Fiction

Ezra Carlsen‘s fiction has been published in Fiddleblack, and is forthcoming in the journal Sundog Lit and The Southern Humanities Review. He’ll begin his MFA in fiction at the University of Oregon in the fall.

Language Student

It’s easy, when I take into account all the variables, to see where I let a beautiful thing cancel itself, let one kind of silence turn into another. It’s easy to think, yeah, I could’ve done better, I could’ve said this or that, Y instead of X, I could’ve gone straight through to Napa and never turned onto Oakville Grade.

But there were two things I didn’t take stock of: one was the fog, a fatty wetness pinched between the knuckles of the hillside. Before I turned we could see it from the highway, and goddamn if Sophia didn’t even say, “Look at that fog. So dramatic. You see it? It’s like it comes out of the mountain.”

The other thing was physics. The atomic world is fickle. The more precise the location the less precise the momentum. Figure momentum, and position gets murky. Things change according to who’s casting glances, who’s storing the data in that wily little Spanish head of hers. I probably would’ve passed right through that mountain had Sophia not been there, observing me, tensing at every turn, working imaginary brakes, fingertips white against the door handle. And that silence — any man who’s ever reached for anything with a lady in tow knows that silence, silence that says he’s really done it this time.

The road was barely big enough for my little Nissan. I crept around the curves, trying not to appear timid. The headlights, clustered with moths, struggled against the gray, and I couldn’t see a thing except the few feet of road ahead of us. A truck flew up behind us and flashed his brights like he had an urgent message to deliver. I punched it faster to distance myself from him, but each turn was blind, causing jumpy and intermittent braking. It was a sinister piece of machinery, in dangerous pursuit, the lights pouring in on us.

“Don’t,” I said when Sophia turned to look. She stared at me, turned forward again.

I was drenched. I mean I was a puddle. I had the window down so the windshield wouldn’t fog up and I was shivering from the cold. I asked Sophia if she was cold too but she didn’t answer. I guess I knew already. We had spent the day in Wilbur Hot Springs out in the boonies north of St. Helena. It was New Years Day, and we thought what better, more symbolic way to spend the unfurling of a new year together than a lavish all-day soak in natural baths followed by a sweat in the dry sauna. The day was all relaxation and blissful silences, steam pulling from the pools emptying our thoughts. I hadn’t stopped sweating since, and I’m sure Sophia was soaked too, even if she wouldn’t tell me so.

Every now and then, the Nissan dipped off the road onto the shoulder and gravel crunched under the tires and I jerked back more abruptly than I would’ve liked. When it happened, there was a strong inclination to apologize, but I held back. She’d have seized it.

I found a narrow turnoff to let the truck pass. It roared by and its taillights streaked red and disappeared into the fog. We watched it go. This was one of those roads that belonged to the people who lived on it. They had it committed to memory. They knew every turn, every incline and decline, they navigated with no forgiveness for trespasses.

“It’s pretty hairy out here, huh?” I said, pulling back onto the road. “We’re almost at the crest of the hill though. I can feel it.” She said nothing. “Then it’s all downhill from there. Home free. Free and easy. Easy as pie.”

Who are you talking to?” she said.

“I’m talking to you,” I said.

I wondered how far the drop-off was on her side. Might not have been a drop at all. Might’ve been a meadow for all I could see. Could be I flew off that road and in a gruesome spectacle torn right through a herd of cattle grazing pleasantly in the nighttime cool.

“If I were an axe murderer,” I said, “this road would be a prime stretch.” She aimed a stare my way that more or less imparted the edge of anger I was gaming for. “Really though,” I continued, “I mean really think about it. I could dip in and out of the mist unnoticed, unencumbered, free in my bloody sport. Let the world hold the knowledge that a random and grotesque end can find it at any moment.”

“Can’t you just shut up,” she said. When she was angry her English was hastened by rapid Catalonian rhythms. “It was a perfect day, and now you can’t shut up. You’re ruining it.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I’m sorry. I know how the sound of my voice is unbearable to you.”

“You know that’s not it,” she said, “It’s what you say. The content.” She misplaced the stress on the second syllable, the tent in the word, as if she were saying: the satisfaction.

“Okay. I’m sorry, content-wise,” I said.

Sophia studied painting at a fancy art school in San Francisco. More than half of the school was comprised of foreign students and I taught an ESL course to help them adapt as they worked their normal course-loads. It was clear from the outset that she never needed my instruction. She’s fluent in many languages, spoken tongues aside. I had an ear for those unspoken signals in the beginning.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “But when you have that glow, that warmth, that aura of love and affection about you, I really can’t be responsible for what I say. I lose control.”

“Sarcasm is the last refuge of a coward,” she said. I was proud to hear her quote me so well. I looked over at her in time to see her smile a little. It was an exasperated, violent smile accompanied by a subtle shake of the head. But it was a smile.

