Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in freeze frame fiction, Fiction Southeast, The Sonder Review, Eastern Iowa Review, Empty Sink, and Spelk. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism.
Here & Here
Being lonely and of a certain age, Lydia joined an online dating service, cropped a photograph from her last triathlon where she was smiling hugely, authentically happy and extraordinarily tan. The tight ponytail pulled her skin taunt and made her look 43 instead of 51. She determined to tell the truth about herself and only respond to men she deemed both intelligent and attractive. She was not going to pretend the body was unimportant, or sex not something she still reveled in. She felt it was far too early to step on that ember.
Ted’s photo revealed a masculine face full of good humor. He did not dye his hair, but let it grow out, a lovely silver, buckshot with his original black. The laugh lines at his mouth and eyes were deep, and it looked as if they had been sewn on with white thread on his otherwise tan face. It was a real tan, she could tell, from being out of doors, and she liked the shape and deep set of his brown eyes, spaced closely above an aristocratic nose. His cheekbones were killer and his lips full without being overly fleshy. She could easily imagine them against her own, her tongue along his straight, well maintained teeth, or those lips covering one of her nipples.
They were both academics, full professors, although in different fields at state universities hours apart. The distance appealed to her, because while she was sometimes startled by the depth of her loneliness, she had a rich life, full of friends, married and unmarried, men and women, and those with kids were now sending them off to college. Somehow it leveled the field, because those friends, parents, weren’t constantly going on about their children.
The relationship with Ted began as emails, long considered and well written, and then phone calls and texts, sometimes several times a day. Finally, they Skyped. Over two weeks she got to know his face, how the muscles moved beneath his weathered skin when he laughed, one side of his mouth smiling higher than the other, his right eye slightly smaller than the left.
There was a quickening, the sensation of alighting and uncertainty,
and she proposed what her body wanted - a weekend away, in a neutral, half-way city.
They walked and ate, rode bicycles on a paved trail for 13 leisurely miles, held hands, stopped and kissed in the street, drank two bottles of wine with dinner, conversed intently, trying to catch one another up on the accumulation of their lives, to push back years and make space, to pull back the years to reveal who each had been. After dinner, they walked back to the hotel, and she leaned into the solid mass of his body, and she felt then what she would soon see, the soft circumference of his abdomen.
She was a visual person, eating the world up with her eyes, and devouring herself too. And for this reason she left the bedside light on. She had always enjoyed her looks, although she often thought others expected her to lie about this. She was certain that while she was no longer young, she had retained a certain, essential attractiveness, and she had always, always maintained her figure. She was proud of her body, how well she knew it, how well she understood her own physical limits and capabilities. It was a great source of pleasure. Ted had a physical ease too, as though he had always enjoyed being in his own body, and so she was not surprised when he came out of the bathroom, fresh from the shower, wrapped only in a towel. He had it rigged beneath his mighty belly, and she could not help but think of her own niece, hugely pregnant. If he had asked, she would have carefully articulated her disgust, how his camouflaging of his lack of self-care in well-tailored clothes left her feeling betrayed. But he did not ask, instead coming to the bed and kissing her, gently.
He gazed down at her with great kindness and said her name with such
naked happiness the only thing she could think to do was turn off the light.
His belly was there, between them, like an obese toddler they had to maneuver around. Clearly, afterward he was pleased, and grateful, and he had, in the dark of the room, made her come as well, but only after she had pretended he was X, the ridiculously good looking husband of one of her rather plain colleagues.
She woke before he did, then showered and dressed with practiced silence. She sat beside him. When she looked only at his sleeping face, she felt something like liquid mercury pool and contract in her belly, but then he shifted and tossed back the covers and there, there his gut was. She woke him gently and then lied into his face, the same face that when disembodied on a computer screen she had imagined kissing every part of. He sat up, first propped on his elbows, so his stomach seemed even more distended, then straight up, propped by pillows. Surely this friend in need she spoke of could wait, or call someone else. Surely they could have the morning, share a shower, go to breakfast. He circled her wrists, his index fingers kissing the tips of his own thumbs.
No. She shook her head as the word hit him.
He pushed back the covers. She took in the white hair matted on his chest. His stomach. His genitals. His strong legs. He moved behind her, put his arms around her, his belly pressing insistently into her back. “You’re a great friend,” he whispered, then kissed her neck. “She’s lucky to have you. Call me when you get home.” He released her and she gathered her purse, reached for her coat. “I’d love for you to come visit me next weekend, if you can get away. Meet my dog. Sleep in my bed. I want to cook for you and play records for you and build a fire. We’ll drink beer and eat chili.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
The dream was still unspooling for him, and she was almost taken in by it herself.
“Why?” Moments before his sleep worn voice was like flannel, but this word was a piece of gravel.
"We aren’t compatible.” She paused, then galloped on.
“I can’t love a man who doesn’t love himself enough to care for the only body he has.” She abandoned that which she had just gathered, so moved was she by his face, upon which was everything he felt. She looked down at him, placed a hand on his head, massaged his scalp. Then sat on the bed, and placed the same hand tentatively on his belly, still warm. The part of her that was a teacher was ashamed. Her hand on his belly was too much. Too leading, and patronizingly obvious, but she wanted him to understand. She did not like confusion.
“What do you know?” he asked. He was being gentle in the way he spoke and looked at her with real curiosity. “I’ve run marathons, biked across Iowa. I still play hockey and heat my home with wood I chop myself. “He stopped, and shook his head as though dazed by disbelief. “But I believe in pleasure too, and I won’t punish my body for not being what it once was. I thought we were beyond this.” He placed his own hand over hers, trapping it there, pressing it into the softness of his abdomen. “I thought we’d moved on to where it counts. Not so much here,” and he patted her hand as though she were a child needing reassurance, “but here,” and he gathered her own hand in his and pressed it to the skin over her heart like he wanted to leave her own fingerprints there.
He dropped her hand as though it suddenly disgusted him,
revolted him, and he could not get rid of it fast enough.
He pushed his index finger into her forehead, firmly, as if it were the barrel of a gun. “And here,” he stated flatly, pushing just enough for her to really feel it. In mere minutes, Lydia will check her forehead in the rearview mirror, to see if there is a mark, a stigmata, left from the accusations of that finger, but it will be unblemished, and as she starts her car, she’ll realize she’s starving, as though she hasn’t eaten for days. In the moment though, she sat dumbly on the bed, until he lumbered to her coat and purse, holding them away from his own nakedness as if contaminated, and dropped them at her feet, before turning and walking to the bathroom, his back well-muscled, his ass tensing, his legs nothing short of magnificent. Standing, she gazed at the empty bed, his being seemingly imprinted on the memory foam mattress, his shape made clear by the way the comforter and sheets amassed, and these facts made his absence even more startling. From the doorway, looking back, the bed struck her as an altar of sorts, but to what or for what, she could not say.