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Floating on Water by Dahlia Rosenfeld

 

Dalia Rosenfeld is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Atlantic Monthly, Bellingham Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, Shenandoah, Zeek, and Moment Magazine. She currently lives with her husband and three children in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Editor's Choice (Kristin) - 2012 Raymond Carver Contest

 

Abigail is a woman, and I am a woman. To prove we are friends, she often sleeps on my couch with her toenails digging into the soft leather. In the morning, I find her sprawled out like a drunkard, one half of her immense body sagging towards the floor, the other half stuck to the couch in stubborn repose. There is never any advanced warning before she arrives: I may open the door to check for the mail and spot her walking up the steps, or a phonecall may inform me that her train has pulled into the station ten minutes early and a cab will take her the rest of the way. To prepare for her visit, I usually manage to take quick inventory of my kitchen and stow away anything that is imported, especially the Viennese marzipan hearts that I like to curl up with when I’ve had a bad day. Whatever is left over I leave to Abby’s disposal, knowing I will be the better for it after she has gone.

She has tried every diet, and each one has left her larger than the last. When Abby comes to visit, all we do is eat. If we go out and split the bill, I end up paying for three times the amount of food that is in my stomach. Usually Abby pays for dinner, and I treat for dessert. But this can be costly, too.

Abby is a woman, and I am a woman. It could be argued that Abby is more of a woman than I am. Wherever she goes she finds men to love her—or to make love to her—even if she has to go far to find them. Her last trip took her to Singapore. As a parting gift, her tour guide presented her with a porcelain box engraved  with a man and woman copulating, penis and vagina fully exposed. I am as slender as a flower; bracelets will fit over my wrists without having to open the clasp.  But I have not been loved by a man in over a year. 

The last time Abby visited she had been seeing a Moroccan, not in Morocco but in New York, where she lives. We were sitting in an Indian restaurant sharing a vegetarian thali; Abby was dressed in a skirt that revealed the width of her thighs and gave off a scent of baby powder whenever she shifted position. When the waiter came to refill our water glasses, Abby fished out a piece of ice with her lips and munched on it like a piece of hard candy. “Shakir won’t kiss me,” she said, leaning forward to keep it private. “He’ll sleep with me, but he won’t kiss me. Isn’t that fucked?”

I stared at Abby’s lips while she spoke. A small cluster of whiteheads rested above them. “I don’t get it,” I replied, unsure of the truth to my statement. “You mean he won’t initiate a kiss, or return one?”

“No, no, he actually told me ‘no kissing.’ He says that in Morocco kissing is only reserved for real love.” She rolled her eyes. “I told him that in America, fucking without kissing is called date rape.”

The waiter walked by, and I flagged him down for more ice. “So it sounds like you have a deal,” I said, trying to put a positive spin on the situation. I thought of the last man I dated, a man who craved closeness like a baby in its mother’s arms. After every physical encounter he thanked me bashfully, feeling unworthy of my affection. I finally told him that thanking me made him unworthy, and he apologized for the rest of the evening, making himself even less worthy than before.

“Deal, my ass; I love to kiss. But he’s a good cook.” As though to demonstrate, Abby plunged a spoon into a bowl of saag paneer and emptied it into her mouth.

“He cooks for you?”

Abby clarified. “He cooks for himself. I smell it on his clothing, the bastard. Lamb, apricots, cinnamon everywhere. I’m going to invite myself over soon.”

 .  .  .

I went on a walk with a friend. We sat on a bench in a dog park and watched the grass around us get trampled and shit on by canines staking out their territory. Abby had left two days before and I was still thinking about her, still puzzling over what made her presence cast a shadow in my apartment the whole time she was there. “Have you ever heard of a tree in India,” I asked Prema, who was from India, “that produces gorgeous orange blossoms but only if kicked by a beautiful woman?”

Prema looked up at the towering maple above us and shook her head. “We could use a few of those here,” she said, poking at the urine-stained trunk with a stick.

