Original Short Story: “The Embrace”


The person who made the statement quoted (not quite verbatim, so please don’t go googling) in the eighth numbered section of my post on Jimmy Corrigan is the editor of a journal that published a short story of mine last year. At $10 a copy, this journal is probably not reaching very many people, and yet the story is perhaps my own favorite of my short fictions. So, without quarreling with the editor’s political thought and without even mentioning my misspelled surname (misspelled even after I requested a correction) on the page that advertises the volume of the journal in which my piece was published, let me symbolically absent my undesired voice from the editor’s chorus and post the story here, for free, for anyone who would like to read it. The place of original publication is credited elsewhere (in at least three places) on this website; I am trying not to start a controversy, so I will forego naming it here (the contract I signed with the journal does not in any case require me to do so). As far as the story itself goes, it is about class and sex and gender, and the kinds of alienness that are vaster than the differences between humans, even as they may symbolize those differences. It is about culture and money, sex and loneliness, eating and being eaten. It is about being underwater; it is about going on vacation as a child. Its characters, let me warn you, do not speak in the polite technocratic argot of “race-gender-class,” because they do not belong to the class that does so. Enough explanation; without further ado:

The Embrace

by John Pistelli

They met in church. I have an old photograph of the church from that time in front of me: I scanned it and now use it as the background on my work computer. The picture doesn’t contain much information. The church looks faded, orange and tawdry, sandy and bare-walled, an old little mission chapel in the empty square of a town at the water’s edge. But when I was younger, I didn’t have anything to compare it to or any terms to apply to it, so its smallness and isolation held a glamour. For many years after, I would go to that church in my mind during any unpleasant occurrence: in traffic, at a staff meeting, in the dentist’s chair, on insomniac nights or long plane rides. Inwardly I would sit alone in the quiet and the dark and would read a book or write a poem, protected by a stone wall from the restless sun or the wind from the ocean. But on that day, I wasn’t alone; I was with my mother, whose idea it had been to go into the church in the first place. Being at the time a kind of ranting boy atheist—even though I was a girl—I was against it. My mother, everything else having failed to come through for her, was rediscovering her faith in the Lord; she believed that his purposes, so mysterious and painful for their human objects, were nevertheless good and necessary. She lit a candle, and then she knelt in the nearly empty chapel. I wandered around the dim peripheries with the camera slung around my neck, studying the stone-relief Stations of the Cross, but afraid to snap a picture because of how loud the shutter would sound in the consecrated silence. A black-clad nun, her pert pink face floating in the darkness, glared with pity at me. This made me leave the image I was studying—the descent from the Cross, Mary’s face isolated like the nun’s within her shawl—and scamper back to my mother’s pew, where I found her in conversation with Mr. Stanley. He looked to be about fifty years old, and he had waves of metallic black and silver hair. The tanned arms protruding from his rolled-up sleeves were thick with muscle and white-furred. “We’re meeting Mr. Stanley for dinner tonight,” my mother said.

* * *

My mother dyed her hair in the hotel room. Happily, she’d been wearing a scarf when she met Mr. Stanley, so he hadn’t seen her gray-wisped blonde roots showing under the false auburn. While her head was foil-wrapped and her forehead seemingly blood-spotted, she pushed my own head down under the tub faucet and raked her fingernails through the knots and tangles of my hair. I squirmed and shivered as she violently brushed it out, whipping long, cold, wet strands across my back. “Jesus, you’re a wild child,” she said. “Whose kid are you?” We looked at ourselves in the foggy mirror, my mother already shorter than I was, her features plain where mine were sharp, an inheritance from my long-vanished father (whom I would meet one day in a diner and drink a sad black coffee with, a long time from then and a long way from there, after my mother’s slow suicide by alcohol and smoke). In the mirror, I was all twisted hair and knobby knee and elbow—she sometimes said I looked like a hairy insect. “But you’ll grow out of it,” she assured me as she pushed me out of the bathroom so she could finish the dye job and put on her face. By the time we got out of the hotel, she’d made me change three times. I wore my hair in a severe braid and was made to put on closed shoes even though we were at the beach—“I don’t want him to look at those prehensile toes of yours and think I’ve spawned an evolutionary throwback”—and a modest wraparound skirt that came to my ankles—“I don’t want him to think he’s getting into something unmanageable with you.” In the cab ride to Mr. Stanley’s hotel, she pulled me close and kissed my clavicle. “I know I’m a bitch, baby, but I’m doing it for both of us. You’ll understand one day.” The cabbie smiled at my mother with cynical commiseration in the smudged rear view mirror. He must have understood, but I did not—I jerked away and nearly hugged the car door as I ferreted a little paperback collection of Christina Rosetti from the folds of my skirt. I understand now. Maybe that’s why I have no children of my own.

