Fall 2009, Volume 7

Fiction by Jenny Steele

Place Me

At long last, this validity.  A neutral church and a simple ceremony, not a splashy bash.  A joyous blend, splendid.  The minister lures us into our vows with words about harmony and unity.  Applause of family, of friends.  No maudlin party, no tiered cake, no champagne toasts, only quick escape.  The church janitor’s closet, our suitcases in it.  We shed gown and tuxedo.  Comic unzip and shimmy.  Jeans, t-shirts, sandals.  Then scurry and whoop in a taxi to Sky Harbor.  No phones, our phones abandoned in the pewter dish in our den.  None of my finicky clients calling, views?, schools?, or that gallery pleading with you, one extra nude?  Nothing of that matters, if only during this short week in Hawaii.  Ocean and beach, and though not novel to us, meaningful now.  Husband and wife, licensed so.  Nothing frisky between us yet, only sly snickering as if we’ve committed a heist.  This direct flight, Phoenix to Honolulu.  Buckled in, settling in.  The pilot’s garbled drawl about cruising altitude and estimated arrival.  Flight attendants in pineapple-patterned shirts.  Pretzels and mini-bottles of wine.  We’re married, I say.  You whisper, Yes, amazing.

The hotel lobby is marble and humid with tubs and troughs of lush, leafy plants.  A clerk loops leis around our necks.  Aloha.  A bellhop loads a cart with our luggage and leads us to the honeymoon suite.  You scoop me up and carry me across the threshold.  I squeal and blush as all brides should.  You set me on the edge of the bed, then flick cash out of your wallet to tip the keen but aloof bellhop.  Mahalo.  The bellhop vanishes and you bolt and safety-chain the door.  I step out to the balcony and you join me, lean into me, nuzzle me.  I turn towards you.  Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Taylor, you say, again and again and again, an incantation of possession.  It is what I want, to rid myself entirely of my maiden name Slocum, that identity and its history.  Nothing hyphenated either, as my friends have chosen.  A hyphen seems an if or as a twig easily snapped.  And you have said that you are mine fully, your body and soul deeded to me.

Inside again, into this beige and aqua room.  I twist the blinds shut.  You unloop our leis of glossy yellow petals, then you shuck my t-shirt, trace my ribcage with your thumbs, unhook my bra.  You never rush, you study my collarbone, my bellybutton.  Languid zest, precision.  So dissimilar to the others, those guys in my 20’s, the clumsy screws, the selfishness.  Not this, this exquisite slowness.  You sculpt time as you sculpt clay.  We enter the bed in this dim, cool room.  We enter one another.


Our resemblance.  Others remark on it.  Dark hair, dark eyes, pale skin.  Of equal height and build.  The same tastes in music, movies.  A natural match.  Balance.  And when I am frazzled, you smooth me out, and when you are low, I buoy you.  We had both been through an almost with others, an almost plunge, and we were raw and cautious, so when our love happened, it was unexpected, it astonished us.  And we both yet marvel at what our love is not: not frail, not flimsy, not hollow.

Our first night in Hawaii.  The beachside grill within the complex of our hotel.  Mai tais with miniature plastic sabers, chunks of pineapple on the blades.  A family at the adjacent table: mother rubbing her temples, twin boys battling with the little sabers, father trying but failing to talk to a scowling, pubescent girl.  She’s me, I say of this girl.  How I was.  I hated the world.  Or only myself, I guess.

Where was I then? you say.  In pottery class.  The teacher not letting me use the kiln until I had a bowl, a mouth, an eye exact, making me squish the clay back into nothing.  Then I blasted asteroids at the arcade, took out my frustration.  All of that was on my way to you, Connie.

Not insipid or silly as it would sound coming from anyone else.  Maybe I was on my way to you too, through all that tumult, those scenes, through Paul, through Jack, their charms eroding into sarcasm and mewling.  I promised myself not to allow ruin into my heart again, though my solitude seemed a punishment.  Until that monsoon night when I sought shelter in an alcove, huddled there, cursed my cheap umbrella.  Are you okay?!  A voice through the hard rain, a man shouting through a levered pain across the street, his hands cupped around his mouth.  Gesture of wait, wait.  I had fled seminar chat and mingle, had dashed out into the storm, but where had I parked?  Damn.  Damn this.  You splashing towards me, throwing a yellow raincoat around me, guiding me across the flooding street.  A narrow staircase and into a passageway of torsos and limbs.  Let me get you a towel.  The funny story of how we met. 

