Word Problems

               Two trains depart different cities heading toward the same city at different speeds. Train  A, carrying a woman, leaves Atlanta traveling 120 miles an hour. The next morning, Train B, carrying a man, leaves New York traveling 100 miles an hour. How long until these passengers crash into each other?

               I knew he didn’t love me, but maybe by the end he did. I thought I heard him say it once, but maybe I just imagined it. He did say his body liked my body. That I am sure he said. He put his cheek against my breast and breathed, This is my favorite spot. My fingers grazed his bare back and his skin flushed with goosebumps. A scatter of dark freckles dotted his neck. They were something else, those freckles, something sweet, like fireflies over a hushed grassy field, each so tiny that I’d see one and when my eyes traveled to the next, I’d lose sight of the first.
               Of course we didn’t want anyone to know what we were doing, and neither of us could pinpoint who started it, be- cause when you started backtracking through the chain of events it easily could have been either of us. He made sure to sit by me at the welcome dinner, told me he’d read my book. The earnestness in his voice upended me. I kept bumping into him the second day. Hiking the residency trails, taking coffee breaks at the same time. The next night, his suggestion we talk on his bed, my eagerness to do so. Then his hands were baby foxes chasing each other around my body, and I gave in to what I’d promised myself I’d never succumb to again. When it was over, and he was in his favorite spot, I said, Who would be the worst person to find us like this? He said, I don’t want to think about that. Then he pushed me gently out of his bed, as if my leaving could erase the problem we’d just created.
               I could have stopped then. I could have let that one night be the only time. But two nights later as I was passing his room, he pulled me in, and his hands were doing their work on me before the door was even closed. Later, we were lying on the sweaty sheets listening to his iPod and I said, Play a song that reminds you of your mother, and he scrolled until he found “To Love Somebody” by The Bee Gees. I rolled over to my side and he folded himself around me and said he could fall asleep like that. Then he nudged me out of his bed again.
               Maybe he was trying to protect me. Maybe he was trying to protect himself. He definitely didn’t love me. But his body liked my body. That I knew.
               He set a thirty-minute limit our third time, as if restraint could breed fidelity. When we hit the thirty minutes, I said, Are you kicking me out of your bed again? He said, I wasn’t even thinking about it, and I said, Fifteen more minutes? He said yes and I stayed two more hours.
               Our first five nights together were like that, him pulling back the quilt on his bed, me lowering the window shade since he was on the first floor of the main house and we couldn’t risk being seen from the yard. We’d scratch and tickle and cradle and sigh so many times I couldn’t tell which sounds were content, which were distraught, which were just tired cries of being torn between each other and the ones back home. I said, I don’t want to ruin your life. I said, I know I’m being selfish. He said, Look at me, I’m doing the same thing. He said, As long as this stays here, we’re not doing anything wrong.
We were entangled, legs entwined, arms around each other, my cheek against his heartbeat, his head resting on mine. I’m going to fall asleep, he said, so I squeezed him tighter and he nudged me out for a fifth time, not in a mean way, but in a way that said if I didn’t leave that second, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from rearranging his life for me. I couldn’t let him do that, but each time, it was harder for me to leave.
               I said, I wish it wasn’t wrong, being this close to you. He said, This is all I want – to be this close to you. That’s when I lost my footing with him.
               What is it about a man’s trigger finger tracing your naked collarbone from your shoulder to your throat then down between your breasts that makes you fall into yourself? When you try to think of the word for this, you can’t come up with one. It’s something you feel happening before it even happens, some mysterious tingle in the air, a foreshadowing that something bigger than you will throw your body into deep water and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You’ve felt it before with other people, but each time it feels unnameable, beyond language. It’s like balancing on the front of an inflatable raft and knowing before you hit the rapids that you’re going to tumble out, and sure enough when the raft hits the first rock, you lose your grip and bounce right into the icy river. You try to remember your training, try to recall your preparation for this moment, but you’re being pulled under and in your panic of trying to come up for air, your head keeps hitting the raft’s bottom. The only way to survive is to submit to the current, let it hold you under, and there’s a peace that soaks into your skin once you allow the river to do what it’s going to do. That’s how you feel when you meet this young man you weren’t expecting to meet. You lie on your back and let this river carry you through foamy white rapids full of jagged boulders because you have no other choice, but the whole time you’re hoping someone will catch you and pull you out of yourself, easy as a fisherman lifts trout from a stream.

