A Christmas Ghost Story

What do you do the night of Christmas Day? When all the presents have been unwrapped, the food eaten and the visits made? There's an old tradition, predating M.R. James and Charles Dickens, and even the author of Gawain and the Green Knight. I think we should bring it back: The telling of ghost stories.

Cantwell had never taken the time. Another version of her would have assumed that she knew what a ghost was. The present Cantwell was rarely the type to bother with abstractions. What a ghost was cost her no more concern than the question of what a friend was. Were either real? Her friends demonstrated fealty on the right apps and were present in person when circumstances required. This sat comfortably enough in place of a definition. Likewise were ghosts considered by some influential people (and what other kind existed–meaningfully existed?) to be a thing one could accept as “real.” Our alternate Cantwell would have said that a ghost was what remained when a person had otherwise died. They symbolized the inevitable loss of beauty and influence that preceeded the grave by so many years (for those who couldn’t contrive to go out on top) but were otherwise nothing more and much less than a person on this side of the ground. The thought of meeting a ghost hadn’t crossed Cantwell’s mind since she had been very, very small, and understood very, very little.

This Cantwell, the present Cantwell, got by with surface glosses in place of understanding. Understanding was a thing that lived in a stillness she simply didn’t inhabit. She felt naked without a constant crush of attention from all sides, like some deep sea chamber that would rupture if brought to the surface.

It came to pass, however, that she found herself in just such an unaccustomed stillness passing the canal opposite Christiansborg. Her devices were as silent as the unseen water below. Given their use during the day’s brief sunlit hours, this was not mysterious, though car headlights somewhere in view would have been more usual. The silence ate at her much more than the darkness and the cold. Thoughts echoed that didn’t feel like hers.

She was not precisely in her right mind, if one can ever be said to be. An unsettled mind is usually crosscrossed between past conditionals and possible futures, in Cantwell’s case none more than 48 hours in either direction, but hers was also occupied with several alternate presents where others had granted or withheld one thing or another.

Cantwell had a place and time to be, and was hating it as much as the remainder of the present void. The city could be any city of sufficient cachet to her; she didn’t speak the language and didn’t care to, for they spoke hers. Places were backdrops, set dressing. The bare black stage around her was growing intolerable. It was, in fact, the longest night of the year.

There was another, opposite her. A ghost.

Cantwell noticed her, and had the unacustomed jolt that noticing her was her first and most fatal possible mistake. In the way that one knows a greyness under a lamp is a human shape, and that a blank oval near its top is a face looking at us, Cantwell saw it out of the corner of her eye. She pretended, unconvincingly, that she hadn’t. Normally, she pretended so effortlessly and so totally that she herself believed it. Truth was, to Cantwell, what others would follow, and the strongest opening move in affecting a truth was to believe it herself. There were fallbacks, of course, on the vanishingly rare occasion of being trapped in a “lie:” crying, screaming, inversion… But belief could only take one so far. Her skills were deserting her, and would not save her.

Across the canal, behind the low railings, the figure matched Cantwell’s pace. There was a sound of footsteps on stone. She knew it was a woman, as she knew it was a ghost. The figure followed. The canal turned, and the figure didn’t. It forded the air at a calm walking pace, at an angle to meet Cantwell’s path. The silence echoed more loudly than the noise. Had it passed through the railing? Apparently. Even looking wouldn’t tell her, and Cantwell was absolutely not going to look. In another context, it could have been a school friend or a colleage from some job quickening step from across a street to trade commonplace words. Here, however, nothing could be commonplace. The grey-black mass took up more and more of Cantwell’s peripheral vision. A second set of footsteps began on the cobbles to her right, matching rhythm. The ghost walked along beside her.

“Aren’t you going to-“

“No!” Cantwell snapped, equally surprised to hear her own voice.

“You can’t know how much I hate you,” remarked the ghost, also not making eye contact. Cantwell hustled on, saying nothing. People, other people, would save her. Her silence, far from rallying strength like usual (stillness could also be used offensively as a weapon) resulted only in a gently lengthening sense that she was making herself an object of pity, drawing out the inevitable.

