Giving In

Posted on 25 September 2009

Owen’s nursing a tiny cup of espresso. He’s added brown sugar, five bags full. But he doesn’t drink. It’s the grainy darkness he’s hooked on, the bittersweet fragrance.

He met a woman named Sophie when he was young. She never wanted children or a life.

“I hate feeding,” she told him. “Children need feeding.”

“I’ll feed them,” Owen said, but she just laughed.

“So what’s the point of us?” Owen pleaded.

“Silly,” said Sophie, “the point is not giving in. Not doing the worst thing.”

The worst thing was breeding.

It was Sophie who kept him honest, kept him strong, kept him from walking through doors he didn’t believe in. Sometimes he felt so desperate to be happy, instinct could drag him anywhere it wanted. But Sophie was too beautiful to lose over a small matter of genes being passed on. Immortality for atheists.

Immortality. Owen wonders as he fiddles with his coffee, stirring it again with a tiny spoon. Odd that he’s still wondering about this. He heard about a boy, a two year old, who remembered having a past life as a pilot. Remembered impossible details. His parents, devout Christians, were easily, too easily persuaded. Owen grimaces. A brief unbearable pity fills his chest, he’s not certain if for them or for himself.

It’s becoming less and less possible for him to separate fiction from reality, to register facts. Everything is a tangle: perceptions, memories, hopes, illusions, fears. Most of all, fears.

It’s midsummer. Hot. The breeze smells of drying grass and rotting fruit, and just a whiff of something more disturbing. Melting animal matter. Pigeons flutter beside his table like large gray moths drawn to the fires of decay.

Would any of it have been different if Sophie had stayed? Nothing changes, Sophie liked to say. Sure the first time–breathing, drinking, eating, loving–feels like a burst of creation, feels like freedom. After that, the pattern becomes clear. You realize you can sleepwalk through your life. Your awake, alert presence isn’t required.

Incorruptible as gold, lovely Sophie. Made her plans in secret and carried through. Or maybe it was an accident, after all. A misstep in the darkness, in the rain.

Owen scrubs at his eyes with a napkin, then crumples it and pushes it into a pocket. Too personal to leave for the waiter.

A woman strolls by carrying a newborn. Fresh pink limbs. Blood swiftly flowing, bright and clean. Comfortable upside down. Arms and legs stretched out like a frog. The woman’s face transformed, transfigured with love.

He glances at his watch. Ellen’s on time. He sees her unfolding herself from an ancient Fiat.

The first time they were together, she took her clothes off. Every single thing. Her flesh was blurry, soft, like pictures made from sand that have lost their edges.

“I’m forty,” she said humbly.

Owen startled himself by thinking, not too late.

He didn’t strip naked, not completely. He left his underwear on till the last moment.

She stared at his tattoos.

“Spiders and roses,” she grinned. “That reminds me of the things my children paint.”

Owen raised an eyebrow.

“Old maid teacher,” she said.

Maybe we get what we wish for, Owen thinks, but not in the way we plan it or imagine.


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