by Louis Gallo

They rock slowly on the porch swing, her head resting on his shoulder. She likes the way he fiddles with her hair, the silent contentment she feels at the moment, with him, alone, rocking in the night. But still she waits, all the same, in her secret urgent way. For he will speak, shatter the tranquil silence.

‘I’d like to try some new food,’ he finally sighs, ‘fruit maybe, a cross between strawberries and mangos, something cool and tropical, no, unearthly, like a fruit from another planet, something luscious exploding in your mouth that tastes like outer space. A Jacuzzi full of herbs and perfumes from ancient Persia. Music too, cosmic, like Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question but better. What else? A beautiful woman, of course, and wine from the age of Mozart, so dry and fine it would taste like soft fire. Or something like that, something new, never before experienced by anybody. A massage too. We’d lounge in a redwood tub and the air would be laced with ice but not too cold. The stars would sparkle, and we’d stare at comets streaking across the blue-black sky. That’s what I’d like right now.’

The stiff swing bruises all of her soft spots, but she doesn’t mind. He has wrapped his arm around her but seems as remote as the dissonant chords in that Ives music he always brings up at such moments. She is of many minds about his desires. She too wants to drift away, indulge her fantasies, but feels she cannot afford to, given his musings. Somebody has to stick around, play the anchor. It worries her when he starts thinking about weird fruits from other solar systems and wine that tastes like soft fire and, well, all of it. It means he will soon say that he is leaving for Belize or the rain forest or wherever else he believes he cannot be found.

She only half understands that Belize for him is only a word, a dream state, a flimsy hope for not only relief but release. She is too literal, he always says, whereas he revels in the frenzy of rhetoric, finds distraction from what bothers him most through mere articulation of the fabulous. Which is not to say that he might not on impulse dash off for the real place if things got too unbearable. But if he ever does leave, it will already be too late.

The beautiful woman business bothers her too. ‘It better be me,’ she laughs. ‘I’ll kill you, old man. You get in a Jacuzzi with anybody but me and you’re one dead geyser.’ She knows it bothers him when she brings up his age—twenty years her senior, but still only forty-two.

His fingers squeeze her shoulder tighter, but he seems no closer. It is his way of letting her know that she means the world to him, that if, say, he left without her, it would signify the death of him, that he’d be doing her a favor. He also knows she doesn’t want to hear it, that she’d come to hate Belize, that his mere mention of it strikes a chord of anxiety that sets set her off in a torrent of defense.

As they rock the first fireflies of the season flicker in shrubbery along their walkway, ion-charged gusts batter the unicorn wind chimes, and squeaking bats swoop down from a darkened elm tree across the street. This is nice, she thinks, curling closer to him, why can’t he see this is so nice? There isn’t anything else, in fact; all the Jacuzzis and galactic fruit in the world wouldn’t be any better than what they already have, if he’d only see it. So why can’t he? Why is he so abstract, so strange? They can’t just sit still and inhale the delicious world as it is, even if she herself can imagine improvements.

He attributes her way of thinking to the weary old sloped mountains of West Virginia, where, he says often enough, people just sit. They don’t do anything . . . just sit. And there is no way he would ever understand how she can not only just sit but sit in darkness for hours. It would drive me out of my mind, he jokes often enough. She knows her sitting irritates him. Sometimes, when very tired, he joins her and relaxes and she can feel the tension flow out of his body. Those are the times she savors.

But when he is in a state, as she puts it, she can sense his disdain not for her, but for the sitting, for every knothole of the house. It does indeed distress him, but in truth she often taunts him with it deliberately, remains riveted in the dark as he rages and fumes and carries all of the furniture up and down the stairs. She tortures him with it because he hates it, because of Belize and beautiful women. But she also knows he’ll be back, that his mania for order and justice and perfection will wear him down like a sad old draught horse, and he’ll slink in to lie beside her, press her body into the sofa, his atop hers, deeply together, waiting for her gentle touch, a mere patch of flesh against flesh, her warmth, her serene acceptance of the walls of Jericho collapsing.

If she too seethes on the inside, it’s too deep for him to grasp; he fears such depths, since his own distress is all surface, eruptive. He likes to think he can explode and then be done with it. She knows better. Or thinks she does.

She understands that his sadness is also deep, that the minor eruptions serve only to get him going, even if the going amounts to flinging a stone into the air. His eruptions are false, evasive, however much lava flows; he fights what he hates most and what has become his metaphor for hopelessness: sitting. In the dark. Not even waiting. Turning off but keenly attuned to the wing beats of the flimsiest moth.

What’s the point? he’ll ask. Why? We could paint the bathroom, fix the porch, change the tires, dig up the sewer pipes. We could do something. And he remembers what she can’t –what he was before she knew him, when all the trouble came along. That, yes, he could in those days erupt and be done with it, ease himself into new tranquilities, pass the days not only in contentment but actual delight in even the most ephemeral pleasures. But only he knows this. How could she, so young, so unscathed? And then again if he has changed, what difference does it make? Some things change people so profoundly they no longer recognize themselves.

She will argue that you can’t let the past destroy you. Why not? he always asks. Because I love you, she says. Which puts an end to philosophy. He loves her too, he might say, but suppose he is indeed ruined and therefore not good for her or anybody else? Suppose love is something delicate, like a mote suspended in a light beam, he might ask. Anything can come along to alter it. Just draw the shade, he could say, and the golden beam and mote disappear. But it’s not what he wants to say; he cannot not put his finger on what he wants to say or how to say it, he who thinks of words as akin to physical sensations.

And so they rock in the night, in graceful arcs, on the swing, in this manner, her manner, as he confronts real and illusory hurdles blocking every direction he can imagine. And it is good, even if he can never sit as still as she sits, never stop clinging to her, never forget everything else.

Louis Gallo’s work has appeared or will shortly appear in Wide Awake in the Pelican State (LSU anthology), Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic,, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth,  Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review,and many others.  Chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination, Status Updates and The Ten Most Important Questions. He is the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books:  A New Orleans Review.  He was awarded an NEA fellowship for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.