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Fiction: ‘What Happens Next’ by B.K. Marcus

Fiction: ‘What Happens Next’ by B.K. Marcus
What Happens NextBK Marcus

She will be beautiful — a vision of gentle curves, the sweep of her slender summer skirt pressed against her hips by the breeze as she pushes past the swinging doors. I sit where I am destined to sit, waiting to see her for the first time, the woman who will break my heart.

I am tired of prescience, of my helplessness as a fixed future overtakes me. In another minute, this dark blond affliction will enter the bar, a slim silhouette against the sunset past the beach. She will carry her sandals in one hand. The bartender will tell her she can’t come in barefoot.

She calls herself Sandi, spelled with an ‘i’ — not like the adjective that describes both her hair and her well-tanned feet. She wears a gold chain around her waist and one around her left ankle. A diamond ring adorns her littlest toe. She will stroll past all the empty barstools, to sit at the table nearest my corner. She will brush the beach from her feet. I will want to offer her a drink, but I will not manage the courage. In every vision of this future, I always want to, and I never do.

* * *

As a boy, I could see my mother out-of-focus, double-exposed, the image of her middle-aged sickness superimposed on her young-mother self. Cancer-hollowed cheeks against full youthful flesh. With dread, I watched the dying woman replace the younger one. Holding her hand as she took her last rattling breath, I felt relieved that the scene had finally come and gone, that I would only have to see it now as a fading memory, no longer a sharp vision of the impending.

Her life insurance lasted me through college. The only physical possession of hers I held onto was her last bottle of codeine.

Senior year, I asked my professor to let someone drive him home from the wine-and-cheese. He slurred drunken promises, but I knew he lied. I’d already filed for a different thesis advisor. I’m not sure why I had registered with the doomed alcoholic in the first place, since I knew before I met him that he would not survive the semester. The philosophy department held a memorial for him the next weekend.

Have you ever watched a wine glass topple — the slow-motion slosh past the point of rescue, the plunge toward shattered glass? You can tell from the first misstep what happens next. And yet you watch as events unwind, and wonder afterwards why foresight wasn’t enough.

* * *

She will wait for the bartender to answer the phone at the other end of the bar. She will ask me for a light. I will take a matchbook from the glass bowl next to the peanuts and paper napkins. I will shield the sputtering flame as I hold it to her Virginia Slim and tell her how my mother died. She will sit at my side, pull the ashtray toward her, and snuff out her unfinished cigarette, then lean close, look through lidded almond eyes and say she’s quitting here and now — can I help distract her from her cravings?

I will take her home. She will stay for seven months. She will cheat, repeatedly, though she will never smoke again. We will fight over her infidelities. She will deny them perfunctorily. She will never give me friendship, or comfort, or love, but neither will I sleep alone. And we will both know that I lack the will to let her go.

When she leaves me, I will discover an unopened bottle of her favorite wine cooler still in the fridge. I will drink it with all of my mother’s pills.

* * *

“You’ll have to put your shoes on, miss.”

The moment has come.

She walks barefoot down the bar, sits and caresses the sand away with her fingertips. She smiles at me. I say nothing. She takes the soft pack of menthols from the waist of her chiffon skirt.

I don’t remember that detail.

The bartender answers the phone. She approaches, puts the cigarette to her lips. My heart, high in my chest: one hard thump in the frozen moment, then time resumes.

I stand before she can speak. I rush past the empty stools, past the bartender, past the swinging doors and into the lustrous russets of sunset. I do not know what happens next.

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