Pass Once Unknown

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December 22, 2021 by The Citron Review

by Marvin Shackelford


I had fallen madly in love with Anna from the English department, but I’ve always struggled to make myself make a move. I never got drunk enough while Anna was around to lean into her, never bold enough to kiss her while we smoked cigarettes outside one bar or party or another, never screwed up courage enough for much of anything, so mostly I just made Anna Karenina jokes and played online games of Scrabble with her where I cheated freely, googling better words out of my garbled consonants to try to impress her. I hadn’t read Anna Karenina either. I knew just enough about anything to squeak by and in those days still found myself hiding that fact or else apologizing for it. Anna taught two intro classes of thirty students and spent more time than seemed possible grading their intro papers full of intro mistakes, and as the semester wore on we saw her less and less in the bars or at readings or early in the morning sweaty and dancing, slower and slower as we went, in the living room of one grad student or another’s rented house. I suffered along lovelorn and sick, exasperating my friends and amusing my nemeses.

The night before we all skipped town for Christmas she held a party at her place, a large colonial she shared with two other women, poets. After the Secret Santa exchange of gifts and a fairly light night of liquor and Costco finger foods we eventually found ourselves alone in her cold living room, in the floor propped against her couch, while she scrolled through a library of Bob Dylan covers. That movie had just come out. Her roommates had gone to bed or else home with their boyfriends, and I was staying up through the night before catching a flight I aimed to sleep through, doped-up on Valium and a tiny bottle of whiskey, until an attendant shook me hard enough and insisted we were on the ground again. Anna simply wasn’t done drinking then and there. She kept pouring gin and tonics in a red plastic cup and staring into my eyes. I don’t remember what we talked about, but everything inside me said she was waiting for me to lean in, kiss her, get on with it, see what happened. But I didn’t. And she didn’t.

And maybe she didn’t want to, and maybe she wasn’t waiting. Over the break she would meet a polling consultant who’d go on to be unsung but integral to some of the big aggregation outfits so celebrated in the Aughts and Teens, when we all suddenly came to love and believe in math. They’d meet at a Democratic fundraiser, her family being old money and deeply concerned with the inequalities their forebears helped create. She’d be so aloof with me when she returned for the spring semester that I just couldn’t stand it, would drown in my own bellyaching until a friend finally sat me down and said, “Just goddamn write about it,” and I’d start writing stories about lovesick men orbiting women indifferent or suddenly out of love with them. They would be the first really decent stories I’d written, the ones where things fell together. But Anna and I would have no more moments, no close nights or private almosts, and I still wouldn’t entirely understand for a couple more years, not until I was sitting at a table at her wedding reception and got the whole story, how and when and where she had met the man of her dreams and things had come together for her. And I would, ludicrously and egotistically, feel better. Fate had simply caught her.

But that night I stared in Anna’s eyes and she stared into mine, when there was a spark or something lovely and wonderful, and I chickened out, wussed out, turned tail and fled. She finally announced bedtime and saw me out the door, still smiling, and I drove into the mountains, across a pass once known for eating pilgrims and freezing armies, to reach the airport. It was snowing at higher elevation, highway covered in half-frozen slush. I stopped at an exit well before the height of the climb, pulled into the lot of one of those Western gas stations made to look converted from a pioneer cabin, and called my mother, two hours ahead of me, to tell her I wasn’t sure I’d make it, let her know where I was, and then after a wavery moment called Anna. I’m not sure what I thought I would say, what would come of it. Maybe I’d have gone back down the mountain, met her on the porch, kissed her passionately or shyly or deeply or slowly or somehow, somehow. But she didn’t answer. I didn’t leave a message, and she didn’t call back later, when she woke, or after. We played Scrabble through the holidays, me sitting in my parents’ driveway to catch the neighbors’ wi-fi, but there were few words otherwise. Flashing orange lights cut up the road, headed higher, and I hurried back to follow a salt truck, its scraper blade fountaining a column of icy mess off onto the shoulder, all the way to the leveling of the pass. On the downhill slope a small town opened up, low and narrow beneath the buildup of the highway and the mountain peaks hemming us in. All the houses and old storefronts and church steeples grew lighter and gray and full of edges as I coasted down through them, safer for the moment, and the sun began to climb over our shoulders and make everything clear.


Marvin Shackelford is the author of Tall Tales from the Ladies’ Auxiliary (stories, March 2022), Endless Building (poems), and a volume of flash forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. His work has, or soon will have, appeared in The Kenyon Review, West Branch, Permafrost, New Ohio Review and elsewhere. He resides, quietly, in Southern Middle Tennessee.



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