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“A State We Don’t Belong To” by Brenna Dixon

27 March 2015 on Fiction   Tags:


 
Karin sent a postcard the first time her husband cheated on her. To keep him on his toes, she reasoned. She sent it from a truck stop in North Carolina. She cut the letters from a gardening magazine. You are the bad thing that happens to good people, it said. And she meant it. She traveled the Southeast fixing computer glitches in the Cracker Barrel system and while she was away he slept with the neighbor. “Cliché asshole,” Stef had said when she told her. “She’s even in her twenties.” Stef was Karin’s best friend since they were kids. She’d stopped by to return an off-the-shoulder sweater she’d borrowed while Karin was away and she’d caught Nate with his hand up Jeni’s shirt and his pants around his skinny, hairless ankles.

“I should’ve told you not to marry that motherfucker,” Stef said. Stef was a kindergarten teacher. When it was the kids, she just told them to flip their behavior cards from green to yellow to red. You didn’t want to be in the red.

“Nah,” Karin said. “I’d’ve married him anyway.” She felt like her stomach had begun eating her whole body. She felt like she might throw up or punch something. Or punch something while throwing up. Maybe the toilet paper dispenser.

Karin had been in a Waffle House in Tennessee when the postcard idea had come to her and now here she was in North Carolina, cutting and pasting in the cab of her truck. She hadn’t seen her husband in a week, or heard back from him, and she wasn’t about to call him now. What would she say? Hey, honey. Please stop screwing the neighbor, okay? Love you. See you Tuesday.

Please.

She dropped the postcard in a blue box, grabbed a burger from McDonald’s, and settled in at the Country Inn and Suites to watch some reality show about women who didn’t know they were pregnant until after they’d had the baby.

Oh, I totally thought it was the stress that stopped my period! The woman’s round face smiled.

I didn’t show any baby bump, said a skinny white woman.

“Doubt it, dummy,” Karin said to the TV.

That was the thing that pissed Karin off the most. That Nate might get their flighty twenty-something neighbor pregnant when he wouldn’t even try with her.

 

In the morning, Karin fixed another Cracker Barrel system. The whole Southeast branch of the franchise kept pulling up a single food for every order. This time it was collard greens. The wait staff had been calculating the actual totals of meals by hand for weeks. Some of them had been caught working in a little something extra for themselves.

Karin clicked through the system’s backdoor. She was content in her work, in the fact that Nate would get her postcard and not know who it was from. Maybe the guilt would scare him straight. Karin wished he would call, but also wished he wouldn’t call. She’d be home in less than a week and maybe he’d tell her he got this weird postcard and they could laugh about it and it could become a running joke. They hadn’t had a running joke in so long, not since the one about the squirrel that ran up Nate’s tux leg during his sister’s wedding three years ago. God, that was funny. The way he squirmed up there and eventually went running down the aisle to the bathroom. For the longest time after that, whenever Nate looked uncomfortable Karin would say, “What’s up, babe? Squirrel in your pants?” And they’d both laugh and Nate would tell the story again. He never embellished. It was always the same story. That was one of the things Karin loved most about him.

A few days and a few more Cracker Barrels later—Karin was fixing food glitches one by one—Stef called with more news.

“That fucker,” she said.

Karin said, “Again?”

“Fucking-again,” Stef agreed.

That’s when Karin sent the postcard to Jeni. This time she cut little letters out of a take-out pizza menu. She sat in the parking lot of a Dollar General in Georgia and pasted them onto a postcard of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains:

Forget it, the postcard read. Then she added: Bitch.

She addressed it, stamped it, posted it, and decided she would drive home to Miami at the end of the week, in three days, once this last Cracker Barrel was taken care of. Then she would take a week off and get Nate to do the same—the arboretum could surely do without him for a week—and they would go on a much-needed vacation. Probably he was cheating because she was traveling. She knew this was bullshit, but she had to do something, had to try. God, she hated him.

With this in mind, Karin girded her loins, as her grandmother used to say, sucked it up, as her father still said, and went in to finish the job she’d come here to do.

