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J. Liu

Her attempt to retune and sustain her thoughts and conduct on her resolve once again concluded irresolute, as the voice of one who had after several failed attempts to get her attention decided that repeating her name, but this time louder, was sure to do the trick, and certainly did do the trick, as the habit to respond when called diverted her focus back onto the thing she had been attempting to avert herself from in the first place: the source of the voice itself. The boy who had asked her out to drinks that night had returned from his round about the bar, and was letting her know that unfortunately, his attempt to find them a place to sit was unsuccessful, for the crowd that evening was composed of many, driven in by the excitement that comes with the first cold Saturday night of what they called the “holiday season”, and the establishment’s cunning, which, all too eager to turn the accident auspicious, had coiled Christmas lights around itself, further compounding the sense of holiday cheer, attracting to them the multitudes like moths. He suggested that perhaps they could circle around the place until they happened upon a spot more suitable to unwind. In seeing that it was now too late for her to get out of it, and too early to leave, she reasoned with herself to just go along with it for now, and see what happens. Drinks in hand, they began their promenade.

Back and forth bodies bumped, slaking spouts with spirits, and she among them, shuffled and carried along by the current that drove the fresh stream of patrons by the entrance further in. The subtle sway of the crowd paired with the droning tones of the space made for an easy flow to fall into. Though sick of drifting, she welcomed the ride, as these days, she had little energy left over for much else after having exhausted herself in her attempts to keep herself in line. Thus, she was happy; happy to lax her hold, happy to be pushed along by the momentum of something outside of herself.

As for where it was that they were that evening, it was hard to say, for from the outside, the building seemed to be a Manhattan mansion held over from centuries ago, but upon entering, one found instead an amalgamation of amusements, a bit of this and that all over, yet neither wholly either so as to ensure if ever a patron were to become disinterested with anything, there was, immediately adjacent to it, something wholly different for them to turn their attention to. Various strings of bars were accompanied by lounge areas, clusters of arcade games were dispersed throughout, and projections of a varied selection of popular cult classic films played in empty spaces of walls, framed by an array of decorations composed of various kitsch collected from all over the world, from all different eras, all gathered and speckled throughout the place. There were doors and stairs which led to more doors and stairs, some of which, she was told, led to the lobby of a full service hotel, an artisanal grocery store, and a banquet hall. This motley theme coupled with the lack of a view outside, for the windows had been boarded up and covered with curtains, gave no indication of time and place as experienced outside of those walls, making it easy to forget where one was, and thus, she thought, must have been exactly the point of such a place, a place where people at the end of the day may gather to be distracted from their troubles, a place to forget themselves; and in seeing how crowded it was, she gathered that there must have been much forgetting that needed to be done. Luckily, with all the instruments on hand, one could indeed spend the rest of one’s days diluting their reminders with diversions until they became sufficiently satisfied with all that they’ve washed away.

She took inventory of all the distractions they could expend their energies into to diffuse any tension that may arise between her and the boy. All the amusements thus far appeared equally viable, until upon filtering further in, they encountered two lanes of grey sand entertaining games of bocce. In one of the lanes stood four men around a group of colored spheres of a muted tone scrutinizing the formation with great intensity, a tableau of concentration. The men hardly looked or spoke to one another save for the purposes of the game: an ideal kind of interaction, she thought, for its impersonality. So far she saw it as the best out she could use to abort any intentions aimed at something more involved. And yet, as she looked on, a familiar feeling of weight pulled her attention in the direction of the frame of one of the players. It reminded her of someone or something she had seen before, but she couldn’t exactly recall who or what. As her gaze lingered on in an attempt to pinpoint the recollection, the current pushed her further along, moving the man past the scope of her perspective, which she was glad for, as she remembered that too lengthy of a gaze was bound to lead to trouble, some misunderstanding of sorts.

