Knuckle Sandwich on Rye
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Water"
Originally featured on 03-12-2008
As part of our series "Elements of Style"

I call this chapter of my journal “How To Lose A Woman In Two Hundred Words.”

 

I must have said something stupid. Can’t remember. Whatever it was I said, she wasn’t having none of it.

"Would you like a side of potato salad with that?"

"Huh?"

"With your knuckle sandwich?"

And then she actually punched me in the face, and not one of those fake little girly jabs, but a full on WHAP, left a bruise on my jaw the size of a McDonald’s hamburger patty. I could spend the rest of my life with this woman. If she had made the joke without decking me in the face, or if she had hit me softly, it would have been a lame joke. But she went and did the unexpected, because that’s what she does. Knuckle sandwiches made to order. I laughed so hard I nearly lost my bowels in the sand, and the more I laughed, the more it hurt. I think we should move in together.

"I’ve been thinking, why don’t you move into my apartment?"

"Okay, timeout, I just popped ya one, and you're asking me to live with you."

"Right. I mean, if that’s okay with you."

Megan had this way about her. Never flinched. You could tell her her uncle just drove her car off a cliff, landed on a gas station and blew up half the town, and she’d act like you told her the milk on the table expired. God was being merciful when he gave her a distaste for the game of poker. It’s not like she’s a robot, she just reacts to things in private. Her face is like the surface of the ocean, and every once in a while, if you venture out deep enough, you might see a whale flop up to the surface, and when you do see one, it’s a rare spiritual sight, all majestic and mysterious.

She was thinking about it. She was thinking real hard about it now.

“Watcha thinkin?”

“I’m just pondering what would happen if I stabbed you in the tush with a Samurai sword. Maybe then you'll slap a ring on my finger.”

Truth be told, I ain’t too ceremonious. I’m a simple straightforward man, I like my steak with ketchup and my eggs on the side, and if I’ve got something to say, I come out and say it, and if you don’t like it, I ain’t gonna spoon it to you in apple sauce. And when it comes to romancin', well, what you see is what you get.

"What about Eddie?" She asked like it was something I hadn’t thought of. I mean, come on, babe, give me a little credit. I’m no brainiac, but I wasn’t born in a bilge.

"Fuck Eddie." Eddie’s my deadbeat roommate. I warned him a week ago that this might come about, and he’d been talking about moving for a while now anyway. Fuck Eddie. He’s always eating my sauerkraut and leaving his laundry in the dryer and then getting pissed when I take it out.

"Yeah, I just might fuck Eddie, that’s the problem. Are you proposing an open relationship?" She eyed me for a long time like she was serious, and then she cracked a smile—not a soft smile, but a rupture like tectonic plates or something, slapped her fist against my chest and we just sort of collapsed on each other. My jaw still stung when I laughed.

We were walking on the beach. She was wearing my old Fighting Spiders mascot sweater, which looked all billowy around her serpentine frame, flapping in the northerly wind.

 

For some reason this next part makes me clutch my ribs every time I read it, I don’t know why.

 

She’s got a body that reminds me of a loaf of bread—not a regular loaf of bread, but like one of them Jewish breads that’s all woven together like two thick ropes in perfect knots. Her body makes me think of high school geometry class, all right triangles and, and I don’t know, tessellations or something. You could take a bite out of her and her center of gravity wouldn’t change. Her face is the same way; hardened in rounded knots, big old chin and robust forehead, goddamn she’s so fucking pretty I just want to tie our naked bodies together with seaweed so tight we can’t move a finger and float off to China together.

"Babe, I’m serious." And I was serious. But I’m not stupid. With a gal like Megan, you can’t just say you're serious, you have to prove it faster'n you can say it. Which is why I pulled the key out of my pocket and placed it in her hand. I went to Harborside Hardware this morning and had Joe run me up a copy—he’s quick with that key duplicating machine, and I don’t have to pay him for it, I just told him he could come into my shop for a complimentary coffee later.