 

She hadn’t been expecting the Cracker Barrel manager to kiss her. It had gone like this:

“You finished the system already? No more pork chops?” His moustache wiggled when he spoke.

Karin slipped her right hand out of her pocket to shake his hand. “Yes, sir,” she said.

“But you finished early!” exclaimed the man—Hector his nametag read.

“Yes, sir,” Karin said.

That’s when Hector had beamed at her—Karin could practically see joy leaking out of his ears, radioactive and glowing. Then he got on his tiptoes and kissed her. It was quick and friendly. She’d barely even had time to feel out his lips for softness and warmth, but it knocked her eyebrows to the top of her forehead.

Hector turned a violent shade of pink, his eyes fixed on her plain, gold wedding band. “I’m so sorry,” he muttered. “So sorry. I…I didn’t mean—it’s just that it’s been so frustrating here, day after day with the pork chops order. I’m sorry. Thank you. I’m sorry.”

Karin was surprised to find herself smiling at this round little man. “It’s okay,” she said. And it was. Because if this kiss didn’t mean anything between them, then maybe Nate’s fuckery didn’t mean anything either.

“Can I make it up to you?” Hector asked. “Dinner?” He swept an arm toward the cavernous wooden dining room. “I’ll give you anything but pork chops. On the house.”

When Karin didn’t say anything right away, he said, “Please.” He headed toward the dining area. “Come with me.”

“Aren’t you supposed to buy me dinner first?” she asked.

If Hector was Nate, he would have laughed, but Hector was Hector and didn’t laugh at all. He only turned redder. So she said, “Okay.” What was the harm? She’d have a nice dinner, get some sleep, and be home the next day.

By seven o’ clock Karin was feeling pretty good about things. She’d finished the job early, she had a Nate Plan, and she’d just ordered eggs and toast and that delicious cheesy hashbrown casserole. Karin was a fan of breakfast for dinner. She was just tucking into the casserole when Hector sat down across from her with a chicken plate. His peas and baby carrots steamed.

“Oh,” Karin said, fork halfway to her mouth. She hadn’t expected him to join her.

Hector must have picked up on this because he turned pink again and seemed to hover inches above his chair, not standing, but not truly sitting either.

“I just thought…is it okay if I join you?” he finished in a rush.

Karin shrugged. “Sure.”

The small talk was awkward at first. They covered the weather (nice in Georgia this time of year); they covered movies (Die Hard, they agreed, was still the best movie of all time); they covered favorite foods (Hector loved roasted chicken; Karin loved breakfast; both could have learned these things by looking at the other’s plate). And then the conversation came easier. Hector sat completely in his seat. Karin liked the way he handled his silverware. He took small confident bites of his food. Every so often a waiter came by to check how they were doing and to refill their Cokes.

“I didn’t always want to manage a Cracker Barrel,” Hector said, chewing thoughtfully.

Karin imagined a tiny, plump Hector, maybe five or six, telling his GI Joes and stuffed bears, “I’m just filling in while the host is on break, but please follow me to your seats.”

“What did you want to be?” she asked.

“A scientist,” Hector said. “I wanted to study brainwaves. But I’m no good at chemistry.” He poked at a carrot. “I’m no good at anything, really.”

Karin found this both pathetic and endearing, and tonight, maybe because he looked so frazzled, endearing won out. She put a hand over his. “That can’t be true. I won’t believe it. You must be a great people-person.” Nothing, in fact, indicated that this was actually true. “You managed to keep this place running on only pork chops.”

She smiled and he laughed a small, rolling laugh.

“I didn’t always want to fix Cracker Barrels,” she ventured.

“No?” He’d given up all pretense of eating and was openly staring at her now.

Karin realized she’d been doing the same. She took a hasty sip of Coke. The bubbles burned down her throat and she stifled a small burp.

“No,” she said. “I wanted to be a veterinarian. But I’m no good at chemistry either.”

“Mm,” Hector said, nodding. His pupils were like little wet stones, Karin thought, sunk into little blue lakes.

