Fiction: Undoing by Kim Magowan

Reasons to do it:

To get you out of my system. Because the reality of you can never match the fantasy– no matter how great you are, how skillful, how tender your touch, how inventive your sweet talk. So possessing you will take away your power. That’s why I need to see your body: naked, real, unglorious. So I won’t want it. Cure by poison.

Or, carpe diem, et cetera. Life is short, right? In two years I turn forty. Soon my life will be too unwieldy to fling (like an anarchist in a cartoon, throwing a dynamite stick) into the fire.

Grist for the mill. I need to think of you as a research project: this is a collection of information, like leaves from a nature walk, like specimens from the moon. I will observe you closely: the hair on your shins, the texture of your armpits, the color of your tongue, the way your eyes look when you come (opaque?). The feeling of your hands on my body (heavy? gentle?).

We are still strange to each other. I don’t know every sock in your drawer, every bristle of your Sonicare. Likewise, you haven’t known me since I was twenty-six: every bad haircut, every time I’ve yelled at a child or forgotten the name of a world leader or pretended to have read that book. With you, I can be new.

You remind me of the first boy I wanted, in high school. Right before summer break, I slow-danced with him on the grass. His lips, so dry, grazed my neck. Something about you— the blank squares of your glasses, the way you transfix me (because I can’t have you)— makes me think of him, my first crush.

Because you don’t think I will. So there is something underhanded about your flirting. You’re careful; the craftsman of the double meaning, the sly line. You expect me to reject you. I should call your bluff.


            In a borrowed car, we drove to the waterfront to watch people fishing. We drove to get away from your apartment, which could only lead to trouble. You had your left hand on the steering wheel. I had your right hand, a new and temporary possession. I was captivated by your hand, completely preoccupied with it: I turned it over, inserted my fingers between yours, traced the fleshy part of your palm, near the thumb, examined the nicks of your wrist.

“You have such small wrists.”

You turned and smiled at me. Your glasses glinted. You squeezed my hand.

When you had picked me up at the train station, I sat close to you on the seat. This hand I was examining so carefully would brush my leg now and then, as if by accident. Our eyes met and flicked away, like light touches. But we hadn’t touched yet, except for that greeting hug in the station. Too long a hug, you said later that morning: “That’s when I knew.”

But what did you know? And why are you so much better at reading me than I am at reading you, or myself? After all, I am a translator, a professional reader. Why are you a code I can’t interpret? Like an Arabic book I once found in the library, composed of beautiful and inscrutable letters.


            I never undressed you. You never undressed me. As if clothes were a metaphor for the other things that came between us: my husband, your wife, all the obvious obstructions. When you unhooked my bra (you were strangely clumsy, I arched my back to help you, we both laughed as you struggled with the curved wire teeth), my sweater stayed on. I remember thinking that given the circumstances, the clothes seemed almost comically excessive: lying on top of me, you were still wearing your shoes, your glasses.

Time, like clothes, was something you used to keep us in check: only this much, and no more. The first time you kissed me, you broke away to say, “It’s 10:40 now. At 11:00, we’re getting up and going out to breakfast.” Though it took us longer than that, because when I came out of your bathroom, bra rehooked, sweater smoothed, my face wet from splashing water on it, we stood with our foreheads pressing together, we kissed, and you temporarily turned off your meter.

I never undressed you, and lying on slatted lawn chairs sunbathing was a subtle form of torture. This was as naked as we could be together: me in a bikini, you in old, mauve bathing trunks with water-stained shorts. From hooded eyelids I studied your body, committed it to memory: sunburnt legs, bony knees, the moles on your back. Sometimes you used my distraction to advantage. Playing chicken fight in the swimming pool, both of us with a wet child on our shoulders, we tried to knock each other into the water. I grabbed your hips for leverage, and became suddenly conscious of the bunchy fabric in my hands, your cool skin. You hooked my leg, and I lost my balance and fell.


            When I’ve most wanted to hurt you back: sitting rigidly in the car outside the train station, listening to you say, “I hope what happened today doesn’t mean that you’ll start fooling around. It gets easier after the first time.”

Or, and this is stranger, when you told me I should help Ian clean the grill. Why did that make my face feel actually hot with anger, so even the pool water couldn’t cool it? Perhaps because it seemed indicative of your moral superiority: you are better than me, more thoughtful, less selfish.

But most of all, it is your silence: the way you check out, for days or weeks, the way you become not just cold but entirely vacant, an empty chair. I wish I could turn from you with such ease.


            “Why?” you asked me.

Sometimes you represent yourself as someone who has travelled down this yellow brick road to Infidelity and has warnings to offer about the potholes. But you also imply that your own fooling around, while nothing you’re proud of (you emphasize proud) has been understandable.

“Abstemious” is a word you apply to Diane. “She keeps her appetites in check.”

I’ve witnessed that myself: before anything sparked between us, when I was thinking of you two as potential friends, we had you over for dinner. When I called to invite you I asked her, as I always do, if there were any food issues, and she paused— perhaps it was my use of the word “issues”— before saying “No.” But she barely ate her scallops, she picked at dessert. She saw me notice and said, “It’s lovely, Emily. It’s just so rich.” You saw me raise my eyebrows. We caught each other’s eyes, and that exchanged glance might have been the first brick on our road. A conspiratorial flash: see what I put up with?

So for all your regrets, your Ghost-of-Christmas-Future implications that betrayal is not worth the trouble, I know you believe there is something understandable about cheating on a woman who picks at scallops.

It’s my being drawn to you that is, in your estimation, deviant. “Ian is such a good guy.”

