Jump ropes and swing sets and hopscotch patterns. I remember what they looked like, how the girls danced in and out of double-Dutch gauntlets, how they pumped their legs until a complete 360 seemed inevitable, how they hopped and balanced on chalked grids. The boys collected worms and half-smoked cigarettes, pirate booty for suburban ten-year-olds to be stored in rusty tin cans and hidden away under rocks to be tallied up later.
I guess the tin cans are still in their places, forgotten. The last hopscotch game washed away with a heavy rain ages ago.
We’ve gotten used to the quiet, the cease of childish screeches and Tag! You’re IT! in the sun-dappled woods behind my house. After all these years, even Mary might have grown accustomed. Five decades for five stages of grief. But Mary isn’t with me anymore.
You know it’s all gone to hell when your wife dies in the middle of a little Saturday morning tumble. I saw her eyes flicker in the transition between bliss and dread; watched them squint when the pain came, and widen when she understood it was the end. We lay there, tangled, my arms and legs twining around hers, giving them back the life they had lost. The illusion worked for a few hours, no more than that. I ain’t no Victor Frankenstein.
We shouldn’t have done it. We knew we shouldn’t have done it, not after the public service announcements on the television and the emergency broadcasts on the radio. All those beep-beep-beeps calling for our attention, all the pleas to abstain in between the strident tones—we listened and we obeyed. We heard the words ‘inexplicable reaction of ova to sperm’ and ‘sudden incompatibility.’ We didn’t understand it any more than the doctors did, but you don’t need to be a doctor to recognize death. You don’t need a degree to have the shit scared out of you. Our knowledge was simple: if you fucked, the female died. Didn’t much matter if she was a dog or a cow or a Mary.
The brave ones tried condoms, which worked ninety-eight percent of the time. The other two percent, not so much.
So we adopted new ways. We watched each other slow-strip. We touched and tasted. We dry-humped like teenagers. When we felt strong, we put on mutual masturbation shows while sitting at opposite ends of the room. It was love from a light-year of distance. There were books that told us what to do, how far to go, how cold to set the temperature in the shower if things started to heat up or spin out of control. Internet graphics illustrated the inevitable reaction, tracking the men’s tiny swimmers as they sought and attacked their vulnerable targets. It only takes one became the catchphrase of the day. #AbstainOrDie trended more than Trump after a bad press conference. We cried and suffered and fought 150 million years of mammalian instinct. We did what we could to save the females.
Mary segregated the chickens in the back yard—no more cloacal kissing; we kept the goats in single-sex pens. I butchered our last milk cow on a cold February morning before she turned too tough to eat. We had hamburger for dinner, and we had sex for breakfast the next day.
I barely remember what beef tastes like now. They tell us if you season kale and tofu just right, you can simulate a steak. Sort of. But I remember the taste of Mary’s tears while she wept for a baby we couldn’t have. I remember her saying “Just try, Steve. Just try.”
I’ve never cleaned out the spare room, the one that filled itself with knitting patterns for tots and the pastel wallpaper samples that Mary couldn’t decide on. It’s where I sit these days, in the rocking chair by the window, munching dried tofu curls, watching the world go by. Tiny Teddy from two doors down isn’t so tiny anymore. I once tracked him from crawl to toddle to push-bike to skateboard. He was good at it, a fine model, the kind of kid you’d want your own to look up to. I visualized him him in schoolyards, Sam Browne belt crossed over a broadening chest, directing the younger ones away from the perimeter, protecting them from traffic and sex offenders and poisonous needles. I imagined him at the top of his class, valediction speech turning dry eyes moist. I’ve always had a vivid imagination. The reality was different: He played one-man games of Horse. He was top of his class whether or not he did his homework. Easy to be numero uno when your competition doesn’t exist.
Today, Ted—not Teddy anymore—walks up the steps of my porch. It’s Mary’s birthday, and he always comes with a bottle of something strong and a chunk of vegan cheese. There’s not much spring in his step now, and he tells me his arthritis worsens with the weather, that his doctor prescribed pills for his heart. He asks me what sex is like, but I can’t say. I remember it was good and fine, but there’s a fog around that memory that thickens with every passing year.
Next week, we’ll celebrate another birthday. Ted turns sixty-two. Like always, the president will send him a card, signed in ink, wishing the youngest person in the country a very happy day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christina Dalcher is a linguist, novelist, and flash fiction addict living in the American South. Find her sometimes-prize-winning work in The Molotov Cocktail, Bath Flash Fiction, and New South Journal, among others. Also, she made a book called VOX and another one called Q (Master Class in the US).