Work in Progress

By Kristin Kearns

Listen to Kristin read this story at the Big Ugly Review #7 release party:

He tells me something needs to happen. "People need conflict," he says, smacking his pen against his palm.

"We don't," I say.

"Yeah, well, we're not very interesting."

"Yes we are! We are."

He turns over my story and uncaps his pen. I push my plate out of the way so I can see what he's writing. He draws two stick figures, one with hair (that's you, he says; thanks, I say), and gives them upside down U frowns and taps the two figures with the point of his pen, making it look like it's snowing or they have acne. "This, here, you think this is something happening. But it's not. It's just existing."

"I thought we were like this," I say, and try to change the frowns to smiles, but the people end up looking like they are shouting, or confused. I put my chin in my hands.

"Hey," he says, scooting his chair closer to rub my back. That's all he says. He rubs and rubs like he's trying to start a fire, his hand against my shirt.

I decide to make something happen, just for him. Something momentous and witty and fresh. I will be a novel that he never wants to put down.

The problem is, I don't know who to make it happen to. I don't know where it will happen, or when or why. I stare at the hole where a nail used to hold up my calendar, before time began to worry me. This is what I have written so far: "The day after the party"

I need names. I'm no good with names; if I were God, Adam and Eve would have been He and She. I open the book of baby names I found at Goodwill for a quarter, that I keep hidden so he won't think I'm getting ideas. I'm not. I drop my finger: Skyla.

I try again: Dagmar.

My story will never be dramatic or glamorous enough for a Skyla or a Dagmar.

I settle for He and She. He and She return from a party to find their clothing strewn across the floor. I lie on the floor and pretend I am their clothing, and wonder why I am there. Maybe his jealous ex-wife ransacked the place, or my ex-lover. Her. Her ex-lover.

He thinks my stories are about him because all of my male characters empty their pockets at night and leave the change on the dresser; all of them sleep with their faces buried in their girlfriends' hair; they smoke Lucky Strikes, no filter. I tell him no, there's so much more to you than that. I am lying. These are the things that matter.

Glaring at the ceiling, I contemplate what's gone wrong in His and Her relationship, how it's like a…

The phone rings just in time. "I'm stuck on a simile," I say. "Save me."

"Today was brutal," he says. I imagine a blank calendar square mauling him. "I spent all afternoon calling CEOs of the biggest companies in the Bay Area."

I try to think of something to ask. I don't understand his job. "Will I see you tonight?"

"I don't know, I'm wiped out."

"Is it a possibility?" I ask, like he's a Magic 8-Ball.

He says, "Life's full of possibilities," which right now I don't believe.

I don't see him tonight. I eat a turkey sandwich and wait for He and She to do something. What they do is argue like idiots about the clothing on their floor. "Fuck you," I tell them, and a bus careens through the hedges in their backyard and crashes into the sliding glass doors.

I call it a night.

In the morning the bus is still there. Now I have to figure out what to do with it. There's always something to figure out. I decide to make myself a nice breakfast, but when I look in the refrigerator I find one egg and no butter, and I'm out of bread and the orange juice looks thick and too orange. I drive to his house, which is closer than the grocery store.

The living room blinds are drawn. His clothes are strewn across the floor, one sock by the door, one on top of the TV, boxers flung over the arm of the couch. Everything else is in order, except that there is an open can of Reddi-Whip on the coffee table.

He is lactose intolerant.

"Hello?" I call, in case he took the day off of work, but there's no answer. I shake up the Reddi-Whip and aim at my mouth. It's warm and loose, flaccid from being out too long.

In the kitchen I find two empty wine bottles. All of his wine glasses are in the dishwasher, dirty. I make eggs and toast and watch Maury Povich while I eat, and then I put my dishes in the sink and walk into his bedroom.

The bed is unmade, but the rest of the room is neat. I don't see any bras that don't belong to me. No white whipped cream smudges on the sheets. It's a little disappointing, to be honest.

On my way out, I find his pants behind the door. There's something about their emptiness, the way they are completely devoid of him, that makes me feel like we're in it together, his pants and I, like we're in the same boat.