“I don’t need this from you,” said Cantwell, eyes set straight ahead. Her piteousness rose to something like self flaggelation.

“Tonight’s not about what you want. Tonight is about what I want.”

What was this? Was she going to be hurled–hurl herself, but not really–into the canal? Float to be found at late morning light an ugly corpse? Self-killed (so it would appear) without a mark of respectable violence?

“No,” said the ghost.

“What do you want?”

Nothing happened. She wasn’t transported, or overwhelmed with a sudden hallucination. To be truly overwhelmed with something is a rare gift in life, and this was not the night for gifts. Cantwell was no less aware of the cold air up her skirt or the trouble of negotiating each increasingly slick paving stone in her high boots. It was as if a smell from long ago triggered a sudden memory. Cantwell’s emotions were once again in a tiny room overlooking another city. Nana was baking macaroons. Some were red, some were white, and some were yellow. A bowl of blue batter remained. She had done nothing to help, just sat at the table kicking her feet and eating. It didn’t matter. The halo of something was in the air. Little her didn’t understand why everything was good, and didn’t care. Why would a child?

“Shut up!” yelled the ghost. Cantwell was startled, and almost looked over. There was no one else there, but the ghost didn’t seem to be addressing her.

She saw a window. A small, far off, lighted window, on a third floor, looking warm as the finished wood inside, all of it seeming to glow. Was this the only lighted window in view? The last one in the world? “I don’t understand,” she began, but was cut off again.

“Never! Ikke nu, ikke hver,” continued the ghost, to whom- or to whatever. Cantwell seemed to be momentarily forgotten.

“You’re not real. It isn’t real.”  Tears pricked at Cantwell’s eyes. They served no purpose. They weren’t going to move the ghost. There was no one else to help–that much was increasingly clear. Cantwell wanted to control them, but with a dropping feeling found that she absolutely couldn’t.

She still hadn’t looked at the ghost. She wouldn’t. It was the only fight she hadn’t lost. The figure seemed in appearance about her age. A woman. Dressed in something colorless, perhaps warmer, or maybe older. It could have been her doppelganger. It could have been anyone else.

“Wouldn’t you like to know where I’ve been, before I was here?” They walked on in silence for a moment. “I wasn’t an ugly corpse. I know how that matters to you.”

Cantwell couldn’t form the words, but the ghost did for her:

“What do I know about you? No, this isn’t your night for questions.” It scratched its nose. “Not even the rhetorical kind. You tell me: Why were you at your Nana’s?”

“Mom was ripping the apartment up.”

“Right.”

“She was all cut up about some man cheating on her.”

“Her moods are extreme.”

“He wasn’t even my father. It’s not like I cared.”

“I’m taking that away from you.”

“That man? I barely even remember him.” Cantwell stopped herself. It wasn’t that memory the ghost was taking. It wasn’t any memory the ghost was taking. Worst of all, it wasn’t her life either.

“What am I?” the ghost asked.

“You’re a ghost. You’re just a ghost.”

“And what is a ghost?”

“Don’t do this.”

“I thought you didn’t try to understand things. Just the surface, remember? Stay in the flow. It’s the silence that scares you. I’ll bet right about now you’re wishing you were stupider. There are things you don’t understand, but then there are things you can’t understand. That’s what I am. That’s what your ghost is.”

“Please!” Cantwell looked, but there was nothing there. “Please!” The memory was just as fresh. The moments in that kitchen. True to her word, the ghost hadn’t taken the memory. Cantwell could remember every detail with painful accuracy. Only the feeling was gone.

At some point it had begun to snow. Cantwell continued on to her appointment, in that wooden room on the third floor.

IMDB Trivia for “Hoof-Town” (2002)

One of Disney’s last traditionally animated (2-D) films, with the exception of all characters’ photorealistic CGI hands.

Ranked #5 on AFI’s 50 Most Based Movies.

A third act was completed, but cut from the final film.

Besides the nine credited screenwriters, several Disney senior managers were personally involved in rewrites well into the final week of production. This allegedly explains the otherwise incongruous exchange during the Blowhole Beach chase where Lilly and Mulligan say: “Fuck you, Brent.” “Fuck you, Christine.”

