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Issue 18 Cover by Cass Garrison.jpg

Fahmidan Journal / Issue 18 


By Kathryn Paulsen

I didn’t see it fall. I only heard the noise in front of me, and where a second ago had been nothing was now a milk carton, flattened and bent and leaking its remaining treasure onto the sidewalk. It must have been close to half full. The milk looked rich and fresh and tempting as city milk can be. Such a waste. Why not dirty water, dish water, water bright with dime store color, indelible ink, all the things he could not eat?

But really it was an accident—the half-full container sitting on the ledge next to the cup of milk he’d just poured, which he’d moved his hand to take and, doing so, sent the carton down to the sidewalk, missing my head by inches. How I’d have loved to see that dance on the way down, that abortive fling of something not meant to move. From its opening, droplets would have pearled in the sun and dissolved in the breeze that was blowing cruder things into eyes and flesh—would a few have gone splat on the back of their former prison?

But as usual, I saw only the end, not even the end, but what came after: a milk carton on its side, letting out life. My nourishment is your despoilment, he might have said, watching from above, your destruction. Next time you shall not escape.

It isn’t so much the angry-looking white-haired boy leaning on the ledge and the milk I mind. But something in me shudders, and I hate men, I hate mankind, too, though I am part of it, but somehow at the same time I love man, every man, and man primeval, a man somewhere naked in a jungle waiting for me. Perhaps he will put on a suit sans tie, or jeans and shirt, and with self-possessed smile, climb five flights of skinny steps to reach me, no Rapunzel, who wait losing my own breath with each step he takes, not able to say a word for my exhaustion, when I finally open the bolt to his knock. He’s still full of energy, his smile intact, but I am too soon drained, wanting to collapse on the nearest soft surface. Pretending to look beyond him, preoccupied, talking lightly as if I had air to spare, I offer him a drink, a rest, a bath, a number of things, all in anticipation, all testing, practicing for the greater offering I even now am sure I will make if the chance comes.

Six more blocks, during which I manage to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes.  And though the streets smell sour, like piss and anchovies, and the air is full of itself, the morning is glory as every morning is when you can bear to look at it, to press yourself forward into it, be surrounded by it, the air breaking for you and coming together behind and beside you.

The morning will always embrace you if you ask it, will enclose you totally—regardless of pain or sloth or constipation—will even comfort. If you accuse it of rain or of suffocating you, it will say, “Yes, child, it must be,” and dry your tears with 99 percent humidity.

I press further. I’ve walked this way before, with someone beside me. Once upon a past summer, I stood beside a boy, one of my three roommates for a month or two, watching the trains below through a barred grating. They were putting the trains to bed for the night or morning, and it took a while to find the exact piece of track on which each should rest. A half hour before, we had stopped here on our walk, hoping to see a train, but none came, so we walked on, aiming to explore forbidden docks, then running so fast I lost my sandals. We had walked along the park for hours in the steaming night that crept under our cotton clothes to burn our skin. We had seen people watering their dogs and their own feet and legs in the pool in the mock arena below the highway. We wanted a dog, and tried to get the dogs to come to us. Only one came, though, and he looked half sheep, half torn old battle-scarred sheep, with heavy bullish body and long sassy tail that curled like a pup’s.

And now as we passed the grating once more, we heard the trains come for us.  They didn’t just come and go but passed back and forth, forth and back, before our eyes. And our shoulders just touched and soon, did I imagine it?, they touched ever so slightly more. I could just see (though pretending carefully not to see) his face, my eyes straight ahead, vision twisting itself to concentrate on the very edge—his face in profile, so different, in its innocence, from the sharp, charming, strong nose and jagged mouth when faced head on. The side of his face, nearly cheekless, the eye not just bright but eager, like that of a precocious seven-year-old that should be concealed behind enormous lenses—full of the brightness of earth-running, nut-chewing animals. The mouth always about to open.  

I wondered if his eyes were watching me. I was so much warmer now with the warmth of blood and not of heavy air—a warmth that was almost light. I was stretching tall, my feet wanted to move, even my shoulders wanted to move—away—but could only move closer. There is a time when breathing stops and yet quickens, becomes so rapid that its pace is set, regardless of your body, so that you are in perfect waiting calm, and that little blood and breath machine operates with its own force and sends its irresistible energy searing through you the moment it is ready.

Our machines were moving sympathetically, and we were calm, content to watch until limbs slept. Mine did so already. He sensed it, and said, “Do you want to go?” I nodded and we left the last train and walked up the hill. Then he took my wet hand and we walked to a bench and sat down. He was deciding something then and before he finished we saw a policeman walking slowly in our direction. He reminded us only, we pretended, that it was getting late, so unrested we left the park.

When we’d reached the other side of the highway, his arm came over my shoulder, and we walked like a lame camel, except that his longer legs bore our weight.

And the pang and tingle from somewhere below my navel and the line from waist to breasts were getting worse. When had I felt like this? Never, no never, just like this.

We got into the elevator, standing apart, then out of it. He unlocked the door, leaning into it, with an intake of breath. I stepped inside barefoot, regretting the sandals lost to the river. For the first time, we were alone there. We walked into the kitchen. “Do you want some water?” he said. It was all there was to drink in the apartment, and all we wanted in the stifling heat. I said yes, and we leaned out the window, I pretending to watch the stars, and he—was he pretending to watch me or pretending not to? I pretending not to wonder what would happen in a minute, though I knew already it wouldn’t happen and I didn’t quite know why, but it would be my fault. No blame, though, never, no blame. But since then—now—a standard by which to measure it.

Will I be brave this morning and buy pastry for one or afraid and buy pastry for two? A sweet roll for me, and for the missing man a croissant, which I will tuck away in a plastic bag, pretending I’ll eat it someday, and forget about it. A number of things get saved for the missing man. And I never run out of milk anymore.

On the way back (shorter, I don’t know why, unless the objects in my arms gave me a certain sense of security) I looked for the carton, but someone had swept it away in my brief absence. Some lover of dull unmilked sidewalks, unscented by stale food life, or merely milk-hungry, removed all traces of the carton and its loss. So passing it again, I might have wondered whether I’d imagined it. After all, who ever took away the shards of bottles, dog droppings, and discarded crusts of pizza smashed paper thin that described my block so well?


Kathryn Paulsen

Kathryn Paulsen

Author / 

Besides short stories, Kathryn Paulsen writes novels, poetry, essays, plays, and screenplays. Her work has appeared in publications from Canada to Ireland to Australia, including Craft, New Letters, West Branch, The New York Times, The Stinging Fly, Humber Literary Review, Scum, London Reader, Big Fiction, and Spillway. Her chapbook "The Poetry Habit" is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing. Kathryn has been awarded fellowships at Yaddo, MacDowell, and other retreats. She lives in New York City but, having grown up in an Air Force family, has roots in many places, and suffers from chronic wanderlust.

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