Fall 2008, Volume 5

Fiction by D. P. Miller

Decoder Rings and Tire Swings

Theology and psychology are of no use when it comes to knowing her mind; there is no -ology that can be studied to understand her. He wonders why he even bothers. It would be just as easy to simply walk away and leave the ashes to give off their last spark of red in a distant memory. But he was not unaccustomed to her standoffish behavior. She was abrasive; that was what he considered her most endearing quality. Wasn't he the one who said she was a "cynical bitch?" And didn't he say that he needed a certain level of cynicism mixed with the boldness of a bitch to make him happy? He did enjoy finding the other side of her. He took a great deal of, perhaps too much, pride in being able to release the softer salve of her personality. But standing in the cold night air, he began to think that perhaps she was right all along.

They stood on the porch shivering off the cold as she took slow drags from a relit cigarette. He had just given her a present that he was sure would change the dynamic of the last few weeks. He took the time to wrap the present twice: once in birthday paper and again in Christmas paper. He thought she'd find some amusement in his corny attempt to cover both events in one package. He knew her better than that, but there was always hope. As she peeled the paper, he thought he'd overestimated the gift's effect.

She had been excited a month before and insisting that he see a movie. "What's it about?" he had asked.

"It's called Iris, it's about a writer. The movie is based on the memoir her husband wrote. Dax, I'm telling you, you are going to love it," she said.

They cuddled together on her single bed made with red sheets, she said the red sheets made the bed seem like more fun, and watched the movie on the tiny screen that was perched on top of her desk in her room. While the living room was more comfortable and the television larger, it was hidden in her room that they spent most of their time together. Not that they were a secret, her roommates knew about Dax: one approved, the other did not. His friends knew about Emma, they quite simply encouraged any connection that put the smile back in his eyes, and she definitely did that. His best friend had noticed it almost immediately, and after he started talking, it was a certainty: a new affair had begun. And with each new affair came a level of life that was lacking in the lulls between. When Dax had no one to be excited about, he drifted, but when he had an interest, it poured into every aspect of his life.

He lay there watching the story of Iris Murdoch unfold, but she was watching him. It had been their role with each other; they were prescription stimulants one for the other. Each took a turn, a silent routine they fell into, sparking an interest in the other. He had forced her to see things in new ways; she had opened his eyes to her way of seeing. They really were meant to find each other; it was the length of time they had together that Dax worried wouldn't be long enough. Emma had picked up on Dax's needs, selfish as they may have been. She made no icing to glaze his use of her because she to was in the same business. She tolerated their situation because it suited her to do so.

She had loved the movie, and he was rather intrigued by the character of Iris. That's why when he stumbled upon the section of Iris Murdoch books he bought one for her. He hadn't until that chance encounter in the bookstore even made the connection that Iris had written fiction. He seldom strayed from the fiction section in any bookstore. While he knew the story to be based on life, he hadn't realized that no names were changed. It was during their separation that he had found the book. It made him think of Emma, not that he hadn't been thinking of her since they had parted from each other.

Emma and Dax were friends, and they had on several occasions spent the evening together. They had stumbled into her room for the first time late one night only to find a certain chemistry that made it impossible not to play through. They both had their own reasons. They both had needs. They both wanted something that the other would freely give in return for their own reward. He stayed because of the adventure and often convenience; she let him stay because she couldn't seem to find a way not to. The same smile in his eyes was plain enough in hers. They excited each other, intrigued each other, and most importantly challenged each other.

They both had remained something of a mystery to each other. It wasn't intentional, yet it was by no accident. She knew as much as he did that if the other was to figure the puzzle out then the game would end. Dax thought the game was ending without a decisive winner. He had taken the time to pick out a meaningful gift and she seemed to be less interested in the gift than she was in his stopping by. This to him seemed difficult, since she had made no great attempts to encourage his visit. In fact, she had appeared to be putting him off. He wanted to deliver the present, but beyond that, he wasn't sure. While he thought it best to leave, he wanted her to want him to stay.

They had parted on less than perfect terms. He knew that this had some affect on her acceptance of the gift, but he had truly believed that the gift would have made the difference. He thought it would bridge the gap that was left by his sudden parting. While he knew her to be unmoved by most gifts that didn't hold great worldly value, he thought a gift of the heart might in fact make a dent on the newly built wall around Emma's. The night in question, which called for construction, was supposed to be their last night together before they both went off to spend the holidays with their families. Not two hours after getting to Emma's apartment Dax said, "So I think I'm gonna go."

"What? Is somebody feeling neglected?" She had been ignoring him and it hadn't gone unnoticed.

"No, it's not that. I'm just in a kind of funk, you know. And I think I need to go," he said.

"You've been in funks before and I've always managed to get you out of them."

"This is different; I think I'm starting to have a panic attack."

"What can I do to help?" she asked.

"Nothing, that's the problem, when I get like this, I just need to go home. I need to be around things that are comfortable and familiar," he said, but she heard, "You are of no comfort to me."

