FICTION ISSUE #41

Expired Eclipse
Image: “Expired Eclipse,” by Joey Aronhalt, scanned expired 120 color film, archival inkjet print, 2017, 11×17 in.

 

Last Sympathy

By Nathan Alling Long

SANUS DREAMT a bomb exploded just outside his apartment building. He heard the detonation, then saw the window shatter, the ceiling crumble, and debris scatter across the floor. He lay there naked, feeling the dust settled on his skin. It was winter, and cold air now poured through the window. He listened for a sound—people screaming, a fire roaring to life, burst pipes hissing—but everything was silent. 

Sanus turned on the radio, but there was no music. He could not even hear his finger tap against the radio dial. He began to sweat and felt the dust on his skin turn to paste. He whispered to himself as gently as he could, “Stay calm,” but when he could not hear the words he’d just spoken, he screamed until his own voice woke him. 

Sitting up, Sanus found that he was actually sweating, though there was no dust on his skin, no signs of destruction. He lived a quiet life, in a neat, well-organized apartment. His shirts were dry-cleaned, his bills were paid on time, and any broken appliance was repaired as soon as it caused a problem. Imagining his home destroyed was disturbing, but not being able to hear was more horrifying. He breathed heavily and tried to think of something positive. It was his day off—the day he saw his therapist. He did not exactly like his therapist, but talking to him today, telling him this dream, might be a comfort. 

Sanus dressed and made breakfast—a pot of tea and some toasted biscuits he had bought the day before. He sat by the bay window in his kitchen, taking in as much light as he could. His therapist had recommended it, especially during these winter months. 

Sanus let the sun pour onto his skin, let the steam from the tea rise up and caress his face, feeling almost cleansed, almost at ease. But beneath this calm, the dream haunted him. He knew it had nothing to do with recent terrorist attacks overseas or other news from the outside world. The dream was personal, about something deep within. 

All through childhood, Sanus had lived a fairly content life. Even as a teenager, he had not had any major issues. His parents, who were both still living, just a few hours away, had been strict but loving, and he had, in measure, loved them back. 

His adult life had been fortunate as well, all things considered. He started work just out of college and became a manager almost ten years ago. His job was to make sure things ran smoothly, and when there was a problem, he found the cause and fixed it right away.

He was still relatively young—thirty-eight—and healthy, though he always saw himself as more mature than his age. At work, he insisted that everyone call him Mr. Sanus, rather than by his first name, which he didn’t like the sound of. And his passion—listening to classical music, particularly on vinyl records—seemed more fitting of an older man.

He didn’t know for sure, but Sanus suspected that his dream was somehow connected to this reoccurring feeling he’d had over the past few months that he had lost some inexorable part of himself. It felt like some hole had been drilled through him. He hadn’t been able to figure out what it was, and he didn’t know exactly what the dream had to do with it. At first, when the feeling overtook him, he would put on one of his favorite records—the London Symphony recording of Tchaikovsky’s clarinet concerto or Berlin’s rendition of Smetana’s “Ma Vlast”— but the empty feeling would still be there. In fact, listening to his records often made the hole feel larger, until eventually he stopped listening to music altogether. 

Six months earlier, Sanus had broken up with his girlfriend of several years—or more accurately, she had broken up with him. It was sudden and seemed without cause. When he asked her for a reason, she’d simply said, “I feel it’s over.”

Her name was Sey. When they had met, she had told him how it had been difficult growing up with her name. “Sey your name,” other children had teased at school. “You don’t Sey,” they’d taunted. Over the course of their relationship, Sey told Sanus many stories of her life growing up. In fact, almost every night, or on weekend mornings in bed after they made love, there would be a spell of silence, and then she would start to tell some story of her past, a memory that had somehow popped into her head. She had not had a happy childhood—her family came to this country poor and often went without meals. She told Sanus about the times her mother made money by telling fortunes on the street and about the time her father disappeared for a week and miraculously came back with a hundred dollars and a wheelbarrow full of vegetables. Later, when he was caught and put in jail, Sey had to help support the family, sometimes stealing food from the local grocery store or joining her mother on the street, reading people’s palms and fortunes.