Nominated for the 2003 Best Animation or Musical Oscar, but lost to Dreamworks SKG’s “Captain Hookworm” (2002).

The first and, to date, only film produced in Disney’s proprietary 17:1 “Hyper Widescope” format. Following negative reaction in theaters, the film was heavily cropped for home video release, explaining why most action and dialogue take place offscreen.

Work on the film was fully rebooted and all prior work scrapped after one of the original directors failed to properly kowtow to chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Princess Boneable was created specifically to add a new Disney Princess to the roster. She has no lines, but to date is the only Disney Princess to kick another character in the face without apparent provocation.

The running joke about Dr. Grooventein being back to “Teabag Iz’ey’s balls” was not scripted, but the result of clever audio editing around David Ogden Stiers’ constant improvisational muttering in the recording booth, often over other actors’ lines. No one named “Iz’ey” appears in the script, nor is Ogden Steirs known to have been officially hired for the film.

Body count: 56, and one undead boat.

According to co-co-Director Sam Marshall, Lilly Pikachu is not a fox but an Antarctic explorer from the human world in an elaborate, anatomically-correct costume.

Held the record for most co-directors on any Disney film at 18. (Soon bested by “Salmon” (2004) with 93.)

Most of the artists with traditional hand drawing skills were fired as production neared completion, often forcefully while still at work. See Goofs: Sudden vertical lines/characters disappearing.

The song “Suck My Kiss” was later recorded by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Produced under the title “Tuesday I’m Eating” as a lower cost “B” project alongside the  expected box office smash then titled “Hoof Town.” When the original “Hoof Town” performed poorly, the titles were switched to the confusion of most moviegoers, in order to chalk it up as a win on quarterly financial statements. (The original “Hoof Town” was later released on home video as “Monkey Spanks: Private Eye”.) This explains why neither a single hoofed animal nor a town appear in the film.

Drew the ire of many Conservative Christian parents’ groups for being a movie.

Feature film debut of singer Sasha Turpworth. Turpworth was discovered at a dick sucking contest in Miami Beach, FL.

As a result of contractual obligations and poor timing, the requisite Broadway adaptation opened the same day as the theatrical release, resulting in an infinite recursion of royalty payments between the two Disney divisions. Still ongoing to this day, these payments make it both the highest grossing and greatest financial loss of any Disney film.

First bulimic character in a Disney animated movie. (“Herbie: Fully Loaded” was a live-action film.)

Foreign titles: “Animal Feet Amok” (France), “The Wacky Animal Village” (Germany), “Hoofs: Being an Exploration of Numerous Amusing Things That Happen to Several Anthropomorphized Animals Near a Somewhat Tasteful Bus Depot” (Brazil), “Tits” (Finland).

Howard Pauls, key animator on Spunky Sally, has not been seen by any current member of the Walt Disney animation staff. The last of Walt’s famed Nine Old Men, Pauls exchanges work through a gap under his locked office door. Some suspect he is long dead and it is the room itself producing the drawings.

“Truundelhorn” is a real brand of Hungarian truck, although they have not been sold with anti-Semitic slogans on the hood since 1993.

Similarities have been noted between the plot and that of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” in that neither has one.

Roger Ebert admitted that he was high on mushrooms while reviewing the film, but did not feel it altered his opinion meaningfully.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus delivers the second-longest racist tirade by a former “Seinfeld” cast member in a Disney movie, and the third longest in any animated movie. (See Trivia for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996) and “Bee Movie” (2007).)

Musician Morrissey was brought in to give the film “some indy cred,” but was replaced by Alan Menkin when it was realized Morrissey had died in Paris in 1998. He was not rehired when it was discovered that he had not died in Paris in 1998.

Reunites actresses Annie Potts and Elizabeth Perkins for the first time since “Lesbian Sorority Blood Inferno Part 5” (1982).

Hidden Mickey: Beneath the word “SEX” in the underwater rave scene.

David Schramm recorded all of the lines for Based Barry in March of 2001, before being ordered whacked by Disney management in November of that year. Reginald VelJohnson was brought in as a last-minute replacement.

