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art by Eleanor Bennett

The Left Side of Your Lover's Broken Face

Brynn MacNab has been reading speculative fiction since before she knew there was any other kind, and writing it for almost as long. Her work has also appeared at Flash Fiction Online.
***Editor's Note: Adult language, sparingly used***
A story is a little tiny piece. A brick, a section of straight pipe, half a radiator. It should be an important piece; if it's not important, pick a different bit. If you can still tell what's important. A table leg. A trash can lid. The hose on the fire extinguisher. The left side of your lover's broken face. Or choose a moment: an epiphany of love or despair, a shift in loyalties, a bend in the world.
This is the moment of your lover's broken face, and the moment right before, and part of the one right after.
He, your lover, is in the dorm basement with me, your friend. He's not cheating on you. He never does, he's very decent that way. What we are actually doing is playing Ping-Pong.
You are out shopping, the afternoon your lover's face breaks. You are somehow never around for these things; and besides, you hate violence. And Ping-Pong.
Your lover says he can talk to me; he likes talking to me. And I like knowing him better than you know him. After all, he was my friend before he was your lover.
It makes you uncomfortable, me calling him your lover. Your boyfriend, as you put it; after all, how often do I think you make love? It's college, and your roommates are awkward.
But he does love you. He actually does, which I find rare and always unexpected. That's what I meant.
Ping-Pong doesn't last long. I can talk while I'm playing, once I get used to the rhythm, but he can't, so we stand for a while just talking across the table. We talk about politics and cows. About ink-stains, and exams, and green and blue, and women's shoes. And none of it makes sense. It's not the conversation that confuses me, not the sentences and paragraphs and words, those things are fine. The subtext is unfathomable.
Your lover's talking about you, but I can't puzzle out the clues to what he's saying. You know how it is; you've seen the scenes in movies, read them in books, when everything is a symbol for something else. All of these topics your lover brings up hold symbols for you, but none of them are matching up. Our conversation is like I imagine Literature exams in Hell.
"You can't really tip cows," he says. "They sleep lying down. I used to claim I'd done it, before I found that out. It gave me an in with the other guys from the country, some kind of hick solidarity. I quit lying altogether when I found out the truth. Turns out I was just connecting to other phonies all along, you know?"
Actually, you can tip cows: sometimes they sleep lying down and sometimes standing up. But I don't want him to start lying again or anything, so I nod seriously instead of correcting him. I try to find the correlation between you and the hicks, but it's not quite matching for me. I wait to see if all will come clear.
"You know your favorite color is linked to your developmental stage?" he says. "Blue is before yellow. I don't get that. Why is it more mature to like the color of pee than to like the color of the sky?" I don't say anything. I just watch. Trying to figure it out. And also, like Fox News, he commands a sick fascination. Because as he talks, babbles nonsense about you, I can see his face going fragile. I should understand him, maybe that would help. I don't understand. I'm not at all sure I'm even trying my best. At first, maybe, but then--like I said, a fascination.
"Politicians," he says, "are a lot like novelists, and the higher the office the longer the book." And his forehead flattens out like plastic. "Me, I like a little mystery novel, not some gigantic fantasy series. I never vote for president, I could care less. The mayor, now..."
He's being clever; he's being cute--what a joker--but his face is not laughing, his eyes freeze staring out at me, totally earnest.
"Why are life and envy the same color?" he asks, and I shake my head--I don't know--and watch his jaw solidify, a little open. I don't know what's going on between the two of you, to make him talk like this. And I wish he'd shut up about it. It's really not my problem.
"I think instead of those special ink stains, they should make new ones every time," he says. "Psychiatry should be improvisational like that." His lips are barely moving anymore; his face is glazed ceramic, and I am finished watching.
He's always been so pathetic about girls.
So I say, "Let's play," and I serve. Maybe with a little extra vigor. He's too busy being anguished to respond, or it could be that the limbs at his sides have turned to useless doll-hands. The ball hits the bridge of his nose, straight on and hard, and there's a little snap like an ice cube breaking. He doesn't yell or double over; there's no blood; it's only a Ping-Pong ball, bouncing away to roll under the stairs--but somehow, in this moment, it's important.
It's left a clean vertical crack on your lover's nose. He stands motionless while the line spreads up and down as quietly as the pages of a new book opening. Not even his eyes move. I'm not certain he's breathing.
Then the left side of his face slowly peels away from him and falls to the floor. It wobbles like a dropped plastic plate, and makes exactly the sound of one on the painted concrete. Behind where it was is revealed the left side of his face, just the same as before except that it's still supple flesh and except for the eye, which is paler and more afraid.
The left side of his mouth works experimentally; the right side's still frozen solid, that half of his face jutting forward a little. When he speaks, it's with an only-half-mobile, stroke-victim accent. "I'm scared," he says. Tears gather in your lover's left eye while he tells me, "No one is listening."
Maybe it's not about you at all. Whatever it is, it's too weird for me. I drop my Ping-Pong paddle and go.
"I need," he says, but I'm already on the stairs, running. I'm gone and my feet are louder than his voice calling after me. If he's doing that.
All the way back to my room, I keep glancing behind me. When I get there I pack as much as I can. My roommate wants to know what I'm doing, where I'm going, what's going on. I tell her there was a death in the family; I tell her I'm terminally ill; I tell her to mind her own fucking business and I catch a train for home.
It's not the last time I see your lover, but maybe the last important time. If it is important. Which, you know, whatever.
No, it is. It's important, and I did hear him calling, "Please. Wait." And my name. Like that could change anything, like he could make it my problem just like that.
I spend a long weekend at home, telling five different stories no one believes, and your lover's not in any of them. Then I come back to school where I see your lover, totally repaired, in the cafeteria.
I wonder if you found him like that when you got home from shopping, if you picked his face from the floor and put it back on him. If you have some secret hidden girlfriend powers that somehow made you able to fix him. Even help him, maybe. But from the way you watch us awkwardly mumble "hi," I don't think so.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

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