Gravity Debt Collection
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Bikini"
Originally featured on 06-25-2008
As part of our series "Summer Indulgence"

Tonya looked for him everywhere that she could think of to look for him. When she was not looking for him, she thought of other ways, other places yet to be exhausted in her search. She sought him in crowds at music festivals, in the grocery line, in bookstores and coffee shops, at highway rest areas, but always the thought nagged that she was looking in the wrong places. So she looked for him in faces.

Accosting strangers, she yelled nonspecific greetings. She spoke them as if invoking private pet names.

Tonya knew from the three years she spent in sales that the art form of divorcing the content of speech from delivery is the art form of making a sale. When peddling tangible goods, she let the goods sell themselves. In this instance, the words coming out of her mouth were her goods, and sprucing them up as only she knew how was in her job description. In this way she would find him.

He would turn to her. She would smile as if her skin cells were fizz bubbles in a bottle of champagne inverted in a bucket of ice and smiling was all she could do to keep from floating up and away. Once the illusion was complete—the illusion that they were close, long lost acquaintances—she would extend her arms for a hug. She would wrap herself around him as if the months, years they’d been apart were air pockets in a Ziploc bag that could be squeezed away to preserve freshness. When they stepped back, salty lubrication would fall from her eyes like fresh squeezed lemonade.

Tonya knew—from extensive training—how to make desolation appear delicious.

Looking at him, pretending to sculpt histories in the space between them, she would shake her head and say, "You don’t even remember me, do you?"

No matter who the stranger was—businessman in an airport terminal wearing shoes that had more sparkle than her earrings or tattooed hitchhiker with serpentine scars across sunburned shoulders—the reaction was uniform: panic. He was simultaneously a caged predator trying to gnaw his way to freedom and the daunted hunter standing guard.

He could not see the momentum, but she could feel it just as he might describe a racecar accelerating from zero to sixty in four seconds. Upon reaching his breaking point, he would do one of two things.

ONE: He would look down and say “I hate to confess it, but I’m drawing a blank,” in the same breath assuring her that he would make superhuman efforts to redeem himself once the circuit of recognition was restored.

TWO: His pulse would rise as tiny bladders burst inside his skull, silently striving to make the connection and yielding no concession.

If he was a ONE man, she would reward his honesty and end the game immediately.

If he was a TWO man, she would thrust her shoulder at nothing and walk away. When he pursued she would say, "Forget it, asshole. Go ruin somebody else’s life." That was when it became fun.

When the fun stopped being fun—and with an honest man it was never fun—she would say, "I was just playing. We’ve never met. But if we ever do, now we know a little something about each other."

They would then part ways (occasionally the stranger would attempt segue to an exchange of contact info and propose a drink, and she would just shake her head—stupid men, always missing the point entirely). He would walk away from the interaction with a chuckle and an anecdote gained. In return, Tonya could cross a mental X through one more face from the infinitude of men who were not him.

Not knowing what he looked like made it difficult.

When she found him, she would have to identify him through a series of tests.

She tried not to spend more than twenty-three minutes a day thinking about the fact that she was looking everywhere for him. Time spent thinking about him equaled time not spent with him, and the more time she spent apart from him, the more mass his absence accrued. If she were not careful, the weight of his nonexistence might crush her like the gravity of a planet grown uncontrollably large.

She imagined him sitting cross-legged on a wooden raft skimming a blue ocean, calm as a Buddha. Every time she thought of him, her anxiety generated tiny ocean currents that carried him further away from her. She would have to stop imagining him—that was most likely how such things resulted in success.

Twenty-three minutes was reasonable and emotionally affordable. The other fourteen hundred and seventeen minutes of the day, she had shit to do.

Sometimes Tonya hated him.

 

“You’re lonely because you assume.” Selena annunciated her words fluidly while chewing the last bite of her turkey, spinach croissant; Tonya was slightly impressed and slightly annoyed by that.

“Thanks.” Tonya drank the last gulp of her raspberry smoothie and waited before continuing to speak.

Selena cut her off before she began. “You don’t know what I mean by that.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Then why didn’t you ask me?”

“Because I don’t have to ask.”

Selena finished the potato chips on her plate. “Do you really want to know what I meant?”

“Sure.”

“Stop being polite. It’s rude. Do you want to know what I meant?”

Tonya exhaled, feeling her breath like a gourmet delicacy slowly spilling onto the floor. “Yeah, it’s just, we always talk about my personal life. Don’t you get tired of it?”

“How could I be tired of it? You’re the one living it.”

“Are you trying to be my therapist?”

Selena lowered her sunglasses. “I’m trying to be your-” She swatted a fly. “Like I was saying, your problem is that you assume everybody already knows what you''re going to say. Maybe they do, but so what. And if you risk offending them, then it’s very important that they hear you say it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re lonely.”

“You said that.”

“It kills me. You''re a bitch, right up until the point where it would actually be useful to be a bitch.”

“What kills you?”

The two women were sitting at an outdoor table with an umbrella shielding them from the ninety degree weather. Selena was wearing a black bikini underneath her beige top. That was her favorite color contrast. Tonya was dressed business casual. A one-piece swimsuit was folded neatly in her purse.

