by Molia Dumbleton
Mid-morning; the smell of coffee, yeast, and melted butter. Fall and crisp. Things are starting to get sharp.
Salvatore has only suggested the diner because it’s near his apartment. Lina has only seen the diner once, two nights ago when she passed it with Salvatore between the dancehall and his apartment, which she has also seen only once.
On that night, its lighting was dim and the bar was a bar and the only people at it were on stools in sad solos and pairs. This morning, it’s warm and cinnamony, sitting brightly on this glass-walled street corner, and Lina can hardly believe it’s the same place.
He’s at a table. She imagines him tucking in his shirt this morning, combing back his floppy hair into a tidy sheen, and asking for a table, not a stool today, thanks—because it’s daytime and because he’s coming to meet her—and panic tightens in her chest. She stops outside the window to breathe. She sets her fingertips on the glass.
Father had gotten her cleaned up that night, dressed her himself and sent her out up the road from their fisherman’s shack and into the next town to find a man who didn’t know about her yet. She’d been a mess long enough, he’d said, and it was time to start acting normal again. Just look, be, normal, again, you goddamn whore.
She inspects his figure through the glass, all the time worrying that he’ll lift his head and catch her looking. The yellow of the morning softens him, revealing creases in his skin and a jut above his brow, the fold of soft belly inside his shirt, hairs on the back of his neck that she knows only by touch. He’s average in the light. She’s surprised how average he is, since she is sure she already loves him.
There had been a dance. Music, lights, normal. Young people moving around, looking for love, company, a window out of that war. Her hair was up; her dead mother’s best dress was ironed and cinched tight below her bust; her face expressionless, pushed onstage without a script. She was damage, in costume.
She feels it just before it happens, but can’t look away quickly enough—and then Salvatore has lifted his head, and looked right at her. She lifts her hands from the window and he lifts both of his in imitation, and they stay where they are, adjusting to what they look like as regular people on a regular day.
In the swirling dancehall, what she noticed was his stillness. The rest of the room pulsed but he was still, shoulders pushed hard against the wall. Even his cigarette hand halted on its way to his mouth, and then he tilted his head, just one degree, and then he saw her insides, and understood. He knew about living underwater. He was breathing through a straw.
He stands stiffly when she reaches the door. A waitress offers her a seat at the counter, but Lina gestures to the man at the table and the waitress smiles gently, sing-songs Sal-va-TO-re, and waves a full pot of coffee in his direction.
Lina holds her purse in front of her with both hands. She says hello and he leans in from too far away, kisses her on the cheek, and gestures to the bench seat on the other side.
He crushed his cigarette beneath his shoe, put one hand to his belly and the other to the side, and did a mock lindy for her from across the room, smiling but without his eyes. And she laughed, quietly, but without her eyes. He beckoned her with his chin and she swam to him.
The waitress walks by and without stopping, slides a plate of cinnamon rolls onto the table. “That’s on me, kids.” She leans in to Lina. “Coffee, hon?” Lina shakes her head no. Then, “Yes. I’m sorry. Coffee. Please. Sorry. Thank you.” She winces and puts her hands over her face, and Salvatore laughs.
It wasn’t dancing, exactly. Was there music? He held out his hand and she took it. She stepped back and he stepped forward. She breathed and he breathed. It was a first conversation.
“How was your . . . yesterday? Or this morning. Your night. Did you sleep?” he says.
“I did. I did. Like the dead. You? I was so tired.”
They don’t know what to do with their hands.
“Me too, me too,” he says.
Lina leans in. “I guess it’s . . .. I mean, not that much time has passed. Less than forty-eight hours. It feels like longer.”
She had been swimming—drenched, soaked-through, sunk—when she saw him as if up through water from the bottom of the sea. A cold and heavy liquid thing pushed in on her skin all the time—and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a thing, really seen it, or been seen.
“I missed you, actually,” he says.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Lina says. “Two days ago I didn’t even know y—“
The waitress slides by again, setting a cup of coffee in front of Lina.
“Sugar? Cream?” she says, setting down a sugar bowl and tiny pot of cream.
“Thank you,” Lina says.
