The novel and Elly. Late that afternoon, just as you’ve achieved a burst of several paragraphs, you hear her characteristic soft tap at the door, a trochee followed by an iamb. Metrics in action. Continuing the motif, your pulse quickens as you let her in, somehow always surprised by her long legs, slender form, and full-lipped smile. She’s carrying a large brown paper bag that she sets down on the rickety card table in your tiny kitchen. After a shake of her blonde curls, she stuffs her gloves in her coat pockets, then hangs the coat on the folding chair you’ve been writing at, revealing a short black skirt and a white silk blouse. She kicks off her half-boots, scattering dirty snow on the moss-hued carpet and revealing her bare feet, the sight of which triggers another anapestic flutter in your chest. With some relief, mingled with regret, you reflect that a picnic is one way to defer the question of sex.
“I brought a bottle of Korbel and some snacks,” she says. She crosses a few steps to the living room, then removes the ugly afghan from the equally ugly love-seat and spreads it on the floor. “I thought we could have a picnic.”
“Korbel,” you say. “Are we celebrating something?” This is a joke between you, because it’s a question you hear frequently from servers in restaurants whenever you order sparkling wine, which you generally do. No one ever asks about celebration when people order Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir, even though sparkling wine costs no more than still wine. You like Korbel’s insistence on pissing off the French by calling their serviceably-drinkable product “champagne.”
“Actually,” Elly says, “I do have something to celebrate today. I had those three new poems accepted by Eos Review You can open the bottle and get us glasses.” She takes a couple of plastic plates and knives from the bag and lays out stuff on the afghan, paté campagne, rice crackers, and a small bunch of seedless grapes.
“Wow,” you say. “I told you those three would be snapped up by someone.” Elly’s being a poet, another connection between the two of you, is an additional sore point for Petra. You peel the foil and remove the cage from the bottle, then twist out the cork with a festive pop. From a kitchen cabinet you take a couple of lowball glasses like the one you store your toothbrush in. “How about reading them aloud for me?”
“I don’t have them with me. And you’ve already heard them.” She sits gracefully on the floor. “Besides, you’ll see them in print soon enough.” She gestures beside her. “Sit. I don’t have a lot of time. I need to drop Bobby and Tommy at Ed’s in a couple of hours.”
You sit. There’s no longer any love lost between Elly and her ex, who achieved that status with head-spinning speed after he confessed to an affair, now a long-term relationship, with a woman in his office. “I told him to move out that day,” she said, recounting the sequence that led to what she called her “zipper” divorce. “What a feeling of relief that was.”
You pour Korbel for both of you, realizing as you do that this lovely talented woman won’t put up indefinitely with your Hamlet-like dithering. She certainly won’t be drowning herself in a brook for the likes of you, however much you presume on her patience. Ophelia she isn’t. In short, she may want you, for reasons best known to herself, but she doesn’t actually need you. Petra, on the other hand, does need you, and these twin realizations cause a constriction in your chest, or your throat, or somewhere. You wash it down by draining your wine in one long swallow.
Elly does the same with hers. She sets down her glass and, looking steadily into your eyes, slowly unbuttons her silk blouse. She’s not wearing a bra. You breathe deeply. You never do get to the paté campagne.
Arnold Johnston's poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and translations have appeared widely in literary journals and anthologies. His plays, and others written in collaboration with his wife, Deborah Ann Percy, have won over 300 productions and readings, and they’ve written, co-written, edited, or translated over twenty books. Arnie’s latest projects are The Infernal Now (poetry, Kelsay Books, 2022); Where We’re Going, Where We’ve Been, (poetry, FutureCycle Press, 2020); Swept Away (novel, Atmosphere Press, 2021), and Mr. Robert Monkey Returns to New York (a collaborative children's book with Debby, Brandylane Publishers, 2021). A performer-singer, Arnie has played many solo concerts and over 100 roles on stage, screen, and radio. He was chairman of the English Department (1997-2007) and taught for many years at Western Michigan University.