George Clooney, David Thewlis, George C. Scott, William H. Macy and Linda Carter were all considered for the role of the ottoman.

Daveigh Chase, Colm Meaney, Nicolas Refn and Jaden Smith were all considered for the role of Peter Pubgoer, which eventually went to all of them.

Spaceships

If you don’t have artificial gravity, science fiction starts to look more like the age of schooners. To get from place to place in the solar system it’d be necessary to accelerate halfway, turn around and decelerate for the rest of the trip. Accelerating or decelerating at more than the equivalent rate of Earth gravity (9.8m/s) would be difficult for the crew to withstand for long. Jupiter is about 983 million km from Earth at its nearest point. If I’m doing the math right (and I’m probably not) accelerating halfway at 9.8m/s would take 158 hours — about 6½ days. The full trip would take two weeks.

Laser weapons are a must. You’d only be able to see them when they shoot through gas or dust, but when it comes to shooting from one moving platform and hitting another on a logarithmic scale you won’t get much time to aim. A projectile would deliver more energy with less expended, but a powerful lazer would be able to vaporize or nudge it out of the way. Opponents would basically joust on a split-second timeframe, trying to pass momentarily close enough for their computers to shoot. Ships would be no more than specks to one another, usually less. Forget about human combat.

Until someone tells me what exactly an “energy shield” would be, we’ll have to assume that surviving a lazer attack means thick, dense plating all over the ship. If a lazer can vaporize a few cubic meters of hull in one shot, you’d better have a lot of hull to spare. It should be shiny too. Getting hit with a lazer might lead to some pretty refractions.

One last thought: Get used to the solar system. It takes light from the sun (which doesn’t have to accelerate) eight minutes to reach Earth, four hours to reach Neptune, and four years to reach the nearest star — itself a burnt-out red dwarf, Proxima Centauri.

Blowing some of the cobwebs out of scifi tropes, fiction begins to slip into unfamiliar grooves.

“South Sea Company and Pan Am”

“Evacuate Earth! We have fucked up. Evacuate Earth! We have fucked up…” vibrated every molecule from the core to the froth.

Pan Am had been born in the molten publics ten miles below seal-evil and had worked his way up through the Swiss Ocean to one of the hands below Upafrica. On a tip, he spent a month hiking through SkyMollRestaurant to 521248t8884, arriving days after the bottom fell out and being forced to keep climbing through the magnetosfear. He emigrated up a cable with a few million others when the crane attached to a rivet on its way to the new Jupiter trane, and found work partway up the arm joining pritses in a balancing trace.

South Sea Company was from the high froth above Captured, a weeliweil with braids in her hair. How she had ended up in the arc-overs with a depressing view of Zeeland, barely 7% in debt at age 22, was an even more confusing and picaresque story involving an older man and a broken heart. About a year later, she rode a claw down the north wall of the crane, made her way across, and began digging herself back up with an almost full time job leafing tops in the neighborhood below Pan Am’s.

They made an unlikely couple, but it was an unlikely day.

By flashing the slosh tank the night before, Sears had managed to annihilate the business district. Part of the team from his shift had then cut away the remaining stays with hand explosives. As the nearby spires of Gibraltar painstakingly collapsed into the rising sea of flame, they — 29 crane ports, a winchfield and part of the vessel under construction — had become a free-floating lifeboat. They had no clippers or lift-sixes to get them to Mars, just a handful of strangers. It would be a perilous journey of several weeks, if the strangers worked at all. For some reason, everyone was still looking to Sears and his makeshift crew to decide what to do. He tried not to think about how many were dead, but he had a head for numbers: 64% of humanity already, with the chain reaction still burning its way upward into the froth. Every real ship had long since evacuated. Orbit was a snowstorm of shrapnel halfway out to the moons.

“Stress cracks are opening up everywhere,” Sears announced. “Be ready. Everyone who hasn’t, get as far inside as you can.” His plan was unlikely to succeed. Their strangers were the cheap kind used in construction. They had only been used once, and only been meant to be used once. Something exploded.

“Someone try to vent the puffers,” said Sears.