As a child, Lina slid drawings under the bedroom door—love poems to her mother. Collected rocks and shells from the beach and stood on her tiptoes in the sand to nudge them onto the bedroom sill. Some days, Lina even slid through the bedroom doorway herself to braid her mother’s lifeless hair or draw pictures on her sleeping skin—until the body sprang to life again and flung her small hands away.
When she grew, Lina brought boys to the beach, and let them look in the bedroom window. And later, in the dark, she would whisper to her mother’s ear: all the things the boys had asked her to do to them in the sand; all the things she had done.
“Go on, you two—give those buns a shot. They’re warm,” the waitress winks.
“All right with the buns,” Salvatore says, waving a playful hand, but the waitress stays anyway, looking back and forth between the two of them. With a plastered-on smile, Salvatore lifts a bun to his mouth and shoves the entire thing in. “Always a smart one, this guy,” she says, and pats his cheek maternally. “But now you gotta chew all that before you can talk to this pretty girl again.” He licks the frosting from his thumb and finger and keeps smiling as he chews.
From the dancehall, Salvatore took her to his apartment above a tailor shop, so small and clean and white, with a stack of books on the floor by the mattress in the corner and the street-facing windows wide open, and he hummed for them as they danced, and as the moon rose, and as he unpinned her hair for his fingers to climb through.
Lina leans back in, cupping her hands around her eyes as if to shield the sun. “On Friday I didn’t even know you, and yesterday, I…”
Undoing her tiny silk buttons one by one, Salvatore had told her about the war, about being discharged, about his small town and the embarrassment and his family asking him not to come back until the other families’ boys had come home safely. It was a lot to forgive, they said.
He read for her: “There is no place in the Army for men with effort syndrome, chronic stress, dyspepsia, anxiety neurosis or anxiety hysteria, or for mental defectives.” [i] And she traced his eyebrows with her fingers, then let them run gently down his cheeks.
In nothing but undershorts, he scrambled through the stack by his bed to find another passage, and read for her: “While men with marked feeblemindedness and clear-cut psychoses should be eliminated rather easily, it will be extremely difficult to pick out the more nearly normal persons who are sufficiently unstable mentally to make their induction undesirable.” [ii] And she laid her body on his.
He smiles and looks around the diner, then reaches over suddenly and takes her hand. Startled, she overturns her coffee with a clatter, and every head turns to look at them.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“No, no, it’s all right.”
He sops up the coffee with their napkins, but there aren’t enough.
He will unzip her dress in his apartment this afternoon, and she will tell him that her mother slid rocks and shells into a pair of stockings, knotted it around her waist, and swam into the sea in front of their house.
He will wrap huge hands gently around her small waist and tell her about the grenade that blew pieces of his friends across his chest, his face, these hands.
She will whisper into his warm neck about the sad, sickly boy from the big house on the hill who said he loved her but cried every time he rolled off of her on the beach. She will tell him the boy wrote her love poems and traced hearts on her skin with his trembling fingers, and then boarded a train with his ribs showing and a book under his arm and his glasses askew from kissing.
He will listen. She will slide her dress from her shoulders and tell him about the baby.
He will tell her about wrapping this belt around his neck in this very apartment.
And she will tell him whether the boy survived, and where the baby went, and what the town says about her, and about nothing but sitting forever in a creaking porch swing next to her drunk father, unwashed and steeped in the stench of octopus drying on the clotheslines.
And he will tell her he is alone.
Salvatore pushes the coffee-soaked napkins to the edge of the table to try to catch the spill. Lina uses her two hands to stop and steady his one. “Stop.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
She puts their hands together like a prayer, like a pillow, and sets her cheek down upon it.
[i] Leigh, A. D.: Neurosis as Viewed by Regimental Medical Officer. Lancet 1: 394-396, 22 March 1941.
[ii] Bowan, K. M.: Psychiatric Examination in the Armed Forces. War Med. 1: 213-218, March 1941.
Molia Dumbleton’s fiction and poetry have appeared in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Great Jones Street, Witness, Hobart, and others. She was awarded both the 2013 Seán Ó Faoláin International Short Story Prize and the 2015 Dromineer Literary Festival Flash Fiction Award. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University.