SHE IS NOT FROM LITTLE ROCK.
Here on business, she tells him. In the morning she will drive a rented car through dying towns until she reaches Bentonville.
They have a museum there, James says. One of the biggest museums in the country. Right in the middle of what used to be nothing.
One, he repeats. He is dark, see-sawed with the ink black lines of his own arms lifting and lowering. Grease smudges his fingers; he’s washed them three times since leaving the factory. He wipes them on his jeans again. It’s so much like him it annoys her.
What about you? Shannon leans closer. Her hair swings, dark and straight. It’s a different look for her. Where are you from? she says. What do you do?
McGhee. Came up here for school. The dirt drawls out of his mouth. He leans back in the chair, straddling the seat. Amber lamplight and whiskey-brown bottles and the glow of the exit sign shade between them. She doesn’t ask him how work was today. She doesn’t want him asking how her day went.
The loose shirt hangs off of her shoulders. She takes another drink; she is drinking hard. You’re lying about school, she says. She’d said the same thing when she asked for his name.
He taps his fingers against the top of the table.
I’ve got nothing to do tonight, she tells him.
He says, You could do something with your husband.
She likes the dark in his eyes. She ignores the hurt. Her earrings swing, the small hoops glint silver. My husband is a liar, she says. Folding her arms over the table, she leans forward. What do you do here, in Little Rock?
His beer is gone. He folds his hands in front of his lips, teethes the edge of his thumb. He works. She knows what he is thinking. He works hard all day. He goes home and he makes dinner. He runs. He tries to talk to his wife. She calls him a liar for telling the truth and calls him a liar for telling lies. He gets bored by this. The dirt is thick now. Dragging himself up, he stands over her. His shadow is the deep dark on the wild side of the levee.
They don’t go home.
In the motel, Shannon fumbles, pretending to be shy-fingered with his belt. You look pretty in blue, she says. Her mouth burns the words down. She loves and she hates his wholeness.
I don’t have off Wednesday anymore, he finishes tugging the belt off for her. It is dark in the room. He pulls his shirt off. Drops it down.
She knows he works too hard. She does not want to think about this now. Folding her arms over her chest, she waits. At his sides, his fingers curl, fragile and unsure.
His hesitation means she has won.
He pushes her against the wall.
He looms, beautiful and monstrous. He takes her hips, he pushes her skirt up to the tops of her thighs. Maybe he will push her skin away with his hands too.
He takes her mouth. He doesn’t kiss her slow and soft. She is glad he remembers.
The emptiness in their stomachs slide tight together, the little she’s eaten for lunch lurches in the rot of shots and beers. He touches the hem of her shirt. It’s gone, the doctors told them after her surgery. They will keep testing, but for now, she is healthy. It’s not gone, they don’t know, Shannon has told James. She hasn’t told him she feels it, alive, growing inside of her.
He lifts her. She doesn’t wrap her legs around him. He doesn’t shove and push. Slowly, carefully, the way she doesn’t want him to, he wraps his fingers into her shirt.
She palms at him, drags her nails down his shoulders. In the morning, at work, her scratches will sting. He will like it until he thinks too much about it. With the machines turning the wires, in the noise and the heat of the factory, he will think about how she feels. He will feel sorry for her. Maybe, when he comes in, quiet and tired, to sit at the counter to take his boots off, he is thinking: Why are we here. He doesn’t say, you can feel like you felt before.
Her friends say she can feel like she felt before. They smile at her. They sit in restaurants talking together about the same things. They look at the menus. They cross their legs. She crosses her legs too. For a moment then, sometimes, all of that sameness makes her feel like herself. It makes her feel like them.
James sets her down, he draws his stomach and his hips and his thighs away from her.
He says her name.
She does not answer. Tonight she wants to cry. She wants to scream. She only cries when they are strangers. Not the stranger she loved when they got married. Not the new kind of stranger he became in the doctor’s office. She wants the stranger he can become in the dark, the unyielding shape of a man who won’t tell her she is beautiful because he hurts for her. She wants the man who hates himself because he cannot see her the same even while he says he loves her the same.
She knows he does not understand.
She does not understand either.
Bending his elbows, he lowers his head, he thumbs her red cheeks. Her make-up smudges. Muffled together, they move in the quiet of half hitches, in staggered, broken inches. Her thighs open. He presses. Their lips touch.
Please begs between them.
He talks in half words, hushed against her mouth like he is trying to talk into the space of before now. He says small things about beautiful, small things about not alone, small things about forever.
She does not answer. He is inside of her. They are inside of each other. The silent tangle roots deep and rises, clear-cut but alive.
Do you want me to get the implants? she whispers through the dark of their lips, to see what he will say. He is careful with his answers. I want what you want, he has said before.
I want what you want, he says now.
Meridith Burchiel grew up in Portland, finding her way in the world through line and shape, making her own map from the inside out. She graduated from Scripps College in Claremont with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and has found new roots in Los Angeles
Dawn Bailey is a writer who lives and works in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. She loves writing, trees, writing about trees, and drinking sweet tea