               A standard pressure cooker can boil liquids at 120 degrees Celsius. When the regulator knob on the lid is pushed, steam escapes through a tiny vent. A woman believes it is necessary to press this knob from time to time so that the pot does not erupt. A man believes the pot is fine if it is less than 2/3 full. How long until a poet uses this metaphor to justify an affair?

               We both had our book projects and halfway through our time together, I started worrying that he was tolerating me when he needed to be writing. I didn’t know how to ask if I was bothering him without sounding needy, so I refrained from seeking him out in his studio, and when I passed him in a hall and felt the urge to touch him, I’d hold back, feeling desire pulse through me like my own heartbeat. Other times, I’d see him leave a room, then I’d find the chair he’d just abandoned and sit in it, and inhale his cologne lingering in the cushion. The peril of him walking back in and finding me there shamed me.
               One afternoon we were hiking, and he reached out his hand to hold mine. We walked a measure, our fingers interlaced like a couple of teenagers. Then he wrestled his hand back and swiveled to glance over his shoulder, surprised at his own slip into reckless behavior, a public display that would reveal more to the world than if we’d stripped naked and streaked through the main house. I was just as guilty. At lunch, my pretend-to-pick-lint-off- his-shirt-just-to-touch-him touch said everything about me. If nothing else, our coming together confirmed the law of physics that two people who want to touch will al- ways find a way, even when nothing can happen. Even when everything can happen.
               And at night he was all kinds of everything. I wanted to memorize every detail, so as I inhabited each moment, I stood outside it as well, noting how his hands felt knot- ted in my hair, pulling fistfuls until my chin pointed to the ceiling, his mouth gasping against my neck. When he pushed me against the wall, I tried describing it to my- self to preserve it, but I kept losing track, that part of my brain responsible for language surrendering to the tender scratch of his fingernail on my thigh as he glided his hand between my legs.

               After each encounter, an English professor records the details of lovemaking in a  spiral-bound notebook. The acts become no more than the sum of the letters in the words she uses. Given what you know about this woman’s compulsion to compartmentalize, calculate how many consonants and vowels she will employ to describe the PhD student sleeping beneath her.

               Once, we were lying there in the dark and he told me his middle name and I said his whole name out loud just to feel it in my mouth. His full name sounded upper class to me, pretentious even, but in a way that thrilled me because I grew up on a dirt road in a small town in South Carolina, so holding this well-bred guy in my arms made me shiver. And when I told him my middle name, he echoed it over and over to the top of my head, his breath warm in my hair. It’s very Southern, I said. My Southern Belle, he said.
               The next night he said, Tell me about your childhood, and it all spilled out in a breathless rush: crying on my first day of kindergarten, and the green bath towel I slept with, and the matchbox car I carried in my pocket until I lost it. I couldn’t stop talking, and he just lay there listening, and the less he said, the more I confessed: teasing a girl in 4th grade who couldn’t read, playing doctor with the boy down the road, giving a jock I hated a handjob at an 8th grade pool party. You’re good at telling stories, he whispered, drifting to sleep.
               After revealing so much, I began looking for things to despise in him so when it came time to say goodbye it would be easier. If he’d been a disgusting eater like the loud-chewing men I’d grown up around, I could hate him. At dinner I watched for him to slurp his carrot soup or laugh with hunks of meat wedged in his teeth, but he took small bites, held the fork in his left hand and used his knife to push potatoes on to the back of the fork. He lifted each bite calmly to his mouth in a custom that revealed his breeding and made my own table manners look crude.
               Here’s what I found to despise: his hipster pocketwatch. That he said horny instead of turned on, fingering instead of touching. How childish he could be, jumping to slap the doorframe whenever he passed through a tall doorway.