Sometimes, at unexpected moments like this one, Abby’s face will appear before my eyes and I will find myself studying it, looking desperately for a well-formed nose or long lashes or a fair complexion to make up for all that fat. When her image starts to fade, I conjure it up one more time, hoping something will jump out at me that eluded me before, like a sudden ray of sun shooting through a shifting cloud. “One of the waiters at Maharajah told me about the tree when I was eating there with a friend,” I explained. “But it was my friend he was speaking to, who is supremely overweight.”

 “I’m sure she took it as a compliment,” Prema said, pulling her long black hair into a ponytail. “If nothing else, trees are great for hiding behind.”

Two golden retrievers ran by, stirring up a cloud of dust by our feet. Though it was still early, the sky was starting to darken, separating itself from the sun that had filled it like a yolk from an egg. Soon it would rain. I thought of Abby hiding behind an umbrella, her face obscured but the legs below her miniskirt exposed, and I knew that something about the image didn’t work, that Abby never hid. When the first drop of rain fell, Prema and I got up from the bench and started for home. The two golden retrievers followed us as far as the entrance, then turned around and trotted off in the opposite direction, as though they had just remembered where they were and what they had come to do.

 .  .  .

A man at work began taking his coffee breaks at my cubicle. He stood near my right elbow with his steaming mug raised and through the vapors, appeared as some benevolent phantom trying to rouse me from a stupor I had been in for too long. We went to the movies, then out to dinner, then for coffee, a stroll through town, a stop at CVS for stamps, and back to Starbucks for a refill. Three miles at least, all told. At the end of the evening, David and I stood outside the cafe, exhausted, and I listened to him wonder outloud whether we had tried to pack too many things into our first date. “I really didn’t need those stamps,” he said, taking two books of Antique Cars out of his back pocket and offering me one of them. “And outside of work, I’m really not much of a coffee drinker.”

“Don’t apologize, I had a good time.” Without letting my fingers wander, I pushed the stamps back into David’s pocket and leaned against the brick wall of the Starbucks, trying to gauge the level of attraction I felt toward a man I had probably seen a hundred times but never noticed. Under the romantic glow of the streetlamp, we probably appeared as two young lovers loath to part, the beating of our hearts, as the last sip of latte entered our bloodstream, audible to anyone walking by. For a while we just stood there absorbing the activity around us like two apprentices learning a trade. When a bus pulled up to the curb and opened its doors, David turned to me and said, “Should we get on?” I shrugged, checked my pockets for change, and followed him up the steps. For three complete loops we sat at the very front in seats reserved for the elderly or disabled, and nobody asked us to move.

At work, I waited for a sign—a quick kiss in the kitchen, flowers sent to my cubicle, a romantic e-mail written on the job in strict violation of company rules. I thought of David as he sat one room over filing papers and recording data and tried to wish away all the awkwardness between us by anticipating the moment when our relationship would become intimate, all the words we had exchanged trying to get to know each other broken down into their most primal elements. During coffee breaks, David stood next to me and struck up conversations with complete strangers, regaling them with stories of summers spent on farms in Virginia and his mother’s homemade recipe for fertilizer. I wanted to believe the energy he expended was for my benefit and that communication through a third party was the best way for him to convey information he felt I needed to know. Over the course of three days I heard him confide to as many people that his true calling in life was to become a professional gardener.

 .  .  .

I dreamt I was fat. In my dream Prema and I were back at the park, watching the dogs and discussing transmigration. “Look at me,” I said, holding out a flabby arm. “All body and no soul. It’s disgusting.”

Prema disagreed. “Maybe it’s a sign that you’ve lived a righteous life,” she said. “You need to read more.”

When I woke up I spent an hour on-line, learning that when a soul is worthy, it becomes food before passing to a new abode. First it goes to paradise, then to the moon. From the moon, it passes to the air and descends to the earth again in the form of a fruit or a vegetable. I called Prema and asked her to explain it all to me, to tell me which fruit and which vegetable, and whether she thought I had gained weight in the last few weeks. “Transmigration is about deeds, not diets,” she said wisely. “It’s about the actions of one life affecting the next.”

“Either this guy I’m seeing is a complete loser, or I am,” I said, trying to interpret the dream for myself. “Which do you think it is?”