“I’m on it,” said Kalashnikov.

“Captain Sears-“

“Very funny, Temple of Athena.”

“Wasn’t me.”

“Me,” said a young woman in the doorway, holding up her hand. It was South Sea Company. Her other hand held Pan Am’s.

“Not now,” said Sears, adding up their rate of tumble. “Flip the strangers,” said Sears. The acceleration stopped. “Wait until we’re facing away, then get ready to flip them again. We’ll do something about this offcenter spin when we’re clear of the arc-overs.”

“Captain-“

“Do NOT call me that, South Sea Company.”

“That was me, actually,” said Kalashnikov. “One of the strangers just nuked Point Pleasant. Fourteen fatalities.”

“638,529 people left aboard then,” said Sears. “Left alive, rather.”

“Aboard is fine,” said Temple of Athena.

“We don’t have running lights,” said Tea Lagoon.

“What are you talking about, running lights?”

“There.” Tea Lagoon switched on a red light at one end of their bulk and a blue light at the other. “Now we’re legal.”

“Legal for what?”

“Captain Sears…” South Sea Company began again.

“Will you stop calling me that?”

“We want you to marry us,” said Pan Am.

South Sea Company smiled and nodded, squeezing his hand.

Sears turned to face them. “What is the matter with you? We’re drifting for dear life through a wreckage field-“

“With proper lights,” said Tea Lagoon.

“You should do it, captain,” said Temple of Athena, tapping her hands against her chin.

“I am not a captain! This is not a vessel!”

“Well what would you call it?” asked South Sea Company.

“Ooh, what should we call it?” said Kalashnikov.

“Just stop, everyone.”

“Somebody has to give her,” said Temple of Athena. “Hey hey, can I?”

“Does somebody have to give him too?” asked Tea Lagoon.

“Seems fair,” said Kalashnikov.

“I’ll do it then,” Tea Lagoon volunteered.

“Flip on my mark,” said Sears. “Flip!” A groan echoed through the walls as momentum began to build again.

“Shit! Cut that stranger off!” said Kalashnikov.

“What happened?”

“Strangelets everywhere. Thing went inverse, just like that.”

“Watch for gammas. They won’t all spike before they invert, but it’s the best we’ll get.”

“Roger,” said Kalashnikov. Everyone watched tensely for the next several minutes as material fatigue made itself heard. “They’re ready to flip.”

“Flip.”

Silence.

“Don’t you need a witness, too?” asked Temple of Athena.

“I don’t remember,” said Pan Am.

“Stop. Just stop…”

“I’ll witness,” said Kalashnikov. “I was waiting for something to do.”

Standard Oil and his team returned. “We’ve got Mu Mu welded down.” He looked at Pan Am and South Sea Company. “What’s going on?”

“A wedding!” said Kalashnikov. “The captain’s doing a ceremony.”

“Oh. Explains the running lights, in a roundabout sort of way.” Standard Oil turned to Pan Am. “You the guy? Good show. I thought you two were fighting.”

“It seems kind of silly now,” said South Sea Company, twining her arm around Pan Am’s.

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Standard Oil looked distant for a moment. “Crew! Get in here. We’ve got a wedding!”

“Like a real wedding?” Standard Oil’s people crowded in, shaking Pan Am’s hand and kissing South Sea Company’s hair.

“Excellent. Lets get started,” said Temple of Athena.

“I don’t…” Everyone watched Captain Sears expectantly. “I don’t even know the…”

“I found them,” said Kalashnikov, passing the words to him. He read through them, stalling for time in the light of the boiling Earth.

“Fine, fuck it. ‘Dearly beloved…'”

More Fun With Mr. Noonday

Of all the challenges I thought I might face as an adult, having an invisible demon on my back weighing me down wasn’t one of them.

“Take this chalk,” he said. “Draw a line with it on the floor. Cross it. Look back.”

It was gone.

“Now do you understand?”

(Fifty word flash fiction. Previous outing: “Mr. Noonday.”)

