Issue 35, Final Fringe

Fooling

by Rebekah Mathews Issue 34 03.25.2013

We haven’t talked to each other in four years when I start finding you on the Internet, your name linked to some big fundraiser you’re running for a local children’s shelter. I even watch a video of you on YouTube, which I discover as I’m fucking around on my phone, lying on a bench, by myself, in the middle of a softball game. My team politely rotated me out of the game, asking me if I was doing alright, because while in the outfield I kept checking my phone instead of catching fly balls. I joined the team a month ago, after years of online dating, kissing girls when I wanted to stop talking to them, then ignoring their calls and complaining to my roommate: one girl breathed out snot when she laughed, another girl was suspiciously fond of Ayn Rand. Finally, after I turned 30 and started calling myself an old maid, my roommate suggested maybe online dating was an unnatural way to meet people, saying, “I think there are other ways to find people to like.” “I’ve heard a lot of lesbians play softball,” I said.

The girls on my team pull their hair back tightly, in slick ponytails, and they wear deodorant that smells like baby powder; they fall in love with each other constantly, break up, start again. During today’s game they are chewing cinnamon gum, spitting into the dust pretending it’s tobacco. Earlier, before I was an asshole on the field, the catcher who is also the team captain offered me a piece, unwrapping it for me, crumbling up the tin foil in her fingers. I said I didn’t like cinnamon gum.

“You prefer the real thing?” she asked, smiling.

“It makes me think of that movie—you know, the one where those kids tried chewing tobacco, and they didn’t spit out it out, they swallowed it, and then they went on a roller-coaster ride, and they threw it up all over themselves.”

“Oh, Jesus,” she said. “Thanks for that image.” She put the tin foil in her pocket and chewed the piece herself. “Do you think the rest of us will throw up cinnamon gum later tonight?”

“Well, I won’t,” I said.

“No, you won’t,” she said.

Lying on my back, on the bench, I can see only clear blue sky, like I’m alone out here. If I look out of the corners of my eyes, then I can see the field—girls running and sliding, blurry, and I can’t tell which team is mine: our uniforms are royal purple and the other team’s uniforms are red-violet. I go back to my phone. I like to believe I check it so often because my mom keeps sending me updates about how my dad is doing, but I hate those texts and delete them right away.

The YouTube video of you is seven minutes long. You’re giving a presentation to an auditorium full of rich white people, with a giant projector screen behind you. In your hand you hold a little black remote control, clicking through your PowerPoints, photos of formerly abused but now much happier children who stayed at the shelter, were provided food and education and intensive therapy. You’re wearing a shorter skirt than necessary, and you’ve gained weight and cut your hair off. You must be almost 35 by now, I estimate. I lean in close to my phone to listen, but even when I hear your voice again I don’t know if I miss you as much as I thought I did. You say, “In 2011, there were nearly 6,350 confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect in our city, and for 6,350 of those children, the perpetrator was a parent.” Your voice gets momentarily hard and flat, almost angry, like it sometimes would when we were messing around—when you opened your front door and invited me into your house and I said had a bad day at work and you said, “Do you want to sit around and eat danishes and talk about your problems?” even though you didn’t have any danishes; and we had sex upstairs, not in your bedroom but in your guest room, which is when you would pretend like you were mad at me and talk to me in that kind of voice, and you would say, “Who do you think you’re fooling, acting like you’re so good?” Or at least we thought it was pretending.

Towards the end of your speech there’s a part where you screw up one of your words—child advocacy comes out sounding like child advesy. You only stumble for less than half a second, clearly terrified for less than half a second—swallowing fast, your eyes getting wider—finally correcting yourself, rushing with the rest of your sentence. I want to tell you how I always thought you were smarter than almost anyone in the world, but judging by the standing ovation at the end of your speech, you didn’t need any additional encouragement from me. You welcome onto the stage one of the social workers who runs the shelter; she’s much shorter than you, and maybe not less pretty, but at least less striking, and plainer, and is so nervous that her voice shakes. The applause then quickly dies out.

I put down my phone just in time to hear as someone’s bat makes contact with the ball, a deep thudding noise, then cheering from the bleachers. I sit up and rub my eyes in the sunlight like I’ve just woken up. We win the game. The girls on my team embrace in one giant, messy hug. I join, sort of, putting my arm around someone’s waist and leaning my cheek against her back—I have no idea who she is. Number 9 on her t-shirt.

