Flash Fiction by Laura Eppinger
I have a new need for earbuds. I have a new need for the gym. Once held it all in disdain, the wires in the ears, the hustle on a machine that leads you nowhere. But now I have a restlessness to pump to. Or run through. And with the headphones I’m returning to Robyn, the saint who once guided my feet over dance floors.
But down in the deep, the current is stronger. If I can grip my fists tighter, pull the bar lower, maybe this will make sense.
Recovering from a weekend with my partner, what I thought was the Perfect Sunday. We huddled under two black umbrellas in the rain. October is hot and humid now, who cares what climate zone Philadelphia was once assigned. Walking laps across Rittenhouse Square, waiting for our brunch reservation to start. He didn’t seem worried about the time at all, not under the raindrops and not on a wooden bench inside with pancakes.
Back at his place my clothes were soaked but he wouldn’t loan me anything dry. A year together and still, partitioned wardrobes. His compromise: he’d hold me close on the couch till I shivered warm.
Spent that evening nodding in and out, then I went home. Monday morning text: I’d wasted his day, I was bad with time. A year ago he’d called me an artist, ran his hand along my undercut, You are so fucking hot. No more. Now I was an errand missed, an hour misspent. As if I forced him to recline.
When we met we’d hold hands through libraries and museums. Feels like a decade ago. Since then, his mother only grows sicker; his affection, only weaker. Should I leave a partner when they grow depressed? No, I’ll just try to hurt less. We agree that breakups only happen when the partners stop trying.
Thus, the gym. This machine supposed to be gentle, the word elliptical promises a return. I can huff and strive, but always end up back where I started.
This week, I will be a Master of Time. Four visits to the machines after work, maybe five. I will rein in my cravings, subsist on protein shakes, liquids-only Monday through Friday. He’ll offer his workweek to compulsion: things bought and sold online, then weighed and measured. Off to work or the post office, the meter. Entertaining no guests, only order. While I will try to mold my body into something too hard to shatter.
I still see people he refuses to even meet; these days, friendship is another waste of his time.
One lunch date: dear friend is leaving her wife. We stay out for beers and we cry. Her new lover is bi, dating a woman for the first time. Only now learning that the Robyn songs you dance to in the club are the same songs you sob to in the car, in the shower, in bed alone. Welcome to The L Word, sweetheart.
I always want girls, but lately I want girls more than ever. Leaning across the bar at a place with Sinner in the name, I say my boyfriend is open-minded. A lie in every way. I want to feel safe and allowed to be soft, but I pedal and pump my arms instead.
No matter how deep I dive, through sweet honey and the bitter, the machine will cycle me back, to everything I’ll have to confront in the end. I’ll stick close for whatever honey and heat we’ll yet create. But just like the song, its visceral beat, there are only so many minutes left.
In Body of Christ School, Grade Five, it is time to assign 3-D book reports. Mrs. G hands out a Xeroxed list of titles we can pick from to read at home. I already love Roald Dahl, so I pick the one that begins, “Until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter had a happy life.” Then this boy by the sea loses his parents to a ravenous rhinoceros, and in real life, our class gets attacked by CCD Kids.
The acronym stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, but no one ever spells it out for us, we’re just supposed to know. Even teachers refer offhand to “The CCD kids.”
I arrive at Catholic school Monday through Friday in a pea-green jumper to say Hail Marys between the Pledge of Allegiance and morning announcements. Mass on the weekends is celebrated just across the large parking lot, and this is where we can see them ourselves: kids in our parish who attended public school instead. Imagine! Every day for them, a dress-down day.
CCD kids enter our parochial school on Saturdays for their religious education. Wearing jeans and tees they sit in our seats, our school desks hosting a second shift. We are never in those school rooms at the same time, but we know we have to share. Those weekend kids, they leave their marks.
They’ve started messing with our desks, writing bad words in pencil for us to find on Monday. We are punished for even recognizing those filthy phrases, like we’re at fault for knowing these are swears. One volunteer gets picked from among us to sprint to the janitor’s closet, then fill up a bucket with frothy soap. (It’s never me, I think I’m too shrimpy for Mrs. G to see.) We each dunk a paper towel in the suds, pine tar harsh, to wipe off our desks. There, a clean slate, just like our souls after going to Confession—in Catholic school there is always such a lesson.
But why do we get a penance for some other kids’ sins?
This Monday we walk into the worst post-CCD chaos we’ve ever seen. It reminds me of the magic that mixes up the life of poor James Henry Trotter in the book I just read, after he accidentally feeds enchanted crystals to seven bugs and an unassuming peach tree. Those insects, that one peach on a branch—they all grew big.
It’s as if a poltergeist had ravaged the room. Our desks left in a circle, not the familiar neat rows. Coats forgotten on closet pegs, or in knots on the floor. We dig our pencil sharpener out of a pile of shavings in the corner. Spring flower decor had been stapled to the bulletin board, but is now discarded on the floor. Clipart borders were only half ripped off, are now suspended in the air, distressed. Mrs. G’s desk, a place we’d never touch, raided: her tape dispenser, her grownup’s scissors, her tissue box, scattered across the room. We are nervous picking these up to return them, but we do.
And this is personal: I see that their sticky CCD hands swapped the heads of the clay figurines in my diorama of James and the Giant Peach. I’d worked so hard to get the right fleshy hue for that styrofoam ball; I wanted the viewer to taste its juice. Ladybug’s dark head on green Centipede’s body—abomination! Just knowing they had disturbed Miss Spider, her spindly pale limbs, brings me to tears.
When the room is reset to order, Mrs. G says, “Enough! A truce! Write a note to the CCD Kid who sits at your desk on Saturday morning. Make nice. Now take out some looseleaf.”
I get to scribbling. My note is so gentle it is read aloud as an example. I introduce myself and say I like to write, and also I created a word find game for them on the back. I say if my CCD Kid is bored, they can correct my spelling and leave the edits for me Monday. Maybe if I can keep them busy, they won’t trash our room. I am a model Catholic School Kid, begging to be kicked.
Another Monday comes and 25 5th graders exhale a collective sigh of relief. There was no reply from my CCD Kid, but still, my note disappeared. Our classroom looks the way we left it on Friday—no mess from the CCD shift.
Were those friendly letters a counter-spell, an olive branch of peace? Mrs. G says they maybe were, could have been, it’s always right to extend goodwill.
She doesn’t tell us that Confirmation weekend has come and gone, so CCD is on break till fall. We won’t host Saturday guests in this room in May or June, but she lets us believe we reasoned with those weekend beasties after all. She let us believe our words were magic, held power, which was a gift from her to us.
Laura Eppinger (she/her) is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry and essay. Her work has appeared at the Rumpus, the Toast, and elsewhere. She’s the managing editor at Newfound Journal. Visit her here: https://lauraeppinger.blog/workspub/ She Tweets at @lola_epp
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela