Short Story Competition 2018 – Second Place: Her, By Tom van Veenendaal

 

It came as no surprise to me when I heard Daniel Price had died. We all knew it was coming. All who were close to him had been witness to a long-standing love affair of his that was gradually dragging him into the grave. When he was alive, I wished him better, but now that he is gone I feel little grief. Perhaps it’s just as well that he saves his breath – I don’t think anybody could have saved him from Her.

Daniel Price – DP, as everyone called him – was a classmate of mine from ’87 to ’89 at the Oklahoma Technology Institute. Neither of us ever sought each other’s company, but in the way it used to go back then we would often end up in the same social circles and at the same parties. I graduated when he was in his third year, but we stayed in touch through happenstance. Ultimately we knew each other for years, but our middling, inconsistent acquaintanceship never grew into something warm or enduring. Nevertheless I felt a certain affection for him, the distant kind of affection that is so often created when you see someone with some regularity for years on end. By now I haven’t seen him for over 2 years – I don’t know if he saw anybody but Her.

The sad thing is that DP was in perfect health when I first met him. Physically he was more than fine: a tall, robust, almost brutish looking man of 200 pounds who put his hours into the gym and ate whenever food was near. This was before fitness culture had its heyday: he was uniquely strong among otherwise hedonistically unfit people. While others opened their arms to him with the warmth his big body invited, I distrusted the curved rim of his forehead; his dry, unsteady lips; the poorly washed, fast receding bulge of hair on his head; the slight beard growth he permanently showed; and most especially the cracked dishonesty of his smile, figuring they betrayed a deeply rooted sadness. His gait was disturbing too: it was simultaneously slow and hurried, as if he was always tired and stressed. I felt, when I first met him, that his life had been cracked and mended, that he had experienced great distress and recomposed himself much later. I imagined a troubled childhood, or a painful relationship. His social persona appeared a complete fake, a put-on, a mask that would come off the moment he left a congregation, or was caught off-guard.

The more I talked to him, the more all these assumptions turned out to be untrue. DP had been a privileged young man, raised by a loving family in a small town. His teenage years had been cushioned by an exceptionally happy relationship with a pert young girl; they parted ways, amicably, when he went off to college. He was rarely found not behaving jovially, and no signs of mental disturbance and an anguished inner life were ever visible. Most of these things I first heard from fellow students – girls who were suspiciously interested in his sex life and family background. I suppose that was the way things went in those days. By the end, however, I was to hear and witness them from the man himself. One time, at a party that went on till past the birds chirped and the first morning commuters woke, he was drunk and elated, and found himself next to me on the front porch of the house of a classmate of ours, Lisa. “Hey,” he suddenly said, “Why do you look so goddam sullen all the time?

“I don’t know,” I answered. “It’s just the way I look.”

“Look, I don’t mean to be lecturing anybody, but you’re a good guy, people here like

you, let yourself go once.” He slurred slightly, but his intentions were clearly good.

“Maybe I will. Why are you here?” He accepted my invitation to talk about himself

all too readily, and was too drunk to notice my deflection.

“Well, I just banged Lisa and I’m bored now, chick’s crazy. Ever had her?”

“Had her? No, I’m not really about that.”

Not really about that, he says. Well I’m about having fun and she does know how to

have fun, you know what I’m saying. But I get you, I used to be like you, I went steady for

years, but you gotta try your options you know.”

“So I’ve heard – your high school girlfriend.”

“Yeah she was great,” he answered, not in the least surprised or at least not caring that I knew things about his sex life I shouldn’t. “I came out here, ‘tell you the truth, cause I wanted to think for a bit. I feel like I want something more permanent.”

“In love?”

“In everything. What the fuck am I doing, you know? I’m just – fucking – well that, fucking around, fucking people, fucking myself. Fucking. I want lasting things.”

“That’s very mature of you.”

“Goddamnit man are you a 40 year-old man? I don’t know if it’s mature it’s just what I want. Now come have a beer with me, I’m tired of talking, I feel like a pansy.”

We had a few beers; he shared his wishes again. I almost grew fond of him that morning, but after an extended rest my former lukewarm tolerance of him resumed. Looking back at that night, I wish I had gotten to know him better back then: I might have saved him. But I suppose you can’t change the past. In any case he had his wish: he found permanence in love and life.

They fell in love in the vineyard, DP and Her. The Institute had a beautiful vineyard in those days, meant for serene contemplation of nature’s beauty but used by all the students for not so-serene hanging around (and several associated vices). A mutual friend of us, Marquez, had just “finished” with Her. Marquez was always about experimenting: he found something new in every girl, every concert, every study, every party, every drug. Funny how he never had much to do with Her, and went on to get some stale job in a nearby town – but this story isn’t about him, anyway. Young Marquez introduced DP to Her that day, and if his story is to be believed, it was love at first sight. DP never got over Her.

It was not long before his behavior changed. It seemed his relationship with Her brought him everything he needed, satiated him totally – and so college, social life, ordinary human conversation and all the other day-to-day things that made up his life grew progressively more inconsequential to him. Marquez told me DP immediately let Her stay in his room. That first morning after, I already noticed something different about DP. He did not put up that cracked smile of his – instead he grinned with a pure pleasure of a kind I recognized from the made-up faces of young actresses in exploitation films right after an orgasm, and from my mother when I told her that, against all odds, I would graduate. I felt jealous, briefly, of how he felt, although I did not yet know the cause. Then class started and I forgot about it. Marquez only told me about Her a few days later, when DP’s permanent contentedness started to become more obvious.

