E
Jul/Aug 2005 fiction

Instead

by Randall Brown


Kate would rub chopsticks to take off the extra wood. Seth would fake the rubbing part, and Kate would accuse him of not really trying. Seth wanted to build a house in Montana, telling Kate that she could get a horse and that she was very good with chopsticks. Kate said she always thought ponies were baby horses but they aren't. Kate said good thing they made the rice so sticky; Seth—rice sticking to sleeves, pants, and even socks—kept eying the spoon.

"Go 'head," Kate would say, "If that's what you want."

He struggled on with the chopsticks.

And then came Monday night—the nights Seth always worked late—and Seth's cell phone called Kate by accident and she heard this. A woman's voice. "You are going to have to tell her. We can't keep doing this if you don't tell her." The background noise: forks clicking plates, murmurs of conversations, a crash of glass.

"I know, I know," Seth said.

Kate wanted anger, but instead she found buoyancy; instead, she jumped up and down on the bed rather than making it. She couldn't wait to tell Seth that he could have the woman in the restaurant. She gulped the air, like a fish on a bicycle. And then there was Seth.

"I know," she said. She still stood on the bed, bobbing on the bedsheets.

"I know, too," he said. It must have been all over him, like the rice. That she knew too—unexpected—not at all how he had prepared for the moment. It would come in the middle of nothing, take breath away. But Kate seemed already out of breath and he couldn't remember that he should be happy; he felt awkward.

"I'm ready," he said. "To tell you something."

Oh, here it came, Kate must have thought—only it didn't. Seth told her instead about his clandestine therapy meetings, his paralyzing anxiety when it came to making his feelings concrete, how his therapist, Lacey, ended up in a restaurant with him—and he practiced again and again telling her he loved her and that he wanted her, not just then, but forever.

Now he felt odd, as if Lacey should be here. That was practice, habituation and exposure exercises for the real thing; instead, those dinners with Lacey felt real, her pretending to listen, to care. Sometimes she spun in her chair for no reason. She drank water with a straw.

"But why?" Kate asked. "Why me?"

"When you rubbed the chopsticks, I thought I saw sparks."

"You didn't, Seth. You just wanted to."

"No. I did."

"I heard your cell phone. I thought you were having an affair."

"Oh," he said. That's what sucked her air away—his not having an affair—anyone could see that.

"I'm so sorry, Seth. Just. I can't explain it. I heard and my first thought was, Yippee."

"Yippee, huh?"

"You never reach for the spoon, Seth. Even though you want to."

Seth hadn't associated yet, still felt more not there than present. "I did see sparks," he said. "And smoke. The tiniest puff."

Not really. Instead, pieces of rice, sticking then falling, looking once so like sparks, like smoke, a glimpse of something, then nothing.

 

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