“Then what should it sound like?” Eliot asks. The swivel chair hisses as he stands.
“Don’t’ be like this.” Claire shifts to the edge of their burnt orange couch. “Its not as if—”
“You’re stepping out on me?” Eliot is still in hospital scrubs after his thirty-hour shift. He paces across the frayed rug to the mirror crowning the gas fireplace. He tries not to look at her. When the side of her mouth gets that semi-annoyed hook he always feels how his mother made him feel: Oversensitive, and precious because of it.
“Let me finish. Can you do that?”
He nods, glancing at her through the mirror. She’s leaning forward.
“I love you,” she says.
He shakes his head.
“What?” she asks.
“That just sounds like—” but he doesn’t finish. Like you’re making up for something.
Two years ago he’d been engaged to a woman. Her business dinners ran late, and later. Her boss. Afterwards, to the other interns, to his mother, to his father—to everyone—he said it’s for the best and better to find out now then after the fact. He made a point to ask out a nurse just a week later to prove to everyone he was fine, which—as his mother and step-mother both pointed out—only proved the opposite.
“I’m not Steph,” she says.
He kisses his teeth and turns around. “Who said you were?” Sure, they’d agreed to never let past relationships dictate the present, but that was like trying to define love. And, anyways, if they were going to talk about Steph, why not talk about how his parents had spent a decade in matrimony before his father went on a business trip and some woman in the hotel bar smiled? Within a week, boxes were stacked on the lawn and the oil stain in the driveway from his father’s pretentious Buick was all that was left of him. Then, when Eliot went to suburban Tucson to visit, his father was tan and his teeth had been whitened and he’d lost a bunch of weight and Eliot couldn’t decide which was worse: that his father left, or that he seemed so fucking healthy now that he was gone.
Shit can change in an instant. You are under before you realize a needle has pricked your arm.
Claire removes her thick-framed glasses and rubs her eyes. “What would you like me to say? It wasn’t sexting.”
“He asked what you were wearing.”
“It was a joke. He’s a perv. But more importantly, he’s no one. Just some guy who lifts while I’m working. I should be offended that you’d even consider him a threat.”
“A perv? That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
“This is my work phone. Work. Phone. And anyways, do you know how many guys hit on me? Why do you think they transferred me to membership sales?”
“Such a team player.” He paces back and forth. If only he had a bigger apartment he could leave. “Just forget it.”
Claire says nothing. He looks over and her eyes are closed. She’s not casual any more. She’s fingering the engagement ring. “I didn’t mean it like this,” she says. “Honestly. He means nothing to me. We were just flirting.”
“Just.” Eliot rubs his forehead. Airbrakes whistle outside their apartment. “Don’t you understand? Put yourself in my shoes.” He sits down in the chair opposite of her.
“I know. I can see that now. I’m sorry.” She pulls her legs up beneath her. “But if you think about it, we both have people who’d try. Who will try. What matters is that you trust me.”
She stares at him. He knows what he should say.
But that word: trust is a tourniquet, something only capable of slowing the bleed. Something that by its very necessity proves the wound’s already too deep to stop on its own.
“Fine. I’ll stop,” she says. “No more flirting. Fuck, I’ll block him.”
“It’s up to you,” he says, as if now he’s the one who’s casual. He knows what he’s doing, hates it, but here he is, latex gloves suckled to his fingers, mask snug around his mouth and nose, scalpel peeled from the sterile packaging.
She leans forward, fingers somewhere near her lips. Pauses. Then she grabs her brown leather purse from the floor. “Look, I’m going for a walk. I’m going to leave my phone here.” She sets it down on the table. “Have at it. And I’m not going to be the one to decide where this goes next. You’ve already asked me, and I’ve already said yes.”
“Later.” He stares her down.
She waits there for a moment, eyes glinting. She grabs her coat from the rack next to the door and leaves.
He gets up from the chair and walks over to her phone on the coffee table. He’s standing above, a surgeon over an open heart.
Ross McMeekin’s stories appear or are forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Redivider, and PANK. He’s a weekly columnist for the Ploughshares blog, where he reviews short stories. He has been awarded fellowships from the Richard Hugo House and Jack Straw Studios.
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