Padanaram by Peter Orner
They had to live, didn’t they? Well, didn’t they? Didn’t they?
He took her hand and held it even as she pulled it back across the table. She stood up and went to the window.
You don’t talk it away.
I’m not talking anything away.
A doomed trick to come back to the places you were once happy as if the place truly had anything to do with it. But, she thought, it’s all we have, all we ever have, this idea of return which might be another word for faith and faith is what she felt she no longer had the right to have—but look, here she was, faking it. Faking it was the only way she could keep the visions away. So here they were. When you think there’s going to be great change and it doesn’t happen and you go back to being yourself what else is there to do but fake it?
The beach? he said. What about the little beach with the broken chairs?
And so they walked, silent, the three blocks to the water and she was relieved to find the chairs gone. They sat on the grass and he talked about real estate. How it always comes down to real estate. They’ll ruin this place, too. He liked to rail against the rich—the looters!—and his hatred was as genuine and heartfelt as his desire for the money he could never get a hold of himself, much as he tried. He made no attempt to conceal the contradiction. And she loved him for his open-faced, full-throated hypocrisy. Hating what you wanted seemed perfectly natural to her. Now he was blaming the disappearance of the chairs on the rich, how they were always trying to improve things that didn’t need improving, thereby ruining everything they touched. For her part, though she didn’t say, she wasn’t answering him at all, she was hardly even listening, the loss of the chairs signified a difference between last time and now and she was grateful that the chairs at least respected this by making themselves scarce, removed by the evil rich or not.
Be nice to break some new chairs and leave them here.
She looked at the water, at the bobbing sailboats, at the thing that looked like a floating doghouse. That was still here. She almost pointed it out but somehow, she thought, acknowledging it might make it vanish, or at least look different. An old boat with a little shingled roof moored out there in the bay beside the sailboats. It made no sense that she was grateful the chairs were gone while at the same time thankful the doghouse boat was still here. But there you had it. Of course there was still time. The odds were against them now, but not greatly so, and so of course there was still time. This sort of thing happens every hour of every day. It even happened once in her mid-thirties and then she’d been relieved. There’d been no grief whatsoever. Grief, she thought, is situational, like everything else. Location, location, location, she could hear him saying except that now he was on to something else, where to have dinner. She half wanted him to notice the doghouse boat on his own, half didn’t. Is this my problem? Chronic opposing wants? Yes, there’s still time but can’t a person mourn what wasn’t, what this time wasn’t? There’s something so ruthless about optimism. The damp grass began to seep through her sundress. Later, at the little hotel next to the yacht club they’ll undress and sex won’t just be a distraction, a welcome one, she’d always enjoyed hotel sex because to hell with the sheets (she always left a good tip on the night table) but because it would allow her to express her rage at him, yes, but also at god too, a being she hadn’t thought much about until now. Now a great punisher in the sky watching your every move made sense. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. He can’t make up his mind either. She will moan with pleasure and anger and to hell with the little innkeepers.
This emptied body.
You’re not in the mood for fish?
The boats bobbing, and the land sheltering the bay like a crooked arm.
Peter Orner’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Paris Review, Atlantic, Granta, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. A film version of his story “The Raft” is in production starring Ed Asner. His collection Esther Stories was awarded the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.