She looked down at it and her face changed. The expression of surprise didn’t look too natural on her, it fit her like a Greek mask. I took Megan’s hand in my left hand and then pressed my right into her palm and pushed the key through my fingers like my hand was taking a shit into her hand. She held it like it was a baseball. I thought she might throw it into the ocean—wouldn’t be unlike Megan to do a thing like that. But she just held it there in her hand and looked at it.

We were still walking. The waves were weak and barely crashing, little bits of surf floating around and luxuriating about our ankles. I was completely numb below the knees.

Megan’s built like an ox, too. She manages a landscaping business, got her name in big red letters on her pickup truck, and after hauling sacks of mulch around all day, she can stalemate my old man in an arm wrestle, even with a few beers in 'er.

For a second it dawned on me that she might be upset. "You don’t have to answer, babe, just think it over. We can change the subject."

 

God damn, when I look back and read that thing, I can’t get over how stupid I sound.

 

She had one hand in her pocket and wasn’t really looking at anything. Her hair was blowing around her face and I could tell it was driving her crazy, but she never tied it in a bun. It’s because she knows I think her hair is sexier when it’s down. She’d never admitted that’s why she does it, but you just know things like that. She’s got this reddish brown rust colored hair that winds around like vines tangled up a tree, all clustered like Ramen noodles down to her shoulders.

The water looked exactly like I picture the fluids in my stomach after eating a plate of Megan’s venison meatloaf recipe she learned from her old man. And those biscuits and mushroom sauce…calmed it right down. I remember what the tide looked like because I tried to pretend I wasn’t looking at her hand, so I looked past it. The key got smaller and smaller and I was afraid her palm might swallow it right up.

At this point I put my arm around her. I can never quite tell when a gesture of affection will be received with welcome, but I don’t mind taking a chance. She can get catty sometimes, but that’s no deterrent.

"Henry?" She said my name sweetly. That means trouble; she only says my name in that gentle voice when she’s about to threaten my life with a sharp object…and mean it.

Her shoulders got stiff. Not tense, just, well, not reciprocating to the flesh of my arm. I’ve got to watch for those real subtle cues—I’m learning to tune into that whole business. Women…you get talking all confidential, the wine comes out, the sun goes down, you cozy up on the couch, then once you're there they got this intricate bodily language, it’s like if the hip twitches to the left a little bit that’s supposed to signify some alphabet symbol like in Morse Code or some shit, and you're supposed to know what it all means without stopping to figure it out. Why gals can’t just goddamn speak English, that’s beyond me, but anyway-

"Henry, you know I love you more than Curious George, and I’d love nothing more than to wake up with you every morning, but if you don’t get your sweaty hand off me two seconds ago I will tear off your balls and pluck out your eyeballs and stuff your nuts in your eye sockets and feed your eyeballs to the seagulls. I’m sure they get tired of eating fish all day. Wouldn’t you get tired of eating fish all day, Henry? No, your daddy was a lobster-man, I forgot. You're so- you're so, I don’t know, I just- I can’t deal with you sometimes." She drew a circle around her torso with a twirl of her wrist—a familiar gesture. "That’s called Megan space." I mimicked the phrase in unison with her, and then she laughed.

"Now wait a minutes, babe. Either my ears just grew a mouth of their own and started yacking to themselves in a voice that’s a spittin likeness to your own, or I heard you say, in between the part about me being the best lover you’ve had since a disobedient monkey in a storybook and the part about castrating me and impregnatin the fishies with my sperm, that you want to live with me. So you're saying yes."

"Now this is the part where you're going to have to listen very closely because I’m already repeating myself. First of all, I’m not a bald, illiterate squealer who sucks on titties, and even less do I resemble a singing pig. Meaning, I fail to see how the nickname babe applies to me. And don’t you dare say I’m getting all feminist on you. I don’t find it demeaning, I just find it fucking retarded…babe. Leave it for those whiny, gay eighties rock stars, and come up with a pet name for me that means something, if you must. Second of all, you don’t listen. Explain to me in your infinite knowledge exactly how the fishies would get knocked up with your sperm after I replace your eyes with your loins and feed your eyeballs to seagulls, because I’d like to hear it."

