BY NELS CHALLINOR
Copyright is held by the author.
YES, AND the way he pronounced Penelope with three syllables like cantaloupe. Fresh fruit that breaks inside your mouth and dribbles down your chin, sticky for days afterwards. She remembers picking seeds and fibers from her teeth at the Orinda Country Club pool with her tongue through dull metal braces.
And the tight white denim jeans he had on were so like Paul Newman’s in the dirt bike racing scene in Sometimes a Great Notion, the movie to which she nightly pawed at herself at twelve, learning, yearning for a man like Hank Stamper. She yearned for a man like that, a man from the North. This man, she would find out later, was from the North but the wrong North: the North of ivy and red-brick walk-ups, not Douglass Fir and slick, dark stones licked by beating waves. But him so like Paul Newman with those blue eyes that flitted about her body devilishly. He was a devil, a rogue, impetuous like a child. Like the young boy who had once mispronounced her name in grade school, erupting the class into wild and cacophonic laughter. So unlike, for he was not a clown, was deadly serious as illness or fathers or ill fathers, so familiar to her. He felt so familiar brushing up against her midsection with a tan arm when passing a drink to someone else, fleshy white underneath like a fish slithering through cold and familiar waters, the water already beginning to break inside her. He could open her waters with a single touch.
Introductions brought them together around a low coffee table strewn with beer cans and ashtrays. Marriage, trying to get marriage out of her brain and coming back up, resurfacing. Trying to get it out like trying to remove a vital organ while still alive.
The laughing, head-thrown-back cackling of mirth and new friends filled the air. The mirth passed from person to person around the strewn coffee table above which the lights shaded low and dark this strange now-not-stranger’s first face for her. For her. For you, his eyes seemed to say without lips moving. They spoke to her in the longing forlorn way he looked up over the cards to some game they were playing that she couldn’t make sense of but he seemed to know innately. Not love, not lust, not curious, not nothing. Beautiful he was in the braided lamplight over the drinks and the smoke and the cards, she remembers, beautiful.
Pass, who’s turn is it? You? No, you? Is it me? It’s you. Who? Penelope pronounced with three syllables like cantaloupe. So daring to mispronounce after proper introduction. It was intoxicating to be forgotten immediately after making herself known to him. Marriage, this now-not-stranger, was he married? He blew smoke across the table in big puffs that obscured the space between them, shaking her resolve to know him. She didn’t want to, didn’t need this, another man, another one, another marriage. Marriage, she remembers.
But the no-winking no-nonsense way he looked at her without saying anything. She loved being there in that moment, held in steely blue cold-crusted eyes like diamonds glinting in the overhead light. Then the game wrapped up and the people sat back talking the no-talk that follows such games when everyone should be an adult and should know what to talk about, but still so young all of them. After all, all after or during their first marriages of which there will be so many. Marriage was repulsive to her then.
But, she remembers, a little thing. When she arrived and the moon hung overhead big and bloated like an egg over the griddle streets, she stood with the true stranger in white denim pants. True, for she had not known him then and had not known that he would be coming inside with her. The two of them the only bodies in the swaying liquid cold of the December evening. Thinking in those moments not of marriage, not of beautiful, not of nothing. Not thinking. Drinking. Drinking in the sight of a pensive man looking up. The way he held his cigarette between thumb and forefinger like pinching a delicate flower. She pictured the gardenias he could one day pick for her. She pictured putting them behind her ear, tucking them up into the blonde waves. She pictured the life above the two of them as the sky turned. He had not seen her, had not met her, but was there for her. For her. And she had only to accept the unwanted, uninvited intrusion of this stranger’s body in her life. She had only to accept it.
Was there a choice? Did she have a choice? Him, making her question these and many other. Him, complicating the delicate balance of her now jaded world with his presence. Him just looking up, pinching his smoke, with no notice of her. Him, making her question marriage being so like a trap and a trial and a procession of days. Him, seeming like a story without end, and an asker of questions with no words. Or with one word. The right word pronounced wrongly. Penelope, like cantaloupe. Yes.
Nels Challinor is a writer, musician, and teacher from the Pacific Northwest of the United States. His writing has appeared in The Wells Street Journal, Visual Verse, and Brain Mill Press’s Ab Terra 2020 story collection and is forthcoming in Water Dragon Publishing’s The Future’s So Bright collection. Nels is also the co-founder and editor of Great Ape, a literary magazine for absurdist humour. To read more of Nels’ work, visit nelschallinor.com.