The Just Write Short Story Challenge of 2013 continues with this offering. I broke my own rule and edited one I’d drafted some time ago. I think it’s appropriate, though, since my friend who inspired the story has now returned from Liberia. Your comments are appreciated. Please let me know what you think.
Dominique laid another tightly folded shirt into the suitcase. “Twenty-two,” she said softly to herself.
“Here,” Roman said, hoisting a full basket of dried laundry onto the bed next to the suitcase. The covers fell away from the pillows, created lumps, made the basket lean unevenly as though it might spill. He held the basket’s rims tightly, shimmied it to flatten the folds of comforter beneath it. Then released his grip and stepped back.
“Thanks,” Dominique said. Folded another shirt, pressed it into the suitcase. “Twenty-three.”
He lingered at her elbow. Waited.
She scratched 23 on the page next to the line item “30 shirts.” Then she turned to him. “What?”
He shrugged, but it wasn’t real. He didn’t really not know what to say. So much simmering beyond his tight lips, sizzling on his tongue. He swallowed.
Their eyes met. Large, brown, wide eyes on her narrow face. Squinting, lid-shaded green ones on his own face.
“What?” she asked again.
He looked away, his posture resigned.
“Thanks,” she said, clasping the laundry basket’s edge and shifting it. Reached inside, she pulled out another shirt, folded it tightly, laid it into the suitcase.
He hadn’t moved. Hadn’t left.
Another shirt. Folded. Laid. “Twenty four,” she said softly.
She could hear him breathing, not huffing or grunting, just breathing. Sharing the air with her. The room felt warm, late-day light streaming through the blinds, heating the carpet. The cat laid under the window, stretched luxuriously in the heat.
Dominique looked up at the ceiling fan, its blades still. She leaned toward the wall behind her, flipped the switch up. The blades began to rotate, a low whir as the fan came to life. The wind between them muted the sound of his breathing.
He sat on the edge of the bed, next to the basket. Out of her peripheral view now, forcing her to look at him as she reached into the basket for another shirt. Shake. Fold. Press into the suitcase. Twenty-five.
“I’m reconsidering,” he said.
“You’re sad,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “Aren’t you?”
She stopped, looked at him, said, “no.”
“Okay. I get it. Huge opportunity. Big deal.”
“Really big deal,” she said.
“Yes,” he agreed, “it’s a really big deal. It’s just…”
“It’s just a year.”
“Yes,” she said, and smiled. The smile pulled her lips away from her teeth, stretched across the entire bottom half of her face, made her look like a child. “I like it said that way.”
“It’s just a year,” he repeated. But he didn’t smile.
There’s a life here. Work and friends and afternoons at the beach and nights on the boat. There’s a life here. Her life is here. He didn’t say these things. He’d been repeating them silently since he said them three days ago. She knew them.
Another shirt. Folded, pressed into the suitcase. “Twenty-six.”
He folded his arms over his stomach, hugged himself. Watched her moving. Those long, thin arms, long skinny fingers, elbow bones, wrist bones, the slight jingle of a bracelet, brown skin freckled and aged by the sun, thick blondish hair on her forearm. She reached into the basket. He caught her hand.
“It’s just a year,” he said.
She looked at him. He was looking at her hand: pulling it toward him, turning it over, palm up. He laid his cheek in her palm. She closed it around the curve of his face, tilted her head.
“They’re lucky to have you,” he murmured, kissing her hand.
“It’s Liberia. They’re not lucky at all.”
“It’s hot there.”
“So fucking hot.” She had rehearsed that phrase, knew it, meant to prepare for it.
“What are you packing?”
“Two shirts a day. Pretty sure my deodorant won’t help.”
He laughed, still holding her hand against his face.
She tugged gently and he released it. She took another shirt out of the basket. Folded. Pressed into the suitcase. Twenty-seven.
No questions. When the opportunity came up she had no questions. Didn’t ask where she would live, who she would know, how she would eat or send bills to the States. Didn’t ask if she needed to know French or if there was wifi. Didn’t ask if he could come.
Still sitting, slumping now, next to the basket, he was in her way a bit. She kept on with the shirts, expected him to move when she needed the space for folding pants. She didn’t push him away.
“Not sad,” he said.
“No, it’s only a year.”
“Not sad,” he said again, “gonna be great. You’re great.”
She grinned again. He didn’t. “Thanks,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” Roman replied, softly.
Another shirt. Folded, pressed into the suitcase, the stack rose over the edge now. “Twenty-eight,” she said.
He moved behind her, trailed his hand against her hip, across her back, stepped into the sunlight streaming through the blinds. Reached his hands over his head, bending at the elbow to avoid touching the fan. Arched his back, stretched. A yawn. A grunt.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said, “just stiff.”
She arched a brow, glanced at his pants, “yeah?” Stuck her thumb under the strap of her tank top like she’d pull it off. Just tell her to.
He shook his head, laughed a bit, “no.”
A shrug, hands back to folding. Pushing the desire away. “Too bad. Gonna be a while.”
“Only a year,” he said.
“Should it be?” she asked suddenly.