Good Guy. The number of times I have heard that. I have fantasized getting Ian a tee shirt that says “Good Guy,” like those “Number One Dad” shirts at Target.

Well, I love Ian, and I have for twelve years. I won’t dispute the title.

But I would like to show you, just once, his collection of snow globes. They line the third bookshelf of our home office, eight of them. The first one, the start of this collection, was given to him by his high school girlfriend Julie. I don’t know what it commemorates; Ian is evasive when I ask. The scene inside is a glass greenhouse, and through the plastic panes (not real glass of course) you can see a tiny, scratchy tree. Red blossoms bloom there, small as sequins: a begonia, perhaps, or a camellia. On the green plastic base, written by one of those liquid silver pens (I had one myself in middle school, for using on black paper), is, “To Eye, from Jay.” Their nicknames for each other.

This ex-girlfriend is still around. We see her four or five times a year: Julie Howe, Julie Crockett, now Julie Azzopardi. Two months ago we went to her wedding— the second of her weddings that I’ve been to. It seemed strange to make a second wedding such a production. Her dress wasn’t white, but such a pale blue that from any distance it looked white. That seemed strange too.

She came to my wedding of course. I remember her gift: an apple-red ceramic bowl. Sometimes I serve pasta in it. Back then, eleven years ago, Ian still occasionally called her Jay, though I never heard her call him Eye.

What does collecting snow globes say about a man? That’s the question I want to ask you. Or that his collection began because his ex-girlfriend, from when he was sixteen, gave him this particular one of some greenhouse, and wrote on the bottom in silver ink? What does it say about Ian that he does not select his own fetish objects? I’ve collected things too—sand-dollars when I was a kid, egg cups more recently—but those items meant something to me. I chose them myself.

A day or two after Julie’s wedding, I looked through the open door in the office, and saw Ian holding a snow globe in the palm of his hand. Of course, I knew which one it was.

More than once, I have wanted to smash those snow globes, or perhaps just that one. Partly to understand the nature of the liquid inside. Not water, I don’t think: something more viscous, more gelatinous. And I would like, perhaps, to pry those “glass” walls off the conservatory; I’d like to determine what tree is protected inside it.

Yes, I would like to show you the snow globes. They seem at least as relevant, as motivating, as refusing scallops. They seem to shed light on one’s character. What kind of person is attracted to sealed domes? The half-circle, not even whole, not a globe after all, that sits in your palm? Who would display them in a perfect row?

“But Emily,” you might respond, “Their whole function is to be shaken.” To unsettle them, to stir and disturb those sparks of snow.


            “Patience is a virtue,” you said to me, and I am reminded of the Latin root of patience, pati, a verb that appears only in passive voice, that means to suffer, to endure. Passion has the same root: think of the Passion of Christ on his cross. Yet what can be more opposed to passion than patience? The gnawing of one, the tamping down of the other.

You claim that what has kept us out of bed is logistics, and the word buried in there, logic, speaks to a gap between you and me. You are rational when I am hopeless. You evoke scenarios in the future, somedays, someafternoons, when we’re in the same place, and time doesn’t have to be meticulously tracked. But to me those moments are irretrievably lost in the past, or belong in some parallel universe, both of us teenagers, unattached, unmoored, where there is space to be with you.


            You and I never had sex, though we sat on a low wall across the street from a hotel for half an hour and discussed why we shouldn’t go in. You described four possible doors that hotel would lead to, which I picture as sets in a game show, tatty velvet curtains suspended from brass rods. Through Door A, we would sleep together and finally get over each other, the frenzy dissolved, the residual secret smile exchanged twenty years later. Door B was the literal anti-climax, an awkward roll in the hay that would divide us between disappointment and relief. At Door C, the worst one, we would get caught and wreck each other’s lives. And Door D was the hardest to imagine: we would somehow walk off with each other, intact. That conversation ended rancorously. I got up, unsteady, and said, “Well, let’s leave, then, but let’s also stop pretending this is ever going to happen.”

But in that alternate reality, I will carve a space for us.

We are in Rome. Why Rome? Because it is not the place where either of us live, places associated with the fundamental accessories of our lives (Ian, Diane, my children). Perhaps, in the kind of eternal return of dreams and stories, because Rome is where I lost my virginity, and I will undo that night (cheap wine, tears, brown stains of crushed mosquitoes on the walls) by replacing it with you. So, we are in Rome. You stand in front of me. Your arms are at your sides, or perhaps you lightly press my shoulders, and you look at me. But I do not meet your eyes. I am concentrating on undoing, one by one, the mock mother-of-pearl buttons of your shirt, to touch your invisible and secret skin.


Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department at Mills College. She has fiction published or forthcoming in “Arroyo Literary Review,” “Breakwater Review,” “The Gettysburg Review,” “Indiana Review,” “River City,” “Valparaiso Fiction Review,” and “Word Riot.”

35 responses to “Fiction: Undoing by Kim Magowan

  1. When I first saw this post, I wanted to read it but I found it was much longer than I had time for just then, but I liked it. Now, having read it, I loved it. Maybe because I’ve been in this situation, being so unbearably attracted to someone else, who was so unavailable when I was just about to be married….but it resonated with me. It was quite well written.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Theres nothing I can add to this but ‘your mom’. I don’t have the language to express how this moved me but im hoping you get some sense of what I mean when I say ‘your mom’. Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. lovely. i should be making dinner for my family but i;m hiding on the dining room floor (the only place i can be alone) and reading your piece! thanks for the diversion…


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