They ricocheted along to and fro, and the boy did his best to, as politely as he could, push people aside to clear a path for her while attempting to lead them in a direction towards some place less crowded. As she watched him, a wave of revulsion crept over her. The boy was much more endearing than she had remembered, and as a result had begun growing on some part of her, the last thing she wanted from this night out. These days, having grown wary of greater deviations, she found refuge in any interaction that required minimal involvement, smaller detours, just enough for her to get her fix. While it did occur to her that it may have been best for her to have rejected the boy’s invitation out in the first place, her lack of interest in him made him too attractive of a distraction to pass up; she knew she could rely on her repulsion for him, and thus, had not anticipated any trouble with keeping herself in line. Still, in spite of the development, she reminded herself of her resolve, and continued to put her conviction in the force that drove things apart for the sake of keeping herself together.

Walking along, they spotted a nook that a couple was leaving, where they had just previously been the only two observing a painting, towards which he promptly led her so as to replace them as they left. Having some more room now, they readjusted themselves to the new space, and just as the couple had done so before them, they began to look at the painting that hung on the wall before them. It was a part of a larger collection of other pieces dispersed throughout the establishment, each one completed by the accompaniment of placards stating the artist’s name, the medium, the mission statement, and the person to contact if anyone had the interest to acquire the piece. Studying the painting for a few moments, the boy asked without looking up at her how her writing had been coming along. She had mentioned to him a while back that she had finally decided to give it a real shot, a real go, but hadn’t brought it up again since.

“It’s coming along, I guess. It needs a bit of cleaning up, but I think the main idea is there. ” These were the kinds of neither here nor there phrases she had become accustomed to producing in an attempt to hold the place of a real response she didn’t know how to conceive or express.

Still looking at the painting, the boy smiled and said, “Well, I have no doubts about anything you do. I’m sure it will turn out just fine.”

He had always taken an interest in her work since they had met in college, and she in like manner his. From her recollection, he had always been one of the more promising of their peers both in gifts and gusto to have a real shot at making something of himself as an artist, but upon graduating, seemed to have taken a turn in his focus. It was generally encouraged that they acknowledge the observation that success in their field was often achieved in a roundabout manner, namely in first gaining experience as a peripheral part of the greater whole and getting to know others in the field before they could begin making it on their own. She wondered if perhaps the boy had made the choice on his own volition and took in their prescriptions, for it couldn’t have been otherwise. He certainly wasn’t pressed financially, a detail about his background he made sure to reveal discreetly, and he had even mentioned taking a year or so off to focus on his work; but within a few months of leaving school and saying so, he had already secured a full time job in a big time production office, and had since then been steadily building a network of connections and working on an array of commercial projects. It had been only a year in, but he was already making the most headway in the field of all of the graduates so far, or, at least, that’s how it all appeared to her in comparison to the impression she gleaned from the other graduates about their lives the last time she was still in touch with them. He did, however, admit that his own work, the work that he had framed as his end upon leaving school, had fallen by the wayside. But this in no way seemed to discourage him; he remained fully confident that he would get back to it once he had become more “established”.

“Anyway,” he said, as he had said many times since taking the job, “I still in a way have a hand in making something, even though I’m not really making it”. She wondered if this was the channel of thought he had to maintain whenever he began to question himself of his decisions.

She too, on the other hand, had similarly framed her ends in the arts, and likewise took a turn after taking in the prescriptive aids upon graduating, reframing her ends to include the concession that it was indeed also important to have good standing amongst the multitudes with success in all the different lives one had, particularly the pecuniary, and personal, and thus, began her new career at an arts related management company with great excitement, thinking that she had evolved out of a base understanding of the ends of life, now knowing the more sophisticated meaning of endeavor: to cultivate all the many factions of lives one lead. But some months into her employment, she fell ill with a strange malady that left her excusing herself every other hour or so on the dot to, as discretely as she could, relieve herself of hysterics in the ladies room. This quickly having become a regular occurrence, she was able to anticipate whom she would encounter in the refreshing room at what time during the day. Earlier in the day, the stall furthest in was always occupied by a woman suffering from chronic blockage; later in the day, another woman was certain to be passionately evacuating her bowels. Muffled strains coupled with stifled cries made for the morning duet, while the staccato spurts and filtered wails made for that of the afternoon.

