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Fiction #399
(published September 11, 2008)
Five Unfinished Stories about My Ex-Lover
by Thomas Kearnes
You've left town. You've left the state. You've left behind your parents, your sister, your friends who never liked me. You're gone, and I'm hunched over on my bed scribbling words into a black, thick notebook. It's April, but it's cold. It snowed last month for the first time in four years. Did you see it? The central heat clicks on. I listen to the moan through the small vent in the ceiling. I'm wearing the lounge pants with the grinning pandas spotted along the legs. Do you remember those? What desperate and awkward metaphor would describe how I miss you? How I'm forgetting you, and how I can't decide which I miss more: what I remember or what I've forgotten.

1. I still have that cheap fake yellow rose you bought me. You presented it to me from the doorway the first weekend you came to see me. You apologized for it. The rose was wrapped in clear plastic. Underneath that, fake lace wound around the stem. It's nothing, you said. I kissed you as the door stood open. Any neighbor might happen by to find two young men kissing on my porch. Usually, you were more inhibited. I always believed the ferocity of my emotions disturbed you. Four years later, I still have that fake rose pinned to my wall. I've let many, many men inside my home since you last left, but not one has asked about it. If a man ever does, I will tell him this story. I will tell him it's the first flower I ever received. I will tell him it is not real, so it can never die.

2. He wasn't the first boy to fancy you. It was a doomed attraction. His belly sagged over his slacks. His hair had tight, wet curls that looked like they might leave a stain if you brushed a sleeve against them. He wrote you love poems. Our first week together, you showed me one of them, laughing. Poor, ugly Trevor and his shameless crush. Wasn't it hilarious? The poems were awful. They rhymed. Words were capitalized in no discernible pattern. They reminded me of Mariah Carey songs, the same juvenile outpouring of devotion. The paper was frayed and worn from the number of times you had unfolded and refolded it. I imagined you showing it to all your buddies in the theatre department. Those goons adored you, the ease with which you spoke, your talent on the stage, your ability to make each of them feel you were listening to them and only them. It's funny, you told me. We layed together on my couch. I passed one of the poems back to you. Maybe he's in love with you, I said. Of course he is, you replied. Then, I laughed. I laughed at poor Trevor, so doggedly pursuing my new boyfriend, so destined to fail. I didn't know then that one day I would write to you as well. Hopeless line after hopeless line. I would wonder if you read what I sent you, whether you showed it to your friends. I've forgotten the sound of your laugh.

3. You always believed you were sick. You felt chills, you looked pale, you felt weak. At this point in our romance, even your hypochondria was charming. Poor you, always moments before shattering into pieces. Perhaps I was waiting for that to happen. I wanted the privilege of scooping up your remains. I wanted to put you together again. A small hard knot formed on your neck under your jaw. Perhaps it was a goiter. We discussed whether you might give this mystery disease to me. I insisted I didn't care. Infect me, I thought. Load me down with sickness and behold how I still lurch toward your open arms. We were in bed one night, and you felt warm beside me. Too warm, I thought. I felt your forehead, and it was slick with sweat. I slipped my hand down the length of your body. Your skin, all of it, was hot and clammy. Your T-shirt was beginning to soak through. I bolted from the bed to find a thermometer. You had a fever, a high one. We couldn't call a hospital or your parents, they had no idea you had snuck down to see me on a weeknight. I called my mother, and she advised me of the steps I should take to cool you down. Stripping you nude, sponging you with damp washrags. You reached to your neck and felt the knot. What's wrong with me? I told you everything would be fine. I wiped you down until your skin cooled and you fell asleep. I kept on the desk light and stood beside my bed watching you sleep. Remember this, I told myself. A day will come when someone else chills his fevers, and this memory will be all that's left. You must never let this go.

4. This was December. It was almost over between us, but neither of us knew that. You needed help moving your belongings from the dorm room to your parents' house for the holidays. We spent a whole half-hour just sorting and discarding the minefield of wadded papers from your car. I followed you to your parents' house. I asked you if I could take a quick nap on your bed before returning home. This was the bed in which you and I first spent the night together. Well, part of the night. You made me move to the floor beside you before we fell asleep in case your mother came by in the morning. Your pillowcase still carried your scent. You left the room, and I drifted into a reverie that was not quite sleep, yet more peaceful than any waking moment. The music erupted from down the hall in a sudden blast. Slide guitar, woofing bass beat. A high, twangy voice charged through the house. I lay still for a moment, thinking it would stop. Then you came into the room. You looked panicked, your eyes jittering inside their sockets. You rubbed your hands together as if trying to wipe clean a stubborn spot. I'm sorry, you said. It's my father. Is he trying to force me out of the house? I asked. You just stared at me, broken, but finally you nodded. Your father didn't like his son's lover sleeping in his bed, even if his son was not there with him. I sat up and took your hand. I looked up into your face and told you I was fine. I still remember the song your father played. Something by Tanya Tucker, something about another woman's husband. We left the room and crept down the hall toward the back door. You had been humiliated, and you couldn't hide it from me. Now, when a man looks at me like that, I turn away. I keep my gaze down until the man asks me to look at him again. How is your father?

5. You had left me. You did it over the phone, and I pretended to cry because I couldn't think of how else to respond. I deserved this. I was pushy. I cheated on you. I had told some friends I was just keeping you around till I found someone more compatible. I asked you to return the gifts I had given you. Who knew what I'd do with them, but I wanted something that was yours, even if it was something I gave you. After waiting a couple of months, I drove to your school to find you. The gifts were just an excuse. Anyone could solve the charade. But I didn't care. I had to see you again. I watched the stage production you were starring in. Would it surprise you to learn I've decided never again to date an actor? I felt a few hostile stares from your friends in the audience. You had told them everything, detailed all my hostilities and schemes, but this was no surprise. The show ended, and I approached you in the lobby. I asked for my things. We embraced before this, a brief and stiff gesture that took more effort than either of us expected. In the lot outside your dorm, you stood beside the rear end of your parked car. I pulled up beside you and rolled down the window. Everything was there. The plush animals, the cowboy hat, the borrowed books. After returning those, you handed me a picture frame. I noticed the picture once inside it was missing, the first one you and I had taken together. I paused in surprise. Why did you still want that? Where would you keep it? Who would you show it to? I gazed up at you. You stood still beside my running car. I wanted to ask you these questions, but your friend was waiting in a car pulled up beside yours. Another friend to dry your tears and hear your complaints. I took the empty picture frame and rolled up the window. I drove out of the lot. I did not look back. This is my last memory of you. When you left the state, left all you knew behind, did you take our photo with you? Did it cross the country in a moving van, wedged between the pages of a heavy book or slipped inside a junky drawer? Do you ever think of me, Michael?

I listen to the rhythmic scratching of my pen against the pages. I write about other men, other periods of time. Sometimes, for variety, I steal a story entirely out of the unsuspecting air. I thought in the beginning I was writing these stories for you, but this is not true. These stories are for me, so I will not forget the strange and unexpected acres I have traveled. Less frequently with each year, I imagine you crossing this ground beside me. We bump shoulders, hold hands. You ask me for another story. I stop and swallow a breath of cold air. I begin. This is my fantasy, so you of course listen closely. Every story about you that I failed to write pours out of me. I keep talking even as the lazy sun sets, and the sky's color deepens. Finally, I reach the end. When I look over to see if you liked them, I find you've disappeared. I'm alone in the sudden dark. You've left me, Michael, and you've taken my stories with you.

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