The Last Time by Kim Magowan

The last time I had sex with my husband was when I brought an African Violet to his new apartment. Right in the middle we heard the dings of incoming texts; then the doorbell rang. Rob didn’t answer, obviously—he was still on top of me—but afterwards he immediately checked his phone and said, “Shit.”

It was his new girlfriend, Josephine. She was in the neighborhood, she texted him, and then, “Why aren’t you answering the door? I see lights on.”

“Shit, shit,” my husband kept saying.

I put on my clothes and tried not to roll my eyes. I had no sympathy for Josephine. I still believed, that night, that Rob and I would find our way back to each other, that our separation wasn’t permanent, he’d snap out of it. Our biggest problem was sex, and wasn’t this romp a sign that the problem was surmountable? Fuck Josephine.

In other words, I didn’t realize this was the last time we’d ever have sex.

***

In contrast, my friend Mary knew the last time she had sex with her husband Daniel was, in fact, the last time. She’d already packed up all her things, and Daniel, who’s mostly a good guy, though my loyalties are obviously with Mary, had helped her carry boxes to her U-Haul.

“You can have Granny’s platter,” Mary told him. This was a china platter her grandmother had given them as a wedding present, very expensive, and Daniel loved it. Daniel was strangely effete that way: he’d been the one to choose their china pattern and crystal when they registered. When people came over for dinner, Daniel would always serve cheese on the platter. So, though it belonged to Mary by rights, she said, “Go ahead. You take it,” and they both cried, and then they had sex.  When it was over, Mary kissed Daniel on the cheek, very deliberately not on the lips, and then drove off in her rented U-Haul.

I wonder if that’s a better way to do it: with cognizance. Sex as a final encore. “Well, it was kind of a mess,” Mary said. “Big snot-tear fest.” Granted, that doesn’t sound appealing.

But it would be nice to be spared months of waiting for Rob to come to his senses and call me. I saw Josephine with her baby bangs and black eyeliner as a weird bad trip. Like the one Rob had once at a New Pornographers concert when he ate something he thought was a hash brownie but obviously was composed of stronger and scarier shit. Rob couldn’t walk, so we sat with our backs against a tree, holding hands, me telling him everything would be okay, and Rob freaking out because he could only see in black and white.

***

Three months after the last time we had sex, I went back to Rob’s crappy apartment to fill out forms. He’d bought a book on how to do your own divorce: Divorce for Dummies, I called it. I suppose that was snarky. I was trying to be an adult, though, like Mary had been.

Nevertheless, I dressed carefully; I wore a blue cardigan with fake seed pearls, my best jeans, a pair of high-heeled boots. I wanted to look pretty but not like I was making an effort.

“I could use some wine,” I said, so Rob went to the corner store, and I started doing some fast, efficient recon. I stood on a stepstool to see what was inside the box on the high shelf in his closet. Handcuffs, dildos, a strap-on. The handcuffs were lined with pink fur so, I assume, they wouldn’t chafe.

“What the hell?” I said; I actually said those words out loud. Then I put away the box, blew my nose, and when Rob came back with a bottle of wine, I signed every form.


Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Colorado Review, Craft Literary, Forge, The Gettysburg Review, New Flash Fiction Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.

Photograph by Al Kratz


The NFFR and Kim Magowan Interview

During the pandemic, what’s been your favorite artistic escape either book, music, or tv?

Books and TV. My husband is always trying to get my to watch more films with him—we binged Scorsese, Hitchcock, and Altman. But I’ve found television to be more fully immersive. The show that I watched and then immediately rewatched (and then saw again, for a third time) is Fleabag. Season 2 may well be my favorite television show ever, surpassing even The Wire and Breaking Bad. Fleabag is the kind of character I’m always trying to write: a hot mess. She’s self-sabotaging, vulnerable, loyal, flawed. Watching that show feels like rubbernecking. During this endless year, I’ve also been reading compulsively, both new books (I loved Barack Obama’s memoir! It’s so smart and candid) and rereading my old favorites, like all of Jane Austen. Currently I’m rereading Wilkie Collins’s brilliant The Woman in White (1859). Something about its themes of being trapped and trying to extricate oneself from ensnaring lies disseminated by unrepentant, paranoid, powerful people feels very of-this-moment.

We’ve been thinking about the elusive definition of Flash Fiction and the different and similar ways we all approach it. What’s your working definition of it or thoughts on what it “is”?

Ha, I’ve been writing flash fiction for years and have taught two classes on flash, and I still have trouble articulating what it is, beyond the easy stuff (less than 1000 words). Flash is the closest prose comes to poetry. If flash were a food item, it would be a bouillon cube. There’s no room for waste in flash; it appeals to the perfectionist in me.

What was the inspiration for this story?

This story germinated during a five hour flashathon I did this January with four writer friends (Michelle Ross, Yasmina Madden, Elizabeth Brinsfield, and Brittany Terwilliger). Beth gave us the fourth prompt, which began: “Think of a story you’ve always wanted to write or have been meaning to write.” What immediately came to mind was a thought problem I’ve been ruminating for years: do you want to know the last time you have sex with someone is in fact the last time? (I never have known, though more than once I suspected it). Why or why not? And if you don’t know, as my narrator doesn’t, at what point in the future do you realize that it was? That is, at what point in the future do you surrender hope, and why do you accept the last time is the last time? So that’s what the story is about: the swing from denial to belated recognition.