Selena looked to her right and then her left. “Do you want to go?”

Their bicycles were parked outside the café’s entrance. Less than half a mile away was the gait to Doil Beach. Past the wooden entrance sign there was a steep hill leading down to the wooded beach area. The dirt road wound through curves where the air felt sticky and the trees whispered without pausing for air.

Screaming down the hill on bicycles was almost as satisfying as the water. It took approximately two minutes to get down. Later, the ascent back to the entrance gate would be grueling. Tonya always thought it would be appropriate if a wooden sign mounted to a tree right before the incline read NOW ENTERING GRAVITY DEBT COLLECTION AREA.

Tonya and Selena were equally matched in their swimming ability. Both had made varsity on their high school swim teams, and both preferred salt water to fresh water for a refreshing mid-day dip.

Drying off on the sand and catching their breath after their swim, Tonya tried not to assume.

He was out there on a magical raft in the middle of the sea, that bastard. Did he even care that she was looking for him and had always been looking for him? Was he putting forth any reciprocal effort?

“What’s on your mind, basket case?” Selena said as she reapplied sunscreen to her thighs, which were tanner than Tonya’s would ever be.

Selena called her ‘basket case’ because her bicycle had a basket attached to the front, and they had once had a drunken debate over the tackiness versus usefulness of handlebar baskets that lasted two hours and ended in them shoving each other into tables until the bouncer kicked them both out.

“The polite version?”

Selena did not laugh. Nothing Tonya said ever made her laugh. That was why Tonya liked Selena more than people who were not Selena.

“Any version.”

A nerdy group of men in their thirties were playing Frisbee a hundred feet or so down the beach. They all had short hair and half of them had flabby stomachs that remained in the same spot when the rest of their body jumped up to catch the Frisbee. Tonya thought about approaching one of them with her long-lost-acquaintances gag. Then she looked at Selena’s flat, dark midsection that showed just a hint of muscle at the crest of each respiration cycle.

She looked at her own body, stretched horizontally on the sand. Her legs were just as shapely as Selena’s, but not as long. Selena had brown hair that hung down to her neckline with a pronounced inward curl at the very ends, like a package of fishhooks. Blondes were supposed to make their brunette friends look smarter by sheer color contrast. Tonya’s aesthetic did nothing to fulfill that end of the bargain.

Tonya’s hair matched the sand in its grainy, not quite smooth but not quite active complexity, and its length seemed to fluctuate with the direction of the wind. She always wore a single ropelike braid in her hair, about as thick around as a cable that a four-wheel-drive pickup truck might use to haul a sports car out of the mud. The braid tugged pleasantly on her scalp like a kite when she biked downhill, which was why she kept it. In contrast, her hair color made Selena appear to be the simpler personality of the two, the one that would pose less riddles.

“Your standards are too high.”

“What?” Tonya was not sure if she had actually heard Selena speak out loud.

“Put two and two together, basket case.”

“Your two and two don’t add up to the same together as my two and two.”

Selena looked confused. “Huh?”

“It’s ninety degrees, Christ, don’t ask me to put things clearly.”

A Frisbee whizzed by and might have grazed the fabric of Selena’s black bikini. She jumbled, nearly rolling onto her side and let out a soprano gasp. Tonya was pretty sure she heard laughter.

One of the nerdy guys in his thirties approached wearing an orange bathing suit and glasses. He had a medium build, was slightly balding, and walked as if he was wearing an expensive suit. He spoke with a twinge that was extant from something genuinely southern, in the way that modern architecture might retain qualities borrowed from other cultures’ distant pasts. Everything about him exuded professionalism, which explained why he had been elected Frisbee retrieval ambassador.

Selena removed her sunglasses and held the Frisbee under folded arms.

The gentleman smiled bigly. “Gorgeous day. Gorgeous days can sometimes get the better of us, which leads me to apologize on behalf of my fellow clowns for the most irresponsible piloting of the flying disk which you’ve captured, which is now rightly yours, and which I don’t expect I’ll be coaxing out of your hands without the reciprocation of an enticing ransom prize. If it would please you ladies to join us-”

“Enticing? Did you say enticing?” Selena’s smile grew nearly as big as the gentleman’s. It was like watching a stalemate in an arm wrestle.

The gentleman filled his lungs. “Once our lily complexions are sufficiently cooked to agonizing pain by solar radiation, our collective agenda is to numb the hell-fires of epidermal folly via a contest of livers that will determine who amongst us can imbibe the most margaritas while retaining the necessary equilibrium to catch a Frisbee. I hereby extend the gauntlet, if the challenge be amenable to you.”

“Wait, hold on. What’s the enticing part?” Selena pressed.

“My friend tells me my standards are too high.” Tonya was not speaking. It was the sun hammering her face and her legs and arms until liquid seeped out. Words seeped out. “What do you think?”

The gentleman stopped smiling. “Well, that depends on the context. In the context of you lovely ladies enjoying a margarita with us-”

“My comrade also tells me I assume, and that I stop being a bitch when it starts being good for you, probably because of an assumption I make. What do you think?”