* * *

“Ladies,” said Mr. Stanley, “I have a surprise.”

Unconcerned that I would think he was an evolutionary throwback, he wore his shirt with the top buttons undone, his whitish pelt looking like an ascot tucked below his chin. I didn’t know what an ascot was then; we were lower-middle-class, lower and lower every year, a truth my mother dancingly evaded on our long confusing walk—longer than the cab ride—through the sandy back streets of the town toward the surprise. “I’m a hostess,” said my mother. You’re a fucking bartender, I thought. “I studied journalism,” said my mother. For two years, until I was born. (My mother was thirty-five then.)

“Journalism, that’s wonderful,” said Mr. Stanley. “I majored in communications myself. I use it a lot in my job now. Except that journalists tell the truth and advertisers lie.” He chuckled conspiratorially: if we were all in on his lies, he seemed to be saying, then we were both no better than he was and better than the people he lied to. I glared at his paltry ruse behind my sunglasses, which I wore even though the sky, several hours before sunset, was getting dark with rain-bellied clouds (“Sunny every day!” said our vacation brochure, another advertiser’s lie, meant to deflect the buyer’s shame at being forced by relative poverty to take a summer trip to such a desolate, no-account beach). As we strolled through the maze of streets—the town was like a mirror somebody had punched: all its lines were jagged fractures—I dreamed about the people who lived behind the grimy pink walls of the buildings. A little store, now closed for the evening, sold every type of shell, some so richly infolded and intricate with patterns of color that I suspected them to be the work of human hands. I wondered about the creatures that had lived in the shells as I did about the creatures who lived in the buildings, all vulnerable soft tremulous slops when prised out of our chambers.

My mother, bathetically, had lost herself to her enthusiasms while conversing with Mr. Stanley. She always got carried away. Bar patrons were forever complaining that she cajoled them to give up their orders and drink instead whatever outlandish strange-colored cocktail she was perfecting at the moment; she would hand them bizarre tumblers full of striated orange and blue when they had asked for simple vodka tonics or Jack-and-Cokes. That she tried to treat my body with the same creative energy and command ensured that some part of me would always hate her, but I found it impossible, even at the time, not to admire her imaginative force. “I read all those gonzo books as a kid,” she was saying to Mr. Stanley, “while all the other smart girls were reading Jane Austen. They made me want to be a journalist. I wanted to ride with the Hell’s Angels, take drugs in Las Vegas—I wanted to experience everything.” That much was true enough and unembellished for Mr. Stanley. She had given me all those books too, but I didn’t care for them. When I wasn’t reading my science textbooks, I favored the genteel classics instead, hence the poetry in my pocket: the verses of an unmarried near-nun. (When your mother is a rebel, your rebellion is necessarily to become a conservative.) “But life happened,” she said to Mr. Stanley, jerking her red-nailed thumb in my direction. I looked all around, pretending not to listen. On a rusty balcony that I half-worried, half-hoped would come loose just as we were walking under it, a young couple huddled over a small table sharing a meal in silence, bare knees touching. The man, shirtless and built up with blocks of muscle, was burned dark by outdoor labor; the woman rocked a baby on one brown shoulder, its pinkish downy little head shrouded by her sun-bleached hair. Further down toward the ocean, on another, sturdier balcony of thick pink-painted iron, a long, lean older woman reclined in a chaise-longue, sternly dreamy, a notebook in her lap, a book propped open next to a flute of white wine on a side table, her sandaled feet propped up, crossed neatly at the ankles—some vacationing novelist or poet, some philosopher or scientist on retreat, I imagined.

My mother had just finished explaining that this was a last-minute trip—“To clear my head,” she said, as if she were some kind of poet or philosopher—a quick car ride to the cheapest, closest beach. I could see she was trying to get him to say why he, who seemed to have so much more money and so many more choices, ended up in this half-abandoned town perched at the end of the earth.

“I’m not on vacation, myself,” said Mr. Stanley. “This is a business trip. In fact, and I hope you don’t mind, I’m working for the business we’re about to visit.”

By this time, we had come to the sea-road, crossed it, and were now walking onto a shiny silver marina that extended out over the swirling water. We arrived, just before the platform ran out, at a circular hole. I peered over and saw that it didn’t just drop into the water but instead opened onto a spiral staircase in a white-lighted tunnel. Mr. Stanley started down, and then extended a hand up to my mother. I trailed down after eventually; it was either that or walk into the ocean.

