Alone with Others

1

March 21, 2021 by The Citron Review

by Gordon W. Mennenga

 

When she was born she was twenty-one inches long. She had remembered this fact but never found a use for it. She would say this about many things in her life. Sadness, for instance. And the number of times the average heart beats in a year: 42 million.

As a child, she was a fan of maps and car trips and would often pretend that her parents were really kidnappers with mayhem on their minds, so she viewed the landscape through desperate wild eyes, plotting an escape into a forest where invisibility ruled. Later she traveled to Spain, France and Brazil pretending she was a mother, a lover, a thief, a woman accused of something that she did not do but still treasured the accusation.

She could be one woman or many women. Her names: Lida, Lorna, Marybeth, Gloria, Corrine, Delia, Molly, Missy, Ava. She moved in and out of names as if they were shoes or by-the-hour motel rooms. The right name can get you a long way in this world.

Cosmetics were never her friend. She thought her lips lacked enough fullness to express joy, desire or satisfaction. Still, she kissed many things. She knew the taste of absence and alcohol, minty mouthwash and tobacco, sweat and blood. Weeks after she’d been married, she bought a two hundred dollar pair of shoes and her husband had made her return them. Later, she had children and wanted to return them, too. Once she and her husband were sitting on a park bench when her former lover walked by and a part of her got up and followed that man down the block and out of sight. There were very few times that she and her husband were naked at the same time, a realization that suggested isolation, the mainland and an island just off the coast. She joined a yoga class and broke into loud sobs with her butt in the air and her head on the floor. It turned out she often found herself bent over and crying, the tears leaving salt in her hairline. She joined a political party that favored open borders, more holidays, and rewriting a lot of the Constitution. Things she swallowed: pills, mostly blue, a quarter, one of her front teeth, ambition, the urge to cheat on crossword puzzles and diets, the urge to set things on fire, the urge to glue herself to a sturdy wall, the truth.

Turning forty, she had trouble with a job application. The prompt read: “Describe the happiest moment of your life.” She tried, she really tried. Her happiest moment she could not write. A happy second would have to suffice. For instance, the time her husband complained that she hadn’t packed his suitcase correctly for a business trip—he’d asked for four white shirts not three, and where was his favorite necktie, the blue one with tiny white baseballs on it, not the ugly yellow paisley tie. So the next time she packed for him, she packed dirty laundry in his suitcase, including some of her own underwear, and when he opened the suitcase in Boston, he was not amused. The moment the phone began to ring and ring and ring, that was a happy moment. For her, happiness was brief and expensive. She didn’t get the job.

She loved music and was the only female trombone player in her high school marching band. “First chair trombone” she wrote on her college application form. In college she fell in love with a boy named after a town in Alaska. He borrowed money from her and chewed food with his mouth open. When he was a child, a careless deer hunter had shot him, the arrow leaving a perfect circle on his back. Years later he was struck by lightning on a bike trail in Colorado, the news somehow satisfying her, like cool weather after hot. She would never say she had trouble with men but rather that she could never find a constant use for them. “Was it legal to rent a man when you needed one,” she quizzed her friends, someone good at lawn mowing, ego boosting, leak fixing, and lovemaking. The vote was 8 to 1 in favor of this rental idea.

Her father was jolly, her mother left-handed. Her father tempted fate each morning by riding his bicycle to work, flying down a long hill, cruising through the stop signs at top speed, ignoring cross traffic or begging for it. Her mother wrote a cooking column for the local paper although she often left an ingredient out of the recipe and would have to begin the next column with: “In last week’s recipe for blueberry crumble, I meant to say two tablespoons of sugar, not two cups. Sorry.” Her parents were also fond of yellow cheese, twelve step programs, and reading the obituaries aloud over breakfast.

She was a Catholic at one time, a vegetarian, a CFO, a gardener, a witness, a hand model, a canner of pickles, a writer of sonnets, an expert at getting things unstuck. Her husband secretly insured her life. She took this as a bet or a wish but certainly not a comforting move on his part. Her ability to drive long distances without sleeping lifted her spirits, and she waited to be called upon to demonstrate this talent. She often tested her ability to hold back: a week without coffee, a day without saying “I,” not having sex with the next man she met wearing cowboy boots, not answering the phone after noon, choosing to stay put even when the water was rising.

When those last hours confronted her, she faced them with awkward grace. The end felt like wearing a fur coat in summer, like taking a champagne bath, like being caught in the jaws of some wild thing, like glancing into a mirror and finding it empty. She saw resting in peace as one of many options.

 

Gordon W. Mennenga lives in Iowa City, Iowa. He earned an MFA in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has been a milkman, a wedding singer, and a college professor. He has a Disney Channel credit and his monologues have been featured on NPR.

One thought on “Alone with Others

  1. larry says:

    I especially like the ambiguity of the mother publishing flawed recipes–I feel like she might have done it on purpose. 2 cups of sugar instead of 2 tbsp….

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