Lemon-Clean Love: Fiction by Mark Benedict

Hawks, man,” Kyle said, tone hushed but enthusiastic, gazing brightly at her from across the tableReptiles, eh, I don’t knowI mean, I can take or leave them. But birds rule, especially hawks. They’re such a sight to behold, you know? In flight? 

Mary was thrownNot just by this specific comment, but by this whole encounter. In her experience, increasingly vast, all coffee shoblind dates centered othe exchange of personal info: employment, life history, future goalsThis Kyle guy operated on different, more zoologybased template. Except for confirming that he worked as graphic designerwhich Mary knew from her aunt, the matchmaker, but only confirmingmind you, not elaborating, he had said zilch about his actual life. He was bored by her facts too, having become glazyeyed when she talked about her job as a concert promoterand downright fidgety during her recap of last night’s clubhopping. Then again, fidgets could signify things other than boredom. Who could say? Maybe he had pictured her on a crowded dance floor, dripping sweat in a tight top, and become uncomfortably stirred.

She squinted thoughtfully. “Hawks,” she said, fingering a frizzy dark strand.“Um, yeah. I mean, I don’t really have a wellformed opinion. I like your spunk, though.” 

It was true, she did like him. She hadn’t been sure at first. His voice was clumpy, like a hike through muddy trails. He was decentlooking, far from dazzling. Crooked nose, acne skin, but with a lean build and sauntering shoulders. And his eyes! Swampygreen, they regarded everything, including her, with keen intensity. She had never felt so looked at before. Most guys seemed to register girls strictly in broad terms, as hot or nothot, and in her case usually the latterthanks frizzy hair, goosy neck, whereas Kyle seemed not only to register her full and precise self, but to be basking in radiance.

Suddenly he was on his feet, grinning, set to saunter. “Like a refill?”  

She gave him her empty cup and her best smile. “Love one.” 

Waitingshe envisioned the goodbye kiss, probably not far off. But the gorgeous spring day, singing in through the coffee shop window, sang to her of extension. That was the beauty of Saturday afternoon datesafternoon could so easily slip into evening.

When he returned with their coffees, she spoke before he even had a chance to sit down. “Wanna go to a club and get a beer? Not now, of course, but in a bit? 

He frowned strangely. “I don’t drink,” he said finally. “Never really did.” 

“Oh! Okay. Maybe a walk, then? It’s so nice out.

Long pause. Ominous sigh“Actually, you know what? Maybe we should just, uh…call it a date. This was fun, sincerely, but I don’t think we’re a match.”  

Panic flooded herAlso, understanding. He was a goslow guy and, in his deepseeing eyes, she was a party girl, sizzlehot but slutty. “No, wait, no, no, no,” she said
desperately, mushing the words together. “Forget the drink. Cuz I don’t even care about that.” She smiled bemusedly. “I just, you know, I just like the thumpthump of the bass.” 

He shrugged, looked awaySo cruel, his gaze going away. He set down her coffee, and then, with a vicious nonchalance, picked up his keys and cell phone. 

So Mary looked away tooWhispered that it was nice to meet him, winced when he said the same. Listened to him leave. Sat alone, so alone, for a few blurry minutes. 

Driving home, though, she had an idea. She could call him and explain who she actually wasSure, she’d had her share of slutty moments, and drama, but that wasn’t
really her. Her core was clean, pure as plates squeaked with lemon polish. Her world surged with fresh zingy magic, or at least it had used toIn junior high, she was obsessed with butterflies, their melodic colors, their whispery flappingIn high school, at night, she would prowl the woods behind her house, leaves crunching underfoot, and darkly dreamSweetlyIn college, listening to the radio in her dorm room after a confusing night outsmoking a consoling cigarette, she heard the song “Hello in There, about an old lonely couple, and it wrapped itself around her like a cozy sad blanket and she cried like crazy.

“Yes, butterflies,” she said, rehearsing. “I’d chase and chase them all day. It’s just, well, it’s just been so long since anyone wanted to talk to me about animals.” 

But her passion for the idea soon faded. It was silly and stalkerish, after all, likely to reinforce his low image of her rather than boost itBesidesthere was some crucial difference between them, unrelated to partying, that she could sense but not quite identify. Life was rich with stupid mystery. But she had scarier problems, she realized. Her life, once so full of fresh zingy magic, had descended into routine and drudgery and she had no idea, not one measly glimmer, how to change it. She attacked the steering wheel. Stupid, doublecruel day! Lifechanging ideas suddenly stormed her, all of them desperate, some of them illegal. Would she ever? Might she? Maybe. Not now, but someday. Exhaustedsighing, she realized that she did want a drink, and turned abruptly into a liquor store parking lot, the tires squelching and spurting up a brief tide of gravel.

Mark Benedict is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. He has previously published in Bird’s Thumb, Mad Swirl, and Westchester Review, as well as in an earlier edition of Columbia Journal.

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