A Question of Compatibility
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Band"
Originally featured on 03-28-2008
As part of our series "Marching On"

My assignment to myself today is to do as much emotional damage unto a stranger as is humanly possible in the span of twenty-one hours. I’m becoming increasingly proficient at fulfilling my daily challenges in creative ways. This one should be easy.

"Where do you live?"

Simon, the clean-cut Frisbee-playing buffoon with gorgeous thighs, chews on this. The answer genuinely eludes him. His eyes skirt around the landscape like they're on a skateboard, coasting down the ramp to the lower parking lot of Two By Four Hardware that overlooks Trout Crossing, pupils bending down in his sockets to kick the ground for propulsion as they dive from the bluff and glide over the looping campus of Marcian Community College, tear a weaving path through the cemetery, take another flying leap and skid along the distant guardrail of Route 48 that’s still under construction. For an instant he actually looks up at the sky. That, is comical, and also reminds me—with a creep of the skin like a car window scraping against a stop sign as it rolls down an icy hill—the profession of the gentleman with whom I am speaking.

A prime specimen indeed.

I’ve already made up my mind; if he proves capable of answering a simple question like a normal person without being smug or obtuse, dinner will be on me.

Timeout, back to earth, Deborah, nobody’s made any dinner invitations.

Shut up, reasonable-Deborah voice, he will. If you don’t beat him to it. He'll like it if you beat him to it.

He’s still working on the question of where he lives. At one point his gaze gets sucked into the horizon and his whole body shakes. He almost coughs, and then he is steady. Now he’s looking at nothing, making this gesture with his arms that tells me everything, a kind of horizontal shrug, like a door in his body opening up and inviting me to sit by the fire.

"Here." He exhales the word, pouring all the air in his lungs into that one syllable to make it up and float away. And then his eyes try to actually follow it as it disappears into a tree.

Simon barely looks at me. That will soon become irksome and insulting—and on the wrong day of the week, it will easily achieve thunderous ire—but I won’t mention it now. I'll save it for a future heated argument. I eagerly look forward to my first fight with Simon, the attractive stranger who most conveniently chose today to approach me in the park.

You don’t really know a person when all you’ve been is in love with them. A relationship begins—really begins—once you’ve both hated each other for a moment in time, looked at each other and both felt pure repugnance simultaneously. Then you go through the makeup routine, blahdie-dah, and you orgasm together knowing that you're capable primal, murderous loathing for one another. To love somebody, you must recognize the potential for disaster, and you must walk with that potential, hold its hands on rainy nights strolling the isles of Blockbusters.

A first kiss is trivial; that’s just froofy commercial nostalgia, probably invented by the breath mint industry. A first fight, now that’s something to cherish. Nobody would profit from marketing first-fight mythos…except perhaps Ben & Jerry’s corporation. I stay armed and ready at all times.

"What do you mean?" At thirty-one, I’m three years his senior, and he will soon learn that adults do not speak to each other in riddles and get encouraging results. My forehead grips the word what like a crossbow aiming directly at that tree where his here is still fluttering, making itself a nest.

He’s startled. Simon, Simon, Simon…I can see you'll require extensive training. If I were rich, I would hire a cantankerous, androgynous old lady with tattoos and a gravelly voice to housebreak new boyfriends for me. Since I must do it myself, I'll give him a week.

Wait, I’m not forgetting my self-appointed mission, am I? Stay the course, Deborah.

"Here," he repeats. "In my body. On this lawn. In this town. Wherever I roam."

"You're homeless?" I say sarcastically and shove a handful of quarters into his chest. "Go buy yourself a tuna sandwich, you poor unfortunate soul." He catches the quarters in one hand, not letting a single one fall to the ground. I don’t know why, but I find that sexy.

"You mean, where do I sleep and store my shit and watch TV and eat food? That’s an entirely different question, not to be confused with where I live. Life comprises many activities. Me standing here talking to you, for instance, that’s no less significant than me waking up, taking a shower and petting the neighbor’s cat this morning. If I told you that I live in an apartment on the east side just south of Dumpster Flats, that wouldn’t have the capacity of a truthful answer, would it?"

I toy with my lip. We’re both dunking our smiles like hiding floaty balls in a swimming pool. Clash of the Titans…? Not quite. Try a thirty-one-year-old corporate mathematician with glasses and a retainer sporting a French braid that probably went out of style some time in the mid 90’s whilst she was studying for a topology exam and didn’t notice, being hit on by a model.

Yes, an airheaded model. Shut up.

I snatch the quarters back out of his hand. "So you're not homeless?" This is playful, good. He’s falling. I can feel his weight, the specific gravity of male arousal and/or affection, I’ve studied this before, and I distinctly recognize falling in its earliest stages.

He grins so that I know he’s about to say something dorky. "Um, need proof?"

 

Simon got discharged from the Navy last fall, and now he models suits and business attire for Sears catalogs or something. That’s about as much as I could pry from him biographically over dinner.

I feel sorry for him already. The events of this evening will be like torturing a mosquito in a glass cage.

