My first thought when I saw Katie walk into the bar with a man was not, ‘Who’s the guy she’s with?’ Instead, I worried whether she’d think I was on a date with the woman I was talking to—and then I’d never get her back.
Katie and the man she was with stood at the door for a moment, scanning the room and unbuttoning their winter coats. Then the man parted the crowd, picking a path toward the back of the bar, through the milling people who were standing around making happy hour conversation. I hid my face from Katie in case she glanced over, but she never did.
Instead, she followed behind the man, and they sat down opposite one another with a group of friends way in the back. Immediately, every one at the table started making more noise, the conversation riotous. I could hear Katie’s laughter in the midst of the—as clear as if the sound had been directed at me.
I was on my third month of ignoring her and hadn’t yet admitted that my strategy wasn’t working. Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet figured out that she couldn’t read my mind. I was still sure she knew everything I thought and felt for her but that she ignored me just to torture me. I hadn’t yet realized that the vast majority of the self-righteous arguments I’d won against her had taken place only in my head and that she was unaware of how I had twisted things.
What she had once told me didn’t matter, even when she’d said ‘I love you,’ because I had applied my own scenario to every word she’d spoken or move she had made. To tell you the truth, to this day I cannot say the difference between what she felt at a certain time and what I imagined she felt, what her motive was or what I believed her motive to be, because I never checked in with her; instead, I had a relationship with myself, and she was a prop that I acted around.
From the stool at my end of the bar, I watched Katie and a girlfriend stand up and move up to buy a round for their table. They whispered and giggled like teenagers, oblivious to the men who invariably checked them out with a flick of an automatic eye up their invisible female legs hidden under soft dresses, taking in their waists, their breasts, their fresh faces, their curly heads of hair, each man an expert in what appealed to him, accepting or rejecting.
Holding out three drinks a piece in front of them, the women turned, and a hole opened up for them, back to their table where I couldn’t see them anymore. I was left on my bar stool in the smoke to ask myself the same question that had been nagging me for weeks: Why had I done it?
Katie appeared again at the end of the bar, passing drinks back to her table in a firemen’s brigade. There was clapping and congratulations. Someone was celebrating something.
I tossed down the rest of my beer.
“I’m outta here,” I said to the woman I’d been sitting next to, someone from work. She was staring down into her drink at the olives. She’d seen Katie come in and knew I would be leaving. Katie didn’t know anyone from my office, but they all knew her.
“Don’t worry about it,” said the woman. She didn’t even bother to look at me. She as still caught up in her martini glass at the olives when I walked out the door into the cold air.
The sky was clear, and there was no moon. Even in the light of the downtown street, I could see the stars above me like air holes in a jar.
“Hi Tom,” said a woman’s voice.
I glanced up, and there in a short skirt was Amanda, a woman I used to go home with sometimes before I met Katie. There’d never been a reason for me to try and manipulate Amanda; she’d always done exactly what I wanted her to.
“Why so blue?” she asked and snapped her gum. Her brow wrinkled, and she did a little stamping dance in the cold.
I thought about asking her home with me, not to do anything, just to talk, because I didn’t want to be alone. Behind me, however, was a plate glass window with the smoke and noise from the bar on the other side. I knew the people were watching me, maybe even Katie, or someone she knew who would tell her, so I just said, “Oh, I’m all right.”
Then I turned and moved away in the cold—just sadly enough so that if Katie were looking, she’d know I wasn’t all right. I was miserable.
That night I just walked around. I’m forty-one, older, meaning ‘This is a college town.’ I went to school here and stayed, like a lot of others. Some of us own businesses or student rental properties, sometimes both, while others I met twenty years ago are starting to flounder; they either still drink like they did in college, or they haven’t figured out how to make money. I run into them at happy hour and buy them a beer, and I never ask them how they’re doing. I don’t want to know.
Then there are those people like me who have the material side together. We know how to make our way in the world, but inside ourselves we’re a mess; we’re six-year-old reactionaries. We never grew up, and the world is pushing us, dragging and kicking our feet, into emotional adulthood. At least I don’t look like I’m falling apart, though the ones who have been here for as long as I have can probably figure it out.