The gentleman looked down at the Frisbee hugged to Selena’s chest with defeat.

Tonya was no longer at Doil Beach. Selena was another particle of sand. Her voice was a fly buzzing at a nocturnal window screen. The analysis she verbalized had been written repeatedly in the sand—written with the same particles of sand currently under her body—and erased by the passage of seasons and the tread of feet. She wrote the words by arranging particles of thought in damp little indents before the tide came in. Your point of sale is a flimsy construction built on boyish charm and ego sublimation. Her mouth secreted sound that was to that effect.

The Frisbee was wearing Selena’s black bikini as much as it could be said that Selena was wearing Selena’s black bikini. The same Frisbee had tossed the gentleman into this conversation and the gentleman collided with a black bikini. Tonya went on. Your myth is a salable one; demeaning yourself renders you impervious to my rejection. Your real point of sale is a matter of value, not of grace, however, and value is a question of evolutionary advantage. This came out in five syllables of speech.

He said something about a margarita.

Consciousness abhors oblivion, and the act of searching precludes the possibility of renewable bliss.

He said something about a margarita.

Back to the subject of your flying disk: I cannot help you there.

He may not still have been listening. She may not still have been speaking.

It kills my friend to know that I am lonely.

Far away, a raft capsized.

“I’ll tell you over a margarita.”

"What? Tell me what?"

Selena tossed sand in Tonya’s lap. The Frisbee twirled on her finger. The gentleman was preparing drinks for them. The uphill bike ride seemed to start immediately, and she was only dizzy for the first few curves through trees that whispered and assumed she understood. She shivered from being too hot, and thereafter was no longer dizzy. The margaritas precipitated into and out of her pores. Her bicycle was in the lowest gear and the curves in the road kept on repeating themselves and her thigh muscles continued to hammer against bone, writing temporary words in the calcium. Selena was no longer with her.

 

She spotted him on the two lane gravel path. He was walking, even though he probably should have been jogging. She was walking in the other direction and could tell that he was neither a ONE man nor a TWO man. A ONE man would be catching his breath and preparing to resume his jog. A TWO man would be shamelessly staring at every passing woman’s chest from a walking pace, because he read somewhere in a men’s magazine that ogling women’s breasts has been medically proven to increase heart rate just as effectively as physical exercise.

This man was walking for the same reason that Tonya was walking, and that was for no reason at all, except for the dim hope of meeting each other in a construction of hypotheticals. His face was calm and had a plumpness that was in perpetual conflict with his pronounced cheekbones and razor sharp jaw line.

Her nonspecific greeting went as follows: "Oh my God, what are the chances." She pumped her eyes and mouth to maximum pressure. "Come on, I don’t look that much different."

He shook his head flatly. "Lady, you''re either faking it or you''re mistaken. I don’t forget people who wouldn’t forget me. And if I have forgotten you, then it’s for a sound reason."

The outward pressure in her face immediately reversed. Her braid hung weightlessly as her forehead curled itself into a fist. Words crash landed in her mouth from every trajectory, moving too fast for her tongue to catch any. Her throat stung from the barrage. The man who exhibited a reaction uncharacteristic of a ONE man or a TWO man cranked his head slightly forward like he were adjusting a microscope.

"Was that harsh of me?" He said it in the same way that a person in a restaurant would ask whether a certain dish contains dairy.

"How did you know my act?"

"I never said that. I said you''re either faking or I’m mistaken. I didn’t ask which it is."

"It’s an act." Tonya, in a moment in which she exhaled and inhaled at the same time, wondered if her behavior more closely resembled ONE or TWO.

He stepped off to the side of the gravel path to let a jogger pass. "Yes, I realize that."

"Do you think I’m a basket case? That’s what my friend calls me. Basket case. It’s because-"

"I think you should stop blocking the path if you want to talk." He grabbed her elbow like a steering wheel and directed her to where he stood. Momentum crept up the skin of her legs like champagne bubbles.

"Want to know why I do this?" said Tonya. If his hand had remained on her elbow obscenely longer than necessary, it would have been okay.

"If you knew why you did this, you would no longer be doing it."

She slapped him in the ribcage with the hardest part of her open palm. "Hey. Be nice."

He placed his hands on both her elbows. If she were to lean forward, it would be several moments before she noticed that she was leaning forward.

"Running into an old friend is a great source of pleasure," he said.

"What about a new friend?"

"You''re cheating," he said.

"At what?"

His hands moved from her elbows to her shoulder blades and continued to climb. He found her braid immediately and hung on as he kissed her. His jaw line became malleable. His arms formed a bowl along the surface of her back, in case her body was to suddenly turn to soup. His head then backed up, assuming again the aspect of a microscope. He said, "I’ve just robbed us of a beautiful memory."

Tonya joined her hands behind the man’s neck, squeezed her arms together and continued her vigorous search. She had looked for him in wrong places and she had looked for him in faces.

She gently bit his ear. It was in this way that she would find him.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

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