Remember that night, Michael?  That night you rescued me?

Of course.

You led me into a large room, part studio, part living space.  Unmade bed, kitchenette (take-out pails, pizza boxes), messiness, but no traces of any woman.  Only an unfinished sculpture of a nude, half of a clay woman on a pivoting pedestal.  No, nobody else here, you said.  I’m alone.  Beer?  Tea?

Beer.  Please.

I’m Michael.

Connie.  I accepted a Corona, then nodded at the clay nude.  Gusts slapped rain against the windows.  The shadow of sheeting water along the nude’s raw body.  You circled the nude, told me she was a commission.

The waitress sets plates of mahi mahi on our table, but as we begin our meal, a man approaches us.  Thirtyish, gaunt, blond, with a hard tan, in khaki shorts and a pink polo shirt.  He crouches, examines me.  Hello.  Don’t I know you?  Minty breath, musky cologne.  Yes.  But from where?  I can’t place you.

Utensils poised, I glance at you, then back at this man.  Sorry, I say.  I don’t recognize you.  A flick of candle flame along his jaw.

Okay.  I could have sworn.  He winks at you and strolls away, out to the beach, thumbs hooked in his pockets.  Where were we, I say as I fork into my fish.

That commission.  And you were suddenly describing yourself.  But not panicky.

I couldn’t believe it.  I let it all out.  The residue of heartache sloughed.  How weird it was, that crude purge.  You were only a stranger who had pulled me out of the storm.  Had I interrupted your work?  Was my unburdening a burden to you?  But there was the bad weather and your polite attention and how lonely I was, all of it a sharp whirl that night.

You slept in one of my t-shirts, you say.  I assigned myself the floor.  Doughnuts and coffee in the morning.  You lingered.  I put you in that slash of sunlight.  I used the nape of your neck, the points of your hips.  Unabashed.

Yes.  I was unabashed.


Gentle knock-knock.  You slip into the hotel bathrobe.  A lithe brown girl in an aqua smock unloads a tray on our balcony table.  Papaya, berries, muffins, an insulated carafe of coffee.  After our night of wordless joy and no frenzy.  Below us, on the beach, a woman in a gauzy skirt sweeps a metal detector across the sand, then kneels, digs, pockets a find.  Farther along, long sleek canoes thrust into the water.

Noonish meandering into the gewgaw district of Waikiki.  Labyrinths of booths with hats, ukuleles, totes, seashells.  I am buying a whale carved of koa wood when a voice shouts, Hello again!  It’s the same man from last night, the one who claims to know me.  How about this?  He makes a back-and-forth gesture between himself and me.  I smirk, then join you in a booth of kites.  You’ve noticed all of this and you say, Who is that, Connie?  I look back, but the man has drifted into the crowd.  I have no idea, I say.  Honestly.

Sun-splayed on the beach through the day.  Coconut sunscreen, cones of shave ice with banana syrup, quick dips in the ocean.  All concerns loosened.  My dumb clients, hauling them around Phoenix in my Volvo.  Skylights?  Yes!  And custom tile!  That act and its tedious hustle.  Not so different than when, as a child, I sold my dollhouse to my cocker spaniel.  Let’s not go home, Michael.  We’ll buy a bungalow.  Have our own shave ice shack.


Not a unique idea, of course, to skip out on our lives, to dismantle the size and shape of our lives.  Others here with this same fantasy, no doubt.  I prop myself on one elbow and my shadow shades you.  With one fingertip, I trace the furrows of your ribs.  That tickles, you say and I say, Don’t squirm.


Pearl Harbor?

Too morbid, I say.  Sun and nothing are okay with me.

And so another day of beach.  I lie on my stomach, one cheek balanced on my stacked fists, and I watch you swim into the ocean until your head is a dark dot within hems of surf.  Come back, I say and as if these words are an actual hook, you start back towards the shore.  You splash out of the water and kneel to your beach mat, kiss the dale between my shoulder blades.  There’s that creep again, you say.  Unbelievable.  I turn.  There he is, sitting on a bench, staring at us.  He lifts one arm, the beginning of a hello.  Okay, you say.  That’s it.  You leap towards him.  Introduce yourself.  If you know my wife.

