Emma Smith-Stevens

They hid themselves away, in buildings on opposite sides of town—a wife, Anna, hunched over insurance forms, high up and alone at the clinic; and her husband, Paul, in his office on campus, cocooned by the glow of the computer monitor. They left their workplaces long after dark, dissolving into grocery stores, riverfront parks, bodegas, buses, and 24-hour gyms. They stayed away from each other for as long as they could, until they were strange and exhausted—flitting home, finally, like silverfish, exposed and skittering towards cover.

They tried to talk about the accident, Anna saying it wasn't Paul's fault, that no driver could've seen that boy. She said, "No one could have done any better" and "I miss you" and "We're in this together." Paul, seeing his own guilt in Anna's pity, understood that what she was really saying was "I need to love you again" and "I need to believe you are some other man" and "Will you let me?"

One night they met in the kitchen, accidentally, during the indigo light of pre-dawn. They hadn't been hungry for months. There were no new ideas, just the same impossible desires. They fucked like their bodies were cars, like they were detailing those cars. Side-by-side they lay on the living room carpet, whispering to each other—Paul, saying things that, during the day, would be too much: "Do you think this will last forever?" and "All I think about is the accident" and "I never really feel awake" and "I can't seem to get clean." For a long moment the apartment rang with silence, before Anna finally said: "We have to move on."

For the first time in months, they backed their sedan out of the garage—Anna behind the wheel while Paul massaged his temples, eyes closed. They tried and failed to disassociate, to somehow forget that this was the sedan whose front fender plowed down a seventeen-year-old boy. Halfway down the driveway they stopped—Anna shifted into park—overwhelmed by their knowledge of him: a junior in high school, an aspiring engineer, a boyfriend, a medicated depressive, a Pisces, an only son. For months they had obsessed about whether the boy flung himself purposefully or tripped accidentally, but they would never know. They began moving again, slowly at first, too slowly—Anna's knuckles bone-white as the sedan crept toward the highway—but eventually they sped up.

Over the following weeks, they drove more and more often. At first there were destinations, but soon they drove anywhere, all over their city without any pretense. It was as though they had been reconfigured, their bodies reshaped, nestling perfectly now into seats of the sedan, submitting to its forward motion. They went on road-trips through New England, springtime countryside; and they set out across the country, because Maine wasn't far enough. The landscape changed, from forest to hills to prairie to mountains, more quickly than one would expect. They were aged by their silence, side-by-side figures bound by yellow ribbons—desert roads.

Entering a casino on the outskirts of Las Vegas, they could smell the Prime Rib Special, see grandmother hookers in neon tracksuits finger the collars of gray old men, and swipe their claws over the brims of truck drivers' caps. They used the bathrooms in that casino (it was the reason, they had both agreed, the only reason to stop)—bathrooms that smelled like citrus cleaner and cigarillos.

They stood some distance away from each other, in awe of that ugliness, smeared like mascara across the desert. Simultaneously they beheld the slot machines, surveillance video cameras, orange and royal-blue carpet patterns, blister-faced security guards. They peered over their shoulders as if their lives might be watching, and found themselves alone.

Between their fingers, they rubbed dollar bills together, exchanged them for tokens. They decided to play. They pulled down on the greasy metal levers, hoping for everything in the world. They had become allied strangers, pedestrians on the same street corner, waiting for the signal to proceed. They watched them—lemon, cherry, watermelon, apple, banana, pear—fly by, landing: cherry, cherry, cherry, bing, bing, bing, bing.

Emma Smith-Stevens has stories in or coming from Subtropics, Conjunctions, The Collagist and others. Her story "Anthem," from PANK, was chosen for the lastest Wigleaf Top 50.

Read ESS's postcard.

W i g l e a f               08-19-13                                [home]