Softball Sketch

I’m in the “husbands’ box” with a few other tired-looking guys, working late on my laptop. The game is about halfway through. We have a vulnerable lead. It’s beginning to rain. She’ll be muddy, cold and irritable when she gets off the field. I expect she’ll want to go straight home instead of soaking in the clubhouse. I happen to be looking up vaguely as Fukuyama #43 sends a line drive past the first baseman. My wife scoops it up, pops it back to first and ends the inning. I take a sip from my can of tea, feeling like a good husband.

“Nine for twelve? That’s a pretty good season!” The little girl nods shyly under her baseball cap, clutching an autographed notebook page. Local celebrity means something here. She’s an obvious pro, bobbing her head and grinning like a tv idol as she fills the girl’s head with league softball dreams. My wife’s plan is to become a history teacher when she retires from the league, preferably at a lower secondary (middle) school. I suspect she just wants to do it so she can coach a girls’ team. She’d be good at it. The late evenings away from home will continue long past her softball career, but at least she’ll be able to ditch that haircut.

We’ve made dinner, eaten, and worked down through a bottle of sake, chatting quietly on the floor. Her face is bright red. Is that what I’m laughing about? I don’t remember. Everything is good. We roll around on the carpet giggling. Soon we’re making love. She’s giving me the baby eyes. This is why I came here. Sometimes it all makes sense. She’s out by the time I put her to bed. I get her a glass of water, and down one myself. She snuggles against my hand as I lay down beside her, breathing hard in her sleep.

“What is the MATTER WITH YOU!?” she yells in Japanese, tears streaming down her face. I don’t understand this mood. She calls me stupid, shit, foreign. Hard little fists smash like fireworks against my chest and arms. She’s much too fast to block. All I can do is force myself closer and take the windup out of her punches until she cries herself down. It won’t take long. Domestic violence only became a crime here in 1997. I’ll be sore tomorrow. She’ll be distant tonight, then overly upbeat, and probably do something for me. This is deeper than me being boneheaded, and not a real couple’s fight. It just happens, once or twice a year. All I know is that her life is an elaborate comedy of manners that I’m too dense to understand, and sometimes it’s too much for her.

It’s the annual Husbands Game — actually a mishmash of husbands, boyfriends, and more than a few dads. (The qualifications are flexible.) We’re humiliating ourselves as usual along with the equally hopeless men from Himeji, but it’s all for a good cause. Mishina’s dad just huffed and puffed his way to a base hit. The local diehard fans are Queen stomping. Hyuuga’s boyfriend played college ball and he’s up after me. If I can get at least a single, we might do okay. I spot my wife in the stands and trip over a bat, to more cheers from the crowd. She does an elaborate, Kabuki-grade facepalm.

When we met, I bought her a drink, not knowing that I probably shouldn’t do that when she was out bonding with her team. We dated for about a week. I remember feeling that I’d hit a wall in getting to know her. I might have called it off. Then everything went wrong. It was the year her team failed to reach the Championships, for the first time since 1995. People were going to be fired. She was taking it hard. She needed company, couldn’t maintain a face. Two fans had committed suicide. It was the worst day of her life. She called me a little before midnight, and poured her heart out in the back of a steakhouse.

We’re home. Practice was cancelled. It’s a Tuesday evening. We’re on the lawn playing catch in the fading light. Her throws are perfect, flat and quick. I lob it back to her. The phrase “speaking with silence” comes to mind, one I’ve never understood. She watches me instead of the ball. Her eyes are smiling. There’s a weird tranquility to the moment. The lull of the neighbors’ kids bubbles over the hedges. My wife looks content.

(This is basically the same exercise as “Wives” from 2004.)

Wives

Issue 144, for the week of 8/15/2004

Toast Note: My typical strategy when I spend a few weeks tapping away at something I don’t really understand is to post it to the Space Toast Page and let posterity ridicule me. This is three seperate sketches on a theme. I’ll probably be embarrassed by this later, but there’s been worse in 145 Space Toast Pages.

