ANN DOWDY-WHISTLER TO HER FIANCE
I will arrive at the Episcopal church with my hair tucked behind my ears. You will know it is me from my large forehead and the baby hairs encircling it. I look exactly as I do in the pictures. I will wear brown eye shadow, but if you can see my eye shadow you will know by then it is me. I will say hello because I will know exactly who you are the moment I see you. I won’t be bashful. It is too late for that. I will extend my hand and introduce myself plainly. I will shake your hard-worn hand, and by then we will know as much as we need to.
The church is darling and right off the interstate. A perfect meeting spot. The priest is a woman. If this unsettles you, don’t tell me. She will want to shake your hand and introduce you to her wife Tabby, who is dear and warm. At the service you and I will not touch. You will not place your arm around me in the way all the husbands around us place their arms around their tweedy wives. For you are not my husband and, though tweedy, I am not your wife. There, in that sanctuary which smells of ancient hymnals and complimentary coffee, we will remain still and recite, recite, recite. Lately I’ve been entertaining an abiding fantasy in which your voice and mine become one after the eighth or ninth soothing repetition of Lord, hear our prayer. You will take Holy Eucharist unless you are feeling iffy about your faith, in which case it’s best to skip. I will not blame you. In fact, I will praise you for honesty. Dear man.
You mustn’t propose at the Episcopal church. Take me to lunch instead: Pickwick Café has macaroons or just the Olive Garden is fine, too. You should know by now I am not a high-maintenance girl. Wear slacks. Jerry, my graduate assistant, will be sitting in the booth behind ours and will take a candid photo when you pop the question.
Time passes crazily. Just a few months ago you were but a series of ones and zeroes to me, a dark corner of cyberspace, a profile full of innocuous data. Age: 47. Occupation: does it matter? Goals: lifelong love. Your photograph sometimes appeared pixelated, as if you wanted to remain a mystery. I found it all very titillating and was tempted on several occasions to tell my colleagues about you and our snail-like romance. I call this time in my life, pre-Gregory, ‘the gradual trail of slime.’
I will admire the ring many times and will be particularly hung-up on the teardrop cut. I have always dreamed of it. I may even bring my whole hand up to my lips and kiss it. Do not think me idolatrous or silly; I will simply be overcome by emotion, gratitude, the fact that someone could love me this much/spend this much. I will be girlish and swoon over you, giddy, may even pretend my fingers are legs and walk them up your hairy, sufficient arm. That night when we make love I may call you ‘Daddy,’ but I will apologize if I do and wait at least three hours to try to make love to you again, sans speaking altogether. Allow me my reactions. They are temporary and must be indulged if you don’t want them to linger.
We are hardly young anymore. A courthouse wedding will do. I found a white pantsuit with big buttons and I may put a flower in my hair. It won’t feel authentic right away, not for me anyway. A few days in, after I have seen every inch of you, you may feel like my husband. When I see you on my couch eating my vegetable pasta, you may feel like my husband. Once we are married we can ceremoniously delete our online dating accounts and look each other in the eyes like, ‘This is something. This is really something.’
I will make you a good home. I have a little herb garden growing in my window; maybe you can help me with it. You may keep your model confederate soldiers in the sunroom. I cleared some drawers for them. Do not fool around in my office or touch the creams and pills on the bathroom counter. In turn I won’t arrange your soldiers or take your car magazines with me to the water closet. I will take off my ring and put it in an oyster shell on the nightstand when we go to bed. I sleep on the left. I stay in one place all through the night.
Gregory: back in November you said you were shy and broken. Then you logged out of your account for a week to do some self-inventory. That was all fine, but now is the time for you to be present. Do not be afraid to meet me face-to- face. Everything is on the table now, and there are no surprises. You will ask. I will say yes. When you see me on the steps of the Episcopal church, look at me like I am someone you would like to know.
1991: Duck Pond at the Audubon Park
Today is one of Luke’s last normal days. This is before he goes into the hospital and doesn’t leave, before the choir of pill bottles on the nightstand or the embarrassing end times when he is so weak his partner does nothing but kneel beside the bed and offer up blue popsicles the size of thumbs. Today he feels fortified. He looks in the mirror and looks like himself. Thin? Sure. Dark circles? Expected. But this is the best he’s been in weeks.
The apartment is bare; most of his things have found their way into boxes lining the den. He has sold the place, and his partner has already gotten a new one on Julia Street. “This will be our room,” Harold told him weeks ago when they stood together in the master bedroom, so large and prone to echo.
Solitude, Luke tells himself, is suffocating, so he takes a walk alone in the middle of the day. The duck pond is calling his name. He stuffs bread into his pockets and walks forward, always forward, piercing the air with his chin.
Then a miracle happens: he sees his dear sister and her accountant husband and their pearl of a son, the love of his life, his fat nephew with the patchy hair. Mother and father are swinging baby over puddles, laughing, all pointing at the same shrub. They do not see Luke walking toward them, trying his best to be cool about the electric love he feels for the family he hasn’t seen in months. He waves when they turn around and calls out to his sister, “Fancy meeting you here!”
She returns his bear-hug with ill-concealed timidity, gives a smile and asks softly how he’s been. “I feel strong,” he says. Then he pulls the bread from his pockets and crouches to meet his nephew’s gaze. “I came to feed the ducks. Do you want to help?”
The child throws his arms around Luke’s neck. Luke picks the boy up and goes in for the biggest forehead kiss, maybe ever, in all the goddamn cosmos.
“Put him down,” the accountant says. “I’m sorry, man, we just can’t run the risk that comes with contact.”
“Surely you understand,” says his sister. “It’s complicated. We’re afraid.”
“I’m sure,” Luke says.
Conversation flattens, then there is some bullshit about the nephew’s playdate across the park. “Blow your uncle a kiss,” says the man’s sister as the family leaves, waving as they step backwards like stop-motion figures in a Christmas special. Like this really, really wasn’t supposed to happen.
Luke turns away from them, then he spins right back around with sudden tenacity and says, “You know, your fear is a little outdated. Very eighties of you, Matthew. Very eighties.”
But they are already gone. Walking home, Luke repeats this: they are only afraid because they don’t understand. Like children themselves, they know no better. But quickly the mantra loses its power. Can’t run the risk? Can’t hug? Can’t kiss? Of course they can; they just won’t. Anyone in the world could hold him: the doctor, the homeless man over there scaring squirrels with a stick. Hell, even the grand oak trees could pick him up and suspend him in their branches if they really wanted to, covering him just-so with Spanish moss, feeling every inch of his perfectly good body.
At home, Luke settles into the couch, a boat in his emptier and emptier living room. Harold unlocks the door and joins him. Harold makes tea for Luke. Luke tells the story to Harold, the one from earlier that day. Night falls and their legs are tangled, arms thrown over one another like twins in the womb, just before birth. Silent they float for a few more days.
MARY RYAN KARNES is a senior at the University of Southern Mississippi and a Hattiesburg native. She studies English and hopes to one day teach contemporary literature in a university setting.