So I knew what I was in for when I sat down next to Harry on the courthouse steps; we’d been friends since I moved to town. He was wearing only a sweater and a jean jacket, no gloves, though it was very cold. I pretended not to notice that perhaps he didn’t own a winter coat. If he wanted a coat, I told myself, he could surely come up with the money. The Salvation Army sells good used coats for five bucks. After all, every once in awhile, whenever he feels like it, Harry works as a carpenter. When he’s unemployed and coatless, it’s by choice.
“Hey, Tommy,” Harry said. He rose up off his behind a little and pulled out a section of the newspaper he was sitting on so I could slide it beneath me.
“Don’t want to get hemorrhoids,” he said.
“I already got them,” I said and pulled my jacket tighter around me.
“Yeah, so do I,” said Harry. “Fucking Vietnam hemorrhoids.”
I felt a little awkward then; I hadn’t gone to Vietnam. I’d faked a back injury. Harry had come here to attend school after the war and had never left. I don’t know if he ever finished his degree, but even back then he was always around when something was happening, in the middle of something, even if it wasn’t the main show. Harry reads the New York Times and several international newspapers every day, and he attends all the city council meetings. He’s so informed, it’s annoying.
“Not much happening tonight,” he said. He placed his hands on his spread knees so that he looked like some sort of Buddha. “It’s too cold.”
“I just saw Katie,” I offered. I watched a car full of sorority girls go by, four girls with made up hair, all staring out of windows in different directions.
Harry gave a noise that was half grunt, half chuckle.
“Well, then you be warmer than most,” he said.
I had to laugh with him. I’d met Harry because he lived up the hall from me. His room was always full of women. I don’t know if he ever slept with any or all of them because he never talked about it, but they always seemed to be having a good time, like they were great friends.
As for me, as soon as I had noticed that my sister was developing breasts, I freaked out. I saw women as entirely other world, part enemy, part desired. When I reconsider my adolescent response to the budding breasts around me, if I were to really examine that part of my life, taking into account what was happening at the time to my own body and the shock it was bringing me, I will admit that by the time I became afraid of my sister’s growing breasts, her mysterious period severing us forever in my mind, I had already invested women with much more power than they have or deserve. I have always tried to out-think them before they make a fool of me.
Because I wanted them, I thought they had power over me, every woman I’ve ever desired, especially Katie. I thought that since the inside of my brain screamed so loudly for them, they must be able to hear. That the outside world didn’t know what was happening inside me was inconceivable to me. I was grateful that women couldn’t read my mind, hear my thoughts, because they would have despised me.
There on the steps with Harry, our breath coming out white, clear snot threatening to drip from our noses, we sniffled in the cold. I sat there and tried not to think of the women I had manipulated because they hadn’t given me what I’d wanted. I’d missed whatever it was they’d had, just as I’d missed Katie. I’d fucked up, and by now in this small town even people who had never met me knew it. There were only so many men my age around.
I stood up and stamped my feet.
“I’m gone,” I told Harry.
“Later,” he said.
When I left he had his hands on his knees again, looking more like an idol than the Buddha.
After Harry, I just had to run, so half a block away from him, I started to jog, little by little picking up the pace because I saw that the cross walk ahead was green for me. A little intoxicated, I felt as if I flashed through the intersection, awe inspiring, but at the end of the next block the road ended in a T, and I had to stop and catch my breath in the cold. My lungs felt seared, and I bent over and spit onto the sidewalk, saliva drooling from my lips. I hadn’t run like that in years. Before me was a fraternity house, my old one.
The week I’d met Katie, even though I was thirty-three and had been out of college for years, I officially de-pledged my fraternity and got an earring; in my mind the events are inextricably linked because they were part of my plan to get her. I shed myself, professed to be the way I thought she wanted a man to be: straightforward and principled. Recreating myself in the image I saw her reaching for herself in the midst of a marriage that was ending, I made believe in order to get her. In the end she fell in love with a man that wasn’t me.
The problem was that she believed I was real. I never gave her a chance to choose me or not: in my head I created the perfect man for her, and then I became him. As a result, I was always insecure, afraid that she’d figure me out and leave me, which she eventually did: it took me six years to make her want me, and then I lost her in three months.
Above me, a Confederate flag hung up in one of the windows of the frat house, in the room where my best friend had lived, now a rebel flag instead of the Jimi Hendrix poster I remembered. I imagined what Katie would say about the flag and wondered whether she was the person with something to celebrate back in the bar.
My crime against her had been that I pretended to be her friend when I didn’t want to be her friend at all. I wanted to be her lover, I wanted her to need me more than she had ever needed anything. Pretending to be her friend was the only way I would get the reward.
Not once did I approach her without self interest, with her own good in mind. Instead, I used the trait I admired in her the most, compassion, and after all the years we’d known each other, my long-term campaign, I made her feel, for a brief moment, that she owed me something for my years of support. I made her feel grateful and guilty so she would give herself to me. It had taken me years of fixing her fuse box, bracing up her porch, diagnosing her car.
And there I was. Alone on the dark cold sidewalk in front of my old fraternity house, picking out my old room from among the many lit windows. I could hear stereos, different strains of music somehow muffled in the cold, the swollen snow-clouds pushing down upon us there on the ground, hiding the firmament.
I de-pledged my fraternity thirteen years after joining it because Katie had told me something that first week we knew each other, when she was my attorney’s brand new secretary. I was in his office a lot at the time, more than I had to be, actually, because of her, and at the end of the week I’d asked her to lunch to talk about what I’d called a “project”.
I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Who cared if she were married! I’d checked into it: everyone said he was a jerk and that eventually she’d leave him. There she was, much to my amazement, having lunch with me, open and friendly and spontaneous.
For God knows what reason, maybe because we were trying to figure out who we both knew in town, for some reason I brought up my old fraternity, and she said without blinking an eye or missing a beat, “I was raped there my freshman year.” She smiled then for my benefit, seeing the look on my face, and then she’d taken another bite of her lasagna.
Immediately I wanted to protect her; she was my wounded bird. That she might have already healed, that she didn’t need my help, never occurred to me. When she smiled that smile at me over the basket of steaming roles between us, I knew she wouldn’t be easy; she might take years.
The next day, I wrote a letter to the head council of Sigma Chi and officially withdrew from the fraternity. I called Katie that night at home and told her what I had done. Thus began our intimate friendship.
“I couldn’t be a part of them after what they did to you,” I’d said.
But I never asked her about the rape. I never found out how she had felt about it then, what she had gone through, how she was dealing with it now. What exactly had been done to her? By how many? If I’d really been interested in Katie, I would have asked—that’s what her other friends would have done. I merely acted like a coward and then told her how brave I had been. She bought my act entirely.
Inside the frat house, someone cranked up a song and the windows rattled. Alone out on the dark street, I could see to the next corner, a fluorescent-lit restaurant called The Oasis. I moved toward it, my eyes stinging in the cold, the house looming behind me like a wall I had been unable to hurdle.
There was a college kid playing the video game, flexing his legs and butt as if they somehow would help his hands respond to whatever he was trying to shoot on the screen, 1001 Aliens or an Inner City Drug Lord, Commando Joe and his Lost Squadron.
I sat there in my booth, waiting for my foaming cup of cocoa to cool, watching his gyrations, listening to him bang the machine’s bells and whistles. Katie hated video games. She loved slot machines, though, but only for about two bucks worth of nickels, and then she’d be bored. She quit investing soon unless there was a payoff; she was healthy.
Which had made me unable to believe that out of all the men in the world, she had picked me. I watched the college kid play his video game, and I realized that never once in the whole time that I knew Katie, never once did I say to myself, ‘Why not me?’ I’m good enough.’ Because I didn’t believe I was good enough.
“Shit!” said the college kid. He slapped his hand against the side of the video machine, then left the restaurant without looking back, heaving open the glass door and letting it slam shut behind him. Once he got outside, however, he stood there with his hands in his pockets as if he didn’t know where to go, imploding. He and I were doing the same thing on a Friday night: killing time.