* * *

“It’s part of a revitalizing project,” Mr. Stanley explained as he showed us around the restaurant. The bar in the center of the blue room was shaped like the thick, scalloped lip of a clam shell, and the bar stools were fashioned as jellyfish heads supported by thin metal mimickings of radial canals (being fifteen years old and in high school and an unusually avid reader of my science textbooks, I had such precise terminology at the ready). The tables in the main room sat next to windows that looked out into the glowing blue darkness and lazy detritus of the ocean. But the most prizeworthy tables were stationed in eight transparent tunnels that extended out like arms from the hub of the main room. In the tunnels, you could look above you to the high-drifting rays and the schools of fish darting and flicking like a single organism; if you could stand their judgment, you could be watched by the wary, resentful co-lifeforms of the dinner on your plate, inwardly furious citizens of an occupied city. Sitting perfectly still, eating your swordfish or lobster, you rode in a triumphal car through the ocean. Mr. Stanley invited us into one of the tunnels.

“Robinsonade, Incorporated, which built this restaurant, will be buying most of the beach—most of the town, in fact—to put more money into the region. This will be the first dining establishment of its kind in the world when it opens next year. They’re doing a series of dry runs on the q.t., though, cooking meals for V.I.P.s, movie moguls, senators, those kinds of people, and my firm is a partner in the advertising. They brought me out here to do a walk-through, see the sights, get inspired by the whole site, the town, I mean—to see if I couldn’t meet my muse out here.”

He smiled upon my mother. She was the type of woman who understood that his flattering comments were cynical at bottom. I turned away in disgust, not yet old enough to know that very often cynicism is all that offers itself as a reprieve from being alone. A flat white ray glided around the glass next to me, the tips of its wings curling, giving shape to the current, its mouth a little semicircle, as if it felt wonder. But I didn’t know what it felt. Mr. Stanley called out something in Spanish to the man behind the clam shell bar. “, ,” the man said and came over to set our table. Mr. Stanley pulled out my mother’s chair. A school of bullet-shaped fish passed in shadow across the floor, where I kept my eyes.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said. I didn’t, but I did want to be on my own for a few minutes, to shelter my precious adolescent soul from lying talk and desperate talk, all the cant of the old and sad. Mr. Stanley vaguely pointed me in the direction of the bathroom, and I wandered vaguely toward it.

“Octopus is on special tonight, just for us,” I heard him say.

* * *

My mother’s marriage to Mr. Stanley proved a lengthy struggle. He traveled incessantly, he buried his head in advertising, he buried his dick in waitresses and secretaries and junior copywriters and vice-chairpersons and kitchen staff. As a stepfather, he offered me needful distance. (A bad husband perhaps makes for a good stepfather.) My mother consoled herself with her bar and her bar patrons until he left, and then she got old and unfuckable, and then she was sick, and then she was dead, is dead, will always be dead. At their wedding reception, when they danced their first dance to their song, when they swayed laughing to good old “Leather and Lace,” I sobbed uncontrollably, my whole body wracked, as if something shook me hard by the shoulders.

The restaurant never opened. It never even received a name. Later that year it imploded—at night, luckily, with no one aboard—and a fell in a heap of plastics to the silt and coral seabed, a leaching toxic reef. Eco-terrorists were suspected, but nothing was ever known for sure. Robinsonade, Inc., never bought the town. It remains dusty and nearly empty, the old church still in its center, as in my memories and in my photograph.

I grew up to be a successful museum curator—natural history, not art. I don’t even believe in art, for why should anyone at all have the nerve or the right to create forms when so many scarcely explicable forms exist already? I still wear my hair long, and I also wear a black shell on a pendant along with (everything else having failed to come through, as it does) a crucifix; and I let my hair get unkempt and tangled, and I dress how I like, and I live alone. These facts, in theory, bring an end to my story.

* * *

In fact, I got lost on the way to the bathroom, and I found myself following a broad trail of slimy water that slipped out from under the blue plastic swing-door leading to the back of the kitchen. I very slowly nudged the door open with my foot. I saw the thing. When I saw the thing—I had never seen such a thing in the flesh before—I was so stunned by the very presence of its thingness that the name for it, which I had of course known since toddlerhood, did not even occur to me. A dark purple shining mass, sleekly bulbous near its middle, with two black spheres set into it, it slopped out in studded tendrils like something somebody had spilled, a half-hardened puddle, alive. It writhed across the floor in my direction. It seemed to move by pouring itself out of itself, over and over. A gland, a polyp, pulp on the move—escaping. Some kind of inspirited flora, fungus, bacterium, some kind of slime that rose and walked and shouldn’t have. An emotion more potent than just fear, a stupefying shock, momentarily spiked me, sweating, to the floor. I forced out a few breaths, shook my head, and remembered the word for the thing. I said it over and over; knowing the word made me feel much better. The word led others and still others into my head, and I resumed the ongoing conversation with myself that the nearing appearance of the thing had suspended. Escaping! Of course it was escaping! They were going to put it in a pot and boil it. Wouldn’t you, in the circumstances, try to escape? So there was a point of comparison between me and this rolling tumor, this snot charged with vitality. Surely there would be other likenesses, if I only stopped and thought about it. But it turned over and over itself toward me. It wouldn’t give me time to think. Any minute now a person with an apron and a knife would come cursing after it, calling it by the name it had en Español (but what was its name for itself?), and that would be the end unless it hurried, as much as it could hurry in the drowning currents of the air. In the circumstances, I thought this: What would it frighten you the most to do right now? And shouldn’t that be just the thing that you do?

