BY JOANNA PEARSON
When Petra brings the flyer home to Joshua, they have been living their new life for almost three months. One would think that in this amount of time, a different energy might have seized them. Their life has been distilled to its purest essence. They drink well water from a well they drilled themselves. Petra has planted a fig tree out front. They have two plates and two bowls that they wash by hand each evening, having sold most of their other belongings. At Petra’s insistence, they are vegan. Everything is streamlined, concise, and in this sense, pure. It should be fulfilling. Instead, they are a little bored. Sometimes, Joshua hits his head on the ceiling.
The flyer is the first and only hint that Petra might be considering an actual job. They have cashed in a small savings account from Joshua’s grandfather as well as a work injury settlement Petra got when she managed the restaurant. Since then, she has told Joshua that she is not suited to work anyway. She is a nonconformist.
“So that’s what you call it,” Joshua says. He has recently lost his adjunct gig teaching intro to anthropology to rich kids. He figures this means he is most likely stupid and definitely a failure. He tells Petra this, about having previously mistaken nonconformity for mere failure.
“Only in the world’s eyes,” Petra says, but with such disinterest that Joshua envies her. As if there are other eyes that matter. He often envies this in her: an ability to accept her own certainties. A perky obliviousness.
“I could do this,” Petra says, pointing to the fine print on the flyer. “I’d be good at it.”
Joshua pauses momentarily to consider the fact of the flyer itself. Who, after all, still used flyers? Everything was posted online. Joshua and Petra no longer have access to the Internet, except for a few stolen moments Joshua takes for himself at the library. Checking his email now feels like looking up hard-core porn. Petra says the Internet is rotting people’s minds, and Joshua cannot help but agree, even from a place of unrequited longing.
“A cuddle partner?” Joshua says. “Really?”
And he is genuinely shocked. For all Petra’s notable qualities, she is not cuddly. Not a cuddler, amateur or otherwise. There is no hint of cuddly-ness about her. She has a shock of dark hair and sharp cheekbones and two feral front teeth that abut one another in a way that is wrong and specific and yet somehow sexy. For all he has been and is attracted to her, she is not one to linger in a caress. She is not one to embrace you when, say, you have just learned of your father’s suicide. Joshua still does not like to think about the day his sister called to tell him. In retrospect, of course, it made the sense of something fated: his father’s long smoldering depression, his reticence, his love of 22-caliber rifles. When Joshua had told Petra what happened, she had frowned momentarily before saying to him with forced buoyancy, “There must be a bright side?”
“Talk about easy money,” Petra says.
“It’s a service.”
This is the way they tend to talk to one another: two parallel lines. Petra ruffles Joshua’s hair.
He startles. Since moving in together, she has touched him even less. Quite amazing, really, the way the distance between them has only seemed to increase in such a tiny space. Joshua is aware each evening of how the pop of floss going into the crevices of his teeth seems to ring out, bell-like, and how every burble of his digestive tract is amplified. It’s embarrassing. Is it possible to remain in love in such confines? He has wondered this, a purely theoretical question since Petra has disavowed the very notion of love from the moment he met her.
“Human beings are inherently lonely creatures,” Petra opines. “And yet have a shocking inability to do anything about it.” It is obvious to Joshua that she sees herself as the exception to this rule. Most of Petra’s critical observations exclude herself. She’s retracted her hand now, that brief moment of her touch lingering with a kind of electricity on his scalp. “Everyone is touch deprived.”
He nods at her, his scalp still thrumming. Ever since Dad died, you do whatever she says, his sister had observed before they’d moved out here. For the record, Joshua has always wanted to try this. It is an experiment in living. He is considering a book proposal. He’s explained this to his sister, but his sister is a practical woman, an ER nurse. Every day, she touches people with efficiency, although this is a different thing, different entirely.
“You should do it, then,” Joshua says, surprising himself. He thinks of Petra curled against some other lonely man, their breath syncing, minutes slipping by while they lie there in shared human warmth, forming their own brief abode.
Petra sighs and shrugs. The air inside is warm and stagnant, redolent of the maple syrup Petra poured into her soy yogurt this morning. Her eyes have gone big and dark and distant, reminding Joshua of a deer, of the last time he’d gone hunting with his father as a boy.
Joshua had been sniffling, afraid, and there was the fallen animal, big and staring up at them with one dark eye. Joshua’s father had clapped him on the back and gestured for Joshua to kneel against the deer’s white belly, between his fore and hind hooves.
“Get on down there and feel,” his father, usually so silent, had said. “I want you to feel it go.”
And as Joshua had pressed against the still-warm deer, he was trembling, but he’d made himself small, curling tight on the cold ground and closing his eyes.
Joanna Pearson‘s short stories have recently appeared in or are forthcoming from the Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Carve Magazine, Copper Nickel, the Hopkins Review, Joyland, the Mississippi Review, and others, and have been noted as a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 2015 and anthologized in Best of the Net 2016.
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