 

"Listen," I say, leaning over the mahogany table and sweeping the candle off to one side. It was at this point that the smooth jazz in the background and, well, the ambiance of this place makes me beyond queasy, makes me start to doubt my own metaphysical whatsahoozit.

"Simon, um-"

I laugh, and not the way people laugh at trendy restaurants dining with models. When I laugh, I’m that undergrad you see cooped up in a library conference room wearing a GO WOODCHUCKS sweatshirt over skin that hasn’t seen the sun in, well, semesters, drinking tea after staring at a chalkboard for long enough that the flickering of a street lamp outside the window becomes funny.

The laugh spills over my jaw, and I am reminded of a flowerpot full of K'Nex blocks I had seen a child accidentally topple onto the lawn that afternoon in Lansbury Park. The mother had immediately bent down to help the child gather the blocks. Call me a judgmental bitch, but if I were a parent, I think I’d have handled that scene a little differently.

So anyhow, Simon’s hand jumps onto the table—a military reflex, I presume—as if to collect my laughter neatly in a bowl. I know right then that I have no desire to bear his children.

"Okay, here it is," I say. "I’m not used to this, this…this whole thing. Help me fill in the word. You’ve been talkative tonight, Simon, and you're more articulate than I thought you’d be, but you haven’t finished any of my sentences yet, and I’d really like to see you try."

Simon is still looking at me the way he had looked at me from across Lansbury Park where I was reading a trashy novel in the shade beneath the old Pi Tree (I call it that because a classmate of mine once drunkenly pointed out the sinusoidal appearance of its branches, and the joke stuck) and Simon had turned his back on his friends' game of Ultimate Frisbee to come chat me up. And that was hours ago. "What you're saying is, this contrived courtship routine is weirding you out. That fair?"

"No, Simon, I’m not weirded out. And I’ve already discovered your first idiosyncrasy that will in time annoy me. You have a habit of ending statements with a question when there really is no question, you just feel the need to hear your voice rise in inflection. It’s an insecurity."

"You think I’m insecure?"

"And defensive. You're a complicated boy, Simon. Do you always go for the nerdy chick? You like to be that chivalrous stud who will bring me out of my shell in exchange for…" At this point his hand is on my knee, a parasite ready to swallow me whole. "What, in exchange for an intellectual challenge, I guess. Well here’s one for you; tell me—in a cogent argument—why I’m here. I want it in the form of an oral five-paragraph essay. Pretend we’re both in eight grade. Wow me."

Simon’s rug-length maple-colored hair is receding. Receded, I should say. I notice that for the first time as the light from the candle rakes his scalp.

He looks down and up again. "Well, seeing as how I’ve already gotten you home."

I’m choking on how lame and stupid that was. I pretend I’m still waiting for him to speak.

He knew he struck out with that one, yet, as all guys determinedly do—and have done, I presume, since the days of tribal bonfires and combat helmets made from coconut shells—he proceeds to dig himself in even deeper. This is a profound mystery to me, this pattern of male doggedness in making complete asses of themselves in conversation with a woman who’s above bullshit. "That was our first inside joke, right?" He goes to clasp his hand over his mouth, realizing he’s just ended a proclamation with a question again.

I flex my knee, jettisoning his lust. "That’s not our inside joke, that’s your inside joke with yourself, pal, and it wasn’t even spontaneous. You’ve used the where I live routine before, and you’ve cross-referenced it before, and better, I hope. I mean, it’s cute, keep using it. Perfect it. You can even use it again with me, I'll pretend I haven’t heard it."

His hand is back on me knee. My leg is all shivers.

My trap has been set. This engagement will be consummated at the place where I live.

Simon will open up. I will present him no choice.

 

"Say, do you play Frisbee?"

I had to think about that. The answer was genuinely eluding me. At one point I catch myself actually looking at the ceiling. Do I?

This is going nowhere. I still have about seven hours left. How can I inflict emotional trauma with a Frisbee?

I shake my head.

“Liar.”

“Simon, I’m not going to lie to you. I find you vapid, self-centered, spiritually empty, ignorant in all realms of pertinent knowledge, and altogether bland and superficial in appearance. My intention was to tell you this over intercourse — I happen to possess the ability to articulate coherent thoughts mid-coitus, and if there’s any exception, it certainly wouldn’t be you — but I shan’t bother.”

"Great, um, thanks for dinner. I'll probably see you in the park again."

I must have whispered something about the Pi Tree because he turned around.

"Nothing. I didn’t- just nothing. Nothing."

As a student I was always waiting for the day when the wind would hit the branches' resonant frequency and demons would rise up out of the grass or something. Then I might get a day off from studying. If I were to count the total number of hours I’ve spent reading under that tree, I’d be the world’s most famous mathematician for inventing a new numerical expression of infinity. I swear to Pascal that joke was funny on at least eight occasions. I don’t think Simon would get it. He might pretend to laugh, but I don’t think he’s capable of pain, at least not the kind it was my mission to inflict. He was the first man ever to intrude between me and the Pi Tree, that’s all. I wonder sometimes if that branch was receiving radio signals from other worlds that have grown an intelligence in my subconscious I’m still barely aware of.

My mission for tomorrow, should I choose to accept it: I will fall in love.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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