* * *

I walked very quickly, my head bowed, my arms folded low across my belly, back to my seat at the table in the tunnel. Neither my mother nor Mr. Stanley looked at me too intently. They had drunk half a bottle of white wine in the time that I was gone and were now spearing firmly elusive rings of fried calamari with sharp, tiny forks. In the blue glow outside the tunnel, fish with wide, startled-seeming eyes turned one way and the other. Instead of my body warming the thing, cold overlapped itself in a braid around my vertebrae as it climbed up from the small of my back. A blue darkness slowly saturated my mind. I leaned over and poured myself a glass of wine with what felt like a very crooked, desperate smile on my face. I drank it down very quickly, trying to wash out the bluish cold in a warm yellow flood. Neither of them said anything to me. They were sparring with each other, their be-ringed forks flying in front of them.

“The problem,” Mr. Stanley was saying, “starts in bed. You women have no idea what it’s like for a man, because, fundamentally, you don’t have to do anything. You can just lay there, like the goddamn sun, and you know everything will go around you in a circle. And if it doesn’t, well, it’s not your fault. You always have us to blame. So when you get out of bed, it means you don’t understand responsibility. You don’t understand endurance. You don’t know what it means to suspend your immediate little wants and needs for a larger purpose. If you get discouraged, you shrivel right up. If you don’t understand something, you pretend it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to do anything, which is why you do so little. And then you blame us for it! For not hiring you in larger numbers, which, I believe, is how this conversation started. You say, ‘You men with all your dick-swinging, you think you’re the cock of the walk,’ but let me tell you something, lady, if we didn’t act that way, you’d laugh in our faces. And that, whether you like it or not, doesn’t end well.”

My mother made some flirtatiously outraged, faux-incredulous guffaws: “No, no, let me tell you something, Mr. Dick, Mr. Cock, whatever you prefer. Get back to me about endurance and responsibility when you’ve had a fucking animal basically fused to your spine for nine months. If you guys had to shit out a human being, then we’d see some changes in the world.”

“Fused to your spine? I think you need an anatomy lesson…”

“Keep dreaming, baby. Listen, did it ever occur to you that this experience of being built to grow human beings gives us some bigger perspective on all your pathetic schemes and responsibilities? You ever see a garden build a cathedral? I feel bad for you guys, honestly. No wonder you swagger around killing everything in sight, putting labels on everything. You’re cut off from everything, hardly alive, and all you have for consolation is your little dicks. No wonder you’re so proud of them. Honestly, if I was a man, I’d shoot somebody in the fucking head.”

She made a gun out of her thumb and forefinger and put it to his temple. He grabbed her wrist gently and lowered her hand level with his mouth. I poured another drink, trying to keep up with them. Something sucked at my skin. A rope of slime around my lower back seemed to be whispering about loneliness and dying.

“What do you think, sweetheart?” my mother said to me.

I leaned forward, hearing a sound like a mouth breaking contact with another mouth as my stomach became concave. I said something, but I don’t remember what I said. They looked at me strangely. Mr. Stanley leaned back and surreptiously sent his eyes from side to side, as if he were searching for an exit.

“Excuse me one more time,” I said, and veered out of my chair back toward the kitchen.

“Honey,” my mother called after me, “you’re dripping.”

In the kitchen, I lifted up my shirt in a panic, and the thing slopped out. It splattered against the tiles of the floor like vomit. It seemed to whirl; it seemed to want to create a vortex to suck the world down. I wrung out my salt-smelling shirt and went back to the table. I told them I felt unwell. I slumped with my cheek flattened on the thin skin of plastic separating me from the ocean.

* * *

On the cab ride back to the hotel, my mother pulled me close and asked me what I meant.

“What I meant?”

“You know, when I asked you what you thought about my conversation with Mr. Stanley. Don’t you remember what you said?”

I kept quiet.

“You said, ‘It’s lonely to be alive, it’s lonely to die.’ You said, ‘Man or woman—it doesn’t matter.’ You told us, ‘You’re killing me.’”

I separated myself from her, my stomach cold, burning, and I sank against the door. The back of the taxi stank of saltwater. “You’re killing me,” I repeated. “You’re killing me.”

My mother rolled down the window and lit a cigarette. She blew smoke thoughtfully into the wind-stream.

“Yeah, well,” she concluded, “join the club, baby.”



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