 

Later, in Hector’s bedroom, Karin took off her shirt. She wasn’t in any way intoxicated. She knew exactly what she was doing as she unbuttoned each button. She was seeing what it was like, she decided. Seeing what it was like to cheat, without actually cheating. She would undress. She would lie next to Hector. She would let him run his fingers over her skin and she would kiss him. She would see what it would be like to taste another man’s lips. She would find out how soft and how warm. But that would be it. She would not cheat like Nate cheated. She would only see, only go up to the very edge of that particular landscape.

But that wasn’t how it happened. After Karin’s shirt fell to a crumpled pile on the floor, after she shimmied out of her work khakis, Hector wouldn’t look at her. He sat on the edge of the bed and stared at her socks. The window A/C kicked on and blew goosebumps up on her skin. She wanted to feel his eyes on her, but instead Hector said, “Please, Karin. Please don’t.”

“I’m not doing anything,” Karin said, which was true. She wasn’t doing anything. She was only standing there in a purple bra and underwear she’d gotten from Target years ago. Why purple? she still wondered. Hector’s carpet felt crinkly beneath her socked feet. The ceiling light turned her tan skin pale.

“You’re undressed,” said Hector.

“I’m not naked, Hector,” Karin said. He’d seemed so interested. He’d kissed her, forgodsake. He’d given her free dinner and invited her to his home. Why wouldn’t he look at her? “Here,” she said. She walked over to the doorway and flipped off the light. A streetlamp filtered through the shades, casting a low light over Hector, leaving her in darkness. “Better?” she asked.

Hector chanced a glance up. “You’re married,” he said.

“I’m going to come sit next to you. Just sit. Nothing else. Okay?” Karin held up her hands as if to say See? No weapons.

When he didn’t answer she walked over and placed her weight next to his, very conscious of the way her stomach turned into a series of tiny, fleshy rolls. She sucked it in a little, then realized it didn’t matter because Hector still wouldn’t look up from the carpet.

“This isn’t right,” he said quietly. “Someone loves you.”

Karin huffed out a sigh. “Would it make you feel any better to know that in the last week and a half my husband has cheated on me twice? With the neighbor? Like full-on naked cheating, okay?”

When there was still silence, Karin explained. “Look. I’m not going to have sex with you, Hector. I’m not.”

Hector looked at her face. Only her face. “You’re not?”

Karin shook her head. “I’m not.”

Hector’s brows knit together. “Then why all this?” He gestured at her and his hand accidentally brushed her right breast. He hadn’t been looking where he was gesturing. “I’m so sorry. God,” he said and buried his face in his hands.

Karin felt a lightness at this accidental touch that she hadn’t felt with Nate in months, not since he’d said he didn’t want to try for a baby. Her stomach fluttered. She wanted him to hold her. To kiss her.

She wanted Nate to call.

“Hector, it’s okay,” she said.

Hector peeked between his fingers, his eyes landing somewhere around her navel. “I think you should leave.”

Instead, Karin lay down on his bed and stared at the slatted shadow pattern on the ceiling. “I know,” she said.

She felt the soft promise of her stomach, the gradual slope of it toward her hips.

“Am I really so bad?” she asked Hector’s back. She said this quietly. She wasn’t even sure she’d said it aloud until Hector craned his neck around so that she saw his face in profile in the streetlight.

“No,” he said. “And I’m sorry about your husband.”

“Why did you invite me over, Hector?” Karin asked.

He didn’t answer for a while. Cars shushed by on the street outside, painting Hector’s beige walls with their headlights. “Seemed like you could use a friend,” Hector said. His shoulders hunched forward when he spoke, Karin noticed. She thought maybe he was afraid he’d offended her. He hadn’t.

Karin let her eyes wander around the room. There in the corner, the shadow of a lamp. Over on the immediate wall, the hulking shape of a dresser. A normal room not unlike her own bedroom at home. “He won’t have kids,” she said. “I sent him a postcard after he cheated on me the first time. An anonymous postcard. The second time I sent one to her.”

