On Virtue

Elizabeth Horneber

BG-Non-Fiction 2016

For a while, I sleep with a man from Uzbekistan, because he’s as far from the person my mother would choose for me—a Lutheran, Minnesotan farmer—as possible. We make polite conversation. He says his brother is a private investigator of murders, his favorite dish is horse meat, and his mother wants to arrange his marriage. He asks if I like Ellis Regina. I do. So does he. We listen to her as we lay together. He has a giant airbed instead of mattress and bedspring. It has a tiny hole in it—he doesn’t know where. The nights I stay over, I wake to our bodies tipped together into a great valley in the mattress. It’s not his body I mind in those moments—his is not an unpleasant body. I hate that I can’t move, hate facing then the helplessness that comes when my weight and another’s are trapping us together that way.


He brings me apples from the cafeteria. We’re both working through grad school, both as tutors. We work in separate rooms, and sometimes he’ll send me a Facebook message. I left you something in the breakroom fridge. It’s an apple. Every day, an apple. Sometimes many. An apple when I leave his apartment in the morning. An apple at work. An apple if we go for a stroll in the evening. Bitter, bruised Empires. Granny Smiths. He brings me dinner sometimes, too. Breaded fish fillets, soggy sandwiches.


This becomes the routine. I go to Rustam’s in the evening. He plays Portuguese jazz and dims the lights. He presents me gifts from the cafeteria. I dutifully eat. Sometimes he eats with me. Usually he just watches. He gives me red wine. We make small talk. Crawl onto the airbed to watch a movie. Wait thirty minutes to give the pretense credibility, at which point Rustam closes his laptop with great deliberation to say “We’ll have to finish it another time.” Then sex. He snarls, his lip rising off his gums. He messes with the music mid-thrust, his breathing heavy to the popping of the IPod’s volume being adjusted. Morning, I wake in a dip in the bed. Unless Rustam wakes to help balance the weight, I cannot leave. Without his help, I cannot move.


After a month or two of this, on a walk at night, we stop at the playground of a Catholic school. I ask him what this is, what we’re doing. I’m frustrated that no matter how much time we spend together, I feel no closer to him. We create an absurd cartoon. He says, well he really isn’t looking for anything serious right now. He just likes spending time with me. I think that means he likes the sex, or maybe he’s lonely, wonder if that’s me, if I’m lonely.

I wonder at my unplanned expression of doubt. This whole business should be fun, freeing, and I like it when he speaks Russian or Uzbek to me—I enjoy not understanding the language a man is speaking to me, because then I think he’s saying whatever I want him to say.


A poet once told me an apple is never just an apple.


The apple, in this case, does not grant new knowledge so much as it offers consolation for what I already know—that I live in a basement of centipedes, that I avoid this home because upstairs, my landlord and his sisters are having dinner, and I am not among them, am alone, though I tell myself this is by choice. This apple is swelling and filling. It’s confirmation that I am desirable, I have a future—I do associate the two. This apple is a road less traveled that I can hold. I can be sure of it, can sink my teeth in, destroy it, and know there is still more. This certainty is the surest evidence of my uncertainty. The apple is Kierkegaard, telling me across centuries that I could have been the one, I could have been seen to be believed. This apple is my mother being undone by my grateful jaw, her expectations laid to ruin, bits of her breaking between roof and tongue. It is the work of distancing myself from my body—me on an airbed with a man I barely know, staring at the ceiling, drained, waiting. All this fruit. It is virtuous, and right. Aristotle said that virtue means fulfilling your function—humanity’s function is to reason. I don’t know what a woman’s function is, but an apple’s function is to be eaten. So then, holy apples break between my unvirtuous teeth.


Rustam doesn’t matter much to me. It must be his fault. I’ve been coming around waiting for him to open, to reveal himself as desperate, the way I am. He doesn’t. I come for sandwiches and sex and nothing more. I pretend it doesn’t bother me. I pretend it’s better to have someone than no one. I am not being used (as though a woman’s function is to have a male form imposed upon it). Or I am, but I justify it, because I’m using him too.

I’m angry, and am not sure who to be angry at.


I start ignoring Rustam’s messages. Without him, I sleep more soundly. I don’t bother explaining it all to him. The apples accumulate in the fridge.

It’s only weeks later when I go to put away a yogurt for lunch that I pause to note five apples in one of the drawers. Two green, two red, the last mostly brown now. I’m about to leave them, then think better of it. A green apple today. It would be unreasonable to let it go to waste. I imagine him setting the apple in the fridge among the others, his fingers abandoning its skin. It could even be considered a tender abandonment, if I imagine it so. The apple is magnificent. I think I’ve never tasted a better apple than this one.


Elizabeth Horneber‘s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, PRISM international, Monkeybicycle, Hotel Amerika, Zone 3, and elsewhere.