And I can’t stop finding your face in their faces, all rearranged.

--John K. Samson, “Civil Twilight”


I AM SORRY FOR GIVING YOU HERPES, Clara’s penmanship shouted.

Her junior high Social Studies teacher once told her that she had the same handwriting as Charles Schulz. According to a handwriting analysis her best friend had checked out from the library, their bold letters meant that both she and the cartoonist had “a strong sense of self.”

HERPES? GOOD GRIEF, CHARLIE BROWN!

SORRY FOR GIVING YOU HERPES, YOU BLOCKHEAD!

GIVING?

Could an insidious venereal disease be considered a gift? Gifts were things like potted plants, wineskins, and commemorative sheets of postage stamps.

I AM SORRY FOR GIVING YOU HERPES.

How does one paint penitence with a pen? What is the shape of a sorry?

ROSARY IS AN ANAGRAM FOR “A SORRY.”

She could send Marc roses, pink and vaginal, with swollen petals erupting from the sepals.

ROSES IS AN ANAGRAM FOR SORES.

Clara called Henderson, who could always find the words. She dialed the number of the diner where he waited tables, and waited for her cryptic phone calls, like when she asked if the word “fête” is pronounced like “feet” and if colonize was spelled colin, as in Colin Powell, or colon, as in an anus.

“What’s another word for giving?” Clara asked when the hostess handed the phone to Henderson.

“Charitable, philanthropic, generous,” he began, listing words whose connotations were exactly the opposite of the words she wanted to say.

“No, like, as an action.”

“Proffering? Bestowing?”

“What do you have in the antonym department?”

“Tightfisted? Parsimonious?”

“Better,” she said and disconnected the call. She was not SORRY FOR GIVING Marc herpes; rather, she wished that she had been more TIGHTFISTED, more PARSIMONIOUS with her saliva.

This was the worst apology letter she’d never written.

In these sorts of epistemic emergencies, Clara wished that English grammar permitted her to create her own words. Then, without violating the Queen’s English, she could write, earnestly, a little lovingly, I AM SORRY FOR HERPING YOU.

With considerable difficulty, in the lowercase letters her hand was so unaccustomed to forming, she wrote, I am sorry that you contracted herpes from me.

She began to doodle, the spirals and arabesques unfurling across the margins, defacing the paper to the point where it might have been too embarrassing to send.

Even though Clara gave Marc herpes, she did not have herpes. Or, the symptoms of the herpes that she didn’t know she had were latent, and before Marc, she didn’t have any reason to believe that the fluids in her body weren’t virus-free. Ignorance: the best defense and the worst acquittal.

It was as if her body was trying to colonize his, infiltrating his bloodstream, spreading her virus to all his extremities, until his body wasn’t really his own anymore. Like a Native American tribe, stricken with dysentery and alcoholism and cholera from the early white settlers, who had exhaled death and pestilence along with the smoke from a peace pipe, annihilating with their germs, happily claiming the spoils. Her sympathies had always been with the Native Americans. Wouldn’t any outsider sympathize not with her, but with her former boyfriend?

The word “ex-boyfriend” scalded her esophagus. Even when she was too young to have an ex-boyfriend, in her mind, the prefix “ex” always conjured up a stick-figure drawing with an X crossed over it. A terminal X, annulling not only the relationship gone awry but also the very existence of her former beloved, like a post-fetal abortion. Not wanting to begrudge anyone for whom she once cared his right to exist—provided that he no longer exists in close proximity to her—she swore she’d never refer to anyone as an “ex.”

Words beginning with “ex,” for example: expire, exterminator, extinction, excrement, were all filled with destruction, like the Exxon-Valdez tanker, pregnant with explosive, gurgling black oil. It was as if the prefix “ex” forewarned that the rest of the word could somehow devastate everyone involved. She preferred words that ended with an “ex”—the short, sibilant hissing like a conversational climax.