The fits always began as a scraping within her, as if some part of her was in the midst of a swan song, and when it finally expired, her body recognizing the waste, readily disposed of it through the hysteria. But to all this, she paid no mind, as she relegated it all to a thing they called “growing pains”- these were simply the side effects of proper adjustment; she was doing away with what was unnecessary and replacing it with newer aspects of character that would be instrumental in furthering her career. Yet the more time that passed, the more the purge crescendoed. Any self-questioning of the malady was glazed over with her reasoning to herself that this was but some temporary phase that would be over soon enough, and it was over soon enough, for the cycle of rinse and repeat finally hit a climax, where, afterwards, she henceforth found that she had nothing more to get rid of. Yet curiously, rather than having become fully adjusted, she had somehow instead become entirely maladjusted, as if amidst the frenzy of the cleanse, something vital had been dislodged and purged of, bringing the entire system to a shut down. The simplest duties she had once performed mechanically by habit became motions she could no longer bring herself to complete. Her parts overridden now ran on an autopilot whose sole aim seemed to be to do nothing; and thus, soon after, no longer able to maintain her position, she was cut loose and replaced.

The days after, she drifted aimlessly, for she had no idea what to do with herself otherwise. The world she had shifted her ends towards ended up becoming one she realized she could not fit herself into regardless of the alterations she tried to make to herself, and now feared that the changes she had made to herself were ones that were irreversible, so that even if she had wanted to revert back to her initial ends, it was now too late. Her mind that she had become so accustomed to keeping tightly wound within certain bounds, wandered, for her grip, overtaxed, had no strength to keep it leashed any longer. It roamed over what had become the neglected areas of herself, which she discovered had now become unrecognizable, a sovereign landscape turned foreign and barren after all the renovating she had done within herself; and all the while her mind drifted, her paralysis remained active in continuing to cut ties between her and the world: she didn’t look for another job, didn’t stay in touch with anyone in the field, and removed all manner of possibility for others to contact her all in an attempt to blot out her blotted self. It wouldn’t be until months later that she would regain the autonomy to begin to have a hand in trying to straighten the footpaths that had gotten misaligned amidst the confusion. She wondered if she could make lush again the wasteland she had worked so hard to cultivate.

Though the boy knew she had gone through changes in her character, he continued to treat her as the same person he had known from all those years ago. He still had full confidence in her abilities; it did, however, worry him, that she had been out of a job and “off the grid” for almost a year now, and gave no indication of going back anytime soon. In that circle, this kind of behavior was considered suicidal: the more time you’re out, the harder it was to get back in. Yet, amidst all the things that troubled her, this development seemed low on the list of her cares. She was so far outside of the circle now, that it seemed worrying about it made little sense; and anyway, some part of her seemed to instinctively prefer this kind of suicide to any other.

Still, he’d remind her, as he always did whenever they spoke on these matters, “If you ever did decide you wanted to get back into the scene, let me know.”

She thanked him, but she knew not for what. His offer, nice as it seemed, was something she couldn’t help but see as yet another opportunity for her to weave herself back into the intricacies of a life she was still so tempted to, but made her so sick to live. All the networking was but a giant web to entangle oneself in, a winding sheet to expedite the descent; and yet, as much as it was a trap, she couldn’t help but also see it as a safety net. This path is one that has been and continues to be well worn by the masses, and thus, it has certainty, a quality that glimmered at her through the obscurity of the path she felt was the one she ought follow, its flickering tempting her to take a closer look. But every time she did pull in closer, she’d find that there was another force pulling her back: a thought that had, as of recent, spontaneously seeded itself within her, making her particularly sensitive to the matter. About a month or so prior, she began to hear the refrain of a whisper crying in the overgrowth within her, foretelling of an event that was to come: somewhere not much further down the line, she was to meet a part in the road, and upon meeting it, was required to decide which path it was she was to follow for the rest of her life. There would no longer be an in between, for one path would be but a narrow line, while all else around it the other road, and upon choosing one, the opening to the other would be closed forever and the part of her that had wanted to choose it would have to die. She knew which path it was she wished to choose, but feared that her wavering ways had become such a habit in her character, that her inconstancy was now her constancy, and that she had become too unreliable to have faith in herself to choose rightly when the time came.