               X and Y are lying in bed. How many minutes until Y says something X finds embarrassing? How long until X decides this could never work? Will Y ever realize what he thinks are the right words are actually the wrong words?

               Always there was this wall between us, this age difference. Maybe I felt it more than he did. Sometimes, I could pretend it wasn’t there at all, then I’d feel it with my hands, rigid as his stomach muscles, and I was already too soft in places I didn’t want to be soft in. But he liked my soft edges. At least, I think he did. He was so careful with them, the way you’re careful with a chipmunk you catch in your mudroom, cupping it in your hands and setting it gently in the garden. He took his time with me, knew how to slow himself down even though he wanted to go fast, like when you’re running downhill, how tempting it is to really surrender and allow gravity to torpedo you to the bottom, but you hold back, force your muscles to feel every footstep, the heel rolling to the ball then rising up, the other heel rolling to the ball, the tension in your hips and thighs like thick ropes twisted around a wooden fence.
               Halfway through the residency we went to an art gallery in the city and I was feeling agitated, aware in my bones that my time with him was so finite. We were looking at a bench made from kitchen utensils and he asked if I would ever consider starting over. I said I was too old to start over, and he said 39 wasn’t too old, if I went for an older man. You’re attractive, you’re smart, you’re stable. You have a lot to offer. I wanted him to mean I had a lot to offer him, but I knew he meant I had a lot to offer someone else, not someone still in his twenties, someone who wanted kids, which I couldn’t give him. But why should I have even thought about children with him? We’d only been sleeping together a week. No one talks about having babies after just a week.
               When my husband hadn’t heard from me in days, he called and yelled for an hour. He was suspicious, of course, who wouldn’t be? I stood in the dark kitchen of the main house, trying to reassure him that everything was fine, but he was too drunk on his own insecurity to listen. After we hung up, I pulled a juice glass from the cabinet and it slipped and dropped to the floor. My young man heard the crash down the hall and found me standing barefoot among  the  shattered  glass.  I  said,  I broke a glass. I don’t know what to do. And what I meant was, I don’t know why I keep breaking things and expecting other people to clean my messes. He said, Don’t move. He put on shoes and found a broom and swept up all the pieces. Later in his bed, he said, Tell me all the good things about your husband. Maybe he wanted to remind me that this thing between us wasn’t permanent. Maybe since I’d only told him the bad stuff, he hated the man I lived with, and he didn’t want to feel that way.
               That night while I was holding him, I said, Do you think of me as someone so much older than you? And he said No, but he hesitated for just a second and it seemed he was only saying no because he didn’t want the age difference to matter. I haven’t really thought about it, he said, but yeah, I think of us being the same age. I knew he didn’t mean it. And with his head on my chest and my fingers stroking his hair, I felt for the first time since we’d started this thing that I was holding a boy in my arms, not a man, and I didn’t like the way that felt.
               The next day we jogged at East Rock Park, and I kept pace with him at first. I told him about running laps in high school P.E. and how I beat the boys in the weightlifting class, and he high-fived me in his charming, little kid way. When we reached the bridge, he pulled ahead and turned to look at me, and I said, Please, run at your own pace, and I meant it. I didn’t want to hold him back. Jogging behind him, I watched his shoulders under his white athletic shirt, his small tight muscles flexing, his hard, round calves and perfect posture. He glided the way I used to glide when I was in my twenties, when I could run for miles without stopping. He got so far ahead I couldn’t see him anymore and I hated how slow I was, hated he still had his entire thirties just waiting for him to make as many mistakes as I’d made in mine. I hated him for reminding me that I was a different person than I was ten years earlier, and I loved him for it too, loved his athleticism and sweat, how he had the energy to climb up a boulder on the side of the trail and perch there like a coyote, waiting for me to catch up. And I hated that he was perched on that boulder, hated his impulsivity, hated how easily he could elongate the distance between us.