He so desperately wished she'd understand but he knew she wouldn't. She wanted to know why he couldn't wait another hour and see if it passed. She didn't understand that the walls were already closing in and in an hour he'd be in a full-blown frenzy. Dax had had panic attacks before. He knew what was in store for him if he didn't manage to stop it before it became unstoppable. Emma claimed she knew what he was feeling, but if she did, Dax thought, she'd let me go. She had always used his selfishness as a weapon against him. That night was no different.

"So, you want to go home. Have you stopped to think about what I want? No, you haven't. And do you know why? I'll tell you why because the only person you care about is yourself."

"Em, you don't understand. I don't want to go home I need to go home."

"Oh, don't give me your semantics. You want to go then go."

"I'm going," he said making his way for the door.

She stopped him with a look and said, "Don't make me chase after you and make a scene out there in front of them."

Emma really didn't understand that Dax wasn't playing a trump card; he needed to go home. The phone rang giving him ample opportunity to make his way down the hall towards the living room. He started to sense that getting out was no longer a simple act; it would be a fatal blow to their relationship because of her overanalyzing mind. The greed in her eyes to own some part of his time clouded her ability to see the panic setting into his. The panic in his eyes allowed him to dismiss the pain in hers. He moved casually towards the door, so as not to alarm the roommates to the situation. He smiled and put on a brave face, but the nearer he got to the door the farther it appeared. The panic was setting up camp, and he knew that soon panic's campfire would blaze in his eyes. The spacious kitchen/dinning room were restricted into a long corridor. He struggled to get to the door without making it obvious that he was escaping not leaving.

He stepped out onto the porch, and she followed. They were perched in the same way that night as they were on the night of his return: she blocked reentrance to the house and he stood poised to run for the open space of life. He backed slowly down the stairs apologizing and begging her to understand. She mumbled, "If you leave don't bother coming back."

"What?" he asked.

"You heard me," she said releasing a stream of smoke above her head. She stared him in the eyes and said, "Let's stop fooling ourselves here. What's the point?"

"You don't mean it," he said taking another step, this time closer to her. He pulled her near and kissed her deeply. They had always agreed that something that felt so right couldn't be wrong. He prayed that she would still feel it.

"Call me when you get home so I know you made it okay."

And he did call her. She had by that time made up her mind to shut him out though. The silence of his drive gave her plenty of time to twist the facts into knots, unrecognizable even to her. She had taken every word and pried the lock of its meaning until she uncovered the truth, the truth she needed to justify her actions. It was clear on the phone that in her mind he didn't leave for his sake nor had he ever stayed for hers. He knew the first to be false but admitted the second. He remembered her asking if she was a charity case. As they spoke, he wished he had the charity then to help her see what he could see in her. They could both hear what wasn't being said. The crisp bite of her voice forced him to hear in every silence, "You ran from me; you ran to her." She didn't have to use words for him to hear. In words and silence, he tried to make her hear, but he knew she was in no mood to listen.

She had finished unwrapping her present and looked at it with a discriminating eye. He thought he saw a change in her face, in her eyes, but he quickly dismissed it as smoke. Besides, wasn't that their game? Didn't they keep themselves hid so the other would have to explore? If all is revealed what's left to discover? He told himself that it was a front, he had touched her, and the bridge had been repaired. As she thanked him and put her arms out for a hug, he thought of the magnets on his refrigerator that said, "Why build? When all say let burn." He couldn't help but notice how little she touched him as he embraced her.

When they had first started their adventure, she would straddle him on the couch. She would sit behind him and run her finger tips along the edge of his flesh. She said she just liked touching him, and he believed her. Her eyes told no lies but her body managed to put layers of charcoal shading on the truth. How was it they had ended where they had, he mused. "Was it my leaving that night? Or had we simply run our course." He didn't believe that it was over, but he couldn't imagine it going on.

He had someone else; he always had someone else. As they walked back inside, his mind drifted to the someone else, the name never to be spoken in Emma's house. He knew that Sarah was planning on having dinner ready for him when he got home. A change he was looking forward to since he always cooked dinner for her. Emma got out pictures and feigned an interest in showing them to Dax. He returned the favor by feigning an interest in the pictures. He asked when they could get together again, but their schedules seemed to be in constant conflict.

As he walked out of her place, his mind drifted back to one of their first nights together. Emma had asked him if they were fooling themselves. At the time he responded by asking if it mattered. They both agreed then that it didn't. Now as he walked out for what he knew to be the last time, he wondered if they simply hadn't fooled themselves enough.

BIO:  "I am currently teaching monkeys how to read, write, and pass standardized tests at Alexander Central High School in Taylorsville, North Carolina. I completed my degree in English education at Appalachian State University in 2004. I served in the United States Marine Corps as a light machine gunner, and I had a poem published in Leatherneck magazine. I have also published several opinionated editorials, poems, and short stories in various publications such as Crossroads and The Appalachian Anthology."