“You could, you know, with someone.” She had rehearsed those words, too. But they still hurt.
“No,” Roman replied, then again, looking her in the eye, “no.”
“It’s okay. I’d understand.” She looked away.
She looked up. Their eyes met. Hers brown, wide, brave. His narrow, glazed with tears. “Okay,” she said, “Good to know.”
“There isn’t anyone else,” he said, suddenly angry, he hadn’t rehearsed that conversation. Hadn’t thought about that conversation. Didn’t like it. “It’s only you. I’ll wait.”
“And you’ll come for Christmas,” she said.
He laughed, “multiple times hopefully,” he said and now he grinned.
She laughed, too, threw a balled-up pair of socks at him. He caught it, tossed it back into the pile.
Roman flopped onto the bed, stepping over the cat, but startling her anyway, the bed shambles puffing around him, letting out the air they’d trapped with the laundry basket shifting. He climbed up to the pillow, tucked his hand under it. Snuggled into it, breathed in deeply.
“A bed to yourself,” she said.
“For a whole year,” he said.
“You’ll forget how to share.”
He pressed his face into her pillow.
She folded shirts and counted.
There are criminals here. Sex crimes here. Victims here. They needed her as much as those people in Liberia. There was work to do here. She had been making a difference. She had been changing peoples’ lives. She was needed. He didn’t say these things again. But their echoes filled his head.
It didn’t matter how many criminals she got off the street, more arrived. No matter how many victims she found justice for, another young girl came in the next day and the next and the next. She was swimming against the tide and she was tired. It didn’t feel like progress. At least she didn’t think it did. She couldn’t remember what progress felt like.
Another shirt. Fold. Press. “Thirty,” she said softly. The stack leaned a little. She broke it halfway, positioned the top half in a second pile next to the first. Pushed them both against the edge of the suitcase. She pulled the laundry basket toward her.
“Didn’t know you had thirty shirts,” he said.
The ceiling fan tinked and wobbled above them. He turned onto his back to watch it. The blades spun, the air washed over the room. The fan’s two chains shivered, clinking together occasionally, but mostly gyrating in separate orbits.
Roman put his hands behind his head. His elbows made butterfly wings and he pressed them in and out, shifting, getting comfortable.
She glanced at him, stretched the length of their bed. She imagined climbing on top of him, one leg on either side of his hips. She imagined sitting back into his crotch. She smiled to herself.
He turned as if he’d heard her lips part.
“Naughty thoughts?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Oh, come on, I’m here. I’m laid out. Love me,” he said.
Roman turned onto his side, propped his head on his palm and ran the other hand down the length of his leg, finger tips extended. His shorts bunched on his thighs, his knees stacked, his legs tanned with days of sailing, the hair bleached from the sun.
She looked back to his face, his eyes closed, his lips kissed toward her. Then he opened one eye to see if she was looking. Closed it quickly and kissed again.
She laughed. “Very sexy.”
“How can you resist?” he agreed, “how can you leave?”
Huge opportunity. Important work. Break the rut. We’re not moving forward. This will make my resume. People need help. I’m the perfect candidate. No strings, remember? Unsaid already said things floating like pasta to the top of the boiling water. Done. Cooked through.
She reached into the basket, pulled a pair of pants toward her. Looked back at him.
He was still looking at her. The question had been real.
“Why are you doing that?”
“Pouting,” she said.
He fell onto his back again, stared at the ceiling fan, hands folded on his belly. She couldn’t see herself straddling him now. The question had taken the air out of the room. She reached up and tugged on one of the fan’s chains, three pulls, slow, stop, high. The fan whirred to a higher speed.
She glanced at the cat who had resumed her languorous stretch in the light. Turned to the legal pad, scratched through “30 Shirts.” Finished folding the first pair of pants, rolled them tightly, laid them in. “One.”
The tinkling of the fan’s chains. The rock of it against its base. The sound of linen, then rayon folded, rolled, stacked in the suitcase. The rattle of the suitcase’s zipper. Making room. Making it fit.
After a while he got bored, sat up, dropped his legs over the other side of the bed. She glanced up, saw his back, shoulders hunched. Wondered if he was crying. Waited.
He stood, turned back around, reached for the basket, pulled a pair of pants out of the basket.
“You should take skirts,” he said. “Cooler.”
“So my legs can sweat easier? Slide against each other?”
“That slick slapping sound when you walk?” he asked. “Sure.”
He smiled at her.
“Is it hot all year?”
“Yes,” she said. Then, quieter, “yes.”
She stacked another pair of pants. He stretched the pair he’d rolled out to her. She took it, met his eyes. Green behind the crinkles of thirty five years, squints like he was laughing, thick lashes she had always expected to peel off whole like falsies.
The right thing to do. A chance to make a difference. A chance to build her resume. A chance for them to see how they would survive. If they would survive. He had work here. Things to do. No other women. Not for him. Just her. They were only 35. They had plenty of time for suburbs and minivans. He would wait.
“Thanks,” she said.
“I’m proud of you,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
He took another pair of pants. She did, too. Fold, roll, place in the suitcase. Push to the side. Make room.