He stroked her hair as she lay next to him. The sheets pulled from the north and south, gathered about them like a large loincloth. The air smelled of secretions and effort. Unconsciously, they both had the same self-congratulatory smile of the novice distance runner who had finished the race. Neither spoke. Each thought they were catching their breath; but truly, it was the apprehension of being the one to shatter the mood, to ground the flight into the reality of its aftermath. And this reluctance became uncomfortable in these passing moments, much like the delay when asked if the dress flattered the wearer.
He spoke first, with a simple question managing to avoid all expected clichés.
“What can I do for you?”
She smiled because he had not finished with “now” and almost ruined it by saying “again.” Instead, she asked for some water.
He came back to the bed with a single bottle. No glasses. This assumed intimacy pleased her. Passing the bottle back and forth, they drank. She, then he, used the bathroom, both brushing their teeth: he with his toothbrush, she with her finger. The limits of intimacy established and acknowledged by her actions. They held each other, slowly drifting into sleep.
He woke before her. During the night they had separated, creating a space between them. She slept in the middle, face down, with her left arm reaching toward his shoulder. He on his side, facing her, with a pillow trapped between his knees. But these positions were just the randomness of the hour since both had been elsewhere fifteen minutes earlier. Kicking the pillow to the floor, he leaned over and kissed her hair where the part disassembled. Standing nude, he marveled at how right the morning felt and set out to make coffee.
The movement of the mattress started her process of awakening. Her eyes opened to see his receding buttock, gracefully shifting on its way to the kitchen. Momentarily, she considered feigning sleep until she could safely dress. But she didn’t because last night had not brought the anxieties of her failed choices into the morning. He was what she had been hoping for during the last year of reading profiles of boys’ inflated dreams – of who they were and what they hoped to be. She always suspected the computer program possessed an inherently male design. You only need to see the inventor shilling away on TV. Witness her queue of potential partners. She should have known.
He came back into the bedroom, carrying a tray of coffee and all its additions, mismatched pottery and a plate of toast with a small jar of jam. They were both still nude. The fact that he had not dressed, not unbalanced them, and that he was not perfect, sagging and bulging in all the expected places, lent her the courage to drop the sheet. They drank their coffee and ate toast, not caring about the crumbs. If only they could have kept quiet. Not become nervous, not searched for some verbal marker: she for the endearing comment, and he for the clever phrase. The one, years from now, they would recount at anniversary dinners.
“I wish you had been on match.com,” he said.
The pause was evident.
“I was,” she said.
And there, out in the open, it stood: they began to wonder what hidden incompatibility, detected by the algorithm, separated them. And when would this flaw become evident? Slowly, in centimeters, they began to create a space between themselves: he shifted the sheet, as did she.
Ted Chiles's short stories have appeared in Lynx Eye, Nilas, Prism Review, and The Binnacle. In September 2007, The New Short Fiction Series of Los Angeles selected four of his stories for a performance entitled Love During Economic Times. He is an avid doodler.
Published: Pitkin Review, Fall 2007