All these thoughts, as always, she didn’t know how to express to the boy, let alone to herself, so she told him instead that she just wanted to take some time to finish one thing, namely that piece of writing, and then perhaps reconsider his suggestion. Despite her shaky conviction in her ability to bring to an end even this seemingly small task, she thought that perhaps declaring it aloud to another with the semblance of enough conviction could bolster up the likelihood of it’s actualization.

“That sounds fair,” he said, “but you never know. Maybe that last job just wasn’t the right fit for you. Maybe the next job will be the right one where you would be able to do both things at once. The right job ought to be the one that would allow you to pursue all the different aspects of your life.”

It bothered her that he seemed to think that rewording and elaborating on his earlier sentiment might change her mind, for part of her feared it would. It was worse that he used the phrase, “but you never know”. She dreaded to hear it, for it was the kind of phrase she could never tell if either it was true wisdom or a specious maxim used to justify bad behavior. Nevertheless, she held onto her resolve, for these days, another fear seemed to override the one of the uncertain. As a result of the time her mind had spent reflecting on itself, she realized that although she had made many and done many things through her schooling and various positions, none of them seemed ever to amount to anything. She could not unsee them all as half formed miscarriages induced along by deadlines, and for once, wanted to say something that was meant, something she felt to be true; and yet, despite this desire, she feared she had secretly nurtured a sister desire: to render herself completely incapable of expressing sincerity in any form. It was this fear that caused her to put so much weight on the one act. She thought that if she could execute this one thing, finish this one story, she could then perhaps begin to redeem herself of the rest of her inequities, and that perhaps that door she so wanted to pass through, that she felt was growing narrower by the moment, could open up again if ever so slightly. If I could just say one thing I mean, one thing that’s true, that would be enough.

But these thoughts she found, again, too complicated, too difficult, to express, so she simply said, “I don’t know. We’ll see when it’s done. I’m just interested in finishing one thing first.”

She could tell he was frustrated with her response that said nothing. It seemed that he very much wanted her to succeed in a way that she didn’t. The tension that suspended between them, was the kind of tension she had anticipated, for their interactions often came circling around to this point. She didn’t know why he cared, or from whence his irritation with her found its source. She entertained the idea that his interest in her lay somewhere between an earnest one in her well being, and one of being able to examine firsthand just how far it was she had fallen in her purported downward spiral. In this mock argument she had with herself, she found it hard to believe it could be the latter, for the sincerity of his tone and his frustrations with her seemed anything but sinister.

Underneath, however, she knew that another question lingered, the real question of what the pretense of the rendezvous had been a guise for. From the way she had watched him part persons aside to make room for her, how his nods lingered thoughtfully as he listened to her, she wondered whether something else had been in the works. She never knew where it was she stood with him, for he never made it clear either way; and she too had never made anything clear to him, for at the time she herself didn’t know where it was he stood with her. But these days, she did know, and if it was that the night was his attempt at making something more out of it, she was sorry she would meet his intentions unreciprocated; and yet, what a shame she thought this decision to be, for if ever there was someone that would be the right person for this kind of engagement, it ought to be him. Yet, even this second thought she questioned the sincerity of- she was well aware of the human tendency to direct our energies into those things we care the least for, out of fear of directing ourselves towards those things we really do want.

She began looking around for some other distraction to discharge their tension into. Surveying her surroundings once again, she spotted an empty bench just beyond the bocce lanes and suggested they make their way in that direction; surely and promptly upon moving from their place in front of the painting, they were replaced by another couple.

