the phone hoping for a return call from a woman who looked like Sarah. No more. Now things are clear: if you’re not interested in me why would I want you. I knew the inevitable outcome of entering that kind of relation.

“Two plus two equals four,” I said to myself. Old people know some things that young people do not and hot tubs with girlfriend’s hubby, plus late returned phone calls equal… I can add.

I did not call Sarah back. I did not call Patricia.

So the decision had been made. Two weeks from birthday fifty-six. I would spend it alone, light no birthday candles, cautious not to get burned.

(David A. Goldstein, author of 40 short stories published in 6 countries, lives in Lake Oswego, NY).