Short Story: A seven-letter word
Muliebral innocent. Seven letters across, an “e” filling the fourth square. I tapped my pen laboriously as the waitress refilled my cup, the steam making transparent gyrations into invisibility. My wife was late. She was never late. I was wondering whether or not I should pause in passing the time and begin to worry instead.
It was April and the ground was covered in snow, a pristine, postcard-beautiful covering, perfectly obscuring the horizon so that land and sky shared a single shade. A divine fuck-you from Father Winter.
Muliebral innocent. Seven letters across. An “e” filling the fourth square.
Nothing came to mind. Except words that were unwanted and the wrong number of letters. Cold. Loneliness. I watched the snow swirl across the parking lot in dry, glittering gusts. Glacial. A seven-letter word meaning ice sheets. Despair. A seven-letter word meaning without hope.
She was on her way to lay another seven-letter word between us, an anguished word. I knew it, had known it, but I had done nothing to stop it. Divorce. A seven-letter word for…the end.
That’s what I was thinking when the door swung open with a startled ring of the bell. A boy — or was he a man? — blew into the entrance way, stomped his feet to shake away the snow, and took a seat at the counter. His hair was thick, glossy, and he was without a coat. He wore only a sweatshirt and dark-washed jeans. He moved with enraged grace.
The waitress set a menu down in front of him and he mumbled something in reply. She took the menu away. He shifted in his seat, swinging long legs to the opposite side and into my view where I saw that he wore high heels, a deep shade of purple, and his feet, which he now reached down to grasp between his long-fingered hands, were an unnatural color. A small satchel slung over his shoulder dropped heavily to the ground, a victim of gravity as he bent over his frozen extremities.
I only realized I was staring when he paused, suddenly, and snapped his head in my direction, his gaze grabbing mine with the same rage of his entrance. Defiant. A seven-letter word for what the fuck are you looking at?
I blushed, something I haven’t done in decades, that I can recall, and looked back down at the pen in my hand, the tattered newsprint beneath my coffee cup.
My god, his eyes. He could have been 16 or 30, only a whisper of stubble and unnaturally blue eyes, Paul Newman blue. Glacial, meaning icily unsympathetic.
How had I missed this walking across the barren parking lot?
And then he was sitting across from me, the satchel landing with an aggressive thud against the booth’s wall, coming to rest on the red vinyl. He slid onto the bench, perched his forearms on the edge of the table, folded his longer-fingered hands and leaned forward.
“Hey there, papa,” he cooed, swaying gently in his seat then returning to cat-like stillness, reminding me of the steam from moments before, and also a snake. “Watcha workin’ on?”
He was chewing gum. It was purple, the same color as his heels, and I could see the faded candy between perfect white teeth in not so much of a smile as a Cheshire cat grin.
Here you go, the waitress was saying, setting down a cup of coffee before him and walking away. Did she not see how he was taking over my booth, leaning toward me, his shoulders spiking sharply beneath the thinning fabric of the sweatshirt, a college sweatshirt, I could see that now, the collegiate letters fading, nearly unrecognizable, waitress, come back, please, can I get another booth?
Why was my heart beating so fast?
“Buy me this cup-a-joe?” he said, unblinking, staring, daring me to break the gaze, get up, shout, punch him, do something.
I was stunned. “Sure,” I mumbled, weakly, and he leaned back with satisfaction, stretching long, thin arms along the edge of the booth, Jim Morrison style.
“So. What’s your story?”
“I’m waiting for my wife.”
Damn. What business is it of his? Dullard. A seven-letter word for idiot.
“In this shit-hole diner? What for?”
“What’s your story?” My senses were stilling, my dignity drawing sentry.
“I’m on an adventure,” he said, smiling broadly. He blew a bubble. It popped with a snap and I saw the waitress watching us. She looked away when our eyes met. He took the gum out of his mouth and crushed it into a napkin, set it aside, and wrapped his hands around the mug. There was dirt beneath his fingernails, in the creases of his knuckles.
“You’re not really dressed for an adventure,” I said.
“I got my party shoes on!” he exclaimed. A moment slithered by.
“Where are you headed?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“Some other place.” And then we were silent, sipping coffee in a shit-hole diner, watching the spring snow.
