She tells you not to stare at the blood. You say that her hand is clean, a bit too clean, in fact, all papery and raw. You tell her she doesn’t have to soak her fingers, but she insists. Says she likes the way the bubbles tickle her nostrils, that the lemon scent soothes her down. You ask her why she’s so jittery, her fingers shaking like twigs. She asks if you are married. “If you were,” she says, “you’d understand.” She looks around the nail salon, the ferns spilling out of their baskets, the hum of drying fans. “You like all this?” she asks you. “Doing manicures all day?” She tilts her head toward the salon owner, squatty and cat-eyed, sprawled out in a pedicure chair. She is eating a salad like you don’t have time for. “Wouldn’t you rather do that?” Lady Macbeth asks and you realize how happy you have been all this time not being happy. You think about your husband, his late nights working and so little to show. The lemon starts to tickle your nostrils. You take Lady Macbeth’s hand, your fingers entwined. What felt like twigs feels steely now and strong. She pulls her hand from yours and hands you a nail file. She looks at you and then at the owner. “Yes,” you think, “yes.” You think how nice it would be to tell your husband he could quit his job at night and keep you company. You wonder why it’s taken till now for you to realize this, and is it possible you’ve been sleeping all this time?
Root beer floats for dinner, and no idea how to worry. None of us knew about the bulby knuckles we’d have one day, after kids, and houses. We had no clue how our husbands would call us old, slam the trunks of their mid-life cars, the tailpipe smoke a choky curl as they sped away and made us even older. We couldn’t name the stars when our children held up flash cards, couldn’t answer where’s dad? Had no clue about the phone bill, the light bill, how half would become double and lay on you all night like a dead lover. How young would become something we only saw on TV, with even our children holding old in their eyes. The way we had nothing to tell them when they asked for more light to see, to read, to live. How we didn’t know we were no longer living and all we would have to do was wait for morning to come, and that, until it did, we could learn the names of stars, learn to stand on the front step, watch cars fade into the night again and not be afraid, stop looking up into the black empty as if we never heard of darkness.
Like the summer I was 18 and the sand that wouldn’t wash off my toes. Or my mother, that day, warning me, how she knew I was caught in the wave of wrong love. How you and I walked barefoot on the beach and you said you didn’t love me anymore and why don’t I throw my whole heart in the ocean. Or the way I looked at the sailboat, full mast open, billow, on the horizon line and thought how happy those people were. Would have to be. All free and salt spray like they were. Or how the sand that wouldn’t wash off my toes was like a symbol or something I’d figure out later. Or how you driving me home for the last time, “okay then”, you’d say as you pulled up to my house and the porch light popped open like an idea and I realized the reason I couldn’t wash the sand off was that I was using salt water and that would always leave a residue. Or that at some point I would realize that you didn’t tell me to throw my whole heart in the ocean, I only imagined that, or that the horizon sailboat could have been filled with pirates, or inches away from a wind swirl. Or or. Or how I would want to forget my mother, her arms folded around me when I made it to the porch and the two of us watching your goodbye taillights. Or how I didn’t know that six months down, she would leave me, too, but dying for real, and that it would leave a salt stain on my heart that would never wash away.
Francine Witte’s stories are forthcoming in Best Small Fictions 2022, and Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton.) Her recent books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (ELJ Editions,) and Just Outside the Tunnel of Love (Blue Light Press.) Her poetry collection, Some Distant Pin of Light is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press. She is flash fiction editor for Flash Boulevard and The South Florida Poetry Journal. She lives in NYC.