Fiction Finalist Mandy Stango

Aug 30, 2016 by

Fiction Finalist Mandy Stango

People Like Us

 

As I got ready to leave the liquor store, empty handed, the cashier pointed at the discount table. Sitting near out-of-season pumpkin pie vodkas and eggnog flavored Jack Daniels was the mother of all wine bottles: 1.5 liters, 13% alcohol. Seven dollars.

“We’re tryna get rid of that. You can have it for five,” he said.

“If I drink this stuff, will I live?” I asked, immediately suspicious.

“You a lighty?”

It’s been four years since I drank wine, since that bad night in college, drunk off cheap Cabernet. I ripped a 1.5-er in two hours before telling my best friend I loved him.

“I’ll take it,” I said, and pulled out my wallet.

I threw that bottle in the trunk of my car, behind my spare tire. It rattled the whole ride home.

I’ve got this boyfriend and I’ve been trying to tell him I love him for a couple weeks now. We met through a friend of a friend two Augusts ago at a picnic by Bark Lake. Bark Lake’s the spot to go around here. Growing up, I swam there with my cousins. We camped weekends at the family cabin, back before Granddad sold the place. Some nights, when I shut my eyes, I can still smell the pine trees, the barbecue pits, and the sweet stink of algae when it gets inside your bathing suit top.

But my boyfriend, the day we met he had on a brown t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, which usually means a guy either works construction or sleeps with a lot of girls. I don’t know why the second part is true. It’s just that all the sleeveless men I’ve met in Doniphan got their fair share.

I guess I thought there was a better chance he worked construction, ‘cause his arms bulged with hard muscle and his fingernails had dirt stuck underneath. So I talked to him. He had a watermelon seed between his teeth. I didn’t tell him it was there during our conversation, though it probably was the polite thing to do.

Turns out, he doesn’t work in construction, and I later found out he doesn’t sleep with a lot of girls either. He works for the game commission, makes sure people aren’t shooting deer and birds when they’re not supposed to. Doesn’t want pets though.

“Animals are work,” he says. “I pick dead ones off the side of the road every three days. When I come home, I don’t wanna deal with them.”

I’ve seen those wedding shows where guys pop the question to their girlfriends by tying a diamond to a puppy collar. I always said I wouldn’t buy into stuff like that, but I think if some guy were to give me a pet and tell me he wanted to make an honest woman out of me, I’d probably cry.

My boyfriend though, I’ve been trying to tell him I love him for some time. It’s that feeling when you’ve got a bug bite and all you want to do is itch it like crazy. In the end you don’t do it because it’ll never heal, but the thought of taking your fingernails to it never leaves the back of your mind. I’ve been trying to do it a lot lately, dreamed up ways to say it, like baking a cake and writing it in the icing, or cutting “I LOVE YOU,” into the grass, or just blurting it out and holding my breath.

I haven’t done it though, not yet. In the past, I always let my boyfriends tell me first, ‘cause I thought that would mean that they weren’t bullshitting me. We’ve only been seeing each other five months and everyone in these parts says the guy should be the one to say it first. Sadly, there are no real rules for this sorta thing.

I walked into his house last Tuesday, dead set on breaking the news. “Travis,” I said. “I got something I wanna tell you.”

He was sitting at the kitchen table, cracking peanut shells and peeling potatoes.

“Me too.” He popped a peanut into his mouth. “I saw this thing on the food TV today, where they take potatoes and smash them up and add bacon and sour cream, so I bought the stuff and I’m making them for us tonight. And I picked up ice cream. That sound okay?”

A little scrap of peanut shell got stuck in his beard. It was like the watermelon seed. I couldn’t stop looking at it. All at once it felt like that first day over again and I couldn’t tell him.

“Sure, bacon’s good,” I said, picking at a scab on my right hand.

“What did you have to say?”

“Nothing much.” My knuckle started bleeding. “I brought home wine; it’s in the trunk.”

I’ve always gotten on better with boys; my best friend in college was this curly-haired city kid who wore “golf shorts” and wanted to work for the government. Being from Missouri, I hadn’t met too many people like that. People around here buy Levi’s. He always talked about sociology, field studies, the things you get to know from hanging out with people different from you.

I should have known our friendship meant he was looking at me like a bug through a magnifying glass, that he cared more about “studying” me than anything. I saw him watch other people all the time.

“He smokes weed,” he said one day, pointing at a guy with a ponytail and Beatles t-shirt. “I’ll bet you ten bucks. He’s such a stereotype.”

Another time, it was a girl driving by in a yellow sports car. “That’s a city girl,” he told me, cracking a smile, “or maybe Long Beach Island.”

Sometimes he’d stare at me, real hard, and I never minded because the flecks of green in his blue eyes were so pretty.

