Signal

Fiction
Stephanie Lenz


Gaudy strips peel alternately under the August sun. Middle of a drought and I’m contemplating a yellowing billboard of two intertwined advertisements, one for cellular service, the other for cigarettes. A rivulet of sweat traces my spine. Tranquility of a dark, false pool, broken by splashes of bright foam. Two perfect worlds. I stare, trying to figure out which image stripped to reveal the other.

Half of it is some obnoxiously cheerful, under-fed blonde, her flawlessly tanned arms encircling the six-pack abdomen of the Jet Ski’s Ken-doll driver. The other half consists of concentric, nested rings on the surface of deep blue water. Reflective. Not-quite-cooled glass. Tenuous. Too dark to be transparent.

Matt’s no Ken doll, I smile into the rearview mirror. Then again, you’re doing this for yourself, not for him. He’s your friend, nothing more. Memories of our heart to heart in the dorm laundry room catch in my throat. Never will be. Platonic. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be happy.

So I wasn’t just kidding myself? When I got on that plane? I dig through my purse and target the vanilla SPF15 lip balm stick. I really wasn’t happy? It wasn’t just an excuse? I’m not just bored?

“Well, that’s what you get,” I say aloud to my reflection. “You married Gary because you didn’t know what else to do with your life.” Snap. The black plastic cap hugs the end of the tube. I hate hearing it aloud, but I picked up the habit of scolding myself to long ago to curb it now.

“You went from being somebody’s daughter to somebody’s wife. It was smart to do this before you were somebody’s mom,” my voice mingles with the slightly smoky rental car smell and fills my head. “Better to come here and take the chance than stay there and never know.”

Why? He didn’t beat you. He didn’t intentionally hurt you. He wasn’t addicted to drugs or booze. Just his job. That damned job. You were the problem, not Gary. Not his job. Not those precious three hours a night you got with him while he sorted mail, ate supper, surfed the Net and finally fell asleep with his cold feet on your lap. All the money you needed. Anything you wanted. You could’ve had a Jet Ski, just like Barbie up there. “But you’d have ridden it yourself,” my voice full of ice. All by yourself.

“Time away. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I shudder at the cliché. “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder,” I repeat with a light laugh. It was Matt’s joke, not mine, and an old one. “Not that it matters,” I chuckle. We take a joke, hammer it into the ground until it’s flush, then grind it in with our heels. We always have. I couldn’t remember the last time Gary’d laughed aloud.

You’re abandoning him, I scold, concentrating on the traffic light, making a conscious effort not to see the smiling Jet Ski/cigarette girl. “Like he didn’t abandon me? He was only in the house. He was never really there.”

But you gave up. “I got tired. I can’t live on Valium and water alone.” Matt would like that one. “Besides, this doesn’t have to be permanent. We just need some time.”

You need some time. In truth, you can’t leave Matt alone. You want to forget that you don’t know the day-to-dayness of Matt anymore. It could be worse than Gary. Much worse. At least Gary has some interest in you. He used to anyway. Both of them are deep water. At least you know Gary’s ebbs and flows.

“I thought I knew,” I barely whisper over the talk radio program. “It’s the riptide I couldn’t navigate. In either of them.” In front of me, a few cars speed through the intersection under an amber light. Traffic starts turning left from the lane beside me. Last light before Matt’s house. He seemed thrilled I was coming to see him again. I won’t let him see my luggage. The monogram of my initial entwined around that “G.” Seemingly inextricable.

“We can go fishing,” Matt had said when I called from the airport. “Fishing” was a reference to a day in college we spent skipping class and skipping pebbles across the slow-moving campus river. Matt dropped out the next year; I transferred.

“I’ll do anything,” I said swallowing my daily diazepam with as much saliva as I could muster. “Anything you want.”

His laughter cooled. “Are you all right?”

“Will you be home tonight?”

“Um, yeah. I can be there. What time?”

“Soon as possible.”

“Okay. I can be there by seven. Unless you want to go to Publix with me?”

“I’d love to go to Publix.”

“Feeling homesick? Or just missing my smiling face?”

“Both.” I smiled as my luggage shimmered through tears I couldn’t call happy or sad.

“Okay. Six then. You remember how to get there?”

“See you then.”

“Okay, see ya.”

When she asked, I told the bored clerk at the car rental counter that I needed directions to downtown. Dreamily, she wrote my directions upside down and left out the exit number I knew I would’ve needed to get to the city’s heart. I loaded the car and idled in the airport parking garage, inhaling the false coolness of the Pontiac’s air conditioning, until five o’clock.

So here I wait, 45 minutes later, tapping my French manicure against the leather-wrapped steering wheel, anticipating that green light, seething at Barbie and Ken on their waxed Jet-Ski-Built-For-Two. That snapshot we consumers are allowed to witness of their plastic, imagined lives, interrupted by long, deckled strips of a rippling pool.

So that’s the lie, is it? That two-dimensional airbrushed splash? Or the water rings? So smooth and even, captured during those few seconds when only a single drop disturbed the surface.

The arrow turns yellow and, keeping a foot on the brake, I shift out of park. A single drop. A single action disrupts the evenness, the perfect, the stillness and reflection of that dark, glassy water. I have only a moment more to stare, wondering which was the top, which was the bigger lie, which illusion I wanted to buy into. The cool, dark, even ripples or the light splash of foam.

Green light.

pencil

Stephanie can be reached at baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.

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