Back in the flow of bodies, she continued to look around at the many sights of the establishment. She noticed that despite the consistent incongruence, a lattice pattern was woven on the ceiling which the eye could trace throughout the entire place, or at least, what she had seen of it so far. She wondered if it was the last original remnant of what the place was meant to be before all the renovations were made. And yet, for all she knew, it could also have been an aspect of the design; people had become quite clever with crafting these days.

They were diverted on their rout when they caught sight of a ledger, a great leather bound book filled with lists of names: it was the signup sheet for the bocce games. The queue had grown to be two pages long and made it seem that any chance of signing up to play would be futile even though they knew most of the names on the list belonged to people who never had the intention to play even if their turn came up while they were still in the establishment, people that did things “just in case” they happened to be in the mood to seize the opportunity by the time their names were called. Tempted to play, but knowing their chances of getting to play were slim, they thought it best to be prudent and not sign up, resolving not to play.

Continuing to meander through, she noticed the bar was filled with couples, couples on the verge of becoming couples, couples in the midst of being couples, and couples on the verge of no longer being couples; and she was quite certain of that she and the boy must have appeared to others to belong in one of those categories. Though she reminded herself she was set on where she stood with the boy, her thoughts would still every so often wander off to toy with the idea of reprising that role she knew so well: the counterpart of the semblance of a whole, and then soon after, the former counterpart of something that no longer appears to be whole. But before the thought could come to a resolution, the reminder of how revulsed she had become of repeating these runs in these rounds, of traveling to such lengths to find herself further in the same place would rush in to overlap it. No longer could she be taken in by the common fantasy of wholeness conceived as two counterparts enjoined as one, but she often thought about how nice it would be if she could still believe in it like she used to.

There was a time, not too long ago, when she’d pirouette seamlessly from one pas de deux to the next, justified in her thinking that it was all a part of the endeavor for wholeness. Whenever things seemed to align well enough save for an aspect here or there, she’d happily hack away at parts of herself and direct the regrowth into whatever form that created a better semblance of a whole, all for the sake of a better fit. But when the rounds came to an end, the two having grown twain, she discovered that she was a thing only close to complete in relation to the vision of wholeness she fashioned herself for, insubstantial on her own; yet as soon as any pang of regret was felt, some part of her would resound, “but you never know!” to quell the flare up. “But you never know, maybe that one was just not the right one, maybe we need to keep doing this again until we find the right one.” And there was never a shortage of options, for the law of conservation makes sure to keep all voids filled. Thus, she’d pivot from one fling to the next, spinning out new forms of herself each go around, all the while, growing more familiar to these strangers, as she grew stranger to herself. But whenever she began to come close to being reminded of what it was that was happening, the dial of her concentration which she had been able to control with ease, would be turned onto a different station, distracting her from those things she preferred forgotten.

But that was all back then. Over time, the dial began to grind at its base, and the reminders grew lengthier, until at some point, the usual efforts to change the channel no longer came with the ease it once had, and she found herself in the midst of a silence, where she could hear nothing but all the things she had forgotten. She could no longer not see what had once appeared to her as something so sweet, so sublime, the physical manifestation of wholeness, as an endemic delusion, as erosion in guise. This wholeness, as she now saw it, was but an optical illusion: all the grinding lovers do in their attempt to become one whittles them down from two to two halves, which then must lean on one another, adopting one another not out of love, but out of having maimed their own essences and thus reinforced their crumbling structure with the equally crumbling structure of the other. Indeed, this creature does appear to be one thing: a chimera assembled out of the adulterated leftovers of two beings. Love was a myth, an excuse. The desire for the other was not the desire for wholeness, but a mask for that preferably left unrevealed contour of the human heart: the aspect of ourselves that hates ourselves, and wishes to be anything other than ourselves.

Yet still, the recognition of her own self-impoverishment was not enough to restrain her mind from entertaining the “what ifs” that came so easily. What if she and the boy started something up, and what if it happened to go well? They could get married, the very thing her family had felt was her true end in life, and the boy happened to be exactly the type that they liked…

Reel it back. Reel back your straying. She reminded herself of her resolve, the resolve to get through the night without any open ended lines to weave thicker the trap she knew she secretly spun for herself.

