A text by the 2012 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Kathy Flann
How he had knocked, Francine could not guess. But here he was. Or at least here was his head. Floating in the hallway outside her apartment, as if it had wafted over on the aroma of Mrs Singh's stir fry. She recognized the rugged, sunburned face she'd seen on his Match.com profile, except she had imagined it would be attached to an equally rugged, sunburned body. Had it been presumptuous to assume, at the very least, a torso?
As the two of them blinked at one another, she admonished herself for not using the peephole – though perhaps that wouldn't have painted the picture anyway. Maybe, she thought brightly, she could retreat into her apartment, pretend she hadn't noticed anyone out here, go back to listening to big band music in the living room and waiting for her date to show up – her whole date.
"You can't send a guy flirty emails for two weeks and then close the door in his face just because he's different," he said. As he spoke, slurring his words, he sank downward, as if deflated, and hovered just above the Persian-patterned carpet – making her think of a genie. She caught a glimpse of his bald spot – another thing the photo didn't reveal. From the level of her shins, he tilted his face upwards to look at her, eyes bloodshot.
"Are you… drunk?" she said. She felt a flush of shame about their electronic repartee, the quick-fire IM chats about politics and old flames.
"I don't know why I bother with dating," he muttered.
It now seemed significant that he'd left blank all of the slots for physical characteristics on his Match.com profile. Francine had assumed that he was simply too busy (i.e. successful) at his job as a trial attorney to bother. Or at worst, that he was unusually short. Which would have been okay – Francine had dated a jockey once, when she lived back in her hometown of Smoky Ordinary, Virginia. But this….
"Listen, Frank – I’m sure you're very nice …" she said, feeling a little like she herself were the one deflating toward the floor. Their names – Frank and Francine – wasn't that supposed to be a sign? Wasn't that destiny?
"Don't say it – don't say I'm a great guy. Just put your lips together and blow," he said. "Like Lauren Bacall." And then he sailed upwards, toward her. She flung her hand out for protection and managed to palm his chin.
She had ordered To Have and Have Not on Netflix when he'd said it was his favorite movie, excited to watch it again, but this wasn't quite how the romance had unfolded between Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. Her arm shook, such was the force of Frank's approach, beard stubble scratching against the tender center of her hand. He smelled like whiskey.
"Frank, stop it. You have to leave now."
He continued to struggle against her hand. Her arm weakened and began to fail, elbow bending in slow collapse. His lips inched closer to hers. "You've got to be kidding me," she said, though she wasn't sure who she was talking to.
She remembered her other hand then, bringing it up and manoeuvring him into a kind of sleeper hold. She squeezed her arms around him as tightly as she could and crushed him hard against her collar bone.
Frank made a coughing sound and then went limp. And suddenly she was just a woman cradling a head to her neck as if it were a sleeping infant. She was aware of the speed of her heart, the way it seemed to be throwing itself against the wall of her chest.
She pulled him away from her with both hands, and his panicked eyes searched her face. They were an amazing color, she now saw, dark, somewhere between brown and green, but with yellow flecks.
"I can't breathe," he gasped. He opened his mouth and sucked at the air like a fish. A bluish cast washed over his face and lips. Even the ferocious brightness of his eyes started to fade. It all happened so fast, and she stared back, stunned for a moment, unsure what to do. She suddenly thought to hoist him up in the air and try to look for injuries, but her own panicked eyes wouldn't settle on anything. It was like last month when Mr Roth from Accounts had that heart attack in front of her desk, dropping to the floor like a bag of sand, and at first, her fingers refused to hit 911, fumbling with the buttons and grappling with the receiver. But she'd taken a deep breath and she'd done it, and she'd given him chest compressions and he'd lived. She could do this now, she thought, pulling a gulp of air into her lungs, as if she were about to dive for coins.
Holding his head carefully, she turned him downward and inspected his truncated neck. There she could see that the force of her struggle had dented it, as if it were made of clay. She clutched him and worked at the dent like a potter, finessing it back to the way it must have been before. The bottom, where the neck ended – the skin there was so smooth and velvety to the touch, like a horse's nose, not jagged as if his head had once been attached to something else.
Finally, Frank pulled in a deep gasp. She held him and smoothed the hair from his forehead. His pupils started to shrink to the right size. He remained limp in her arms, blinking, and his skin, now pinkening again, looked smooth and unlined. "Shhh," she said. "Don’t try to move."
"Where am I?" he whispered.
Francine let out a sad laugh. "How are you?"
The next morning at 6:30am, Francine met her friend Jessie at Cup-a-Joe, like she did most days. When Francine told her what had happened, Jessie gasped and slapped the table – "How did you get him out of there?"
"I offered to call an ambulance. But he wanted to take a cab home."
"I know." Francine shook her head thinking about it, and then she shivered, still picturing the dead-fish color of Frank's face.
They both sipped their coffee and didn't speak for a moment. Normally, Francine loved this time of the morning, the cozy feeling of a warm low-lit room and the black, black pre-dawn darkness outside the window. She loved listening to Jessie's exploits out on the town the night before. She even loved it when Jessie razzed her about staying home so much, going so far sometimes as to call Francine the worst divorcée ever. "You're in a relationship with that flannel nightgown," Jessie liked to say and roll her eyes and they would both laugh. But this morning, she felt cut off from her rituals like an astronaut connected by a cord to the ship.
"Well, don't let one experience turn you off."
"No. I won't," Francine said, but without conviction. She thought about the other two Match.com dates she'd tried – the guy whose ex-wife drove him to the date and also the guy who tried to sell her a new dishwasher.
"Just keep trying," Jessie said. "Even this John the Baptist guy is better than Randy." She rolled her eyes.
"Randy went to Harvard," said Francine, her stomach getting hot. She didn't want to talk about Randy, her boss, her married boss, who was her best friend besides Jessie.
"I know, I know. We agreed to disagree about him. I'll stop." Jessie pulled her phone out of her purse to check the time. It was a new yellow purse, something designer, like maybe Coach. Normally, Francine would remark on it, and Jessie would light up, ready to reveal a very obscure source she had found for deeply discounted goods. A place where even a couple of administrative assistants, like Jessie and Francine, could afford them. "Someday we won't have to worry about the price," Jessie was fond of telling Francine – though she didn't say that as often as she used to.
"Well, almost time to go make another dollar," Jessie sighed, tossing the phone back in the purse. "But hear me out first." She scooted her chair closer to the table and leaned forward on her elbows. "I know this guy – Frank, was it? – came on a little strong. But that might not be such a terrible thing. Haven't I always said we should be looking for ambitious men, go-getters?" She sipped her grande café latte, leaving another lipstick mark on the mug. "And think about it – going bodiless could be fantastic. I mean, a body is a hassle."
"But I like having a body."
Now, Jessie touched Francine's wrist conspiratorially. She looked around before she spoke. "He could be a good catch." She sat up and counted off the reasons on her fingers. "He has, like, zero carbon footprint. He's probably extra sensitive and enlightened because he knows what it's like to be different. Plus, sex with him would be very 'female-oriented' if you know what I mean. It will be all about you."
Francine laughed. "Why don't you go out with him then?"
"Well, if you don't want him, maybe I will," she said, tilting her head, a mischievous grin on her lips.
Kathy Flann's fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The North American Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New Stories from the South, and other publications. A short story collection Smoky Ordinary won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. A novella entitled Mad Dog won the AE Coppard Award at White Eagle Coffee Store Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in Englandл Flann has an MFA from UNC-Greensboro, where she served as fiction editor of The Greensboro Review. Currently, she is an assistant professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.