As my history goes: on the cul-de-sac where I grew up in Maine disagreements between neighbors were the nightly entertainment. On any given evening adults swore into the dark their version was truth when it came to what really happened, on any given occasion. Usually it involved one of us kids. What started out with a simple baseball going through a window could lead to a complicated threat of violence during these front porch moments, if stoked by imagination. So terrific were these blowups, I was reminded at a young age of this simple truth: every story holds multiple tellings.
To appreciate the ancient and honorable act of storytelling is to acknowledge the undeniable fact that any story (both in fiction and in real life) can be interpreted in countless ways. In this manner, offer a narrative that incorporates multiple “tellings” of a single event.
I Come to Town
I come to town on a sunny day. Because of this, I stay outside. I spend the day in the park, admiring the lilies in the water fountains, the brass bands in the gazebo, the quality of children’s laughter among the zoo cages. I get a lot of thinking done. I write a pretty good story about flowering birds that turn into gorillas with separation anxiety. The only thing is, the whole time you are in a café, reading the day away (my favorite book actually – a great talking point), and we never meet. In the morning I step on a train, and disappear.
I come to town on a rainy day. I put a newspaper over my head and dash into a nearby café. There you are, reading Life, A User’s Manual, your long brown hair swept over your shoulder. Have you gotten to the part, I ask, where Valéne is imagining his painting and there’s these Cyclops - Hammering their brazen masses into dazzling shields? You reply, not looking up, Yes, I’ve gotten there. I feel as if I have done something well and take the opportunity to introduce myself. You tell me to have a seat, that you will be with me as soon as you finish the chapter. Have some flan, you say. I sit and wait. I daydream a little about gorillas. I eat a little flan. After about ten minutes you finally look up, but I don’t realize it at first. I am staring out the window. Then our eyes meet, and everything changes. We spend the day together, reading and talking. At some point I move from the seat across from you to the seat next to you. Every time it stops raining we say that we really must get going, but we linger a little too long, and the rain returns, and we order another cup of coffee. When it gets dark I invite you back to my room. You smile and give me your number. And I intend to call. It’s just that when I get home I find out that my sister’s house has burned down and she is badly injured. I start looking after her kids. Everything becomes confused. The number is lost. I never call.
I come to town during a hurricane. The train floods into the station and everyone goes running in search of shelter. There are many things blown about in the wind: trashcans, mailboxes, tricycles, wishing wells. I dodge these and enter the café across the street. It is deserted. I find a back door leading into the basement. I crash into some shelving units in the darkness. A hand grabs me and pulls me down to the floor. Be careful, you say. It is dark, but not so dark I can’t see your green eyes. I’ve never been in a hurricane before, I tell you. Me either. What should we do? No idea. There is a loud crash outside as if someone has driven a fire truck through the storefront. Will we die? I ask. Maybe, you say. You shrug. Let’s kiss. It’s the best first kiss either of us has ever had, not awkward at all, our tongues meeting in just the right way. The hurricane rages around us but we do not stop. We have sex on the cold linoleum, while above our heads the floorboards rip up one by one. Your mouth moves but I hear no voice in the storm. Eventually, against all odds, the hurricane passes and we are still alive. Rescue helicopters arrive and I am directed into one. When I look back I realize that you have been directed into another. Your hand is pressed against the window. We never even got each other’s names. I never see you again.
I come to town during a volcanic eruption. The train melts to the tracks a few miles out and we evacuate. There are no instructions. Some people are dragging their suitcases while others abandon everything and run. The volcano is high above us and we can see the line of advancing lava. I abandon everything and run. After a while I come to a town. I am looking for a vehicle, trying to piece together how to hot-wire a car from the movies I have seen. The air is choked with smoke. It is hard to see. I stumble over a body in the street. It is a girl. It is you. You are unconscious, but still alive. I try to revive you. I touch your face. I touch your hands. I give you mouth-to-mouth. You never wake up, but it is already too late. I have fallen in love. I try to carry you in my arms but the smoke is too much and I become dizzy and fall. The lava is very close now. In my head I imagine our lives together. Making out in basements, making out in alleyways, making out at art-openings, breaking up only to fall more deeply in love with each other, our first apartment above the railway station, our sickly kids that require all our attention, family trips to the zoo (you like the gorillas best, because they look sad), family trips to see relatives in Maryland, all the wonderful things that might have happened if it wasn’t for the volcano. But this isn’t really the truth, is it? For this life, this imagined life shortly before dying, is the only one in which we could have ended up together, the only life where we could have ever been anything other than strangers.
- Ben Janse
BEN JANSE is a Boston-based writer of fiction from the very short to the very long. He was a former PhD student in Animal Behavior and still maintains a steady interest in science, which these days is mostly focused around meteors, lava, and extinct mammals from the late Pleistocene. He has lived for more than a year in six different states. He thinks this makes him well-travelled.
Stace Budzko has been published or is forthcoming in Blip, Southeast Review, Versal, Upstreet, Necessary Fiction, Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Brevity & Echo, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. The screen adaptations of his stories have received numerous honors and showcases as well. At present, he is a writing instructor at Emmanuel College and writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.See other articles by Stace Budzko