I had recently developed the tendency to just sit somewhere and go so far deep inside myself, into a memory, a fantasy, a feeling, that the rest of the world disappeared. People would call my name or wave to me, and I wouldn’t see them. When I caught myself like that, mulling too heavily, going too far away, it frightened me; I’d never been like that before.
I’d always projected an image, not collapsed inward. But lately in the deep pool protected by my breast bone, something unpleasant was stirring, rising, a great monster that I don’t want to confront.
To calm myself, to force the beast back down, I earned to close my eyes and imagine what I look like from another person’s viewpoint, say from the other side of the plate glass window. From the vantage point of someone, for instance, standing on the lit sidewalk outside, breathing in the cold.
It’s always worked for me before, but that night I saw only my clothes sitting there in the booth, a plaid flannel shirt inside a green L.L. Bean anorak, the cocoa still steaming before me. But I couldn’t see the person inside the flannel shirt, just a face that was going soft, pink from the cold.
Terrified, I gulped down the rest of the hot chocolate and left the restaurant.
Outside I had to run again, make the pool that was opening up inside of me disappear. I crossed the street and jogged past the math building, through the parking lot, and down toward the golf course. I wanted to run forever, so I made my pace slow and steady, my eyes watering in the cold. I wiped my cheeks, afraid anyone who saw me would think I was crying. I crunched over the gravel to the cart path, and soon I was in complete darkness under the trees, jogging, jogging in the cold, the last street light far behind me.
It was pitiful what I’d done, how I’d tricked Katie into sleeping with me. I did this dramatic thing one night soon after her divorce. All the listening I’d done, waiting for the marriage to fail: I was beginning to resent it, that she would talk about the most intimate details of her life and not realize that I was listening only because I wanted to be with her, I wanted her to love me.
After months of listening as lawyers settled the details, my dogged devotion and my constant attention were demanding recompense. I didn’t really care what she felt, why she’d married in the first place. In fact, she’d been talking amazedly on for at first weeks and then months about her life, working up to her divorce, reconsidering the decisions she had made, all her her mistakes. She was reevaluating herself then, facing herself, and I missed most of it because I wasn’t listening—I had been pretending to listen. At that point all that interested me was what I wanted.
Things weren’t going fast enough for me, so I began to get sharp with her, little by little. As the divorce went on and then was over, I tried to undermine her newly discovered confidence. I twisted everything she said just enough before I sent it back to her, making her believe that all she was dreaming of doing now that she was free, all she had done to pay her dues, all the growth she had accomplished not to make the same mistake again, all THAT was nothing more than innate selfishness.
But I loved her anyway, I told her that night. Indeed, for awhile, for a few months, I had her convinced that perhaps I was the only healthy man that ever would, or could, love her.
I can’t remember how I’d put it to her, but suddenly she was crying, and then I was taking off her clothes.
I was embarrassed by the memory of it, running there in the darkness. Even with no one to see me, I was ashamed of myself. I huffed and puffed, dragging in air, gasping with each footfall. At the other end of the golf course, I stumbled up a rise and found myself on the bike path that ran beside the frozen river. A bridge floated in lights two miles or so away.
She had been grateful to me, convinced I was the only one who understood her. She wondered that it had taken her so long to realize that I, her dear friend, was the one man who would be strong enough to let her be Katie, have enough confidence to let her be the selfish self that she was.
I had convinced her I was strong.
The bridge and its lights bounced closer and closer to me in the darkness. A stitch in my side throbbed like some evil trying to burst out of me.
“Yes,” she had said that night, and then opened up like a flower in my palm.
After what happened with the mailbox, I just stopped talking to her. Snap, like that. I didn’t answer the messages she left, or when I picked up the phone and it was her, I’d be short, caustic, judgmental. ‘I’ll show her,’ I thought. ‘I’ll grind it into her.’
But she never came running. She just turned her interests elsewhere. I don’t even know if I hurt her. All I have is what is fabricated by my imagination, my plot gone awry.