Sanus would always listen. He loved how Sey told her stories, how her tiny voice, almost a whisper, began to pull out of her body some thread of memory. He loved how, as her story became clearer, her voice grew stronger, until it felt as if it were something real and solid enough that he could take hold of, like a tightly woven rope. Even when she finished, he found himself still holding on to it, the whole weight of his body suspended by that rope. Eventually, he would look around the room, recognize the things in his apartment, and begin to let go, to sink back into the gravity of his own life.

Later, when he had time to himself—while driving, or doing dishes, or waiting for a meeting to start at work —he would think about the story Sey had last told and, as best he could, weave it into the other stories she had shared. She must have been five, then, he’d think. Her family was still living in that apartment over the fishery. That was before she scarred her knee, after the incident with that dog.

He would do this with each story, trying to decide which threads it lay on top of and which it slipped beneath, as if he were weaving a tapestry of her life. If he was confused, he might ask her later on, as they were cooking or when he picked her up at the train station, “I was just curious, when you fell from that tree, was that in autumn? Had you already started sixth grade?” He always made it sound casual, a passing curiosity. 

It would be too easy to say that what was missing in Sanus’s life was Sey herself. As his therapist pointed out, “You didn’t have this empty feeling before you met Sey, right?” And Sanus had to agree. He loved Sey, still loved her. He missed the hours they spent together in the apartment, missed curling up against her at night, and missed her stories terribly. But what he was lacking was not her. Nor was it simply that he needed a new companion or someone else to tell him stories.

Like a good manager, Sanus had righted himself after the break up. He started therapy to help him through the initial shock. At his therapist’s suggestion, he’d abandoned the tapestry of Sey’s stories, an unfinished project left on a loom and put away in a closet somewhere in his mind. And he began to weave himself something new, something of his own. Gradually, he felt better, but still he recognized the hole, some missing part that had always existed before. 

Sanus decided to keep going to therapy, to figure out this missing thing, to get rid of the hole. Several months had passed, though, and things were not any clearer. And now there was this dream. Did it have to do with the absence? Was it a premonition? Sanus looped through these thoughts over and over until his mind was a knot. He was so distraught that when he left for his appointment, he had to return three times for things he had forgotten—subway tokens, a check to pay for his therapy, and a book to read afterward, as he always went to a nearby café to relax and think about the session.

Sanus missed the train that would have gotten him to his appointment on time, and he could do nothing but wait for the next one. He left a message with his therapist saying he would be late. He felt both relieved and anxious. As he waited for the train, he tried to figure out what this dream might represent, a bomb that deafened him. Was he self-destructive? Was he just not listening? It all seemed too symbolic—too dangerous… 

Too explosive, Sanus heard his mind say, and at that, he laughed. His therapist had once told him that the subconscious often worked figuratively, in puns. “It always tells you what it needs to heal, but it does it indirectly.” Was Sanus’ mind saying that whatever he was missing was too intense for him to deal with? Would it ‘blow his mind,’ as the expression went? He laughed again, then looked around quickly to see if anyone in the crowded station had seen him laughing to himself.

At first it seemed no one had noticed, but then Sanus saw, toward the back of the crowd, someone looking his way. He was so unsettled by locking eyes with the person that it took him several seconds to recognize it was Sey. He turned away, horrified, knowing she would come over to greet him. He had only a few seconds to gather himself. First the dream, he thought, now this. He would have so much to tell his therapist but so little time to tell it. His appointment began in five minutes, and he was still far away, still waiting for the train. It was like one of those dreams in which he kept running and somehow got farther and farther from his destination.

Just before Sey reached him, Sanus took a deep breath and let it go, trying to sink into his body, as his therapist had taught him to do during moments of stress.

“Hello,” Sey said brightly.

“Hello.” He glanced at her, then at his shoes, which he saw were scuffed and stained by winter salt. 

“What are you doing up here?” he asked. He tried to say it without an edge, but he hadn’t completely succeeded. He was still a bit shocked to see her. It was a big city, and she lived on the other side of it now. He’d only run into her once in the six months they had been apart. 

“Getting music,” she said, and she lifted a small plastic bag which seemed to contain several CDs. 

Sanus noticed that the bag was wrinkled and suspected she’d brought it into the store to slip CDs into it instead of purchasing them. She’d done this often when they lived together, at this very same store, which had a great selection and loose security. He also knew she carried a demagnetizer in her purse, so the alarm would not be triggered. In his eyes, this was Sey’s only flaw, and she fortunately limited it to music. Otherwise, she was a respectful citizen. She had a job, paid her taxes, and had insisted on contributing to the rent when she lived with him. So he forgave her this crime, because of her upbringing, and because at least it demonstrated that she loved music—one of many things they had in common. He remembered then that he had at one point encouraged her to listen to records, but she’d laughed and said, “They’re too hard to fit in my pocket.” 

