Counting cards without using numbers
DAvid s. atkinson
Yolanda's eyes darted around the apartment. Her black hair swished in time to the roll of her hips. "No Gayle?"
"She had to turn in early," Ben mumbled, his eyes looking away for a moment. "Work in the morning."
Gayle didn't work until eleven. Yolanda knew that, but let the lie go.
"I get you all to myself?" she smirked.
Choosing the chair next to the couch, Yolanda leaned leisurely to sit and crossed a leg high, watching Ben. He sat on the couch cushion, close but not too close.
"Now get me a beer," she said.
The DVDs, so carefully chosen, didn't get watched. Not a single one. Ben and Yolanda drank and talked instead. First the present, what was going on in their lives. As they continued, the bent turned nostalgic. What it had been like back when she had been dating her previous man instead of her current. Past fights they could laugh about, a few in which things still needed to be explained.
The cans piled up on the coffee table. Busch Light, the beer she used to bring him years ago when he was single and when she wanted to get out for a while.
When the past that needed settling became a little more heated, she pulled him out into the hall. Not just out the door, but also the stairwell past the main doors. Quiet.
Supposedly it was so they could talk better, not have to be so careful. Maybe Yolanda wanted Gayle further than ten feet away through a wall. The intensity turned up, the bond. They needed each other, regardless of what was around them. How they couldn't, ever, abandon each other.
Out in the stairwell, they didn't have access to the beer. They'd brought cans with them, an unspoken plan to be there a while. They kept on reminiscing after running out, but eventually Yolanda had to leave.
It was quiet, still.
She looked back at where they'd come from. "Show me your laundry room," she instructed.
It was in the basement, his apartment on the top floor. Yolanda knew that, or could guess well enough. She had said 'show,' but led the way. Down the stairs, through the laundry room door, through the door at the back of the room to the empty and windowless storage space. As the door closed, Ben's vision went dark.
She clutched him. His lips were eager, pressing on hers. Her fingers demanded the button and zipper of his jeans. He could smell her and the cold, damp concrete of the floor.
She pulled him onto her.
Then, he walked her out to her car. He watched her go. When he trudged back upstairs and got into bed next to Gayle, he felt like he was breaking into his own apartment.
It wasn't like things weren't open. Technically, he could do whatever, just as she could. Had. They'd decided during a fight months back. Still, even though this was his first time at something she'd done already, Ben thought not to mention it. He knew Yolanda was against the rules…even if there were no rules.
The night remained quiet as he fell asleep.
The next morning, he felt uneasy around Gayle because of the Yolanda thing, but still. He was soaring; it was a great day.
Gayle hadn't gone into work after all, had taken a personal day. Ben had a midday class, but they were going to the chop suey house afterward. Gayle was going to pick him up from campus.
Ben knew that it was cheesy, but he loved the old place. Went whenever he could. His parents had taken him there as a kid. Red and black lacquer, gold curving trim, dragons and oriental lions. Watercolors of foggy mountaintops. A tiki-style bar, for whatever reason. It felt like childhood.
Gayle may not have cared for it; he didn't know. When he had first taken her, he had hoped she'd love it like he did. He had never asked, but she agreed to go along when he brought it up to her. It was good enough.
"The keyboard isn't working!" Gayle called out from the bedroom.
"Unplug it and plug it back in. It's been doing that."
She was on his computer, hers sold. He saw that she had her email open, reading one from Thad.
He'd introduced Gayle and Thad. He dug the way that Thad thought, decided Gayle would, too. She actually did, even reading books Thad recommended. Something called V.
And there it was, on screen. "You're leaving me?" Had he meant to read? Would that have been wrong? All he had seen was the one line, but that was enough.
She turned to look at him, slow and sad. She nodded. That was all. The glimpse gave him the specifics, though it didn't make anything clear. Gayle was moving to Thad's that night, till she got her own place.
His own friend. His own friend, though hers too, wasn't going to tell him.
"You were just going to be gone?"
"It seemed best. I didn't want to fight."
He wanted to insist that she was wrong, but knew she was right.
A thought. "What about Chinese? You were going to leave me waiting?"
Campus was only two blocks away; he would have gotten home. The image of standing alone, though, anxiously watching the empty parking lot, felt desolate.
"We can still go," Gayle offered. Her tone was strangely hopeful; he wasn't sure why.
"You'll really be waiting?"
"Really. We'll go…then I'll leave."
That wasn't changing. Did he want it to? It was futile anyway, and he had to leave for class. There wasn't time.
"Okay." He wasn't convinced she'd be there. "I'll look for you."
Then, Ben was at campus. He didn't know he had walked there, but he was at the doors. His backpack was on his shoulder. He definitely didn't remember grabbing it. He wondered if it contained the books for his class.
It didn't matter. He went inside.
The halls. People. They didn't know, couldn't. Would it have made a difference to them? Ben felt they should know. Somebody needed to know.
"Ben!" Hiram called out cheerfully. Hiram was always cheerful. "What's going on?"
They'd met in astronomy. Ben had bought booze for Hiram's girlfriend's party, though he didn't attend. Hiram had only been nineteen, from a tiny town in Iowa, and knew no one old enough to buy. Then they had ended up at the same apartment building. Friendly coincidence.
"Gayle left me," Ben called back and watched Hiram's face fall.
"Hey, what can you do? Anyway, I banged Yolanda in the laundry room."
Hiram laughed nervously, a deep-bellied one that cracked occasionally into high notes. Ben kept walking before Hiram could respond.
Then, class. He wasn't aware of any of the moments as they passed, but he understood afterward that they had occurred. Ben was present in none of them. He spoke to no one. Class finished.
Outside. Waiting in the parking lot. Wondering. Looking to see if she was going to show.
Dinner was quiet. She was there.
The chop suey house could seat a hundred or more, but Ben and Gayle were the only customers, sitting at a table in the center of the room. The owner, an old man whose name escaped Ben, hovered at the edge of the room, waiting for them to need something. The owner’s wife wandered in occasionally from the kitchen, spending most of the time unseen. The restaurant felt cavernous.
At the table, there was no conversation. They had nothing to say.
Egg rolls. Soda. Chicken chop suey. Meatless egg foo young. They paid the check, left a large tip, and left.
"Well…goodbye," Ben sputtered when Gayle's car arrived back at the apartment.
"Bye," she replied quietly. She waited for him to get out. He did. She drove off and he walked in.
Since she hadn't just vanished, after all, her stuff was still mostly there. She had only taken clothes for a few nights, would be back for the rest. The apartment was the same as ever: no blank spots on the walls, no breaks in the furniture. No hollows.
It felt empty anyway.
David S. Atkinson is the author of Apocalypse All the Time, Not Quite so Stories (2016 Best Book Awards Finalist Fiction: Short Story), The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (2015 National Indie Excellence Awards finalist in humor), and Bones Buried in the Dirt (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K). He is a Staff Reader for Digging Through The Fat and his writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com.