And now how do I go back, unless I admit everything? Because she hasn’t come to me. As far as I can see, her life hasn’t stopped for a moment, her line’s always busy, there’s always a car visiting her drive, her lights are always all on or all off, nothing in between.
I stumbled up the path out of the darkness below the bridge and leaned against the concrete wall, my eyes closed, breathing in the orange air from the street lights. It was so cold I hadn’t even broken a sweat, and my lungs felt hot and fuzzy inside. A car went by, and when I opened my eyes, I saw a tattered sign up on the concrete wall, stuck there with duct tape, right near the entrance to the bike path so that all could read in thick, angry letters: ‘A woman was raped under this bridge,’ left undoubtedly by some angry young female with a grudge.
That feeling rose again in my chest, and another car whizzed by. I began to walk back toward the bar again, feeling like I had been accused of something.
“She’s still here!” the bartender yelled across the bar to me. He slapped a Red Horse down and listened to a girl behind me order while I dug out my money.
“Keep the change,” I told him, and he hustled off to the cash register without looking at me again. He paid and tossed the tip into his jar, then set up a line of glasses to be filled. He dropped ice into them one by one from between his cupped palms.
Katie was still there. I drank as much as I could in one breath. When I put the bottle back on the bar, I saw that it was half-empty. Who was the guy she was with, anyway? I drank from my bottle again, got jostled, and a little beer spilled down my front. It didn’t matter who he was, I told myself. He wasn’t me. I set the bottle down on the bar.
“Another,” I said. I lay a twenty out, and when the bartender brought me a new beer, he splay the extra bills out in a fan before me but kept the coins without telling me.
“Cheeky bastard,” Katie would have said.
There was about a week there, the week of the mailbox, the beginning of the end, when I lived at Katie’s house. I went home only to change my clothes. It was a classic case of the dream come true, but during that week of living there I realized how much her phone rang and how many of her calls were from men. It seemed to me that she made plans to meet men every where, a cup of coffee here, lunch there. After a few days of listening to her make plans and watching her zip off to do her thing while I was supposed to be sprinting off to do my own, I got as rigid as a corpse.
She was doing it, I decided, seeing so many other men, seeing so many other PEOPLE, just to bother me, just to make me feel inadequate. I read that motive into every word she spoke, a twisted filter on the world, and I began to get the way I most hate myself to be: mean-spirited, bitter.
I would wake up in the night in her bed beside her and hate her because she made me suffer so. Then I’d wake her up for sex.
By the end of the week, I had convinced myself that I was her fool, a laughing stock, that she had complete control over me and every time she met one of these men, he was a potential lover. Her unfaithfulness was a matter of time.
But I never asked her, I never checked in.
The bar was getting crowded. When I looked own at my hands, I saw that I’d finished my beer. I signaled for another, and three blades of the fan that was spread out before me on the bar disappeared into the cash register.
The end had begun with the thing in the mailbox.
I’d been standing on the sidewalk in front of her house, watching for her to be back from a run. She was with another man, someone she’d been exercising with since she’d left her husband—‘a friend,’ she had called him. I saw them rounding the corner together and disappearing behind the side of a parked van to come into view again up the road. Then they split off from one another, he signaling goodbye and spurting down another street. She returned his final wave, slowing down to a trot and then a walk, breathing easily, as if her run had been effortless. When she saw me, she smiled, stopped, and shook out her legs.
“Would you check the mail?” she had asked.
I wasn’t thinking about the mail when I reached my hand in there. I was looking at her, hating it that she had been with another man. I was churning inside, thinking that she’d told me that she loved me only once, weeks before. She saw me as a fool, her patsy, plaything to do whatever she wanted with.
Instead of grabbing a pile of letters, my hand had wrapped around a long bumpy thing, and I yanked it out of the mailbox and got it away from me as fast as I could, throwing it into the yew bushes beside us, my skin crawling as if I had been holding onto something obscene. My heart was pounding—how twisted was that?: I’d felt like I had another man’s dick in my hand and that she had humiliated me.
“God damn you!!!” I shouted at her.