They finally arrived at the bench, and were surprised to find that on such a crowded night no one else had spotted it or taken the spot first. The bocce lanes were elevated slightly, and the seats placed against a wall parallel to the lanes at just the right proximity to ensure that anyone who sat down was immediately turned into a spectator. Closer now, she could see that the man she had seen earlier donned salt and pepper hair and had a manner of movement that revealed a grace in its prime. His partner in the game was also a man in the prime of his middle age. He wore glasses, and like the man, had his own sense of refinement, yet, was lacking something of magnetism, at least as she perceived it. From the sparse nature of the duo’s exchanges, she could see they must have been close friends.

They played against two younger men, who appeared more so to be playing to impress the younger women they were accompanied by who were standing on the sidelines, smiling, all the while looking like they were on the fence as to how they felt about their dates. She and the boy began watching just as the game was about to turnover, and it quickly became obvious the younger men had lost; no match for the old hands. As were the rules of the game, the reward for playing well was more play, and so Glasses, and the man hung around waiting for their next opponents. Three middle aged women approached the lane, and from the way they giddily stepped onto the track, it was clear that it was a different game they were interested in playing with these men. But their interest was met unreciprocated. The men only wanted to play bocce, at least it was so with them. The man began looking around the room as if for a window to jump out of but instead caught her looking at him with a similar expression of an attempt to contain exasperation. Their lines of sight matched for longer than she thought usual, but she couldn’t be certain as to what the exchange was about- it seemed that there was a mutual understanding that acknowledged they were both seeking some excuse to interact with something other than their current predicament. She saw his eyes shift over to the boy next to her, who was still going on about whatever he was going on about, seemingly not yet realizing her focus had been diverted, or if the boy had indeed noticed, he was responding cordially to the observation, while she noticed Glasses in the background explaining the parameters of the game to the group of women. It was as if she and the man both pondered the question, being that with everyone so absorbed in their own sphere, what the consequences would be, whether or not the world could continue to run all on its own perfectly fine, if they decided to no longer uphold the roles their circumstances seemed to have them designated for. But soon after, modesty sounded its alarm, and the two went back to their respective engagements.

She tuned back to her conversation with the boy. They now moved on to going back and forth on what seemed to be a lot of nothing, which she sensed was still a guise for something. She wondered if perhaps the boy had picked up on the loose strands of all her lingering thoughts, for despite what seemed to be his efforts to maintain an atmosphere free of any sense of entanglements, his phrases seemed to be lined with bait in hopes of catching a glimpse of something in her responses that could point to where it was he stood with her. She knew at this point, even if she were to put it to him straight, tell him there was no chance of any of this going anywhere, the simple observation that she had made good on her word and showed up that evening was enough solution to turn any statement into meaning its opposite. She wondered if it was too late to turn it around, if too much uncertainty had been seeded in the boy’s mind for her to get her meaning, a meaning she was still uncertain as to how to express, across. But some other part of her held out for the possibility that something good could come of it. Perhaps she could finally begin to make the habit of undoing those habits that adulterated all her interactions.

Nevertheless, the banter went on. It was good they had the game before them, for anytime the conversation became stilted, they had the diversion to fall back on. Occasionally, the boy having caught the eyes of Glasses would every so often engage with him in asking about the rules of the game, who seemed more than happy to explain, as he too seemed less than thrilled with their current playmates. The man, despite not speaking, would occasionally look over during these exchanges with friendly countenance.

As she half-heartedly engaged in these matters, a sense of pointlessness began to creep over her. Some part of her had brought it to her attention that she had secured her aim for that night, the aim that was for a diversion to go nowhere, and was now seeking a distraction from all the distractions. Maybe I ought to go home. Finish this drink and call it a night. She thought if she got home early enough she could spend the next day working on what she had spent all night so diligently evading. But as she was about to make a move to begin all the rituals that come with departing from a social engagement, the boy excused himself.  Just as well, she thought. It bought her a few more moments to solidify her conviction. But no sooner than the moment the young man left, the empty space was filled by Glasses, who had come over to ask if she wanted to join their game.  He said that they were getting tired of the opponents that they had been playing with, and between all the bantering they had been doing between rounds, both he and the man thought that she and the boy would be good opponents to play with.