"You're losin me, babe."

She wound back. I ducked.

 

When I read this part, I usually start skimming. Like I’d remember every word she said. If you really heard Megan talk, you’d think, shit, she don’t sound nothing like that. I made some of that stuff up, but I tried to catch the mood of it all, if you know what I mean. What I’m saying is, if you don’t know Megan, than there’s no point reading my journal, because you don’t know Megan until you’ve met Megan. She ain’t like anybody else.

 

"I’m kidding." She chased me, splashing. "No you're right, I apologize." A wave rolled in up to our thighs and we declared a silent truce. "I’m a little dense sometimes. But on the subject of the proposal I just made, you did say-"

"Be patient, I’m getting to that."

"I’ve never been patient, and you’ve never taken to patient men, so I'll ask again. Did you or did you not tell me that the prospect of waking up next to me on a routine basis is agreeable to you?" I fixed her gaze.

She makes eye contact before you even walk in a room. Every time we have an argument, she gets me in this tongue-tied stranglehold. She’s so quick to the point, it’s like she’s thought out the whole thing before we started talking.

"That sexist goofball in the morning show you set your radio alarm clock to, that won’t work for me. I wake up to the oldies, or I don’t wake up at all."

"I’m prepared to make adjustments."

"Adjustments?"

"Is that an unromantic word?"

Did she still have that key in her hand, or had she dropped it? Either I didn’t notice, or the thing had shrunk down to the size of a grain of sand and absorbed in that calloused hand of hers. She’s got these four callouses on her palm that look like barnacles. Barnacles stick forever. If I was a barnacle, I’d live right there on the palm of her hand.

 

This part of the journal chapter was written about five weeks later.

 

She’s had the same toothbrush for, Christ, I dunno, two years. It’s all yellow and nasty, bristles all curled and fuzzed out. Once I tried to throw it out, and she threatened to move out if I did that again. I asked her why and she told me she has reasons. Sophisticated reasons, I guess. Lucky fucking toothbrush, I guess. Looked to me like the thing had Small Pox and God knows how many undiscovered species of germs living in it. One night I got her liquored up and started rubbing her back, and I asked her- I time it just right, because Megan’s got weak spots where she'll tell you anything. Living with her, I know those spots like dirt roads at night in my home county. She chuckled when I asked, and said something about testing my domestic capacities. She wanted to see how long I’d tolerate something filthy. That’s her idea of what makes a man. Turned out she never brushed her teeth with that thing, not once. Her real toothbrush was hidden away in a draw, and she kept the old one out just to mess with me. She did other stuff like that too.

She comes home exhausted. I say hi.

"What was that?"

"Nothing."

"No, I’m pretty sure you just said something. It started with sort of a breathy sound."

"I said hi.”

“Oh, glad I didn’t miss that. Is this the first time today you’ve said hi?”

“Dunno. It’s a word you say without thinkin. I’ve got lots of those.”

"Uha ha.” She made her sarcastic sideways face in which she fashions puppet lips out of her hair and makes her hair do the laughing. “So what you're saying is, you’ve cheated on me and said hi to other people today.”

“It’s a word that means nothing. Like a drop of water.”

"Well I’m glad you wouldn’t want to come home and squeeze your brain to have a real conversation."

"Hey, if you're fishing for a fight to start, you're doing a bad job of it, because you're adorable right now."

"Actually, if I was trying to start a fight, you’d be on the floor clutching your groin with the hand that’s not dialing for an ambulance. But I appreciate the sentiment."

"Shall I remind you of the twelve reasons I love you to the marrow? Because you just reminded me of reason number eight."

"You're a goofball. Do you ever look at yourself and say, man I’d like to punch that guy’s teeth out?"

"Only since I’ve been with you, darling."

"Reason number eight, let’s see if I remember what that is… Because I win every argument?"

"That’s reason four."

"Excuse me, I can’t keep track. No, y'know what? You keep changing the order on me, you slippery bastard. I know that one used to be number eight."