*

Our team goes out to the bar to celebrate, and I’m in the restroom with the catcher, the girl who offered me the gum. We’re both fixing our hair in a mirror that’s covered in greasy fingerprints; right in the middle of it there’s a lipstick kiss. She pulls out her ponytail, and her hair is wavy at the bottom. Her face seems softer to me.

She says, “Not gum. I’m going to throw up beer. I think there will be some pizza in there too.”

“You’ll be okay,” I say. “Drink some water. Here, come on, I’ll buy you one.” She laughs, and I guide her out the restroom door. After you, I learned how to mirror you and got better at taking care of other people, sometimes even telling them what to do as if I knew more than them. On our first date I met you for lunch before I explained I had a job interview later in the afternoon, and you commented that my fingernails were dirty, I should wash my hands before I went; I felt like a clueless little girl who needed you to show me how to be okay. I haven’t felt that way once in four years. I bring four plastic cups full of water for the girls sitting at a high wooden table, with initials and hearts etched on its surface, and as I climb onto a stool one of the girls drunkenly admits to me, “People say that you think you’re better than everyone, but I think you’re just shy.”

I imagine you ascending the stairs of the children’s shelter, an old two-story house that is dark and crumbling; seeing a bedroom crowded with bunk beds, though even then some of the girls sleep in sleeping bags on the floor; deciding you will make it better, making it better. I drive a few of my teammates home. The girl in the passenger seat is twisting the strap of her seat belt that I buckled for her and telling me about how she and her girlfriend are going to couples therapy together, because she got molested when she was ten by her uncle, and all I can think is, like an asshole, at least she has her girlfriend with her. In my apartment, before I go to bed, I send you an email and write, I’d like to see you. In the morning you email back and say you’d like to see me too.

*

I meet you for dinner at a restaurant I had to make reservations at, that has a menu only one page long. In the middle of our table there’s a translucent vase. Inside the vase is a flame made out of glowing yellow plastic, and when I touch it, it isn’t hot. The waiter gives us a pitcher full of sparkling water. You order a beet salad, and when it arrives at our table you say you want me to try it. I say, “I don’t know if I like beets.”

“Just eat it,” you say.

So I do, reaching over my own plate with a fork. It tastes weird, and soft. I say, “I like it.”

“People say beets taste like dirt,” you say.

When I’m out of water I chew on ice cubes. You want to know what’s new with me. I list the things off. I got a promotion at my job, I got a new cat, here’s a picture of her on my phone, I play softball but I hate it. “My dad is sick.” I say it and I say, “I don’t know how to say it without sounding—”

“You don’t have to sound like anything,” you say. Your voice is hard again, reassuring me. “What’s wrong with him?”bn

“They don’t really know. He forgets some things, he thinks God is talking to him. He’s writing this book, like, he thinks it’s the next Bible or something.”

“Schizophrenia?”

“Maybe. That’s what his dad had too. My mom thinks it’s genetic, that I’ll get it too.”

“That won’t happen.”

Why not?”

“You were never very religious.”

“I was never,” I repeat. I want your dismissal for my own, the way I used to want sex with you.

You fill my empty water glass with the pitcher of sparkling water, and I say thank you, and I want to say thank you a second time but I don’t.

Unprompted, you apologize for not being a very nice person while we were together. You explain, “I think I was emotionally unavailable.” I am beginning to understand why you agreed to see me. You also apologize for lying to me. I ask, “When did you ever lie to me?” You take a deep breath and say you lied about your age; you were ten years younger than you told me. You were legally emaciated at an early age, for reasons you don’t specify, and you graduated college when you were 16, got your masters when you were 18; you started lying about your age for your job so people would take you seriously, wouldn’t ask questions about your past, and you never stopped.

I add it up in my head—that means when I was 25 years old when we were hooking up, you were only 20.

I say, “Wait, so I’m five years older than you? Does that mean I’m smarter than you?”

“No. It means you’ll die before me.”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe,” you agree.

At the end of dinner, after we’ve signed our credit card receipts, I say I miss you. You stare at me for way too long, like I’ve either disgusted you or like you want to tell me something else about yourself that for some reason you still cannot. You say, very slowly, “I’m glad we can be friends.” Outside the restaurant I hug you goodbye, keeping my chest far away from yours and patting your back, like two women might if they were coworkers and ran into each other at the mall and didn’t have anything, really, to say to the other, and mostly only wanted to finish their shopping. I drank too much water during dinner, so as soon as your back is turned, I go back into the restaurant to pee. I shut the stall, pull down my pants. Afterwards I don’t wash my hands.

*

Our softball team might win the championship. We only have two games left. As the season progressed the girls got quieter, more focused; they removed and cradled their caps in their hands, bended them and creased them with a kind of ruthlessness, forced them back onto their heads. And, watching their devotion, I got better at playing. I left my phone in my car’s glove compartment during games—my dad was getting better anyway, on new medicine, that made him sleepy, but not crazy. I learned to wait to swing the bat until it was almost too late. I once slid into first base and skinned my knees so that they bled into my pants and left rounded stains, blots the size of quarters, red that later turned brown.

At today’s practice, one of the girls brings flasks filled with orange Gatorade. I’m practicing my overhand with the catcher, who says she didn’t know I had it in me, to throw so hard. She throws back just as hard. We’re making some jokes about our teammates in love, where’s the u-haul, I’m lifting my arm again—and it happens in slow motion—when I throw the ball, at the same time, someone else is calling her name, and she turns her head, and she isn’t holding up her glove to catch, and the ball slams into her the chest, knocks her to the ground. She falls silently.

She lands on her butt; then she’s gasping for air and our teammates rush to her side, asking if she’s hurt. I think I knocked the wind out of her. I mumble an apology, keeping my distance. She’s making a noise now that sounds like laughter, but deeper and sickening to me, and I know she’s crying. I don’t just hate the sound of her crying, I hate her for crying, I want to yell at her to stop crying. Instead I stare at her, refusing to offer comfort. I am trying not to do this but I am still doing this, indulging a kind of disdain for whatever undercurrent of weakness runs beneath these girls—these girls who I know I should like. The catcher stands up and wipes off the dust that’s clinging to her thighs and ass. Her face is red. I retreat to the sidelines to take a swig of Gatorade from a flask. It tastes metallic. I keep telling myself I shouldn’t remember you, I shouldn’t use you as a point of comparison, a reason to isolate myself, any longer—I have been keeping myself inside of a memory—it was a fake one, too—you had been just as lost as anybody else, as lost as me.

Last week I wasn’t even looking for you. I was on a date, at another restaurant, not as fancy—it smelled like beer and men’s cologne inside, and the menu was six pages, one wholly dedicated to tater tots—and the local news aired on the giant TV screen behind my date’s face. She kept talking about how stressful her job was. Her boss got mad at her today for not knowing HTML. Then there you were, on the news, on the big screen, video footage of you on the front lawn of the children’s shelter, standing with two children who had escaped a drug-addicted mother. There was a young boy, maybe four or five, who stood at your side, and also an infant—you were holding the baby, saying words to her the cameras didn’t pick up. Something must have changed in me, because when I saw that, I felt an odd sort of lurch in my stomach, like panic, not about you, exactly, but concern for the baby—because you suddenly seemed so young to me—was it possible you had aged backwards inside of me, that you became 25, 20, then younger, just a teenager, barely a teenager—and I wanted to jump out of my seat and lecture you, Do you know you need to support the baby’s head, you have to hold her very carefully, here, no, okay, just let me take her instead. Like in a moment you were going to drop her. But my date was looking bored and ripping up her soggy beer-soaked coaster, so I reached underneath the table and touched her bare knee; the news went to commercial, fast-paced music fading out. Of course the baby was perfectly safe in your arms. Still I wondered what happened after the cameras stopped rolling, who took from you the baby and her brother—maybe that tiny, jumpy social worker from the recorded presentation weeks ago—you would have left the shelter, went back to your own home, found a new cause, began another fund-raising campaign—somebody else would have to put them to bed, wake them up in the morning, feed them, teach them how to love.

Rebekah Mathews

Read More

Rebekah Matthews lives in Boston and watches a lot of TV. Her stories
have appeared in such publications as Storyglossia, Smokelong
Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, and decomP. In 2012 two of her stories
were included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions, and her
chapbook Hymnal For Dirty Girls was published by Big Rodent.