No, no, that takes all the fun out of it, the man says as he rises.  Come on, Connie!  Place me!

My name in this person’s mouth.  Has he really recognized me from somewhere?  Or is he a psychotic, catching names, then playing this sick game.  Though he seems so sure, if sadly sure.  An index flips through my mind: my dull, lonely childhood; my adolescence, all the loathing and rebellion; in my 20’s, my heart shifting here, there.  This man doesn’t fit within any memory.

You yawp, Get lost!  The man seems flummoxed, but is laughing.  You punch him in the mouth.  Michael!  I hurry towards you as you hit him again, in the mouth, in the eye.  The man on his knees now.  He spits sand, cups his swelling eye.  Your low growl, You stay away from us.  Understand?  The man nods, staggers away in surrender.

We gather our things into our nylon rainbow totes, then go back to our room.  You’re hurt, I say, noticing the smear of blood on your hand.  No, you say.  It’s his blood.  I cut a knuckle on his teeth.  I fill the ice bucket and you twist your fist into the ice.  Scold you or thank you?  Are you a bully or a hero?  As if aware of my dilemma, you say, Protecting my bride.  I always will.  Please don’t say you don’t need my protection.  Let me have that, Connie.  I’ve never had that.

This soft, sweet request.  Maybe it satisfies a void in you.  I won’t question it.  I hang the Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob.  A tiny blossom of blood in the bucket of ice.


We’ll have another honeymoon.  In the mountains.  That funky motel in Payson.  Remember?  We fed scones to the raccoons.

Yes.  And we’ll erase all of this.

That bastard.  Probably already stalking another couple.  ‘Hello.  Don’t I know you?’

I pinch your wrist.  The bump of your pulse under the tip of my thumb.  But you shouldn’t have hurt him.  I had no idea this was in you.

I wanted to hurt him.  I had a chance to hurt another guy.  In college.  A jock.  He stole my girlfriend.  So smug about it too.  Breathing on me about it at a party.  I should have punched him.

Another detail about you that I had never heard until now.  Part of your journey to me.  If that girlfriend had not been stolen, if you had punched that jock?  Consequences and all of your story altered, and there would not have been that rainy night, you beckoning me from your window.

The jet lifts, banks neatly.  The islands shrink, frill of ocean around them.  Home to Phoenix, to the schmooze of clients.  And to your studio, that room in our house meant for children, if we want children.  Your recent nudes there instead, with bits of me sculpted into them.  You position me, copy my throat, thighs, ankles.

We climb and level.  Your right hand in my lap.  Knuckles tinged with blue under the tropical burn, the one knuckle with its comma of a cut.  I smile greedily.  Yes, you are protection: against the haphazard, against restlessness.  You drowse against me, your hair yet textured with ocean, and I whisper, Thank you.  And now it comes to me, a lucid memory.  Place me.  That summer camp in the woods, log huts with bunks, faux Indian crafts, archery, swimming in that cold lake.  Cruel jeers towards kids less adept, less favored, including that one boy, gawky, not anybody’s pal.  Calvin.  Of course.  The same eyes, the same posture, and how he hooked his thumbs in his pockets.  Victim of pranks and no pity towards him.  So here he is, in a dim cache in my brain.  What of his journey, to cross paths with me again in Honolulu?  I decide against telling you.  I’ll keep this within myself, not as a secret, but only a trivial concealment, though I was so fluent the night we met.  And now I steep myself in that morning following, that rain-cleansed morning, you placing me in the sun and using the nape of my neck, the points of my hips.  How you posed me, one arm lifted slightly, subtly.  That pose mimicked Calvin’s meek gesture of hello, the hello of that taunted boy sitting on that bench at the beach.  I will always, awfully, pair these images, years and years from now, when we are gray and trying to align distant memories.


BIO:  Jenny Steele's fiction has been published in Quay Journal, Pebble Lake Review, Salt Hill, The Bullfight Review, Harpur Palate, The First Line, jerseyworks.com, juked.com, darkskymagazine.com, and applevalleyreview.com. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize.