fiction by Talia Varoglu
He was sitting on the sidewalk. Slouched against a parking meter, inanimate, like the fingers of god had simply plucked him after the fall and deposited him here. He wore a torn flannel shirt under two mismatched jackets that lacked zippers; stockinged toes poked out of the crumbling mesh of someone else’s old running shoes. The wool cap that used to be red but was now muddy-dark with filth pushed his coarse hair down onto his forehead, crinkling the skin above his eyes like paper and making him look considerably older than he probably was. The landscape of his face looked carved by substance abuse. He had the hands of a carpenter.
It was about four in the afternoon when I encountered him on the way home from some diner that I don’t particularly remember. He gazed up at me with camera lens eyes when he heard my approaching footsteps, rattled the tin can at his feet and asked, with that homeless lilt that all city folk are accustomed to, if I could spare some change.
I felt no desire to spare any change for this nonhuman, so I still don’t know what possessed me to sit down next to him. One moment I was pretending not to notice him, but I found myself on the rain-damp cement, legs crossed as in meditation with my coat zipped up to my breasts so that I wouldn’t have to suck in my gut. I said nothing, just sat there among the cigarette butts, staring at my fingernails and picking away dry skin from my cuticles.
Our silence splintered.
“Do you wanna fight.”
He said it casually, like it was perfectly normal to want to fight an unassuming young woman.
“Sorry.” I unbuckled my legs to stand.
He shuffled to his feet and clung to my forearm with remarkable strength. “Wait.” His eyes were backlit by desire; I felt I had awoken a corpse. “Just try.”
We started off slowly, burner barely lit. We faced each other in the shade of the storefronts, shoulders squared and feet newly planted on the sidewalk—these roots were delicate, we had yet to become a spectacle. Pedestrians passed us without noticing anything peculiar, ears stopped with headphones, blocked by cell phones barking frantic demands to get home and do the laundry or have that paperwork done by tomorrow night, damnit. Miracles like stable employment in short supply. The traffic of everyday life drifted by as he glared at me and asked, “How could you?” His cap pinched his brow, a landscape shifting into sadness, clay being molded by invisible fingertips.
“How could I what?”
“In the fourth grade when I told you I loved you, you kicked me in the shin and then ran to the swing set and laughed about me with your friends. How could you do that to me?”
I didn’t know what to say but it didn’t matter because he kept talking. He blamed me for the time two football players beat him up in high school, and for the F he got in his seventh grade math class. He blamed me for being his best friend in college and for moving away to start a new life on the other side of the country, for never bothering to call him or write him letters. He blamed me for the time his mom yelled at him when he accidentally dropped and shattered her favorite coffee mug, and he blamed me for the forest fire that burned his home in Colorado to the ground.
He aimed his insults like darts and his face seemed smoothed with youth, a redefinition of growth. So when he paused, I mounted the moment and announced that it was his fault that my dog Buster was hit by a car and killed when I was seven, and that I had cried myself to sleep for weeks because bad breath and that rhythmic snoring no longer guarded the foot of my bed. It was his fault that my favourite high school teacher was fired because of budget cuts and ended up moving out of state to another school, it was his fault that my car had gotten a flat tire on the side of the road in the rain last week, and it was his fault that James Matheson told all his friends he had slept with me in the ninth grade, when he actually hadn’t.
Somewhere a pot of water was being brought to a boil.
The abuse escalated until we could refrain from climax no longer and we released, trembling. We let demons fly from our throats, from behind our eyes, from the bowels of our despair. We cursed each other and spewed profanities. We blamed each other for all the meaningless trauma branded into our consciousness by bad dreams and flashbacks, layer upon layer of forced accountability accumulating like sediment, a new earth in fast-forward.
His gaze made me criminal and victim, crucifier and crucified. Tears rolled in tracks down his chin, the flood dripping onto his beard and leaving behind wasteland trenches of sticky grime. He begged me to tell him why I had taken everything from him and left him defenseless on a street corner, scraping together money each night for a slice of pizza and a bottle of whiskey. He blamed me for his wife’s miscarriage, and he blamed me for the nearly empty bottle of sleeping pills he found next to the bathtub a month later.
I made space in my heart for his pain by vomiting my own burdens at his broken frame. I blamed him for my grandfather’s heroin addiction, and for the way he had screamed at his daughters and the spiders he thought he saw all over the glowing linoleum kitchen floor the day we had to take him to the hospital. I blamed him for raping me that night when I was sixteen, for telling me he loved me and then leaving me bleeding in an electrical shed.
“Why did you stop me from killing myself?” His veins bulged tightly beneath the leather of his throat. “Why would you make my life miserable and then force me to endure the pain instead of letting me die?”
A crowd gathered to watch us from the other side of the road, leaving our block of sidewalk vacant, a glass house for the two of us to shatter together in our misery, throwing insults like stones. He blamed me for everything that had led him to this life of wretchedness and destitution, and I blamed him for everything that I’d always blamed myself for. I was responsible for the time his uncle hit him and for his repeatedly broken heart. He was responsible for my vulnerability, for the mistakes like tattoos buried under my skin.
The anguish was too much. I told him I would kill him, and he roared that he hated me. He heaved his entire being at me: body, mind, soul, and pain. We fell to the earth—a rockslide, a tragedy. We rolled off the spit-stained sidewalk into the street. He pinned me to the asphalt and I beat his chest and we screamed at each other until our voices abandoned us with our torture. Someone finally engaged a cell phone and called the police, and it didn’t matter. We were oblivious to the outside world, a planet of our own, blinded by our loathing for each other, for all the things we had and had not done.
We traded our burdens and coughed insults like blood until the hate dissipated and we could wound and be wounded no more. Eventually we collapsed into each other’s arms and wept. I sobbed into the fold of his jacket and felt his tears and mucus on my neck. We embraced each other and let everything else go, ribs bruised, palms scraped.
He held me there for an eternity, for thirty seconds, for three days; when I was finally able to whisper my thanks into his ear, we released each other and rose, not bothering to brush the extra dirt from our clothing. He wiped his eyes and returned to his parking meter, retrieving the tin cup we had kicked over in our passion and collecting the scattered coins that now decorated the pavement.
The police arrived as I began my walk home. I didn’t bother to look back and see if he was okay. The sun was setting. My dreams that night were peaceful.