by Chris Daley

July 2000

Baggage Check

A Short Story

HE likes to play games. As if there is something so unbearable in his reality, any fictional role improves his lot. He wonders if a grown man should play Dungeons and Dragons, but he is unable to resist creating a character whose strength, courage and intelligence are denoted by points, determined by a roll of the dice, rather than the crumbs doled out by a distant and uncaring God. He enjoys world domination games, where the possibility of conquering the property and spirits of others is within reach rather than a remote grasp exceeding his thin, bony fingers. In pursuit of the ultimate game, he studies law, where the guilty-until-proven-innocent and the small businessman are at the mercy of attorneys, like a new breed of Christians thrown to the lions. In his relationships with women, he determines the rules before the players. During sex, he eases carelessly between the roles of victim and assassin.

SHE always wears a watch. Only twice a week, for class, is it necessary for her to be somewhere on time. Yet while the rest of her arm is perpetually tanned and freckled in the California sun, her left wrist remains a white band of unexposed skin. She must always know the time, the ticking of her watch as vital as the beating of her heart. She feels the passage of time like a heavy burden strapped to her back, yet to ignore it would leave her lifeless. It is her ambition that makes it so. She read in a newspaper article that someone said, "If you're unknown at 28, there's something wrong with you." Her watch reminds her of this casual comment by an unknown man, a comment that has become her credo. Each erratic move of the second hand warns, "Four more years. That's all you've got."

IT starts as most relationships do, two bored, single people in a bar (or at a party, or over dinner, or on a blind date, or at work, or in class) who despite everything else going on in their lives, long for the secret giggle that underscores every word they speak on the day after the night before when they met someone special.

HE doesn't feel strange about going by himself. He sees this band whenever he can, especially enjoying their vampire song. He imagines himself drawing blood from a woman in a sexual feast, a practice he often simulates in bed, leaving dark bruises on the woman's neck, shoulders, and breasts. He pulls on his motorcycle boots, fondly snapping the attachable leather strap and chain in place around the heel. He awaits the moment the question is asked. "What are those chains for? Decoration?" If a woman asks, he simply smiles and says, "I'll show you." Reaching down the length of his legs, he slowly unsnaps the straps and removes the chains from his boots, as if unwrapping a mysterious gift. A glimmer in his eyes, he takes her wrists and with the flair of a practiced maneuver, wraps, twists, twines, and snaps, until the woman's question has bound her inexorably to the answer.

SHE loves music, the louder the better. Her speakers throb as she drives into the sun on her way to pick up her friend for the show that night. She enjoys driving with the windows up, the volume high, the music swirling in a chaotic rush of sound within the closed cocoon of her car. Her memory spews forth the lyrics to every song she's heard before and by singing along, she is able to quell the constant stream of cascading thoughts. She doesn't want to think about the almost endless list of items she needs to complete her life. The most easily attainable item would seem to be a boyfriend. She doesn't really have time for one, but like the bottles of Tylenol and Percocet that fill the shelves of her medicine cabinet, she wants someone there when the pain is too much. For now, she looks forward to the show that night, when she can stand undisturbed amidst the riotous noise, the music so loud that the bass rhythms come through the floor and enter the soles of her feet, every fear replaced by the grinding guitar, every doubt expelled by the roar of the drums.

IT sneaks up on people. Often, they are not prepared. They have not showered. Their apartment is being renovated. They are leaving town the following week. They have a policy about dating people at work. They live with someone. They are married. Or to them, monogamy is an evil curse word, as repulsive and foreign as the dripping bile of a serpent's tongue.

HE leans against the bar, his pose challenging an approach. He loves the idea of a challenge and abhors the idea of a test. To him, a challenge implies an unexpected event, to which any attempt at resolution automatically crowns him a hero. He thinks his relative success or failure is inconsequential. He accepts the challenge as if its offer alone proves his worth. Yet when the challenge suddenly goes awry, this situation transfigures in his mind into a test. To regain control, the loss of which would thrust the reality of his imperfections like a dagger into his heart, he decides, "This is a test I am deliberately going to fail." His hatred of the test is repeatedly reinforced by his ultimate attraction to the challenge.

SHE peers through the surrounding collection of faces and wonders, "Who are all these people?" She wants to know them, each individual like a brand new book, pages yet to be turned by her inquisitive fingers, bindings yet to be broken by the truth that they, too, are flawed, selfish, deceitful, human. When she meets a man, she experiences an exaggerated sense of purchase, placing this new acquisition up among the other collectibles on her shelf, to be admired for its smooth exterior and mysterious contents. She does not remove this man from his elevated position for awhile, not wanting to read his index of events or the lengthy bibliography of sources that have created what is now before her. She believes the fiction he has told her about himself, even though she knows that like the blurb of a novel, it is not based in truth but instead on what will sell. She continues this charade until curiosity, hype, and boredom force her to discover that once again, the style is unoriginal, the plot contrived, and the character ill-defined and unlikeable.

IT is best described in clichés. Love is a many splendored thing. It takes two to tango. All is fair in love and war. Beauty is only skin deep. Love makes the world go round. It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It's not the size of the stick, but the magic in the wand. Speed kills.