His left hand left the mug and came to rest on the back of mine. Reflexively I snatched my hand away, sat up, slamming myself against the back of the booth. In doing so I knocked over an untouched glass of water, full, ice-cold, and its contents splashed across the table and dribbled over the edge, staining my thighs, crotch.
“Jesus!” I snapped, launching myself from the booth.
He started laughing then. “Turn it into wine, daddy!” He giggled.
“Damn,” I muttered, and started toward the toilets. I stopped half way, turned and grabbed my things from the booth. I wanted to take them with me, keep them in sight. The boy stopped laughing, almost looked hurt. I looked him square in the face as I collected my coat and bag, and I wondered what he saw reflected there.
In the men’s room I dried off as best I could with paper napkins, then stepped into a stall. As I was finishing, I heard the door open, the lock turn, bolt slide into place. I zipped up quickly, swung open the stall and found the boy leaning against the door, his pose sensual, his hands tucked behind him, his weight on one leg, the other angled, his foot poised delicately on the toe.
Those fucking fuck-me high-heeled shoes.
Was he a boy or a man? Or some lanky-limbed, androgynous fashion model, strung out, transgendered, who the hell knows…Beguile, a seven letter word for what is wrong with me?
I insolently washed my hands.
“You think I’m going to steal from you?” he asked.
I didn’t answer. I dried my hands, picked up my things and turned toward the door. He would have to let me pass. As I turned to face him he came toward me, quickly, dexterous, and took my face into his hands. He kissed me.
Coffee. Artificial grape. Cigarettes. His tongue pushed open my lips and darted against mine.
My arms, engaged with my coat and bag, dropped these possessions and I grabbed at his wrists, began pulling away. He resisted, gripping my jaw, kissing me harder, and against all logic, all prior experience, I felt a swell from below, a sudden rise, and this reaction terrified me.
I wrenched myself from him, shoving him hard against the door. Someone started knocking, saying I’ve gotta piss. I was panting, heat rising off my face, my neck, I was turning away, hiding, furious with my body’s treachery. The boy was crying now, sliding to the ground, his long legs neatly buckling beneath him, his butt coming to rest on top of the heels of his purple shoes, his glossy head bobbing forward into his hands, shoulders shaking, heaving. No sound and then all sound, a great intake of breath and a single wail before he stuffed his dirty fingers deep into his mouth to stifle the sorrow.
“Just a minute,” I said toward the door.
“What?” came the muffled reply, growing irritable. The doorknob jiggled.
“I said, just a minute! Use the ladies room.”
I heard an obscenity, then receding steps.
I steadied myself on the edge of the sink, then picked up my fallen things and set them aside. I took toilet paper from the stall and reached it toward him. He took the tissue, blew his nose, and did not meet my gaze.
I should leave. I nearly did. He was blocking the way but I could move him now. I started to reach for my things.
“Please stay, “ he said, reading my thoughts. “I’m sorry. I got the wrong idea…I do that sometimes…”
He looked up, his face an offering, a plea. A boy. He was a boy for sure.
Forgive. A seven-letter word for hear him out.
His ability to draw attention, to take and hold your gaze, to pin it to his purpose, was undeniable. So I sat down on the unclean floor, and I asked him for his story.
Once he started he could not stop, the words like the spring snow, falling down, twisting back up with a gust of thought, swirling like glittered dust to drive home a point. The tears drew highlights on his flushed cheeks, confusing his age further, a child in the body of a man in the prime of his life. He was at the beginning of something and at the end of something else.
Drifter, a seven letter word for movement without purpose. I knew something about that.
He showed me the tracks on his arms, the chip in his pocket. His body was nearly healed, but his soul still deeply anguished. He’d been with a lover up in Canada, but since that had run its course he was on his own, meaning random couches, strangers’ beds, and in and out of shelters though most turned him away. He was headed south to see his sister. She had a friend of a friend, someone who ran a nightclub and they were looking for new acts, maybe his was a fit.
He sang. He played piano and guitar, mostly in drag. He could dance, could mesmerize, charm men and women alike. Sometimes they rushed the stage. They reached for him, caressing his hair as he leaned down, touching his taut calves as he strode past, snatching at the hem of his skirt, yanking, revealing a polished tush adorned with a bejeweled G-string. He was wanted. He was desired, a seven-letter word for take me now. He was loved, worshipped, until he wasn’t. Until the masses turned. Until someone — men, always the men, the straight men — turned violent, frightened by their own desires, scared shitless by their wanting, by the fire of his touch, he loved straight men, why, oh why, did he always love those who found him intriguing, sexy, novel, but were forever incapable of requiting?