“Have you lived a life of sacrifice and charity?” Prema pressed on.

On our first date, standing in line at CVS, David told me that his mother’s dream for him was that he become a carpenter. “That’s probably how I ended up behind a desk, which probably isn’t even real wood,” he theorized bitterly. When I asked whether he had any dreams of his own, he mumbled something about gardening. Later he told me his mother learned to grow azaleas the size of soccer balls using feathers plucked from old pillows.

“I’ll invite him over,” I promised Prema.

 .  .  .

For our second date, David came over. He stood at the threshold of my apartment with a six-pack of beer in his hands and said “Hey” before stepping inside. I returned his greeting reluctantly, fearful of being thought of as one of the guys and not the woman I had just given cautious approval to a minute before in the bathroom mirror. “Hey. Come in,” I said, relieving him of his gift. “I was just about to take out a bottle of wine.”

Almost immediately we took refuge in another movie. From my peripheral vision, I observed David as we lay sprawled out on my futon, our eyes keeping pace with the images racing across the screen. When a love scene commenced, he started to stir, the upper part of his body shifting uneasily as if trying to slow down the forces rapidly filling his lower half. I sensed what was about to come and braced myself for it. In my imagination, I had wanted to take it slow, not to savor the experience but to ensure that the steps I had taken to make it my own did not go unnoticed: the rose water in my hair, the sage oil worked into my skin, the Chinese silk undergarments I kept wrapped in lemongrass on the top shelf of a small cedar closet. Within two minutes, David was on top of me, spurred into action by the Hollywood sex steaming up the screen and the sudden accessibility of it right next to him. The sounds in the room were rapid and resolute, like a series of shots fired from a gun, and they did not come from me.

Afterwards, he popped open a can of beer and drank it down in a few thirsty gulps. “Aren’t we supposed to do this before?” he said, licking the foam from his upper lip.

I did not even pretend to know what he was talking about. I sat up in bed, the sheet pulled up to my neck like a shroud. “Do what?”

“Imbibe.”

“Imbibe? Imbibe before what?”

 David reached over for another can. He was partially dressed again, his spent energy sealed inside his clothes like a package labeled return to sender. “You know, to get in the mood.”

The remote control to the VCR was next to me. While David and I were performing our own little drama on my bed, I had managed to turn the movie off and take control of the scene, making a conscious effort not to pay homage in any way to the actress who had so quickly worn down David’s resistance. Now I turned the movie on again in search of a new role to play, any that did not require me to continue the conversation we were having. “Do you want to finish the movie?” I said.

We finished the movie. Relaxed, David lay back and absorbed the flashes of light from the screen like a sunbather on the beach. In looking at him it was hard to tell whether he was awake or asleep or even alive at all, his body as inert as though kept under glass, a specimen for observation. At that moment, I did not especially want to study him, or the movie, or my own person, which I knew was in danger of falling into a similar state unless I took the right steps to prevent it. I stood up and stretched and said good night to the various people populating my apartment. The movie was still running, but David was falling asleep now for sure; I could see it in the drool at the corner of his mouth. With the remaining cans of beer and a lot of hot water, I went into the bathroom and took a bath.

The next morning while we were still asleep, the phone rang. Reflexively, David reached over and picked up the receiver, his hello rising from a place in his throat that was not yet ready to greet the day. There was a pause, then some more words, and by the time I had opened my eyes and determined that the stranger lying next to me was still a stranger, David was fully engaged in conversation, the phone pressed against his ear like an embrace.

“The position of the planets on my forehead?” I heard him say. Then he leaped out of bed and headed for the closet mirror. “Hold on, let me check.”

Abby is a woman, and I am a woman. When we are hungry, we both eat. But according to a simple law of physics, if we were to lie on our backs in a lake and slowly empty our lungs, she fat and I lean, she would float easily, while I would readily sink.

As he spoke, David looked out the window. The sun was shining through the trees, targeting his face like a spotlight and revealing, in shifting rays, a brightness in his eyes that bore no relationship to the light assailing them. I started to retreat, then changed my mind and stepped forward to wrest the phone from David’s hands. “I assume it’s for me?”

Abby was in a good mood. “Did you get my present?” she asked without skipping a beat.

A few days before, a package had arrived in the mail. Abby loved to send packages, especially ones containing skin care products—creams and conditioners, soaps from Scandinavia, once even a vanilla-scented chapstick formulated expressly for the lips of babies. Usually when a package arrived, it meant that another of her diets had failed and she was seeking a new path. And more often than not, at the end of the path was a man waiting for her.

Enjoy the bumblebee essence! she had written on the back of the box. It’s tons better than the jaguar drops. Those were worth shit. Inside, nestled under a bed of styrofoam, was a small vial depicting an oversized bumblebee charging through a field of flowers. For claiming one’s power as a strong and fully capable person, it said on the back label. Nurtures strength, a feeling of invincibility, and supreme confidence in one’s abilities.

“Yes, I got it,” I said. “I meant to thank you for it sooner. What’s new?”

“What’s new? I’m seeing a cop,” Abby said matter-of-factly. “A pig. But I checked, and there’s no pig essence. Nothing that even comes close. So I got him the seagull one instead, for joy of the beach. You should see the new bikini I bought.”

Instinctively, I closed my eyes. “What happened to the Moroccan?”

“Oh, he’s history. He always showed up in the middle of the night, when it was too late to do anything but screw. Then he just stopped coming and never called. I think we were having too much fun.”

I turned to David. He was putting his shoes on. I held my hand over the receiver and rasped, “Are you leaving, or going out to buy bagels?”

“Ask me about the cop,” Abby pressed on.

I sighed. “How’d you meet the cop?”

”Through an ad he put in the paper. Don’t ask me what it said. Without the bumblebee essence in my system, I never would have had the guts to respond. That’s why I’m calling, to see if you’ve tried it yet.”

David walked over to me and handed me a note. It said, I usually don’t eat breakfast.

I told Abby I’d call her back and hung up the phone. David was standing by the door, fingering a sun hat hanging on the coat rack that suddenly made me feel like buying a bikini and going to the beach. “David, before you leave, I’d like to tell you something,” I said, handing him his note back. His shoes were still untied.

“What?”

“I usually do eat breakfast.”

As though looking for evidence, he glanced in the direction of the kitchen. “Oh, sorry, I guess that didn’t occur to me.”

I bent down to help him tie his shoes. It’s just one of those things,” I said, making a double knot.

.  .  .

David and I went on a double date with Prema and her boyfriend, Raj. We met at Maharaja and took a table for four that put us within arm’s length of a statue of Kama, the Indian love-god, who as Prema would later explain, was burnt to ashes after trying to rouse the passion of the greater god, Siva. David arrived half-an-hour late, a little out of breath and disoriented, just as our appetizers were being cleared away. Instead of apologizing, he pointed to the one remaining plate on the table smeared with chutney and said, “Is that for me?”

During the main course Raj asked David and me how we met, prefacing the question with a poignant narrative describing the first time he laid eyes on Prema. “We were both shopping for spices in the back of an Indian grocery store that also sold clothing. The door of a broom closet opened and Prema came out in a purple and green sari, looking for a mirror. When the owner of the store saw me staring, he took me by the arm and stood me directly in front of Prema. ‘Here is your mirror,’ he told her, lifting my shoulders to make me stand straighter. ‘Look in it carefully, and it will tell you everything you need to know.’”

Prema turned to Raj and lifted a piece of naan from his plate. “You are such a romantic,” she teased. “But that really is how it happened, I can’t deny it.”

I looked at David and waited for him to tell, with equal passion, the story of our first encounter. But at that moment his energy was being channeled elsewhere, to the fork in his hand, mining through the heap of food on his plate as if in search of the appetizers he had missed but not forgotten about.

“We met at the office, at my desk,” I said, handing David a napkin. “David was taking a coffee break and didn’t know where to set his cup down.”

It was still early; the restaurant was just starting to fill up, young couples mostly, a few of the women in saris, their feet treading lightly on the carpet as though in memory of the scorching earth of the Indian summers they had left behind. When our drinks arrived, we drank the first few sips in silence. It was a private, reflective moment lasting about ten seconds, during which time I tried to size up my relationship with David. Sitting next to him at a table for four was not easy; if his eyes were ever on me I could only receive them sidelong, like a driver checking his rear-view mirror. When our elbows touched, it was metal on metal, extensions of the utensils in our hands crossing over to the border of our plates to reach for an errant pea or patch of rice. I thought of the bumblebee potion that Abby had sent and the accompanying brochure advertising a new hawk essence, still being studied for its effectiveness: Forseeing and knowing precisely where one isand where one is going. According to the brochure, it was the hardest essence to capture in a bottle.

The reverie was broken when the kitchen doors swung open and the waiter returned with the check. Our table was reserved for eight o’clock. After we paid, David and I escorted Prema and Raj to Raj’s car, David and Prema walking in front and Raj and I in back. While Raj and I chatted, David dove into conversation with Prema, the thrust of his words resonating in our ears like an echo off a mountain. “They’ll firm right up if you soak them in salty water,” I heard him say, forming with his hands in mid-air the shape of some indistinct vegetable from his childhood. At a blinking DON’T WALK light, he grabbed Prema’s hand and ran across. “Should we go?” Raj asked me, stepping off the curb, ready to follow. I shook my head. When we joined our dates on the other side, Prema and I traded places and we walked the rest of the way as the couples we were meant to be. At Raj’s car, David opened the passenger’s side and helped Prema in. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” I said as we watched them speed away. For a brief moment the street appeared empty; the traffic was still flowing but not as fast, the glow of headlights barely enough to illuminate our faces. “Oh, I don’t know,” David replied, leading me to the nearest Starbucks. “There’s not a woman in the world who doesn’t look good in a sari.”

 .  .  .

The weather changed, and people’s moods with it. On the subway passengers sat sealed in their raincoats, many the color of the puddles they would step in during the course of the day. I sat among them and felt my own mood change the closer I got to work; every morning my cubicle felt a little more cramped, the walls a little less flexible. When David stopped by to say hello my hands stayed at my computer, palpitating the keys like skin. If they had reached out to touch him, he might have mistaken them for a cold wind brushing against his shoulder and returned to his desk to fetch a sweater; but they didn’t reach out, even when he extended his own hands cupped around a mug of coffee that was in them. “Thanks,” I said, shaking my head politely. “You go ahead.”

During the coffee break, people were milling about the office, some completing tasks assigned to them, others creating smaller, more personal ones of their own. I saw Nicole sidling up to Steve; I saw Steve ingratiating himself with Jocelyn; I saw a woman who, for the first full month after my introduction to her, I habitually called Debbie when she wanted to be called Deborah, and who now went exclusively by “Deb.” In observing my colleagues, I wondered how many of them would find each other in some undiscovered corner of the office, and how many would continue to search for themselves in the dregs of their coffee cups, never fully realizing they were drinking instant and that their attempts were in vain.

“Do you want me to stop by later?” David asked, taking a tentative sip from his mug.

“At my desk, you mean?”

“No, at your place. We could watch a movie.”

“A movie?” I fixed his eyes on my screensaver, a school of mottled fish darting back and forth in search of a way out. “I don’t know. I’ll call you.”

I did not call David. Instead I called Abby, two weeks later. I was at the grocery store stocking up on chicken soup for a cold that would not go away. A woman brushed by me, her shopping cart empty, receiving instructions by phone on what to get for dinner. “How many?” I heard her say, bending down to remove a pebble from her running shoe. “Why do you want so many? Don’t you like the ones I make from scratch?” At one of the endless rows of cans, I took out my cell phone and dialed. Abby answered, and I got right to the point. “Anyone interesting in your life these days?”

“Me,” she replied, without having to think. “I’m having the time of my life.”

I took down three cans, then four, then six, and dropped them in my cart. “What happened to the cop?”

“The cop? You won’t believe this, but he took me to Shakespeare in the park, and from the first act, Hamlet couldn’t keep his eyes off me. I should have been the one holding up his cue cards, he forgot so many lines. Paul didn’t notice any of it; he was too busy feeding the pigeons. During intermission, I wrote Hamlet a note with my name and number and left it back stage after the performance. He was so sexy in his costume—his boots went all the way up to his knees.”

“Did he call you?”

“Never, the asshole. And neither did Paul. I left him a note too, at the station.”

At the check-out counter, I placed my items on the belt and watched the cashier scan them, soup soup soup soup soup soup. When he got to a head of lettuce, I had tossed in as an afterthought, he put it on the scale and looked up at me. “Why, that’s the biggest rutabaga I’ve ever seen!” he exclaimed, ringing it up as lettuce. I looked down at my breasts. They did not resemble rutabagas. “Abby, I’ll call you back later,” I said, suddenly vexed by everyone in the store who was not me. On the subway, I called Abby back and explained what had happened, my nose running out of control now, my tissues all used up. “Do you think it was a lewd comment, or simple vegetable humor?”

“There is nothing a man can say that is not lewd,” Abby insisted, snickering into the phone. “I’ve never even heard of a rutabaga.”

The lettuce stayed in my refrigerator for two weeks. I waited for it to wilt so I could throw it away; I waited for it to alter its form so that it would not remind me of the cashier and his comment, or David and his gardening, or Abby, who would always remain what she was, big and round and full of the failings she wanted so badly to turn into successes. On my refrigerator was a picture of David and Raj taken by Prema during our double date at Maharajah: two smiling men leaning forward, clinking glasses in silent celebration of the evening, and at the margin my elbow, bearing witness. David was handsome, I could not deny that much; he was the kind of man who would wake up in the morning to examine his chin in the mirror and end up lingering over the rest of his face. He was also the kind of man who would stand next to his girlfriend while she kicked a magical Indian tree, and then turn around just as it burst into bloom.

I took down the picture from the fridge and sealed it in an envelope.

Abby called a week later, out of breath, as though just returning from an early morning run or a three-course meal. “Thanks for the picture,” she said in a rush of air. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

It was a legitimate question. “The picture is of David,” I explained. “He’s yours if you want him. I’ll just give him your number and he’ll call. I’m sure of it.”

“Which one is David?”

I had to think for a minute, conjure up his image one last time. “The one on the left, with the blue eyes.”

Abby hesitated. “On the left? What about the one on the right?”

“Raj?”

“I’ll take him instead.”

I imagined Prema in her sari, a woman as beautiful as her man was handsome. “Raj is not available,” I said sternly. “What’s wrong with David?”

“Nothing, really. But look at his teeth,” Abby said. “Do you see how they protrude, and how the corner of his mouth folds? That’s bad news. And it doesn’t stop there. I found a wrinkle on his forehead that crosses his line of Mars. On account of that one little wrinkle—and you can only see it if you hold it up to the light—David has a good chance of meeting a violent death, and may even end up as a beggar. I would give him a chance, I really would,” she said, slowing down, “but not every man is for me. In fact, I’m seeing someone now who I’m beginning to have doubts about—Charlie. I met him at a kite-flying contest. On the surface, he’s as sweet as a lamb, but the first time we went to bed and I called him Chuck, it sent him into a rage and made him flaccid immediately. I promised never to do it again.”

I wanted to hang up the phone but instead held it closer to my ear and walked over to the balcony, letting Abby’s words pass through me and into the open air. Stepping out, I took in the scents around me, a combination of spring flowers and the exhaust of a high-powered lawnmower, three flights below. I thought of David as a boy in his mother’s garden and then as a man talking to Abby on the phone, the two of them like companion plants, one diminishing the other’s natural repelling ability as they grew together. I recalled the way David touched me in bed, his hands clambering over me like a vine, his nail-bitten fingers a far cry from the tingling brambles I wanted them to be. 

“Hey! Are you still there?” Abby called into the receiver.

I peered over the railing. The lawn was almost even now, manicured like a woman’s fingers, groomed like a man’s shaven face. I held the phone to my heart and watched the mower’s blade pass over a final patch of grass until it merged with the soil beneath it, swiftly and without effort, in silent acceptance at being part of the land.