It’s night, and I’m upstairs at my desk. She comes into the room and puts her arms around me, resting her chin on my head. I reach back and find her waist, never able to just accept affection. “How is it going?” she asks. Not well, I say. She hugs me a little harder and pulls me back. “Come play with me. You’re not going to solve it by staring at it.” My script has three things happening where they shouldn’t be, and they’re plugging the story before the second set of commercials. “Just come with me.” I have to write in my book, I say. I jot down my ideas, as they stand, to pick up later. She keeps wheeling my chair back. I finish fast, throw the pen down, turn around and kiss her. A compact brown face draws back, darker patches around her eyes that make them seem larger, almost glowing in the shadow from the desk lamp.

She tosses my shirt away. I feel her breasts against my inner thighs. She slowly runs her tongue up me, looking me in the eye with a playful edge of worship. Her tongue slides down, and she closes her lips over the end of my penis. Long black hair falls over her face, and she brushes it away with one hand. I touch the sides of her head, feeling the solidness, the smallness of her as she moves on me. Her head bobs gently. Her hair falls over her face again, and I fold it behind her ear. I can hear myself breathing. She redoubles her movements, and I have to shut my eyes. I push her head down and lift it back, pushing myself into her throat. She grunts a bit. I come, digging my hands into her hair. I open my eyes. She’s staring at me, lips still closed around me. Another, smaller spurt goes into her mouth. She’s so calm, her eyes looking back at mine, blinking slowly. I stroke the sides of her face again. I want to hold her. She pulls off and opens her mouth. There’s a little pool around her tongue. With a look so clear it’s almost a question, she closes her mouth and swallows. She smiles, and I need to hold her. I got a little rough back there. Did I hurt you? Lying against me, she shakes her head no, and rubs her ear against my chest.

Midnight or so, perhaps the same night, perhaps a different night. I can see the shape of the episode’s script in my head, and I’m untroubled. We’ve been fucking for so long I couldn’t come if I wanted to. She’s had her tense, shaky first orgasm, and its easier cousins. She breaths deeply and steadily, in and out with each slow thrust and retreat. Her eyes glow, half open, the only part of her face I can see. Little tears glint at the corners of her eyes. She puts her arms around me, and wants to be held.

Papers, in neat little piles, surround her at her desk. I come in and start to knead her shoulders. Her head rolls forward. “Oh that feels good,” she breaths. She rocks backward and forward, whispering encouragements, until the last knot is gone. Her back feels supple and hot. I kiss the nape of her neck and disappear again.

How is your mom? “She’s fine. She sends her love.” She puts the phone back on the charger. I’m not quite what she expected for you, am I? “No, you are! You’re good to me… but in terms of my mother’s shopping list? No.” Shopping list? “You were supposed to be Punjab, come from a specific village…” Even after your parents moved here? “Mom has connections. It’s just the shopping list. All moms do it. I’ll do it. But, see, unlike your mother, mine always had it in mind that she would end up choosing someone for me, even though she always said I could marry whoever I wanted.” I’ll assume this is an Indian thing. “That’s like saying it’s a Northern Hemisphere thing.” I’m sorry. “Don’t be.” And what did you picture? “You. Just darker.” Well, sorry, again. “We can’t all be perfect. By the way, are you going to work on your script tonight?” Yes, I have to.

* * *

I am to understand that, sexually, I had a number of bad American habits to be broken, when we first got together. I tended to hedge my bets, was concerned about things like performance and stamina — cheats to keep my sex life separate from my regular life, hence my obsession with it. The whole thing did indeed became far less stressful the more she got to me. She says she’ll tell me if I do anything wrong, but aside from “stop thinking!” (“Você está pensando!”) she’s been pretty mute so far.

That’s our girl. She’s so much like her mom. Tottering around. She’s got the same hair, brown, and always a mess. That little dress looks like it was stitched together out of whatever was left over from her mom’s outfit. Lots of earth tones. They both look a little like a shanty village. “Menina,” she scolds. Our little girl immediately changes direction away from the street. It’s all the same to her. She’s a little ship, and we’re her pylons. She runs between us, looking thrilled at the world.

Two years later. Our little girl has had a nightmare about mommy and daddy dying, and I’m rocking her to sleep. What can I say to her? Years before she was born, her grampy died unexpectedly; why couldn’t we? My wife looks at me, and I look back at her. Rocking.