"You keep forcing me to update the list because you're such a trip. If the TV networks followed you around all day with a camera and edited the footage into a sitcom, everybody and their hamster would leave work early to watch it, and if anyone called, they’d say fuck off, I’m watching the Megan show and then they’d think man, if she has a boyfriend in real life, he must be one miserable son of a bitch."

Megan laughed, and in the next instant her tongue was in my throat like it was swatting a fly. The way she kisses, that’s number two, although it used to be number eleven. Yeah, it kind of scared me a little at first. Nobody in the world kisses like that. It’s like she’s all around you, three hundred and sixty degrees of Megan, her lips don’t end at the corners of her mouth, they just wrap all they way around you like a python and there ain’t nowhere else to go. Takes some getting used to. But there ain’t no getting used to Megan, that’s just the thing. And that’s reason number seven: the lady is a walking, talking perpetual curveball.

"Call me darling again and I'll disembowel you," she said in between kisses. Now I’m not the most literate fellow in the world, and I can’t remember if disembowel means something violent or something sexy, and by her attitude I really can’t tell, but I reckon it prudent not to ask.

"You went camping a lot when you were a teenager, right?" she asked. I nodded. "When you're hiking and you pass a stranger, someone you'll forget four seconds later and never see again, what do you say to that person?" She scrunched her face upwards into a fist of undiluted sarcasm and mimed the word Hi. "Do two people who’ve known each other for years—and known each other intimately for at least one of those years—say the same thing you say to a person you'll forget in four seconds? Do you say hi when you greet yourself in the bathroom mirror every morning? Try it. Go into the bathroom right now, look yourself in the eye and say hidely ho. I’m not fucking around. Do it."

"No, I’m not going to say hello to myself in the mirror, thank you."

"Then why would you say it to me?"

"Hey, why don’t you just tell me what’s really upsetting you."

"Oh, you want to be my hero? Isn’t that sweet."

"I already am your hero."

"Really?"

I started unbuttoning my shirt. “Want to find out?”

 

But that’s not how the conversation really went. At a certain point I guess I just started lying to myself. After that day at the beach, she got real quiet, avoided me for the next few days, didn’t return my calls. Then I came home a week later and found her sitting on my couch with suitcases by her feet. One of them was stuffed so tight the zipper was ripped. She was still quiet, didn’t look too happy. Just sat there staring at nothing. Megan has a funny way of saying yes. I went over to her and put my hand on her leg. She was like a corpse. I moved my hand higher up her leg. She slapped my hand, made me jump, and then said “gotcha” and we both cracked up. The thing about the toothbrush, I can’t say for sure if she really did that or if I made that up. Sometimes I wake up after a dream about Megan and I get the real strong sensation that I never met her, she’s just something I dreamt up. Then I think of the sound her fist used to make when it connected with my jaw, and I feel that sting every time I swallow. I’m not sick, it’s just hard to keep track of what’s real sometimes. After she left, I put that journal on a baking tray and stuck it in the oven. Watched it burn. But there’s one part of it I can’t get out of my head. My first entry, the beginning of this fucked up mess.

 

I’ve been locked in the crazy bitch’s basement for six hours. She was nice enough to give me this notebook to write in. Actually, she insisted I write in it. Not so much insisted as, told me to. Her tone of voice said or else, but she didn’t have to actually say or else. It’s a pretty notebook, all bound in this fancy cardboard. I’ve never written in a notebook like this. She wrote her name and my name and some other stuff in calligraphy in the inside cover. I’m not sure what the other stuff says, but she told me it’s special. She gave me this notebook for Christmas. I reckon it’s a thing she does with all her boyfriends. This game of locking me in the basement, same idea. Said it’s for my growth. She leaves me snacks on the window sill from outside, some Saltines and Whoopie Pie, but she’s got this black pillowcase over her head when she does it. Says I can’t see her face, or that would ruin it. She says I can knock on the door once I’ve written a thousand words. She doesn’t need to see them to know that I wrote them. I don’t know what she'll do after that. But I’m getting notions I know what I’m gonna do when I go upstairs.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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