HE no longer lives in the same state as his parents. In fact, he has moved around a number of times, in search of the unique location where his idiosyncrasies will be adorable quirks, his intelligence unrivaled, his popularity unsurpassed, his problems erased, and his sins forgiven. He imagines each new city as a gigantic bath where he emerges cleansed and toweled, baptized in the waters of another chance. Each new friend offers the promise of a similar opportunity. This chosen individual, he believes, will embrace his errors and fawn over his faults as if at the altar of a new religion. Instead, they come and go, come and go, come and go. He has yet to find the man or woman possessing the capacity and willingness to be his personal apostle.

SHE lives far from home. Her telephone bill attests to the fact that as she loves, many love her. The words "I love you" hum over the telephone wires, trembling across cornfields and over dry, desert land until they emerge at her end, warm, comforting, caressing her ear, but never, ever able to replace the solace of an embrace. At her age, meeting men for lovers and women for friends is equally difficult. She can hardly approach a stranger and speak the words, "Protect me from myself." She knows that spent time and shared pain are the only foundation for the comfortable silence that surrounds and salvages, providing the necessary liberation from the empty cave that is the word "alone".

IT is not dependent on the amount of light. As the dawn breaks over the horizon, knees fit against knees, bellies fit against backs, and hands clasp against the smooth cotton of the sheets. As the sun shines down in luminous noon, eyes meet over the Formica table of a cafeteria, oblivious to the dirty silverware and greasy food, aware only of the company. As dusk falls, the thoughts of commuters ascend above the traffic to glory in the luck that has provided them with other voices in their home rather than the simple, lonely echo of their own. In the dark night, the smell of alcohol mingles with the sweet stench of sex displacing, for a moment, the musty scent of silence and regret.

HE lived with someone until two months ago. He questions the sense of it, his third shared living arrangement with a woman in the past five years. He remembers when love was young, when the time lost in the trip across town was unbearable, when the kiss good-bye and the return to his deserted room were torture. His idealism would triumph in the bloody battle with his cynicism and, once again, he would empty a few drawers and rearrange his closet. At first, a small thrill runs through him each time he opens her underwear drawer, fingering the clean lingerie and trying to subdue his erection. But slowly, her crumpled bra and underpants on the floor next to his bed, abandoned for others from the drawer in her rush to work, remind him constantly and irrevocably that this is no longer his home. After this begins, he knows, but three times has chosen to forget, that the war has begun and the armistice is inevitable.

SHE once saw a television program involving the relationship of a mentally challenged couple. Unassumingly, the woman brings a toothbrush to her boyfriend's apartment. No, no, no, he says, I don't want to get serious. Simply, honestly, the woman says, Oh, I thought you did. She envies this woman on television. Her love is on the line, but more importantly, her cards are on the table. Humankind went too far in its evolution. Moments before the human brain reached the point where playing games became a priority, evolution should have stopped. So what if major corporations couldn't merge and swindle? So what if politicians were elected because of their honesty instead of their advertising? So what if people professed their love only when they meant it? She climbs down from her soapbox and takes a long, stiff gulp of her drink. Just then, she looks across the bar and notices him noticing her.

IT happens like this: she glances, he glances, she looks away and looks back, he continues looking, she drinks, he looks away, she waits, he looks away some more, she walks back to her friend, he looks back, she is gone, he drinks, she tells her friend about him, he drinks some more, she watches him, he looks around, she sees an empty space next to him at the bar, he watches the band, she walks up and stands next to him to order another drink, he sees her, she orders, he greets her, she returns the greeting, they begin talking, and ...

slowly, slowly ...

it seems too good to be true. They have everything in common. They bask in the newfound wealth of a conversation with no awkward pauses, no offensive revelations. It envelops them like a mysterious magic, the coincidence of their acquaintance seeming more and more like a cosmic plan.

HE panics. Every fiber of his body repels this perfection. No! pinches his nerves, No! flows through his blood, No! burns the synapses of his brain. He will not believe this snake-oil seller, flagrantly displaying her wares, smiling as if resisting this bargain will spell his doom. Sure, she seems healthy, she goes to school, she oozes confidence, she doesn't appear to hate men. Sure, he could lose himself in the blue of her eyes and the fullness of her breasts. And this conversation is unlike any in recent memory. It feels like any topic he brings up, she is there with an amusing anecdote, an interesting comment, a deep understanding, and a smile that fills his ego until it overflows, spilling throughout his body with an amazing warmth and strength. But No! He's a veteran of this game and he will not lose again. He'll fuck her - that's all. He will never allow himself to escape into the ambush she has cleverly disguised as safety.

SHE melts. She has been fooled before, but she knows this is different. This is real. This is true. She looks at the way he smiles at her and is convinced he feels it, too. How could he not? She can practically reach out and feel the electricity but she will not. Not yet. The sparks would singe her heart. In her mind, she speaks a silent prayer. God, thank you for sending this man to me. I have worked long and I have worked hard. My patience has not faltered and I know now that he will be gentle and kind ... Please, please let him be gentle and kind. I could not handle more lies and sorrow. Please let him be the one - for now. She sees herself as almost broken, only needing a crutch for a short time to regain her strength. She tries not to think about what happens when the crutch is viciously kicked away, leaving the infirm promptly back on the ground, a place she should have never left.

IT has only just begun but it is over.

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