Tragedy. A seven-letter word for disastrous event. Typically on repeat.
Why do they never love me? he asked. Why didn’t he love me? And the tears fell into my palms, formed a seal between his skin and mine, wet my own cheeks, dampened my chest, his head pressed there, my arm encompassing his shoulders, his head, bobbing with the task, knocking gently against my chin.
I held him.
If I’d had a son, would it have felt like this?
And when the sorrow subsided, the once relentless grief had run dry, at least for that moment, he looked up and into my face, and I looked down and into his, and we kissed.
Was it sex? Paternal concern? Kinship? A seven-letter word for being close, connected. Had I fallen in love with this boy (or was he a man?) for this single moment passing simultaneously through his life and mine? All I knew was that my blood turned luminescent at the meeting of our mouths, somersaulted through my veins, igniting everything with golden fire turning magenta, growing blue-violet, rising dark orchid, until I was a child of color and light.
A kiss. Only a kiss. And then he held me.
When we left the men’s room and returned to the booth, we found my wife waiting, reading the paper, drinking coffee, a half-eaten muffin now at the edge of the table. It felt as though a lifetime had passed. The sun was shining now and a ray struck her hair, casting a halo around the back of her head.
I fumbled through an introduction, an obscure explanation, and she smiled, shook his hand and let it be, another secret between us. She seemed content, and I was unable to read her, predict what was coming when we’d find ourselves alone again. We’d been married for seventeen years, but I realized I no longer knew her.
How had that happened?
Where’s your sister? I asked him over a meal. We ordered half the menu. We ate together. It was awkward but everyone seemed to be in agreement, eager to delay whatever was coming next, the following task at hand, talking about divorce, getting back on the road. We were a mismatched lot, but amiable, finding comfort in the bizarre intersection of our lives, in plates of scrambled eggs and fruit salad, little saucers of overly crisp bacon and tattered sugar packets.
His sister lived in New York. He’d taken a detour though not by choice. Some trucker, he said, rhyming under his breath, mumbling “mother-fucker,” then stuffing another bite of pancake into his mouth. Just another infatuation that had soured. This explanation was intended to justify the high heels, but we didn’t understand, so we let the subject drop.
My wife asked questions, pulling more of his story out of him, and I heard it a second time, saw it through her eyes, maternal and feminine. She, too, was falling under his spell. I saw the shine at the back of her irises. When had I last seen that heightened glint?
And when there was nothing left to say or eat, we sat comfortably in the silence, drinking coffee and watching the falling shadows. We paid our bill and prepared to leave, my wife and I not forgetting the purpose for this derailed meeting, but silently agreeing to let the matter wait.
She had an extra coat in her car. I had no idea why and I didn’t recognize it when she brought it in, but I was grateful to her. She helped him into it, watched approvingly as he buttoned it to the top, and then she handed him sneakers. She was tall and remarkably they wore nearly the same size. They’re purple, she said, winking at him, and he laughed, for the first time a genuine laugh, a full and glorious sound rising from some guarded place that he was letting us peer into.
Then he was gone, refusing our offers of a ride, money for a taxi (no taxis out here anyway), and we stood in the frozen parking lot and watched him walk away in his new coat and shoes, the purple heels poking out of the satchel.
My wife took my hand.
I then did something I had not done for a very long time. I pulled her into my arms. I put her in that place that he had warmed, had readied for her, and I held her there. A few hundred yards away, along the shoulder of the road, he turned, knowing I would still be watching, and he waved.
I did not take my hand away from my wife’s back. I imagined that he did not mind.
“It’s ‘ingenue’,” she said.
She pushed away from me, looked into my face. “The word you couldn’t find. On the crossword. Thirteen across. I finished it for you. Ingenue.”
Yes, of course, I thought.
“I’m not leaving you,” she said.
Obliged. A seven-letter word for I don’t deserve you.
“I’ll do better,” I said.
And together we watched the boy walk out of sight.