“Did you find anything good?” Sanus asked. He was not so interested but wanted to fill the silence.

“They’re allgood,” she said, raising the bag again, though she didn’t pull out any CD or talk about them. “And what about you?” she asked. “Where are you going?”

Sanus hesitated. He didn’t want to tell Sey he was seeing a therapist; he didn’t want her to think she had somehow damaged him. 

“I’m going downtown to have coffee,” he said, which was not technically a lie, since he always went to the cafe after his appointment.

“With someone?” Sey asked.

“No,” Sanus said, “by myself.”

Sey stood there a minute looking at him. She seemed to be calculating something, figuring something out. “Mind if I join you?” she finally asked. 

Her question excited Sanus, but his mind dampened the hope quickly. Her tone was casual, like that of a friend. It was not an invitation to get back together. If anything, he thought, he detected a hint of distant concern in her voice. Perhaps she wondered why he was drinking coffee alone. Was something wrong? 

Sanus could not answer Sey’s question truthfully, because he couldn’t decide if he minded if she joined him or not. He wanted to talk with her, and he wanted to be alone, to go to his appointment and make this brief encounter with Sey one of the many things he tried to make sense of with his therapist. 

But then he thought of the unwelcoming tone with which he had asked his first question, What are you doing here?He should have phrased it differently, like a friend to a friend. What brings you up to these parts?or What a surprise to see you here. But he hadn’t said it like that, and it was too late now. He couldn’t think of a way to say no to Sey without her feeling even more unwelcome, so he said, “You can join me if you like,” though even that did not feel completely inviting.

Sey said something back, but the train came into the station at that moment, and he couldn’t hear her words. She stood near him, though, entered the same door he entered, sat down beside him, and when the doors closed and the car grew quiet, she began talking again. Sanus could only guess she had decided to join him. He would have to slip to the bathroom and send an apology to his therapist. He was pretty sure he would have to pay for the session regardless, but he couldn’t see getting out of this now. It would simply be the most expensive cup of coffee he’d ever bought.

With the background noise of the train, it was easier to talk to Sey, though harder to hear. At least Sanus’s heart had calmed now that he was sitting, now that he had adjusted to seeing Sey in front of him. They made small talk until they left the train, found a table at the café, and ordered their drinks. Then Sey told him that she had something serious to tell him. He took a sip of his coffee, set the cup down, and listened.

“A few weeks after I moved out, I found a lump under my arm.”

Sanus swallowed, though he found it suddenly hard to do. Was Sey dying? Was this somehow connected to the loss he felt? Was her absence from the future the hole he was feeling? 

“I went to the doctor,” Sey said, “and he made me go through a terrible number of tests. There was a week of x-rays and blood work and even a spinal tap.”

“And?” asked Sanus. 

“I was so worried,” Sey said, “but then it turned out to be nothing. Well, not nothing. It was a cyst, and I had it removed. But it was nothing serious. Nothing that would kill me.”

Sanus leaned back. He had not noticed how tense he had gotten in just those few minutes. He smiled, then almost cried with relief. He did still love her. Naturally. Of course. She was a lovely person. He witnessed a part of his mind open the closet door and pull out the old loom with Sey’s stories woven on it. He wanted to pick up this story, hold it in his hands, then get to work weaving it into what was already there, but he stopped himself. He returned the loom and closed the door. I don’t go in there anymore, he told himself. He took another sip of coffee, to give himself a moment without looking at Sey, then he set down the cup and returned to her.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “You know, I was lucky it happened after things ended between us. It would have been awful to drag you through that, especially if it had been bad, and then to still leave.” 

Sanus had not expected to hear that, but he took it in. “I can see that,” he said. He wondered how he would have felt if he’d found  a lump under his arm, alone there in his apartment.

“What about you?” Sey asked suddenly. “How have you been? You look, I don’t know, like you have a heavy mind.”

Sanus looked out at the street, at the people walking past. He wanted to say nothing, to lie and say things were fine, or at least okay—that word which these days meant nothing or anything. But Sey had seen it, the weight of things in him. What was the use of lying?

“I had a bad dream this morning,” he said. “In it, my apartment blew up.” How strange that instead of saying all of this to his therapist, he was saying it to his ex-girlfriend. What would his therapist say about that?

“Oh, that sounds awful,” Sey said. 

“It was. Everything was destroyed, but what was worse, I couldn’t hear a thing. I’d lost my hearing. And even besides the dream, I’ve been feeling like I’ve lost something. Something important.” He caught himself too late; he had said more than he meant to reveal. “Not you, I mean,” he added. “I mean, I did lose you, and that was hard, but there’s something else.” 

“I know,” Sey said. She nodded softly in sympathy.

Sanus looked at her, startled. “You do?”

“Yes.”

“Do you feel it, too?” He could not help but ask it, a seedling of hope again breaking through the surface of his mind.

“No,” she said. “But I sensed you’re missing something.”

 He looked at her, at her gray-green eyes. They seemed to shine in a way he had never seen them shine before. He wondered how his eyes looked to her. Then he noticed her coffee. She had not touched it. Beside her cup and saucer lay the bag of CDs and her gloves. It was as if she were ready to leave at any moment, or was not even completely there.

“Is it that obvious?” he asked.

“In a way,” she said.

He started to lift his cup, then set it down. Something told him he needed to pay close attention now. “How can you tell?” 

She blinked and looked away. 

“Tell me,” he said. 

“I can’t.”

“You can,” Sanus said, but Sey said nothing in response. Sanus felt as he did at his therapist’s, when the man would nod knowingly but not say a word. He felt like he was talking to his dream—to something that knew the answer but wouldn’t reveal it. He was so tired of not knowing.

He took a sip of coffee and looked back at Sey. She was so lovely and looked so complete, but at that moment, he also hated her. Why would she not tell him? 

Sey looked back at him a moment, then stood. “I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I have to go.” She gathered her gloves and bag and turned to leave. He wanted to call out to her, to ask her to help him, but then he heard himself say, Relax, like he had in the dream. Sey opened the door to the café, stepped out, and within a moment disappeared.

Sanus sat there feeling numb, wanting to cry. He would never find the answer to this emptiness. He thought of running to his therapist, but there was only fifteen minutes left. Then, as if someone else had said it, he heard a voice within him say, You already know.

Now even his own mind was playing the same trick. 

But I don’t know the answer, he responded. I can’t figure out the dream, I can’t force Sey to tell me, and for all the good advice, my therapist has never revealed anything. Where else can I search? 

His mind was silent, as if it were a school teacher, waiting for him to answer his own question. Frustrated, he stood and left the café, walking the opposite direction in which he had seen Sey go. He walked mindlessly, until he came to a subway station, and descended the stairs, paid his fare, and waited for his train. 

As the train approached, coming through the hollow of the tunnel, he considered jumping in front of it. He took a step toward the edge, feeling the underground wind blow against him.  He was about to take another step when the answer came to him—the loom.He stepped back, waited for the train to stop and the doors to open, then rushed on and sat down quietly in the compartment, all alone. 

He only had to go back into the closet in his mind and pull out the tapestry. On it was Sey’s life, a version of Sey he had all to himself. He would ask that version of her what the answer was, and since this Sey was inside hishead, was his version of her, she would have to tell him. She would not hold back.

And so he retreated into his mind and opened the closet door. He pulled out the tapestry he had recently pushed back in. It seemed so complete, but he saw there were a few missing parts. He worked the story of her cyst into the weaving and the way her eyes shone like they never had before. Then he stared at it a long time. The tapestry of Sey’s life stared back. It seemed both a silent, ephemeral thing and a whole, living person, like a hologram or a ghost. She appeared to smile at him, like she wanted to make him happy.

He asked her, “How did you know something is missing inside me?”

“I know,” she said, “because I took it.”

Sanus blinked. The train car rumbled on, but it was as though he could no longer hear. Like in his dream. Yet it was too late; he had already heard.

“What was it you took?” he asked her. He could barely get the words out, he was so afraid to know. 

Sey’s smile disappeared. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I gave you my stories. Every day a story. You kept them and did whatever you did with them. I knew that eventually, you would put them together and figure out what was missing. And here you are.”

Sanus looked around the train car to make sure there was no one else, that these words were not being whispered to him from outside. But no one had boarded his compartment. He was still alone.

“What do you mean, missing?” he asked.

“In me,” she said.

“But I thought you said you didn’t feel anything was missing.”

“I don’t feel it anymore, now that I have it.”

“Have what?” He nearly screamed the words and looked around the train car again, uncertain if he had spoken them out loud or not. He could feel a pressure inside rising. He wanted to explode. “Whatdid you take?”

Sey glanced at him, then looked away. “Music,” she finally said. 

“You mean, you stole my records?”

“No, don’t be silly,” she said. “All your records are still there.”

“Then what?”

He could tell she did not want to say it, but this was hisSey, in his mind; she had to tell him. 

“I stole your listening,” she said.

He still did not understand, but he waited for her to explain.

“Every day,” she said, “you played your records, told me how to listen to them. I began to understand music, bit by bit. But I sensed there was something I was missing, the heart of the sound, the feeling of it. Something I never understood growing up. I wanted that so badly, to feel what you felt. So one night, while you were sleeping, I reached into you and took it.” She lowered her eyes a moment, then looked back at him. “And once I felt it within me, I couldn’t give it back.”

Sanus turned away and stared—not at the window or the wall of the tunnel beyond but at some unfocusable space between. It didn’t make sense, what she was saying. How could Sey steal howhe listened? This was beginning to feel like a dream as well. This morning, on the other hand, with the explosion in the apartment, seemed all the more real and clear.

“That’s silly,” Sanus said finally. “That’s impossible.”

“No, it’s not,” Sey said. “There were things I learned from my mother. She read futures, but she also read minds. She taught me how to enter them and take from them whatever I needed. I’m not proud of it. But this is how I have survived. And once you no longer had it, I could no longer love you. I had to leave. I had everything I wanted, and if I kept telling you stories, my stories, you would have eventually figured out that I was the kind of person who was desperate enough to steal something like that from you.”

Sanus didn’t want to believe Sey, or this woven version of Sey he had created. He didn’t want to believe it was even possible to do what she’d said, but as he sat there on the train, still and silent and numb, he somehow knew she was telling the truth. This explained why his records had offered him no relief, why they had only made the hole feel bigger. He’d wondered why music had sounded so lifeless since Sey had left, but he’d assumed it was that he felt sad or tired. 

Sanus felt himself fall back slowly until his body was pressed against the back of his seat. He wondered if perhaps he was simply losing his mind—perhaps he was not on the train at all. It seemed to him now too coincidental that Sey had just appeared while he was on his way to therapy, that they had ended up at the cafe during the hour of his appointment. Perhaps he was still at the café, alone, conjuring this all up. Or had he actually made it to his therapist’s office and was now under some sort of hypnosis? Or was he still in bed, inside his dream, having never awoken or left the house?

Sanus wanted to scream and see if he would wake up. But then he decided it didn’t matter; even if this were only another vivid dream, it still revealed things to him. His therapist had said one way or the other, the brain finds a way to tell you what it needs you to know. And now it was all laid out before him, the explosion that had shaken the walls.

Sanus listened to the screeching brakes of the train and thought of growing deaf, as he had in his dream. It no longer bothered him. If Sanus could not feelmusic, he might as well not hear anything at all. He thought then of Beethoven, who, though deaf, was able to compose his last symphony—only, when the words formed in Sanus’ head, his mind said last sympathyinstead. It made him wonder if that was why Sey had told him what she had, to help him figure this out, because she still had a thread of sympathy for him. At least, he hoped this was true.

And though he wanted back what she had stolen from him, Sanus knew she would leave the city now, that he would never see her again. The voice over the speaker announced his station, and the train came to a stop. As he moved to stand, Sanus suddenly felt very tired and older than he ever had before. He stepped onto the station platform and walked toward the exit, not hearing the doors as they closed behind him.

Nathan Alling Long’s work has appeared in over fifty journals and anthologies, as well as on NPR. His collection of fifty flash fiction, The Origin of Doubt, was released in spring 2018 from Press 53, and his collection, Two Stories, Some Tales, and a Yarn, was a finalist for the Hudson Book Manuscript Prize and the Iowa Fiction Award.  He is the recipient of a Mellon grant, a Truman Capote literary fellowship, and three Pushcart nominations.  He lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Stockton University in N.J.

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