Relationships, it is said, tend to consist of an aristocrat and a peasant: always there is one who kisses, and one who only accepts the kiss. DP was used to merely accepting women with an opaque, distant affection that was almost paternal, and implicitly cast his girlfriends as inferior, secondary actors in the drama of his life. With Her it was different: for the first time DP was clearly the one seeking out the love, with open arms and an open heart. He was enchanted, laid himself bare, changed quickly. I wasn’t close to him in those days, I never was, but those who were close to him felt neglected by the first week. They’d tell me he would retreat to the vineyard with Her, and later enter evening classes so contented he dreamed away like a teenager enjoying dreams of his crush. He showed up at no party that weekend – I had two – and came to fewer classes the next week. His whole life changed: he saw his friends less, saw his teachers less, never went to visit his parents anymore, as far as anybody knew. He seemed more than happy to stay in his room with Her for hours on end.

That was early on; nobody was worried yet. We were all growing up. I wasn’t the only one he’d told about his plans to change his life – perhaps, many figured, he is getting older and wiser. I was focused on school those days; I graduated; summer came; I left to visit friends in California and enjoyed my last real period of intense drinking and partying. A company in Edmond offered me a job and I took it happily – my parents lived nearby and I wasn’t ready yet to leave life as I knew it behind. The hours were long, the job was dull, and days started to weigh on me with an obscure sense of finality, a feeling that this was my last stop in life, but I went onwards. In an attempt to salvage some sense of youth from somewhere in my mind I decided to join another party in Oklahoma City’s suburbs – once more at Lisa’s house – to see the old gang again. Most students I knew were younger than me, and many who had graduated with me had a job in the nearby area and still joined the most exciting parties. I drove over there with considerable excitement, and entered with the confidence of a freshman. The scenery immediately deflated my hope: the young kids, the cheap beer, the modern music, the ragged clothes – it was like entering a chapter from my life already finished: I felt distinctly unwelcome, and was met with a middling, niggling disappointment. I realized quickly that I could not live my old life anymore, that seeing the busy clubs of California and knowing the passive struggle of a 9-5 had barred me from such parties forever.

I am sorry to bore you with my story, but rest assured DP is right around the corner. Indeed, as I went to the bathroom after downing 3 beers, I had my first chance encounter with him in months. Lisa’s parents’ house was massive, and the toilets were all the way down a hall in the back where there was nothing save her parents’ porcelain and some drawings from Lisa and her sister’s childhood. Consequently the party did not extend into that grave, dreary hall, with its dim lighting reflected towards you in expensive porcelain. I felt a sense of unrest there that I had not known since sifting through my grandfather’s stuff in his crummy apartment after his death. I walked towards the bathroom briskly, wishing to leave the hall – and, truthfully, the party – as soon as possible. But when I opened the door ready to walk, I saw DP crouching on the floor, his legs in a sort of semi-split, his hair thin as bristle, sweat covering his face.

“I’m all right, I’m all right,” he muttered defensively, instantly. I only stared. “Help me up man.” There was the old DP in his tone, that DP who had told me to lighten up, but there was also a strange note of obscure desperation in there that I had never expected to hear from him. It made me feel a power over him that gratified me immensely, and the comfortable superiority I felt made me upfront with him.

“You’re a mess man. What happened?”

“Help me up, don’t mention…” He spoke in a single breath, and his tone was careless, disinterested. He wanted this to be over. The truth is, I wanted the same. I helped him up.

“I’m going to leave. Join me.” I was surprised by my own steadfastness. He accepted, and I drove him – home. All the way home, that is, to his parents’, at the other end of Edmond. He seemed flustered all throughout the drive, and so I didn’t ask him much. What I did ask received only monosyllabic answers. How was his study going? Not good. Quit. Was he still seeing Her? Yes. Was he living with his parents again? Yes. Feeling good? Yes. Better than ever. In the inside of my car I could study him with greater care. He had neglected, it seemed, not only his study but also his physique. He looked thinner, paler. I saw signs of strange bruises and blood cloths. He kept watch on me, defensively, seeking to avoid being scanned too thoroughly. I dropped him off at his parents’ house and drove off rather quickly, with other thoughts and feelings than I will ever have again. With him in that state, the dream of youth had truly crumbled. Goodbye, college.

My job often required me to drive to the other end of town – a local assignment – and the only other times I saw DP was while there. Truth be told I deliberately drove through his neighborhood; he was often on the porch and we would wave at each other, if he could. He looked, weaker, paler, skinnier each time, as if life was being sucked straight out of him by some parasite. The bruises got worse, and his face became sunken and wooden. The only thing he retained of his youthful self was that contented expression he wore after first meeting Her. I once stopped by, only 3 years ago, and briefly talked to him. “I’m doing – great… Great, feeling so good.” That’s about all he could muster up.

Well, he is dead now, so what’s it matter. No surprise, as you can see. I made the responsible choice by finishing my study and getting a job. I must admit, though, I felt progressively less satisfied. Something was missing. And wouldn’t you know, out of nowhere, I actually met Her the other day. Talk about a chance encounter! Lots of people in the city know her, it turns out. I met Her several times since then – we’re seeing each other more and more. I understand now how happy their relationship made DP. I think we’re going to be very happy together too. If you like this story and know a nice publisher and want to help a man out, please tell me! I need more money for Her. I love my time with Her. I’ve never felt so good.

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