“What about the line?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Cut the line.” She didn’t know how to give the right response. Both wanting to go home, yet lured by the curiosity of this new development, she stalled to answer, and instead said she wanted to wait and see what the boy would say, fully knowing she was relinquishing her hold on something she should be keeping a grip on. She diverted the conversation onto general banter until the boy returned, aware that it may have appeared to Glasses that she was playing some form of hard to get. When the boy had become apprised of the situation, he quickly accepted the offer, and right on cue, her second nature chimed in: “but you never know, maybe something will come out of it!”

After a round of introductions and an explanation of the rules of the game, the teams paired off, she with the boy, and the two older men with one another, and they began to play. The particulars, she could not remember, only that it dealt with trying to hit a mark, and then switching sides to do the same all over again, oscillating from one end of the lane to the other with different players at one’s side each time.  The game’s design made it so that either she was always walking towards a different player, or one was walking away from her, leaving her behind with another player for a short period of time until the next switch.  In this manner, conversations were fragmented, got dropped and picked up whenever they ended up back next to the respective player, that is, if anyone still remembered what it was they had been talking about.

When the three of them were on one side, with Glasses on the other, the man asked if the two of them, she and the boy, were a couple. They both shook their heads and said no. “Just friends.” The man looked at them curiously, and commented that it was a pity, for they seemed to work so well together. It was her turn to throw the ball, and after doing so, she walked over to join Glasses on the opposite side. She watched the boy converse with the man while she spoke with Glasses, who began to tell her about all his worldly travels and business ventures, which she was happy to listen to, as otherwise, she’d have to spend energy she didn’t have filling the void of interaction with thoughts she didn’t have. She felt most safe in his presence, as being not the least bit interested in him, she knew there was no risk of their interactions going anywhere. Furthermore, it seemed that his real interest was with himself, which gave them both time to be distracted with something other than one another; she could continue to let her mind slink away in its attempt to recall who it was the man reminded her of.

On the next round, she walked over and stood next to the man as they waited for the boy to calculate his next move from the opposite side. He asked her what she did for a living, to which she responded that she didn’t really know, but it appeared that she was making an attempt at becoming an artist. He picked up the hesitation in her delivery and asked her why it was there.

“I’m always getting in my own way.”

He looked at her for a moment. “You know, I can tell you all about that.” He was a painter himself, and said that he likewise had his fair amount of struggles with himself. “I get it. It’s easy to get distracted every so often. Even to this day I still get distracted. Someone will call me up to go out for a round of beers when I’m supposed to be working. I’ve learned to say no, but sometimes I still give in, like today. But, of course, I keep going back to the work when I can.”

She turned his words over in her head. He let on that he also had other means of making his living, but continuously returned to painting, which he claimed to be his true vocation in life. He wasn’t famous, which in no way was his measure of success, but he seemed to do alright for himself with the occasional show here and there.

“But still, sometimes I wonder maybe if I should just give it up and become a professional bocce player.” They laughed, but he delivered the line in a tone that was hard to tell whether or not he was being sincere. He was indeed very good at bocce. She wondered if he got so good at it because he spent so much time evading his work.

“Well, it would be great to see your work if ever you have a show in the area.” As the words issued forth from her, they were replaced with a pang, as it struck her in that moment what it was the man had reminded her of all along. It was the beginning of another one of those rounds she was trying so hard to avoid, yet fell into so easily. They always began the same way, with the same kind of feeling of a pull towards something, and she was astonished she hadn’t recognized it sooner. And yet, it was really no shock at all. Some part of her had known what was happening all along, but had hoped it would not turn out this way, that something would come in to derail it while she, behind her own back, quietly continued to steer the events on their course.

