Last Day in Baltimore
A When people ask me about it I tell them my body’s at war with itself. My body is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all bound up in blood cells. We have border control issues; half my insides misunderstand the other half, which means everybody is an enemy of somebody all inside me. Autoimmune is the wrong word. It's an identity crisis. A body politic problem.
I've declared biological warfare and I am not immune. I've known this for awhile.
The problem now was my medicine. The doctor said my body had succumbed to an “opportunistic infection,” which made me feel proud. I said that’s because my body and I are scrappy like that. There's nothing we hate more than missed opportunity, and he said, “No, this infection took advantage of your deficiencies.”
I told him he a lot of nerve.
He said get out of Baltimore. Go to where the air is cleaner, do the yoga, take a job without all the druggies and pills and wrist-cutting. Stop trying to save the world. Work on saving yourself.
I said, why don’t you go save yourself and he said, just give it a rest okay.
I picked Oregon. I have a sister there who likes to jam and pickle things. She said we could do the yoga together. She said there’s nothing like yoga when there’s a good storm going, when the waves are fierce and the wind hurls itself against the windows like a crazy lunatic, like this time, finally, he’s gonna break in.
So it was my last day in Baltimore, and I sat in a bar watching a man who sat limp on his stool, his suit a shiny, wrinkled mess. He sipped his drink, swirled it, sipped, swirled, over and over again he did this. He stared ahead at the long mirror behind the bar, and I watched him watch his reflection. I sat at the other end with a club soda.
It seems when we watch ourselves in bars, in storefront windows, it’s more than vanity that has us looking. It’s like we’re checking in with ourselves, seeing what our faces do when we feel a certain way.
This man looked like he’d lost a war.
I decided I'd be opportunistic. I took the barstool next to his.
“You've been watching yourself all night,” I said.
“I mean you’re a dapper man. You're nice to look at.”
“You know, a little quiet would be nice,” he said.
I told him fine by me. I’m here if you want to talk about it. And I ordered my whiskey exactly like his: straight up, all nice and neat. I ordered it the same so he’d see I was the real deal.
Because I am. I'm the real goddamn deal.
A couple drinks and he forgot about his face and told me everything. In fact it was only I who occasionally stole a glance. We looked so lovely like that, him pouring his heart out, me, my eyes radiant with compassion, sitting there listening to him go on and on. I looked soft and gentle and sweet, like a legitimately good person, like I belonged there.
This is what kindness does. It makes us look lovely to the world. I tried not to stare at us. I listened to him, the poor guy.
“My wife left me for our marriage counselor,” he said.
“Why do you suppose she did that?”
“Haven’t a goddamn clue.” he said. “But that's where the shit's settled.”
I raised my glass.
“Here’s to the shit being settled. And here’s to you. No one could say you didn’t try.”
He said he felt like he could really talk to me, like we'd talked like this for years.
And he looked me dead in the eye. “Will I be happy again?”
I said, “No, probably not.”
I could have ended it there. I could have paid my tab, shook his hand, wished him all the best in the world. But it was my last day and I was feeling good, feeling like my immune system could fight a whole army of free radicals, and the truth is sometimes, on certain days, I have a little more to give. I can make some lousy human okay for a couple hours.
“Come on,” I said. “You were never happy. Happiness is a commercial.”
“I'm pretty sure I was happy at some point,” he said.
“Nope. You weren't. Fleeting moments of joy, maybe, at best.”
He said I was full of the devil. I said no doubt about it. He bought me another.
We went home.
But he began needing things I didn’t want to give. He asked for additional pillows for his allergies, for between his knees. He already had one under his head.
I didn’t ask questions. I gave pillows.
He started putting the romance on nice and thick. I was the ambassador of silence. I did this by lying very still, saying absolutely nothing. I wanted everyone to just calm down and go to sleep.
But he took my hand in his and whispered embarrassing things, his nasal canals dry and noisy above my ear. I closed my eyes. I practiced some kind of peaceful resistance. I thought of Oregon and pictured a windsock, erect with ocean wind.
He kept going, whispering how I’d saved him. How he was losing it, how he would have lost his mind.
I said, “Hush. No one’s losing anything.”
He played with my hair, looping it around his fingers, hands restless, needy.
“Let go,” I said. “You’ll never win.”
He whispered more, his words urgent as he gripped my shoulders and confessed his loneliness. Perhaps he wept--I don’t know, because it was just another wave and it wasn’t long before it subsided.
Without all the talking, he only snored.
And I kept thinking about the windsocks and Oregon and the ocean.
Windsocks are used for safety, to show us what the wind is doing, to give us direction. You see them at airports, somewhere along the landing strip. Wherever there’s a plane, there’s probably a windsock too, leading the way all proud, upright, and righteous. Ready to save lives.
How beautiful is what I kept thinking. How beautiful they will be, like little guardians spread out along the highway; an army, a battalion of windsocks inflated like lungs. And the air will be so clean, so easy to breathe. And my sister’s breath will smell just like his breath smells now. She’ll smell sweet like plum jam and whiskey.
She will breathe and I will breathe and we’ll remark every now and then about the solitude, about our relief from the world--how it seeps under our skin and washes over us like one deep, bottomless sigh. Like the peace that comes after all the soldiers have no one else to fight; or when my cells quiet down and my body rests.
The exquisite, resolute, dreamless sleep that comes when life is done working so hard at being alive.
And we’ll remark how lovely it is, this calm we feel when the storm arrives and slams itself against our windows. How nice that our home is strong enough for this.
My sister and I, two pacifists hovering over the wooden slats of her floor in perfect downward dog, declaring a cellular ceasefire with our bodies until the windows are dead quiet and the storm has passed.
About The Writer
Marianne Salina lives in Spokane, Washington where she writes fiction and teaches English. She received her MFA from Eastern Washington University and is currently working on a collection of stories.