He – no, She – jumps out of her chair – she wasn't in a chair; I'll have to fix that – and runs to the bus. Does this look like a bus stop? she yells. Do most bus stops require you to plow through someone's backyard?

I have no idea who these characters are. I don't know what they like, who they love, whether they drink milk or put whipped cream on their sundaes. I have no idea how they would react to a bus in their living room. I have no idea how I would react. Most likely I would stare, stunned that something so large, so clumsy and obvious, could tear apart my house.

If I ask him about it, slamming the can down on the table in front of him, I would seem strong, motivated, confrontational. He might yell at me for my failure to trust, but at least I will have done something interesting. On the other hand, keeping quiet would prove that I don't care, that I'm too busy to worry about a goddamn can of Reddi-Whip. What I do depends on who I am. I won't know who I am until I act.

The phone rings and he wants to know if I was at his house earlier. "Yes," I say, "I wanted some eggs."

"You couldn't buy some eggs?"

"I don't know. I was hungry."

"You left the carton out. Eggs shouldn't be left out. I don't know if I should eat them now."

"Why would you eat eggs at eleven o'clock at night?"

"Not now now. Just at all."

I tap on my keyboard to make it sound like I'm doing something. "What are you doing?" he says.


"That story?"

"Yes, that one. What are you doing?"

"Dishes. You left them in the sink."

"Do you want to sleep over?" I ask.

"God, I'm so tired. I've had a crazy day."

I imagine a blank calendar square whipping itself into a frenzy and running around his office. "All we'd have to do is sleep."

He doesn't say anything. "Forget it," I say, and hang up. I cradle the phone in my lap and rest my hands on it, as if I can feel him through it. No wonder he doesn't want to sleep over. I can't believe I never thought to douse him in whipped cream and lick him like an ice cream cone. I've never handcuffed him. I've never even worn racy, lacy lingerie. My body may never move again, paralyzed by all the things I never thought to make happen.

She commandeers the bus and drives out through the front door, abandoning the clothes, leaving He and the driver and passengers bewildered in the living room. "Adios!" she cries. "Ciao! Au revoir!" I delete the words and leave the quotation marks to fill in later. There's a key in the lock of my front door, and then he's behind me. He kisses my neck and looks over my shoulder at the empty quotes. I scroll to blank screen.

"Let's go to bed," he whispers in my ear.

I leave the whole mess and follow him into the bedroom. He piles his change on the dresser, and his Lucky Strikes and his lighter and his cell phone. He drops his pants, flings his shirt into the corner, and gets into bed. I undress, too, and grind up close to him.

"I'm beat," he says.

"Too beat for this?" I grind harder.

He tucks my head against him. "All I want to do is sleep."

"That's not very interesting," I say, pulling away. He looks at me like I'm speaking in code. "What did you come for, anyway, if all you want to do is sleep?"

"It was your idea." He sits up in bed. "Look, you were pissed that I wasn't coming, so I came. I just can't make you happy, can I?"

"You don't want me to be happy. You want conflict, remember?"

"Jesus." He holds his head in his hands like it's a too-small helmet that's gotten stuck. I hate the way he does that, the implication that our relationship is the equivalent of a motorcycle and he wants to get off.

I run into the kitchen. But as soon as I get to the refrigerator, I remember that the whipped cream is at his house, not mine. I do have a very old bottle of chocolate syrup, in back behind a jar of dried-up olives. I turn around and he is standing in the doorway. "Why was there Reddi-Whip on your coffee table?"


I slow down so he can understand. "The whipped cream at your house. What did you do with it?"

I wait for him to tell me that he thought it was non-dairy whipped cream, that he'd bought it to top a scoop of Soy Dream, or to drizzle over a carob brownie. I wait for him to take me in his arms and call me his brownie, his Soy Dream.

But he doesn't tell me anything. He doesn't take me in his arms. He squints at me like I'm a computer screen. He is thinking, I can tell. Inventing or revising. A mental crossout: a shake of the head, a lift of a shoulder, a shifting of weight. I'm ready. He will open his mouth, and there will be conflict.