Karin hadn’t even told Stef. She wasn’t sure why she was telling Hector. Stef, she knew, would tell her to get the fuck out of the man’s bed and stop making a shitty situation fucking worse. Stef refused to ever get married even though she’d been proposed to twice. Both men had been objectively better than Nate. Maybe, Karin thought, in order to get what she wanted she’d have to learn not to want it. Maybe if she told Nate to cheat all he wanted, he would stop. Maybe if she tried very hard not to want children, she would have an accidental pregnancy.

Hector lay down beside her, keeping a careful three inches between their bodies. He folded his hands over his stomach and Karin watched them rise and fall with his steady breath.

“Maybe he’s not the right man,” Hector said. His eyes stuck to the ceiling. “Or maybe he’s afraid. Of children. Of having them.”

Karin had thought this from time to time, that maybe Nate was not the right man, but somehow he’d always seemed like the only man. She loved him. She knew that. She could pinpoint the moment: three months into dating, they’d gone camping in the Smokies. They’d huddled in the tent while the rain kicked up and suddenly Nate had said, “What the hell.” He’d taken off all his clothes and gone running naked into the rain. Lightning flashed in the sky and rain poured down so heavily Karin could barely see him. Because she didn’t think he was stupid or had a death wish, because she allowed him to pull her out of the tent and into that rain, she knew that she loved him.

That was years ago now.

Probably he still loved her, she reasoned. Probably the neighbor was a stupid mistake, a last sowing of wild oats. She could practically hear Stef rolling her eyes.

“Maybe I’m afraid, too,” Karin said. “Did he ever think of that?”

Hector reached out and took her hand. His fingers were strong, but uncertain. He held her hand like it was precious, like it could fly away.

When Hector finally spoke again, his voice was quiet and Karin thought about dust motes floating on his breath. “I am going to kiss you once,” he said. “And then you have to go. Okay?”

“Okay,” Karin said.

She kept her eyes closed. She wanted to feel the shifting of his weight toward her, his warm hand on her hip, his lips—thinner than she’d expected, but warm—on her own. No tongue. His moustache tickled her upper lip in a way that made the backs of her knees tingle. She wanted to feel all of this. She wanted to remember it with her whole body, and sight, she knew, would flatten the moment into nothing but an image—her lying nearly naked on a strange man’s bed in a strange town in a state she didn’t belong to. And that’s not what this was.

 

In the morning, after a stale bagel from the hotel’s continental breakfast, there was still no word from Nate and Karin was still too angry and hurt and baffled to call him. Karin got on the highway and called Stef instead. She told her about Hector and Stef reacted the way she expected she would, which was good, Karin decided, because it shook the fuzz of the moment out of her brain and reminded her that there was work to be done. That she had a Nate Plan.

“Get the fuck home,” Stef said, “and kick his sorry ass out, okay?”

Then she asked: “Was it good? The kiss, I mean. Was it better than Nate?”

Karin said she didn’t know. She said it was different.

When she crossed the Florida border, she pulled into the Indianola Orange Stand, parked beneath the Pet Gators Here! sign, and opened the glove box. She dug out an old, forgotten postcard with an endless field of corn on it. Io-wish you were here! it read. Karin found the address to Hector’s Cracker Barrel in her GPS and wrote it on the back of the card. She left the message blank. He would know, she knew, that it was from her. She wasn’t sure she really wished he was here. But she appreciated that he was there, eating small bites and giving people not-porkchops. She put a stamp on the card and bought a box of coconut fudge for the last stretch of the drive. She’d maybe drop the card in a box along the way. Or maybe she wouldn’t.

 

Brenna Dixon is a native Floridian with an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she currently teaches fiction writing. Her prose has been published in Steel Toe Review, DrunkenBoat, Burrow Press Review, and other journals. Recently, Brenna's poem, “Everglades Anthropocene,” was featured in the AnthropoScene art exhibit at University of Miami. More of her work can be found on the Ploughshares blog, where she was a regular contributor from 2012-2014. In 2014 Brenna was also fortunate enough to be Artist-in-Residence at Everglades National Park. 

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