               If a woman leaves a man’s room two hours after midnight each night, and he sleeps at least eight hours before they see each other the next morning, how many hours is he available to her over the course of fourteen days? Take into account: on average she wakes three hours before he does, and she wakes thinking of him and she also dreams about him in the final hour of the five hours she sleeps each night.

               Even before it was over, I was already trying to add up the price. Sometimes, it felt like he cost too much. Other times, when I tried adding things up, he wasn’t enough. I was holding him, tallying the hours we had left—four more days, three more nights besides the one we were in. Then again, it wasn’t really four whole days because his train was early Monday afternoon, so make it three and a half days left. But I had to subtract my poetry reading on the college campus Friday night, so that was another hour, plus the cocktail hour before it and dinner with the other professors afterward that he wasn’t invited to, so that was at least four or five hours gone right there. And he had volunteered to run a workshop with local high schoolers on Saturday morning, and he might grab lunch at the Thai restaurant with them, he said, but he’d be back by 2 p.m. So another half day would be lost, and we were down to two days and change. But there was also the Saturday night low country boil and we’d have to sit apart so nobody would think we were sharing this thing we were sharing, and though we’d both be under that park pavilion, we’d be at opposite ends of the picnic table, listening to the other writers drone on about Derrida while their fingers tore apart overcooked shrimp. Each shrimp tail thrown on the ground was another minute we could be together wasted. Lying in his bed, running the numbers while he slept, I counted the disappointments, desperate for them to negate my lust. The group dinner at an oyster bar after the art gallery, when he sat as far from me as he could, deeply involved in a conversation about parietal art in France where he’d spent the previous summer. I wore a silky green dress. He didn’t seem to notice. I ate oysters for the first time that night and they tasted like the sea, salty and oniony, and I swallowed frosty gulps of chardonnay between each bite and felt light-headed and aroused and wanted him next to me. I’d been in his bed just the night before, and now I couldn’t catch his eye when I walked past his chair to the ladies’ room.
               Or the time I said, I’m not a bad person, and he didn’t reply. He was putting on pajamas while I sat on his bed. I’d just had that terrible fight with my husband. I wanted him to say, Of course you’re not. Maybe he thought he didn’t have to say it, that cleaning up my shattered juice glass implied it. Maybe he thought I was a bad person. Or may- be he realized he hadn’t known me long enough to know what kind of person I was. I’m not going to be a punching bag for anyone’s insecurities, I said. I’m tired of being told what to do, tired of being treated like someone’s child. When I finished speaking, he drew my face to his and pressed his forehead to mine, like our foreheads were kissing. But he never agreed that I was not a bad person, so I said it again: I’m not a bad person.

               A woman jogs a three-mile loop through the park. She runs the first mile at 6 mph, the second mile at 57 mph, and the third mile at 55 mph. What is the average speed it will take for her to clear her mind of the man she may never stop loving? How far into her daily run will she get before her grief turns into a physical barrier? At what point will the ground turn to quicksand, until she slogs to a bench and begins sobbing uncontrollably? How many strangers pushing toddlers in strollers will ask if she needs help?