Hmm. Our little girl has walked in on us four or five times without noticing anything unusual. Fortunately she’s used to mommy and daddy kissing. The bathroom door is inside our room; that’s the problem — like it was in my house growing up. I now feel sorry for my parents. Item #341 I will never bring up with my mom.

“You married a Brazilian, a sculptor, and a MassArt student — that’s three times you were warned.”

We’re below my mom’s house, dipping our feet in and watching the lake grow dark. She turns around and rests what’s left of her bun in my lap. I scratch her head absently and move our beer bottles away from her elbow. She chuckles. What? “Did you ever fantasize about a girl like me, Matthew?” I’m not that creative. “Sadistic, you mean?” Frankly, I wouldn’t have liked to get my hopes up. She stares at me until we hear a pad pad pad pad pad of little feet, closing fast.

* * *

Nordic. The irony of repainting the house in Denmark Nordic style is that Nordic comes from the U.S. The irony of us is that we both look Danish but have only been here once before. She withdraws the stencil. “Yes?” It looks great. She beams.

“Which way?” She takes my hand. I was overwhelmed, she was overwhelmed, now we’re thinking. Left. There will be a market by the train. We can eat down by the river. When does the Metro stop running? “Midnight.” She knows. She smiles, hair matted, two days without a shower, mares-tails sticking to her forehead. I have to kiss her.

The river flows by sluggishly at night. It brings up a memory. I don’t say it. She’s tucking into her bread. “I like Europe. I like these places.” She burps, putting her fist to her mouth. “I like how children here can just… be kids.” Another memory. I don’t say it again. I like being within five feet of you. She looks at me. There is a pause, then she looks away, smiling. “You want to have kids?” I nod. I’m still looking at her. I don’t think either of us was expecting that.

Copenhagen, for the first time. I’m trying to dredge phrases out of the phrasebook but I can’t stop bursting out laughing every few moments. (Poor guy at the desk.) I’m trying to say “Mr. and Mrs. Rasmussen.”

We’ve got the giggles out of us. It’s late. There are snores around us in the hostel. We’re on a top bunk. I rest the hand holding a condom in her hand, and she closes her fingers around it. No movement. Barely breathing. I kiss her. Her cheeks are flushed. She puts it on me, kissing me again. I slide her to me, still trying to be as quiet as possible. Every curve, the full length of her body, bulges solidly against me. I part her shorts, kiss her again, and move against her. I’m inside her. She breathes out sharply through her nose. I feel it against my cheek. I push in again. She exhales, and immediately draws a breath. Her face screws up. She breathes raggedly through her nose, body rigid, pressed against mine. I break the kiss, raise my head and listen with one ear as she pants quietly against the other. She grabs fistfuls of my tee-shirt. I rub my hand across her bottom, squeezing her. Our mouths come together again. She’s shaking a bit. Her hips jerk. A small creak from the bed. Her jaw spasms, and she whines. 3… 2… 1… Her body relaxes against mine. Her breathing redoubles. She opens her eyes, hair stuck to her face, glistening with sweat. The sight of her is more than I can handle. I bundle her in my arms, and come.

It turns out that, when allowed to, she makes quite a bit of noise. The house smells like paint. It’s a similar moment. We’re both coming back to ourselves. “Do you love me?” Yeah. “Will you always love me?” Yeah. She searches my face, looking from eye to eye. “Look at me, and love only me?” Hai. (It’s transitioned into a bit of a movie we saw, but I know she’s being semi-serious.) She looks in my eyes. “I can’t read people like you can.” I can’t understand people like you can. “Did you ever think about… this, before we met?” Of course. There’s an odd look on her face. “Am I what you expected?” Sometimes, I answer; remember that thing I wrote about it? “Yeah.” You kind of remind me of that last girl. She frowns. “I didn’t really like her.” Why not? She was the most human. “Yeah, but you didn’t really want her, like the first girl. And she wasn’t as cool as the second one.” I didn’t say you were her, I said you kind of reminded me of her. “Then did you ever fantasize about someone more like me?” I’m sure of it. Maybe a dozen unique daydreams and fantasies a week, of varying length and complexity — I only wrote down three.