She’d met Marc Furman, not to be confused with Mark Fuhrman, the racist detective in the O.J. Simpson trial—whose proceedings she had watched on television nearly every day during her Government class in high school—when she was working as an assistant in Marc’s laboratory in New Hampshire. At that time, Marc had discovered 2.5 new species of moths (although, really just one new species and three sub-species) and had posted a want ad for an assistant on a website that’s mostly trafficked by people looking for anonymous sex, but also sells used furniture.

Clara applied for the job for the following reasons:

a.) The listing sought for “a personable, meticulous extrovert with an expertise in photography” and she thought that even if she weren’t all of those things, maybe she someday could be.

b.) The title of “lepidopterist’s laboratory assistant” sounded technical and therefore more respectable than her current job, where she sliced imported cheese at a fromagerie in Tucson.

c.) After she looked up the word “lepidopterist”—first, unsuccessfully in her Spanish-to-English language dictionary, then successfully in the OED, she discovered that a lepidopterist studied butterflies. She loved their jeweled wings, and how their life trajectories seemed to be filled with metaphorical significance.

and

d.) The annals of her disorderly mind conflated New Hampshire with Vermont. She thought New Hampshire was a haven for liberals and where haute ice cream had been invented, where people wore wool sweaters all-year-round. But she soon learned that Vermont, the leftist state, was also on the left geographically, and New Hampshire, where she had just signed a one-year lease for a cabin in the town of Darcy, was on the right, both politically and on any U.S. map.

As her fifth Greyhound drove through the New Hampshirean countryside, past shooting ranges, ammunition stores, and “God bless you” signs, as though they were anticipating her sneezes, she finally understood that when Tricia, the owner of the cheese shop, asked her how she felt about moving to a Red state, she was not referring to Communism.

At the bus station in Manchester, New Hampshire, Clara discovered that her pay-as-you-go cell phone had been drained of minutes, and exchanged a Sacagawea dollar from her coin collection to call Norton, the man who was leasing his cabin to her. Norton had promised that there was a car at the cabin that she could use during her lease, but he would pick her up from the station. The bus station felt like it was masquerading as an airport, with its digital screen filled with departure times. She arranged her three gorged suitcases from smallest to largest. She bought one of those pretzels that was a hundred times larger and softer than a regular pretzel, like some sort of edible Claes Oldenberg sculpture.

After half an hour, she tried to figure out how to move all of her suitcases outside to the entrance of the station, so she could wait for Norton. She left her first suitcase with mainly clothing inside of the station, then dragged the second and the third suitcases outside, but didn’t want to leave both of them there alone, so dragged one of them back inside to pick up the first suitcase. It felt like one of those logic puzzles, how to get a chicken, cat, dog, and baby off of a desert island if the rowboat only fits two passengers.

Norton said he’d be driving a black pick-up truck, yet a red SUV pulled up to the curb. A man in a driver’s cap got out of the car. “You’re Clara?” They put her suitcases in the back of the SUV, and Norton walked around the car a couple of times to inspect his tires.

Norton was a seniorly type of citizen with a face lumpy like a potato whose car showed him in which direction he was driving. N is for Norton, who drives due North.

In the car, Norton mumbled the lyrics of the rap song on the radio.

“Are the roads good?” Clara asked, wondering if it was a mistake to pack Rollerblades.

“Roads, good. Signal’s are bad. This station from Boston’s the only one we get up at my house,” he explained. “So I know all the hottest jams.”

Clara didn’t really know any of the hottest jams, or even the lukewarm jams, and she simultaneously admired Norton and pitied him for this.

Her ears began to pop as Norton’s truck ascended the mountain, and the hilly terrain made her nauseous. Soon, the tar-covered roads looked as if they had eroded into dirt and gravel roads, with flecks of mica glinting in the sun.

“Candy’ll cure what ails you,” Norton said, when she told him that she felt ill. He winked as he opened the glove compartment and handed her cough drops.


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