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One of the Fighting Fish

Benjamin Roesch

“I love that you’re into vinyl,” Angie says. “I’m way into vinyl too.”

It’s our first date. She’s nervous and enthusiastic. I’m just nervous.

Resisting the urge to ask her how old she is, I confess that most of the records in my collection came not from any particular love for vinyl, but from the late Saul Rey, my father, who while dying of cancer unloaded his possessions like his life was a Labor Day garage sale. I don’t tell her that all that happened in 1989, around the time she was probably being born.

Angie asks how long I’ve lived in Burlington. About a nude in the bathroom my friend Carla painted. About the pager I wear for my job at the Rape Crisis Center. Though not about the picture of me and Jennifer on the mantle.

If the Jennifer in the picture could talk, she’d tell Angie that I push people away because deep down I think I don’t deserve love.

We were together five years. She moved out six months ago, and five months and twenty days after that I put an ad in the Women Seeking Women section of the local weekly.

I pour red wine into two deep glasses and ask her how some Roberta Flack sounds, flipping through albums.

“Roberta who?” Angie says, sipping her wine.

We have a second date. A third. A fourth. We see a film. Go for drinks. I cook her Pasta Carbonara. The first night ended only in a tentative kiss but after each subsequent, I go to sleep with the taste of her on my fingers and on my lips and the bed next to me is warm and full of her breath. Somehow, it’s all very easy. And easy is different.

I teach her to knit. To make caramelized onions for pizza. To do Sun Salutations. She gets me drunk and nearly talks me into getting a tattoo. But Angie never asks about the picture of me and Jennifer on the mantle. The only indication she gives is one night when she says, “there’s no past, there’s only present.”

I suggest a hike through the woods down to the river. “Sure. Okay,” Angie says. This is how she responds when we’re making plans. Ambivalently agreeable. “Italian sounds pretty good, if that’s what you want.” Or “A movie sounds all right.” With Jennifer it was always “I can not deal with downtown tonight.” Or “That director is such a sexist fuckhead.”

Angie makes me the Jennifer.

I change into a sports bra, lace up my hiking boots, and meet Angie at the trailhead. I reek of SPF and bug spray. My hair gel crunches when I move my Red Sox cap around. Angie is wearing cargo shorts and red Converse All Stars and a white v-neck t-shirt. Her long honey hair she leaves down and it tumbles around her face while she side-steps tree roots and hops felled branches. It makes her look blurry.

There’s a wedge of aged cheddar cheese and some homemade wheat bread and a thermos of black coffee in my backpack and we take off our socks and shoes and wade out to this boulder in the middle of the river, big enough and flat enough during a dry patch for two people to have lunch on. Out there, the water rushes around you in sunny sparkling rivulets and is clear despite its rushing and if you look hard you can make out fish on the bottom, some fighting the current and some just drifting along with it. I point them out. Angie says she’s one of the drifting fish and I’m one of the fighting fish.

I tell her my ex would have said the exact opposite thing. And that I would have agreed with her.

“I’m kind of new to this,” Angie says. “Girls, I mean. But I kind of jumped when I saw your ad. The part about life revealing exactly what we need right when we need it? It got me.”

“I’d had a little too much wine when I wrote that.”

“Well, I just thought you should know that I’ve only been with one other girl before you.”

“Oh. I don’t care about that,” I say. “Everybody’s new before they’re not.”

“It doesn’t gross you out? That I like dick too?”

“No.” Then I add, “but when you put it like that.”

Angie laughs.

“Man, I feel like I’ve been coming here for years,” Angie says, exhaling. “You know what I mean?”

“How old are you?” I ask. It sounds like an accusation.

“Twenty-two,” she says, a little hurt. “I know you’re older than me.”

“Angie, I’m thirty-eight. I’m old enough to be your . . . aunt.”

“Age is just a number,” she says.

We have a sixth date. A seventh. An eighth. I snap at her occasionally. Tell her she needs to speak up. To grow up. She cries. Tells me I’m mean and leaves. But the next night my bed is warm and full of her breath and I feel useful and strong and smart and beautiful again.

The problem with different is that it’s only different when it’s new.

I go out to the kitchen one morning in sweats and a sweater and find Angie tracing her hand onto the backs of envelopes.

“Doing your homework?” I ask.

It’s been six weeks since Roberta who? and Angie has been sleeping here more nights than not. At first, I loved the company. The sound of her humming to herself. The tangled piles of her hair in the drain. But lately she seems to be everywhere. To need me so badly. It’s exhausting.

I dump old coffee out of some morning’s mug and fill it with water and drink away the taste of last night’s wine. I hate the way my voice just sounded. Like my mother’s when my father was really sick. Deep and scorched from too much Cabernet. From too much hurt. More so, I hate the way I can’t stop noticing all the ways Angie’s so much younger than me. Her deference, her gleeful subservience. I’m tired of choosing music and movies and restaurants and beer brands.

“When’s the last time you did this?”

“Kindergarten? I don’t know. Never?”

She rifles through the stack of my unopened mail—past colorful catalogs and coupons—until she finds an unsullied bill back.

“Put your hand down.”

I do.

“Spread your fingers out a little.”

I do.
“Relax.”

I try.

She guides the pen down and around the pale chutes between my fingers. Even as the pen rubs my skin and makes my imprint on the page, binding us as artist and subject, I can feel myself drifting away from her, like she’s drawing the road on which I’ll wander back to my loneliness.

“Now lift,” she says.

“Angie, we need to talk.”

“You haven’t even looked yet,” she says.

So I do.

My hand stares back at me—a frozen blue wave just slightly bigger than itself. She takes the envelope over to the fridge and snaps it into place with a magnet.

“Now you won’t forget,” she says.

My face is in my hands now.

“Oh, don’t cry, baby,” she says.

She takes me to the bedroom and lays me down and strokes my hair like a doll’s.

“Is it her?” she asks. “The woman in the picture? Tell me what to do. I’ll do anything to take your mind off it.”

But I don’t know what to tell her. I don’t know what I want her to do. I’m not the Jennifer.

She says “it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay.”

“Just—stop talking,” I say. “Hold me.”

 
 
 


Benjamin Roesch’s work can currently be see in Word Riot and has recently appeared in Brilliant Corners. He works and teaches in Burlington, Vermont.