He extended his hand with his phone, the screen ready to receive her phone number, which, muscle memory firing back on her, she tapped in without hesitation. In the midst of going through the motions, she searched for an opening, somewhere in this piece of choreography she knew so well as one thing, some pause between the movements, a break between the beats where she could cut herself loose from the rest of the string of events. But under the spell of the tempo, she swayed, unable to unsee it all as one nuanced movement, unable to not finish with polish those phrases she had recited so many times; it has been the same song and dance for years now. Her head spun under the cascade of thought, but she did her best to spot on her resolve: nothing is to happen. Recalling her aim, she further pointed out to herself that really, nothing has happened, and assured herself that nothing more will.

He took the phone back and saved her number. “I’ll give you a call when next I have a show in the city. Or maybe sometime when I’m avoiding my painting and you’re avoiding your writing,” playing on in that neither here nor there tone. “But really, you ought to save yourself. You shouldn’t be out here hanging out with the likes of us.” He laughed, and so did she, but she no longer knew what he was saying.

Remembering they were in the middle of a game, he began to give her pointers on how to better her play. He positioned her body into a stance that would allow for maximal control for whatever direction she wanted to send the ball. His hand on her shoulder sent a steady shock through her, freezing her in her movements as a warmth melted through. Somewhere, within her an alarm was going off; or was it a ring that required an answer? Whatever it was, she made no outward indication of a concern, as she let the ball roll out of her hand, and made her way towards the other side. Midway down the lane, she was met by the boy.

“That man is in love with you,” he teased.

“Well, that’s too bad. I’m not interested,” she replied.

The boy draped his arm around her and walked with her to the end of the lane. Taking note of her perplexed look, he said, “Well since you’re not interested, if it looks like you’re taken, maybe he’ll stop flirting with you.” Still sensing her unease, he added, “You don’t need to read into this. I’m just doing you a favor.” There seemed to be a general shift in the tone of the night, for she was beginning to have trouble placing what it was that anyone was saying anymore. She didn’t know whether or not to take his word for it, or if the man’s earlier comment to them about she and the boy being a couple had sprouted doubt in the boys mind about how he felt about her.

Soon after, they were joined by Glasses. He told her that he was just talking to the man and heard that she had an interest in pursuing the arts. “He’s definitely the right person to talk to, both he and his wife. They’re both artists and know a lot of people. You guys should stay in contact.”

A wife. Just as well, she thought. More buffer for the much needed repulsion; and yet, it undeniably added to the unsustainable quality of a distraction she had such a habit of going for. Another round of rotations left her alone again with the boy, back to picking up some small talk they had left off on. Meanwhile, she saw the man sitting on the bench making a phone call. She thought he must have been calling his wife, and reminded herself that it was all for the better: let his ties to his wife cut off any other potential entanglements. In jest, she aimed the ball at his head, which he caught sight of as he was talking.

Soon after, they closed off the last rounds, and any open tabs. Upon parting ways, Glasses suggested that they ought to get together and do this again sometime soon, to which everyone except for her resounded with some phatic expression of agreement.

On her way home, it occurred to her that somehow, despite all that had happened that night, she had managed to make sure that nothing had gone anywhere, and basked in the relief that came over her. Upon arriving home, she sat down at her desk to unwind. She emptied the contents of her purse, and checked her phone for the time but instead found from an unknown number, a missed call and a voice message from earlier in the night. She played the recording. It was from the man.

All the while she thought he was talking to his wife, he was leaving a voicemail on her phone, for the message was composed of him narrating her actions, “Now you’re talking to the boy, now you’re aiming a ball at my head,” all closing with a reiteration of his earlier expression, bringing up once again the desire to see her again.

The tendrils creeped. She had been wrong to think that she had emerged in the clear, for she clearly had loose ends to play with if she wanted to weave thicker the plot she knew she shouldn’t touch.

But you never know…,” chimed the refrain.

But you DO know, chimed something else. The man said it himself: “Save yourself”. Save yourself.

Back and forth and forth and back her mind drifted as the phone sat on her desk next to a pile of revisions; revisions upon revisions, upon revisions upon revisions.