Katie’s brow wrinkled as she stood there in the road, watching me.
“What’s with you?” she asked. “I left that brush at Julie’s the other day, and she’s returning it.” She got down on her hands and knees and crawled between the two bushes, her butt in the air. After a moment she backed out, holding the brush by its thick handle. She stood and wiped it up and down her thigh, absentmindedly checking the bristles now and then.
But I never saw her use the brush again. It just sat on her kitchen counter after she’d brought it in, the bristles gathering dust. Eventually the brush was gone, probably thrown away.
What was I supposed to say to her about it? That I’d reached into her mailbox and thought I’d pulled out some other man’s penis? After that, I could hardly speak to her, convinced that she could read my mind, see right through the grey matter of my brain and down into my evil heart. I was mean to her, and I dropped out of her life.
‘I’ll show her,’ I’d said to myself. The last time I’d talked to her, I’d done a cheap imitation of her over the phone and made her cry.
I sat there at the bar, feeling sick instead of drunk. Wherever Katie was, whoever she was with, I knew she was having fun; she’d finally learned how. The problem was mine and mine alone. I still couldn’t bring myself to apologize.
So I went home in the cold alone, back to my well furnished, comfortable dwelling that took me ten years to restore, that still has no woman to live inside it. If flowers go into a vase, it’s because I put them there.
Sandra Kolankiewicz’s work has appeared widely, most recently in New World Writing, BlazeVox, Gargoyle, Fifth Wednesday, Prick of the Spindle, Per Contra, Prairie Schooner, Appalachian Heritage, and Pif.
Turning Inside Out won the Black River Prize at Black Lawrence Press. Finishing Line Press published The Way You Will Go. Blue Eyes Don’t Cry won the Hackney Award for the Novel. “Lost in Transition” is souls lost to drug addiction.
She lives with her family Appalachian Ohio.
The Thing in the Mailbox is read by Todd Burge. To learn more about Todd, please visit http://www.toddburge.com.
Anna Korsun is a composer and performer.
Born in Donetsk on 20 March 1986, she graduated from P. I. Tchaikovsky National Academy of Music in Kiev and Hochschule fuer Musik und Theater Muenchen under Prof. Moritz Eggert.
Anna took part in workshops of ensemble Richerche, J. Appleton, Gaudeamus music week, P. Dusapin, S. Bhagwati, Aventa ensemble, H. Lachenmann, Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart.
Anna was artist-in-residence of Schloss Solitude 2014-2015 and Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris 2014.
She is the winner of Gaudeamus Music Prize 2014, laureate of international composition competitions such as Neue Toene, MUSLAB Mexico 2014, 8. pre-art and Harald Genzmer. In 2014, Anna received the Director’s Choice Award in Boston Metro Opera, and in 2012, she won Leonhard und Ida Wolf-Gedaechtnispreise in Munich. In 201, she received a commission for a new chamber piece from Kulturkreis Gasteig.
Anna has taken part as a composer and performer in various concert series and festivals, such as International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt, ISCM 2014, Warsaw Autumn, Musikfest der MGNM, Lange Nacht der Musik, Junge Solisten, Sound Walk/Sound Garden 2012, Days of Ukrainian Music in Poland, Premiers of Seasons, Kievmusikfest, Youth Forum, Gogolfest, Tax Free, Exposition XXI.
Among performers of her music are Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, ensemble mosaik, AskoSchoenberg, Looptail, Camerata Silesia, eNsemble ProArte, Feodor Lednyov, VocalLab, Ensemble Oktopus, Moritz Eggert, Natalia Pschenitschnikova, Marij van Gorkom, Ensemble Nostri Temporis. Her music is broadcasted on Duch Radio Monalisa, Polish Radio Two, Duch National Radio, France Musique, Antena 2, Relevant Tones, Hildegard to Hildegard, Concertzender.
Anna is co-organizer and participant of concert cycle of vocal music 6+1, organ music Ereignishorizont and organizer and participant of concert cycle Evening of Low Music.
The Flexible Persona was founded in 2013. We are an independent home for emerging and established writers and poets.