Sophia’s a sight to see, and many old potbellied lechers did at the springs that day. Her hair all strangled brunette curls. Her slender neck fed into her body and pronounced her collarbones. At that golden triangle where the clavicles joined I saw sweat collect and threaten to jump down her chest just as she was flooded by light through the windshield. By the time she sucked in her breath I felt the jolt of impact and my head lurched forward, the bridge of my nose connecting with the steering wheel, issuing a weak chirp of the horn over the pop of metal and glass and plastic. We were brushed over the embankment and for a heartbeat or more we lacked the tether of gravity, mass-less, then were received by a bevy of mud and manzanitas.

“I’ve bitten my tongue,” I said.

My eyes were overwhelmed with water and I could see only Sophia’s rippled silhouette. “Are you okay?” I said.

“Your airbags don’t work,” she said.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

“No,” she said.

I heard two car doors close in succession. I wiped my eyes with the back of my arm. A fierce pain rose to meet my face.

“Did you hear that?” she said. “Someone’s coming.”

“Unencumbered in his bloody sport,” I said. I understood that this was the wrong thing for the moment, content-wise. We sat there for some time but no figure emerged from the fog. Sophia opened the door and the cab light found us staring at each other.

“What is it?” I said.

“You’re bleeding.”

I traced the source to my nose, to a cut on my eyebrow, and to my tongue, the tip mashed and disfigured. Remarkably, Sophia didn’t have a scratch. I tilted my head back and tasted the blood tinny and sweet in my throat.

*

I’d been in a few emergency rooms and never found them to be all that bad. Not how most people whine about them anyway. Sure you have to wait around. Sure you might be hurt. Hurt badly, as the case may be. Granted I’ve never walked in with a gut-shot or a dislocated eyeball. But what I like is this: We’re a bunch of sad sons of bitches with no recourse for aid, airing our competitive grievances, eyeing each other, judging each other’s maladies, thinking: my pain is greater than hers, lesser than his. We wait to trade our wounds for a suture of any sort.

The nurse at the window eyed me coldly. Her years of experience behind that glass had taught her that there’s fault in every injury, and she decided I was to blame. Sophia on the other hand managed to thaw the woman some. The woman told her the wait shouldn’t be too long, as if it were Sophia who needed the attention. I wandered around as they talked and laughed. Sophia could be very charming when she put her heart into it. I understood they were conspiring. It doesn’t take long for women to begin that special commiseration. It’s an exchange of sympathies that accuses the world, and me for being of it. I become a symptom of its illness, a cannibal hunting for flesh, for inaccessible provisions. Women circle their wagons, believe themselves to be under unrelenting assault from savages like me. And I’m just one of countless in my tribe. Nothing more. When we returned to the bench, Sophia left space between us. It wasn’t a lot, but enough to squeeze my indignation into. We’d run aground.

How laughable. How predictable it would be. We’d return to the city and Sophia would be relieved to focus on her classes. She’d have an openness to her. Someone would find delight in hearing her laugh. Good for her. It’d take a long time for my tongue to heal. Maybe I’d even quit the school, be done with foreigners for a while.

The walls of the emergency room were lima bean green.

Next to us, a baggy-eyed Mexican woman cradled a wailing child in one arm and with the other held a toddler in a tender headlock. She never broke her gaze from the infant. That pain is worse, I thought, the mother’s and the infant’s, the former terrified and alone, the latter writhing and red-faced with futile, inarticulate complaints. It’s always worse when you have no language to express it.

A man with a suitcase and leathery skin paced back and forth across the length of the room, running his fingers through his hair compulsively.

“What am I doing here?” he muttered. “This place is a dump. This place is an ashtray.” The comparison triggered dormant addiction, and he slinked outside and sucked down a cigarette and was back in, pacing as before, no comfort received. Another ephemeral indulgence, I thought. Enjoy it, buddy.

After we’d been tossed from the road, Sophia and I climbed up the embankment and the car that hit us had already driven off. It was a phantom descended from the ether to royally fuck my night. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital the EMT, a thick, inordinately pale man, pinched the cut on my brow with a butterfly bandage and wrapped gauze over my tongue.

“What kind of bastard leaves the scene,” he said. That’s one of those phrases you hear in cop talk on TV — leaves the scene. The EMT cleaned my face and repeated his question several times as if it meant something at all to him.

I tried to answer that I didn’t know, that I hadn’t seen the guy, but the gauze was sitting fat and fuzzy in my mouth, pools of saliva collecting in my cheeks.

“Who can say?” Sophia said. “We didn’t get a look.” She held my head in her arms, gently tugging at my hair and rubbing my temples and neck. Her eyes were somewhere far off.

“But I suppose it isn’t so difficult,” she said. “After all, it’s what, ten centimeters from the brake to the gas?”

The EMT blinked at her as if he were learning something new about the universe. He turned to me, still blinking, but by then I’d surrendered the conversation.

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