[It’s pomegranate season, and every evening]
It’s pomegranate season, and every evening at the language school he brings her a firm, bulging, red pomegranate, which he quarters on break with a small knife. The pomegranate always sprays red juice in her direction, so before he begins to cut, she makes a show of holding up two sheets of loose-leaf paper in front of her, so that she will not get juice on her blouse.
They met three months ago at the school in Van Nuys. She had been studying there for half a year; it was his first day. He entered the room quietly, looked around, then walked over and sat at her table. There was an empty chair between them. The teacher asked him who he was. He said Hayk Grigorian. A minute later, the teacher saw Hayk glance across the table at Lilit Stepanyan and blush.
Hayk and Lilit sit at the same table every evening; on breaks, they crowd around in the halls with six Armenian classmates. They all leave at the same time each night. One Saturday, the group drives to Malibu Beach for the day. They are in their 20s and early 30s, most smokers — though not Hayk or Lilit — the men with shaved heads under baseball caps, the women comely, all on student visas.
The teacher gives a take-home assignment. Write a story that could take place only in your home country. The next evening, each student stands before the class and reads his or her story aloud. One takes place on the Armenian holiday of Vardavar. Another is about a persecuted Baha’i in his 40s who flees Iran to Turkey on horseback to reunite with his family. Finally, Hayk reads his story, but his pronunciation is not good and the teacher can only make out the words love, special, woman and home. The class politely applauds, and Hayk, blushing, walks out of the room. Thirty seconds later, he reappears with a dozen red roses and puts them in front of Lilit. Everyone hurrahs.
Three weeks later, the teacher conspires with Hayk to surprise Lilit. He shuts off the classroom lights as if he is about to show a grammar video. Instead, in a video made by Hayk, a cartoon of a pulsing heart on legs appears. Armenian music plays. Then, photos come on of Hayk and Lilit climbing rocks along the Pacific coast. Of them dancing. Using English subtitles, Hayk declares his love for Lilit. After the video ends, Hayk stands at the back of the class holding two dozen red roses.
A soft-spoken young man who rebuilds engines, Hayk goes on making these displays of love for Lilit, and it’s not always easy to gauge her responses. She smiles. She nods. Once in a while, she laughs, as if relieved. She holds an M.D. and is studying for some tests so that she can practice medicine in the U.S. She has always seemed older than Hayk. One evening in the computer lab, clutching three dozen red roses, she glances at the teacher. She appears content and yet unsure if this is her moment. Hayk’s displays are big. They are familiar to her. He is doing what he is supposed to do.
[Speaking has always been hard for her]
Speaking has always been hard for her. Now 42, she is almost completely unable to do it. Words get jammed behind her face, caught in her throat, and she tries to start sentences but almost always swallows the sounds before they have the chance to form. This embarrasses her, which makes her cheeks redden and her eyes get wet until she is almost completely engulfed in a loneliness that, at one time, her boyfriend, Gavin, was able to penetrate and solve. She blames herself for not being able to get him to stay, though at times she can admit to herself that one doesn’t make the best case for oneself as a partner while one is undergoing chemo and radiation.
To Gavin’s credit, he waited until she was free of cancer before moving out. And he is still paying the rent on their two-story love/work space — as they used to call it — though she isn’t going to let that go on much longer. She will move out.
Gavin is seven years younger than she and co-owns a restaurant where he is head chef, and where, until breast cancer, she waited tables. He works 14-hour days, so there wasn’t much chance he would meet anyone, except at work, and that was what had happened. He found the new girlfriend the way he found her: She was a customer.
He had been a junkie when they met. He still credits her for helping him kick it. They were together almost eight years. She had never wanted anyone else.
She is determined to stop waiting tables and do something creative. She has given up on sculpture, which she studied in art school. She could not stomach the reviews, when there were reviews — uncertain flights of whimsy was one phrase a tiny East Bay publication had used to describe the playful, painted clay forms in her first solo show, whose opening Gavin had catered. Now, she has an idea to make high-quality bib aprons out of cotton and hemp. One blue stripe across the pocket will be her stamp. She has a friend who makes a thousand decorative ceramic balls per month for Williams Sonoma; another travels the world designing store windows. She had been getting health insurance through Gavin’s restaurant; now, she has none.
Gavin’s new girlfriend, Ariella, she has heard, is perky and makes dangling silver earrings, which she sells at shops on Piedmont, College and Telegraph Avenues. Ariella is four years younger than Gavin and, she has heard, wears cream-colored sheer blouses and long, gauzy skirts. Pat is not only never going to step inside Gavin’s restaurant again, she’s going to avoid that whole stretch of Grand Avenue, above Lake Merritt, where the restaurant is, lest she run into them.
To get her apron business off the ground, she is going to have to speak. She is going to have to cold-call potential contacts, distributors. But her friend who makes the ceramic balls will help her do that. They have known each other since art school. Once he sees she’s serious, he’ll get behind her. She’s banking on that.
[Robert’s friend Shelli called. Something had happened]
Robert’s friend Shelli called. Something had happened to their friend Lyle. Late the previous Saturday night, Lyle had been walking down a side street in West Hollywood after visiting a gay nightclub when he was grabbed by two strangers, shoved into the back of a van, beaten almost to death and left bloodied with a fractured skull in a parking lot in Norwalk. He had just been released from the hospital with a plate in his head. Did Robert want to go visit him with her?
Lyle was more Shelli’s friend than Robert’s. Robert usually kept a distance from gay men. When, a couple years ago, Lyle had rented out a downtown loft space for his 40th birthday and brought in pulsing electronic music and shirtless male go-go dancers with low-slung shorts, Robert had felt uncomfortable and left after half an hour.
Now, Robert felt something different, something strange. He felt as if he himself had been attacked. But he did not go with Shelli to visit Lyle.
Days passed, and Robert kept thinking about Lyle, a gentle soul from the Midwest with a receding hairline, who worked for Disney as an animator and never had a bad word for anyone. At last, Robert called Lyle and asked if he could come over. Lyle sounded surprised; he said, “Of course!”
Lyle unlocked the door of his bungalow in Burbank. His head was shaved; a crack zagged down the top of his head where he had been sewn up. An eye socket was bruised. He seemed in good spirits. What a lovely temperament he had! Robert had never had a long-term female partner; he was aware that some people, including Shelli, suspected he was gay. Shelli sometimes dropped hints to this effect but rather than deny he was gay, which Shelli might construe as protesting too much, Robert let the hints go unanswered.
They sat in Lyle’s living room, where Lyle told Robert everything he could remember about the incident, starting with the two white boys in Skechers sneakers, not older than 19, who had dragged him into the back of the van and beaten and tortured him until he blacked out. Later, he woke up in the hospital. As Lyle spoke, Robert stared at his lips. They looked wet and innocent and full. Robert could imagine putting his lips to Lyle’s lips. This was not a thought he wanted to have.
Lyle could use a glass of wine. Did Robert want to join him? Robert declined. He was getting uncomfortable even though Lyle wasn’t doing anything to make him uncomfortable. Lyle didn’t even seem to care if Robert was gay. Robert said he would have a glass of water, if that was Ok. Lyle said, “Of course it’s Ok.” Then, they sat with their different drinks and talked and listened, until Robert needed to leave.
[Just before dawn, he smelled smoke]
Just before dawn, he smelled smoke. This was it, he thought. The thing that was finally going to break them. He kissed her soft hair. Then, he crawled across the bed, opened the blinds, and looked out the screen at the street. Nothing. Nothing but a burning smell that seemed to be originating outside.
“Come back,” she mumbled, and reached for him.
His skull felt like it was in a clamp. He had moved out here last year for a job after getting his Ph.D., and now that she had her B.A., she was making sure she wanted to join him. The age difference was big. But what he wasn’t telling her was bigger — that he couldn’t see having children. Couldn’t see getting married. That he could be turning into his father, who, at the same age, with dark bags under his eyes and almost unable to speak, had gone away for eight months to a psychiatric clinic in Kansas, then went back to Kansas four years later.
Tears started rolling down his cheeks. The medication wasn’t working. And anyway, he didn’t always take it because it interfered with his sex drive.
“Where are you?” she said.
They were living in a four-story brick apartment house that had gone up in the 1920s. There was another just like it next door. Across the street was a Chinese preschool called Mind Champs. Was the school on fire? How come no sounds?
And why couldn’t he always remember that this girl was more perfect for him than any he was ever going to find? When you love someone this way, this one time, you must cast aside every doubt and go for it. He came back over and kissed her hair.
Groggily she sat up and put an arm around him. “Just because there’s smoke,” she said, “doesn’t mean something’s wrong with us.”
He crawled over to the window and looked outside. It was daybreak, and in front of the building next door, people were silently congregating in the street, staring up at their building, in pajamas and bathrobes. Then, a hum began to rise. As if from a hive.
“The building next door’s on fire,” he said.
“Come back,” she said. “They’ll put it out.”
The buzzing grew louder, the smell of burning mattresses, burning clothes. By the time sirens went up, who knew how much would be lost?
He felt as if he were in an interview where he couldn’t understand the questions. A white sky was about to tear open.
It had happened to his father. It was coming for him.
[She’d been married 20 years, and for the last 19]
She’d been married 20 years, and for the last 19 they’d slept in separate rooms. They’d tried sex after marrying, while they were still living in China; she could not remember what it felt like. She was not sure they had done it correctly. These days, if she thought about sex at all, it was as something vaguely disgusting, base, which, if accompanied, as it often seemed to be, by strong emotion, would cloud one’s entire outlook for the worse.
She met the Jewish man at a corporate communications conference in Chicago. She worked for a utility in Southern California; he was at a commuter railroad in New York. He had an unlined face, youthful, but with white hair and a white moustache and thick progressive eyeglasses that intensified his direct, green eyes. After she’d sat next to him on a panel about crisis management, he asked her to take a cab with him to Pilsen. “Oh, but you must have great Mexican food in Los Angeles,” he said. And she said, “I won’t tell my husband.”
At dinner, she confessed to liking Jewish people; many seemed touched by genius. Mental illness is more like it, he said, and she laughed at this remark, which, if it had been uttered by anyone else, would have been a conversation ender. He told her that Chinese culture fascinated him. The silent shapes of the characters. The vastness of the cuisine. He had once attended a guqin concert at the Asia Society in which a young female musician had played songs that were 5,000 years old. “Makes Judaism seem like a Johnny-come-lately,” he said.
Two nights later, they were dangling their feet off his big white hotel-room bed and talking about divorce. You should try it sometime, he said. By the third night, they were under the covers. What’s the big deal with sex? she asked. He unbuttoned her blouse and kissed her neck, collarbone, breast. He passed his fingers down her belly. What are you doing that’s making me feel so good? He named what he was touching. Am I the same as every other woman you’ve been with? Is there anything wrong with my body? Afterward, while she was still trembling, he whispered that he had never felt anything like this.
They spent every day and night of the conference together. She even slept over the last night and woke up, panicked, at 6 a.m. and rushed back to her room. Where can we meet next? he asked at breakfast. When they said goodbye, tears were flooding her cheeks.
The next month, they met in Chicago and didn’t leave the old brick hotel all weekend. The following month, the same. When he asked why she stayed with her husband, she told him he was her only family. He offered to be her family. She told him her life was in Los Angeles. He offered to move to Los Angeles. She told him a person doesn’t just get rid of a 20-year partner for a man she just met. He said, But can’t you see what a life we could have?
At one meeting, she tried pot with him. At another, he put her on her knees and entered her, to her exalted pleasure, from behind. Immediately after that, while he was cradling her in his arms, she told him that she and her husband were horse and horse and that she and he were horse and camel. He objected. She insisted, so much so that when she got back to L.A., she stopped taking his calls and returning his emails, which were now coming in three times a day. There were things she could not change. Her husband spoke her native language. His nieces and nephews were hers. Impossible as it was to explain, she preferred sleeping alone.
Jonathan Blum is the author of “Last Word” (Rescue Press, 2013), a novella, which was named one of the best books of the year by Iowa Public Radio and was featured on KCRW’s Bookworm. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, Playboy, and Sonora Review. His story collection, “The Usual Uncertainties,” will be published in Spring 2020 by Rescue Press. He teaches fiction writing workshops year-round in the Los Angeles area and can be found online at jonathanblumwriter.com.
Image: “Fragmentary Mummy Portrait of a Woman (1946.44)” by Sarah E. Bond