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Lynn Bey


La promenade au bord de la rivière by Pierre Bonnard

“I wanted a different life,” the woman tells the man. He’s her age, 64; she thinks they will both understand, or should, the full import of what she is saying. About regret, the way the passing of time doesn’t guarantee that the lessons learned are the important ones, are even useful. About what their sex would be like after they come to the end of their walk along the rushing, mud-filled river that splits their city and one of them suggests a drink, a bite to eat. How death has, most likely, never been this close for either of them.

“You and three-quarters of the planet!” the man says, his tone glib, assured. “What would someone do with a different life? The same things, that’s what!”

The woman keeps her eyes on the water. A sawn log with bear-brown bark bucks and sways as it’s carried headlong towards the wilder, more muscular river several miles north, a river that will barrel eastwards, all white caps and spray, for a hundred miles before rearing up to hurl itself at the sea, where it will be drowned. The man’s shallowness confirms rather than surprises: she’ll not renew with the matchmaking agency she’d been persuaded was different, was worth the money because it was humans, not calculating, bet-hedging algorithms, who were pulling Cupid’s bow. Other women on the agency’s roster would think this man good enough—that she again is not among them causes her high-arched feet to thrum inside their ankle-boot lace-ups. If she isn’t careful, her feet might become so agitated they balk at continuing further. She might even have to endure one foot stomping. For years—decades—she’s been placating her disgruntled feet, disgruntled because they never wanted to exit the stage. They still make sure to remind her they’d once been playful, come-hither feet, that all of her had been that way too. Men much younger than the one beside her, unremarkable in his jeans and brown loafers (Mother Mary, why did he think it mattered, the varieties of pepper he was intending to plant this spring?)—younger men wouldn’t flinch were she to tell them where she’d performed, inside diners that at night became cash-only bars, on club stages where beat and showy lightwork fought for primacy, on the rooftops of buildings that were built as much on rumor as glass and steel. Should any of these phantom men ask about the toll on arches such as hers, she’d have added what were the reasons she’d changed course: the backs of hands, smooth and also calloused, child- and also pawlike, against her cheeks, sudden elbows pinning her throat to a door jamb, that fracture to her sternum. Then she would say was it any wonder she sometimes shamed her selfish, pleasure-seeking feet?

But the man who talks beside her asks nothing about what has brought her here. A glance at his jacket, a tan corduroy popular in their city’s store windows, his tan cap—what real interest could his sort have in who she’d been before becoming her quick, abacus mind and nothing else, all tally and no flesh?

“Time for a drink,” the woman says, phone open in her hand. “That bar we passed, it’s decent. I’ll have my neighbor meet us there. You’ll suit her; she grows perfect miniature roses and isn’t at all interested in discontent.”

Why hasn’t she done this before, introduce the women she knows to the other men she’s brought to the river and then not seen again? One person’s flotsam, as the saying ought to go.

“No one’s interested in negativity, not really. What does she look like?”

He turns with her, and together they retrace their steps along the riverwalk. The agitation that has spread from her feet and past her thighs is jostling her stomach. This man does not deserve her irritation; his only fault is how dull he suddenly is.

“I wanted to keep at it, to improve,” she says as though in argument. “So few of us were choreographing back then, or sewing our own outfits. It really is tricky, stilettos, music you can barely hear, paying attention to what is that room’s turn-on—is it buttocks, which bow you untie, how slowly? Tell me,” she says, her tone more taunt than coy since already they are irrelevant to each other, “are people the result of hellish childhoods or what they’ve had to learn? Would you decide to pity me if I told you everything?”

“All said and done,” the man says, “it’s choices.” The wind lifts his cap, suspends it at the angle of cocksure salute. “You choose this, don’t choose that. Drown, swim, swim, drown—all up to you. So what’s her name, this neighbor?”

The woman laughs, says it’s Liz, Lizzie. “She knows soil the way you must. That’s something, a common interest.”

When they reach the bar, she atones by telling the man that he’s better suited to being capless. “Wonder how far downstream yours is by now, though maybe it’s snagged by a buoy.”

They order lagers and the charcuterie board. The man excuses himself, and while he is gone, she thinks perhaps he is right, her life off the stage has been simply and entirely that, her life. What she is now is a woman making the best of an afternoon and taking one for the team.

Her feet have quieted, are warm under the table. Just as pleasing is how little listening she’ll need to do once Elizabeth arrives.


About the writer:
Lynn Bey has had short stories and flash fiction published in Club Plum, The Literarian (nominated for a Pushcart award), Nixes Mate Review, New World Writing, The Binnacle (nominated for a Pushcart award, joint winner of the Eleventh Annual Ultra-Short Competition), Digital Americana, Scribble Magazine, The Brooklyner, Birmingham Arts Journal, and other magazines.

Image: La promenade au bord de la rivière by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). Oil on canvas. 10.2 x 18.1 inches. 1919. Public domain.

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