               I told him early on, our third night I think, that I’d never run out of things to say to him. A week later, I was tired of hearing myself speak, tired of waiting for his reply. That happens even when you only have two weeks with another person. And you go home thinking if you ran out of things to say to him, then there’s no one in the world you could talk to forever. But you keep remembering the night after you got off the phone with your husband, how horrible you were feeling about the hurt husband, the broken glass, and this younger man walking into the room and crossing the moonlit kitchen and wrapping you in his arms, as if he could absorb some of your despair into his muscles, sponge it off you just a little, and it worked, you could feel the pain and anger draining, not into him exactly, but out of you. It wasn’t romance you felt in that moment, it was compassion. Maybe compassion was all you ever wanted from him.
               On our last night, he was changing a lightbulb in a ceiling fan and I pulled out my camera. Do you ever try to remember something without taking a picture? he asked. How could I say without sounding desperate that I had catalogued every facet of him: the way his fingers looked typing an email, the way his hair curled behind his ear like a question mark, how his beard felt tickling my navel. Sure, I said. I wanted to say, I think about you before I go to sleep, I lie there replaying every laugh, every eyebrow raise, every insignificant moment that alone would mean nothing but piled together mean everything, or at least something. But I didn’t say that because the next day we’d be saying goodbye for good, so why say anything?

               Two trains depart the same city at the same time. Train A carries a woman. Train B, a man. If all matter in the universe is recycled, and every passenger is made of tree dust or powdered rock, is there anything in a man that isn’t in a woman? When a younger man pulls a woman on top of him, presses into her, says there is no position he’d rather be in, could this have happened any time? Could it never happen again?

               When I got home, I compulsively made word banks out of each conversation, a column for nouns, a column for verbs, and so on. I compiled these lists in a pale green steno pad, the kind I used in 10th grade English class to write down the daily grammar rule from the board. The spectacular words he used were worth more—his middle name, for example, and what he called his grandfather’s boat, and what he murmured into my neck the last night I shared his bed. Other words could be discarded easily: articles, prepositions, his girlfriend’s name. I thought if I could distill the entire relationship into one page, just the words I wanted to remember, I could pull the page out on quiet mornings and read it over and over. If I could perfect this list, I could contain him on one sheet of paper.
               But you can’t just delegate a man to a sheet of paper and only think of him when it’s convenient. A week after it ends, you’re reading a magazine in an empty coffee shop in Atlanta and notice a design someone scratched into the wooden table with a key—an 8-pointed star like a compass. The etching reminds you of his pocket watch. That afternoon, long fingers of sunlight stretch between the cars in the parking lot, and you imagine him sitting in his apartment in Brooklyn, a book on his lap, the dog nuzzling his hand with her large black nose. The way he smiled when he talked about his dog was a miracle.
               Or weeks later, you hear college students laughing in the hall outside your office and you remember the time you made a joke and he turned to you with that grin of his, that grin you were always gunning for, and no one else was around and he threw his weight against you for a hug and he knocked you off balance so you took a step back but he kept hugging, which made you both start giggling, and you kept taking steps backwards until you’d hug-walked across the entire room, and by then you were both gasping with laughter, barely able to stand, god, he made you feel like a kid. It was the only time you let go before he did.
               Even a month after your separation, you wake feeling him still inside you, as if he has pushed you out of your own body the way he pushed you out of his bed those times. He takes over, stretches his arms all the way down your arms, spreads his fingers into yours, pushes his legs through to your toes, fills you the way a hard-sleeping man can fill a bed with his whole body, vinelike and spread-eagled and greedy, incapable of giving up what he wants. You want to get back into your life, but you begin to believe this ache will never leave.
               You stare at that photo you took of him changing the lightbulb. He’s standing on a chair, and his gray t-shirt is lifted just enough to reveal a strip of flat stomach and the gray waistband of his boxer briefs. You can’t bring yourself to add up the number of times you felt the heat that radiated from his torso with your bare hands, because you know how the human heart works, how difficult it is to ever calculate a sum you can afford.

First Prize in Short Fiction
2020 Stubborn Writers Contest

Sara Pirkle is a Southern poet, an identical twin, a breast cancer survivor, and a board game enthusiast. Her first book, The Disappearing Act, won the 2016 Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry. Sara has received writing fellowships from The Anderson Center, I-Park Foundation, and The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. She is the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Creative Writing at The University of Alabama, where she also runs the Pure Products Reading & Lecture Series.