Clara dumped the crumpled pages out of her wastepaper basket and rolled a fresh sheet into her typewriter: “False Starts”—this was the title of her story, and she seemed to be living it rather than writing it.
She typed at an old wooden ironing board cut down to the height of a desk. “Woman’s work,” she told Jeremy, “repurposed from the iron to the ironic.”
Jeremy’s reply was predictable. “There’s more than one way to smooth out the wrinkles.” Innuendo ad infinitum.
The wastepaper basket was narrow and shallow, always needed emptying. One day Jeremy’s picture would find itself there. For now it faced out from her window sill, the frame turned away so that his squinted eyes stared at the street.
Across the street her new neighbor came home and pulled out the flyer wedged between his doorframe and his door. It was a promo for the colorful restaurant that had opened down the block—Clara had gotten one too. Her neighbor unfolded it one-handed, awkwardly, and it fell to the ground.
As he bent to pick it up the parcel in his other arm tipped toward her. It was loosely wrapped and open at the top, and Clara could see a cluster of leaves, shiny and red, that looked like the spathes of anthurium.
She typed without looking at the keyboard. Her neighbor glanced in her direction and gave a short wave. Her story was beginning to show promise. As he turned toward his door she got up from her chair and crept deeper into the room. If he looked her way again she would seem apparitional.
He went inside. She saw movement: a terra cotta pot lowered to his window, a release of leaves spread above the rail. The sills in his house must have been deeper than the sills in her apartment. This little knowledge was all that she needed to go over and introduce herself.
He opened his door on the second rap of what she intended as a series of three. “Eugene,” he said, “but Gene among friends,” and offered her a drink.
Whatever-you’re-having turned out to be a stiff gin and tonic. Clara was conscious of drinking it too fast—the ice cubes banged and her lips felt bruised as they knocked against her teeth.
Gene raised a dark eyebrow. He seemed nearsighted. “Is that photo in your window a picture of you?”
“An old boyfriend. I ought to throw it out.”
“Significant other,” Gene said. “I always think that’s the person inside us, I mean the other person inside us, the one we don’t show.”
“Because we’re self-conscious.”
“That’s why I like to be alone.”
“Because then I can let this person out.”
Clara took a small sip of her drink. “We are getting to the nitty-gritty awfully fast.” She took another small sip. “I feel self-conscious even when no one’s around. That’s supposed to be a symptom of the overly parented, but I don’t think I was.”
“Sometimes being self-conscious means only that we’re too shy to be conscious of others.”
“Cheers, then,” Clara said, “and hurrah for hospitality.”
She took a third small sip and looked across the street to her apartment. It was hard to see the photo behind her window. Maybe Gene was not nearsighted but exceptionally farsighted. He had very nice manners and a modulated voice, was graceful in movement and elegant in poise.
He had her attention. With a subtle, almost notional gesture, he set his drink on a table next to a picture in a lacquered frame.
“Is that your sister?”
“Oh no. I’m an only child. Though I always wanted a sister.”
“I did too. Someone to share clothes with.”
“Exactly. I would have felt uncomfortable buying those things for myself.”
Clara set her drink beside his. “I borrowed my brother’s jacket at a picnic once and it could have fit two of me, plenty of room for me and someone else.”
“You and I seem much the same size.”
Clara looked again at the photo.
“Do you have a name for her?”
“Jeanette,” he said. “Let me show you the closet.”
As they moved toward the hall she saw the plant in his window. “Is that anthurium?”
“Yes! Good for you. Heart-shaped leaves, a colorful bract, and its flowers are all on the spadix.” He walked her past the sill. “Though the spike looks male, the flowers contain both sexes.”
They spent a long time in the special closet. The clothes were all to her taste, even the men’s, and he told her he hoped she would try some.
But now it was dark and she had to be going. He asked if she liked Chinese-Jamaican.
“Do you work there?”
“No, I’m clergy. But they seem to be drawing good crowds. Fusion, you know. I’ve been meaning to try it.”
“I’m willing to try it too. I wish it weren’t so late. I’m free tomorrow.”
“It’s a date then.”
Gene gave a short wave as she stepped to the street. She had to step back to let a car pass.
“Yes,” Clara said, “we’ll make it that.”
Starting to cross a second time she listened for his door at her back but did not hear it close. At her ironing board she typed out what he said. The anthurium’s flowers are poisonous if eaten. That didn’t sound promising.
She went over to the shelf beside her window and took down the floriculture book. Hermaphrodite though the anthurium may be, a sterile ban separates the male flowers from the female. This band is breached only when the sexual parts come from separate sources.
Innuendo, Carol thought, but pleasingly so, and decided to sleep on it.
Charles Hansmann has recent fiction in Crack the Spine, KYSO Flash, 82 Star Review, Serving House Journal, and Journeys 2016. He is the author of five poetry chapbooks and won the 2010 Apprentice House Chapbook Award, the 2011 Clockwise Chapbook Award, and the 2013 Willet Press Poetry Prize. His fiction, poetry, haibun and haiku have appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Austria.
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