Flash Fiction: WHO ELSE WOULD YOU BE? by Leslie Pietrzyk

Photo by freemockups.org

There could have been a driver meeting you at the airport when you return from this latest trip to wherever it was this time…oh, Colorado. You could have arranged a driver to and from with one short text. Instead, you drove. You drove yourself and your rich, slightly famous ex-football player husband, which was a choice. You chose: present as regular folks. Though also you chose: $35 per day for parking in the valet lot instead of $10 daily in economy. The point is: you chose. You’re twenty-seven years old now, and you chose.

That’s what his money is for, right, to choose things?

 

He’ll bitch to you about the football factory: big, fast, poor, needy boys reeled in with promises of money, fame, and glory. It’s an ongoing story, his pet rant, a screed he returns to again and again, as if telling the tale over and over brings comfort: First they—And then—They promise—But they don’t say—And after you sign—

Finally, on this trip, you interrupted the tirade to ask: “Are they lying?” The two of you are at some group’s sales meeting when you ask this. Married for three years. Right about now your plans are paying off, and if nothing else, it seems there’s a certain future carefully constructed for him: speaking engagements, convention booths at trade shows, client bait as a name on a brochure promising a “meet and greet” at an event: basically, he’s an ex-quarterback whose new job is grip-n-grinning for pictures as if he’s a sad, sombrero-wearing burro in a stereotypical Mexican border town.

This time, this one time when you ask your question, he’s a speaker, the keynote, not early morning hungover audience fodder, but the headliner people don’t miss, the name circled in their programs. You’re in Colorado at a famous resort, three nights in the nicest suite, with a grand piano, three working fireplaces, a table that seats twelve, two balconies, and five bathrooms. That’s why you interrupt the familiar outburst— “Are they lying?”—and follow up, “When they promise these things? Are they lying?” You’re sure he gets it, but you tack on your own tiny rant: “For God’s sake we’ve got five bathrooms in this ridiculous suite and they’re cutting your speaking agent a big fat check for barely any work.”

The two of you are on one of the sleek leather couches in front of the prettiest fireplace (real natural stacked limestone, not veneer), and he’s sitting straight with his bare feet propped on the coffee table. You’re sprawled out flat, head resting in his lap. He likes feeling he’s the biggest in a room, likes being posed in a dominant position. He wouldn’t know you notice this. He wouldn’t know the ways you adapt. Here, you look up: you see the vaulted ceiling, your eyes follow the elegant lines of rough, reclaimed wood beams; you study the underside of his scruffy chin; here, you feel the fat of your face flowing downward, gravity carving a lean, hungry look.

“Hell, yes, they lied,” he says. “Are you hearing a word I said? Do you listen to me?”

“What would you be doing back in Nebraska?” you ask. “Who would you be without football and its factory?”

“Hey, I have a lot of fucking drive,” he says.

The muscles in his thighs tense and tighten. His jawline above shifts, and you sense the teeth grinding together. You should feel warned, but you’re verging on reckless. Being a prop, the pretty, always-smiling campesino holding the burro’s bridle cultivates a certain boredom, while shepherding him around to make sure he hits every mark without a fuss cultivates stress. That private afternoon visit to the resort bar didn’t quite do the trick today, so you still have feelings—rather, you’re careful to correct inside your own head—you still have these feelings. You note the nuanced difference.

“I know you have drive,” you say. A pause that’s exactly the right amount of time— “But. Well.” Another exact and exacting pause. “Still, I wonder….”

“What?” and “What do you wonder?” and “What the fuck do you wonder?” and “Say it,” and “Fucking say it.”

You shouldn’t enjoy this.

You say it: “Drive is one thing, but what about discipline? Structure?”

“No one throws their bodies into this pain for the love of discipline and structure,” he says.

“Soldiers do,” you say.

He places one hand on top of your head. You feel its weight, its heavy heat.

Why shouldn’t you keep talking if you want to? “So let’s say a man does have the drive but nowhere to apply it. What happens then?”

“Your mind is too simple,” he says. “You want me to say I’d’ve joined the army or ended up in prison. To say I’m nothing without football, I’m no one. That football saved me, football is what made me.”

These are phrases from his canned speech. Different emphasis, of course. He’d never say these things in public. Not this team guy. Not Mr. Loyalty.

Of course, you’re on the team, too.

You shut the fuck up.

You soothe and cluck and kiss. As you do, you watch the gentle drift of a thick strand of cobweb up above. Now, right now, it’s shocking to understand that you could make one phone call and yell at one person and be taken seriously, with a housekeeping crew and a ladder sent immediately to clean this room “properly”—your own whining words mirrored as if revered—a carousel of apologies set in motion—maybe someone loses a job if you complain long and loudly enough—and you’re shocked, shocked, shocked—and amused. Who needs this much power? These choices?

 

Go ahead: drive yourself home from the airport and unlock that front door. He’ll cart in the luggage. Then he’ll swing shut that big door so smoothly, so silently, you won’t even hear it closing.

Leslie Pietrzyk’s collection of linked stories set in DC, Admit This to No One, was published in November 2021 from Unnamed Press. Her first collection of short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Short fiction and essays have appeared in, among others, Ploughshares, Story Magazine, Hudson Review, Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, The Sun, Salon, New England Review, River Styx, Hobart, Cincinnati Review, and The Washington Post Magazine. Awards include a Pushcart Prize in 2020.

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