It didn’t take too long for me to fall for the guy; that’s normal, right? Some nights, we’d drive out to the 24-hour Walmart and buy pints of ice cream to bring home and eat on the lawn outside his house. He said pistachio made him think of home, ‘cause his Mama gave it to him as a kid. I always got strawberry. On nights like that, we talked about growing up. He told me stories about getting lost in the grocery store or long summers sailing in Florida. I’d tell him about living with three brothers and riding my first bike and those weekends at Bark Lake, learning to swim and kicking my legs like hell in the muddy water. Being in the dark like that, in the grass, eating ice cream together, made me feel like his world in Washington and mine in Missouri weren’t so far apart after all.

Travis is a born and bred Doniphanian, and doesn’t want to live anywhere else. I can’t say I blame him. You get used to these parts after being here awhile. I always thought of it like a little city inside the country. The courthouse, for example, that’s red brick and beautiful, but soon as you stray too far from downtown, you hit the Current River. If we don’t feel like driving out to Bark Lake, the river’s a nice cool off, especially when summer temps hit ninety.

I still think about that cabin all the time, the one where my Granddad lived. I’d love to buy it back sometime, bring it into the family again. The guy who bought it, he’s some out-of-towner that got Wall Street rich. He brings his wife down come fall, “For the foliage.” I sometimes hope that if he dies or gets tired of the leaves, maybe Travis and I could save up and get it.

We have talks too, but they’re different from me and Mark’s. We talk about eating, mostly. I studied food science in college, and he’d have studied eating, if eating was a thing you could go to college for.

“I heard on Animal Planet that people in China used to eat dogs,” he said, a few weeks ago. “D’you think that’s true?”

I looked up from the kitchen counter, where I was snapping green beans for dinner.

“Probably, at some point, someone did.”

Travis scratched his nose. “Do you think they tasted good?”

“I don’t really want to think about it,” I said.

I must have looked bothered, ‘cause Travis got up and hugged me up against his chest. He smelled like tobacco and the ham sandwich I packed him for lunch.

“Then we won’t think about it, Ness. No more dog talk.”

“No more dog talk,” I repeated, shutting my eyes.

The night of my twenty-second birthday, my roommates threw a party and stuffed fifty people in our small apartment. We mixed up whiskey punch and I threw back that bottle of Cabernet. That’s the night I got drunk and told Mark I loved him. It was the first time I ever said it to someone outside my family. I pulled him into my bedroom, where everyone put their coats, and sat him down on the floor.

“Mark,” I slurred, “Mark, I think I love you. And I have to say it, because we’re gonna graduate, and if I don’t, I might not see you again soon.”

“Ness,” he said, stepping backwards toward the door, searching behind his body for the knob, “Ness, you’re drunk. And I just…I can’t.”

And that’s all he said.

Two weeks after my birthday party, two weeks after we stopped talking, he emailed me one of his sociology papers, one he wrote about me. The subject line said, “Explanation.”

“At first glance, Vanessa’s acceptance to the University of Missouri, given its reputation for academics, is particularly surprising; however, given her socioeconomic background…”

I stopped reading and called him.

“So what you’re saying,” I spoke slowly, trying to keep my voice steady, “is that you think I’m dumb and poor.”

Silence.

“You weren’t supposed to take it like that, Ness. I just…people like us aren’t meant to end up together. I want to run for Congress. You cook things. I’m from D.C. and you’re…”

“Poor.”

“We’re just not—”

“—a good match,” I finished. “I get it.”

When I graduated in May, I got a job back home as a line cook. I’m not really sure what happened to Mark. But sometimes I wonder if he still likes ice cream.

“Let’s open that wine,” Travis says, grabbing the clicker off the top of the TV. “I think I’d like to have some.”

It’s a Friday night in June and our paychecks just came in. We’ve got plans to watch a movie off HBO and go to bed early. Travis wants to have sex tonight; he’s always like that, when we get paid. It’s a kind of comfort, knowing the things I can count on. He’s real gentle with me, which is not what you’d think, given the sleeveless shirts.

He hands me a glass. The white wine smells sharp, and I set it down on the side table.

“D’you think it’d be nice to have a dog?”

The question comes out of nowhere. I hesitate.

“I thought you didn’t want animals.”

Travis picks at a bug bite with his middle finger. “I never liked the thought of them in the house. But it might be good to have one around. For company.”

I turn to face him. He’s got a splotch of chocolate ice cream on his collar. If I don’t point it out, he won’t notice it.

“Get a dog,” I answer, sliding onto the floor. “And maybe I’ll buy that cabin near the lake.”

“I’d like that,” he says, smoothing my bangs back with his hand. “If I got a dog, do you think you could love him, too?”

“Yes,” I say, reaching for my wine, “I think I could love him.”

mandy

Mandy is a middle school English teacher living in Florence, SC, with her boyfriend and beloved beta fish.

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