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Fiction January 2012

Patty Somlo

SLOW SWALLOWING

The water tasted chalky and warm. Eying the second hand of her watch, Mary Beth swallowed and waited.
She’d been practicing slow swallowing, convinced that it would make her lose more weight. She wasn’t hungry, she reminded herself, trying to ignore the gurgling sounds her stomach was making.

Mary Beth had gotten down to a hundred and five pounds. She was five foot three and three-quarter inches tall, with long legs but a short waist for her height.

Two months shy of her fortieth birthday, Mary Beth was beginning to think this latest guy, Miguel, might be the last straw.

Miguel had asked Mary Beth to dance at a crowded salsa club, on a warm June night. The band was playing a meringue. Their one-two steps fell into sync as Miguel twirled her under his right arm, smiling each time he turned back around. Miguel wore his hair stylishly long, combed back from a high, stately brow. Smooth and straight from the front, with strands receding on top, the hair fell into soft curls that clustered against Miguel’s neck and caressed his collar. Miguel was from Spain, born and raised in Valencia, a name he pronounced with ample use of his tongue. In the silver BMW he drove, modern gypsy music cried out, while green and yellow lights lit up the console. Friday nights, Miguel took Mary Beth to a crowded club tucked in an alley near the wharf, where expatriate Spaniards ate tapas, drank bitter red wine poured from plain glass carafes and listened to Flamenco. Mary Beth learned to clap with her palms held stiff and flat, a one-two beat, keeping time with the guitar.

Absent the exotic foreign veneer and the substantial house in the hills surrounded by mature oak and eucalyptus trees, with a bay view on fog-free mornings from a deck upstairs, Miguel was a somewhat dull engineer, good at algebra, which he’d used to his advantage. Mary Beth, though, had an overactive imagination. She took the occasional writing workshop and made the fatal mistake of giving Miguel a love poem she’d written about him. The following week, Miguel neglected to call.

Mary Beth lost her appetite. By Sunday, she was having trouble concentrating.

“Hi, Miguel. It’s Mary Beth,” she said, in the first message she left on Sunday night. She tried keeping her voice pleasant and light.

“Just called to say hi and that I was thinking about you. Call me.”

Her phone didn’t ring once that night.

The following evening she called after walking in the door, without taking off her coat. Hearing his recorded voice with the musical accent, made her want him more.

“Miguel. It’s Mary Beth. Are you avoiding me? I hope not. Please call.”

That night, she felt too anxious to eat at all. At nine o’clock, her stomach started to gurgle. Her eyes bored into the phone. She pulled a box of crackers from the shelf and lifted the waxed paper bag out that was inside.

She pinched each side of the bag and pulled. The seal refused to loosen at the top. The second time she slid her hands closer to the top and yanked in opposite directions, waiting for the quiet sigh signaling the adhesive had freed itself.

When the bag wouldn’t cooperate, she hurled it across the room. It ricocheted off the wall and landed on the floor. Instead of picking it up, she raised her right foot over the bag, let her shoe drop and smashed the bag several times. She could hear the crackers crunch.

She bent over and picked the bag up from the floor. The bite-sized, round brown crackers had been beaten into a fine pale dust.

After tossing the bag in the garbage, she walked to the bedroom and stared at the phone. For years, she’d been under the illusion that wishes could be granted by visualizing positive outcomes. She closed her eyes and imagined Miguel in his living room, lamps glowing on the end tables. He was dressed in a navy blue running suit, with white stripes reaching from the waist down to his ankles. Yes, he’d just jogged in the door from his every-other-night run up and down the hilly wooded streets of his exclusive neighborhood. He considered whether to take a shower or dial Mary Beth’s number on the phone.

Of course, he couldn’t wait to talk to the woman who he realized now that he loved. The thought caused him to drop down on the couch, even though he was sweaty and his breath and heart rate hadn’t calmed. It was true, he had to admit, as he admired the city lights through the tall windows framing the living room’s west wall. He was a lucky guy. He wanted to call Mary Beth now and let her know.

Mary Beth imagined Miguel lifting the sleek black phone and placing it on his lap. She watched him punch in the numbers and prepared to hear the phone ring.

Two weeks passed. Mary Beth had lost eight and a quarter pounds. Each morning, she stepped on the scale. Half-asleep, she studied the red numbers as they drifted in and out of focus.

On the second Friday night Mary Beth was spending alone, she dialed Miguel’s number. The clock on the nightstand said it was nearly eight o’clock. She listened to the phone go through its obligatory four rings before the automatic voice of Miguel picked up.

“Theese is Miguel.” The voice sounded deep, quiet and breathless. “I am on the other line or not at home. Please leave your message and I will call you right back.”

“No you won’t,” Mary Beth hissed.

“I know you’re avoiding me,” she spit toward the receiver, after hearing the beep that sounded like a desperate moan. Her mood shifted from anger to despair and then to dread. “Please, Miguel,” she pleaded to the plastic receiver. “Call me back. I just want to know what’s happening.”

Waiting for Miguel to call, Mary Beth flipped through the September issue of Vogue. The tragically thin girls on the sleek pages had lives Mary Beth could only imagine and envy. Think about being so thin that no matter what you slip on, you look like an advertisement, she scolded herself.

By the end of the third week, Mary Beth had shed twelve pounds. She was so weak, she had to walk slowly to and from the bus. Breakfast consisted of black coffee and one hard-boiled egg, with pepper sprinkled over it but no salt. Salt would make her retain water and cause the numbers on the scale to inch up. Every morning, she packed her lunch: three-quarters of a cup of nonfat cottage cheese with an apple sliced up. At night she sat at the kitchen table, her book propped against a 24-ounce bottle of water, sipping one teaspoon-full of chicken consommé after another.

After four weeks when she reached her twenty-pound goal, she decided there was no reason to celebrate or stop. Weak and hungry and dizzy every time she stood up, the bones in her face and across her collarbone were only just beginning to jut out. In front of the mirror, she’d strike a Vogue model pose, her right foot in front, hands on her hips, and yes, she could feel the smooth hard surface of her hip bone. But it wasn’t enough.

On Monday morning at the start of the sixth week, she sat at her desk, staring out the window. As the account executive with the least seniority, Mary Beth had been shuffled to a back office overlooking a six-story parking garage, with a paved roof-top lot.

This morning, she couldn’t take her eyes off the man. He was hanging from straps, while washing the tall windows of the office building next to the garage. Mary Beth, who was deathly afraid of heights, couldn’t imagine the courage it would take to strap up and hang yourself from a building. The wind was blowing and rain pelted down, but the man didn’t stop.

Mary Beth thought to herself, It’s a sign. You keep going on, no matter how terrible the weather, no matter how much you struggle.

The phone rang. Mary Beth picked the receiver up.

“This is Mary Beth,” she said, using her first name without the last. In PR, Mary Beth thought it helped to sound friendly and casual.

Buenos dias, Mary Beth.”

The man had extended his legs out in front. He appeared to be sitting on an imaginary couch. A moment later, the man pressed his feet against the building, in an attempt to keep steady in the blustery wind.

Mary Beth recognized the voice on the other end but was too surprised to know how to respond. The man was swaying less, now that he’d planted his feet against the building. She watched as he pulled a squeegee down the window, in one long firm and flawless stroke.

“How are you, Mary Beth?”

The man, she could see, wore a belt around his waist, onto which he had hooked a rope that kept him from hurtling to the ground. He slipped the squeegee into a notch and pulled another tool with a long thin pole out, that he held straight up and guided down, leaving the surface shiny.

“I have been thinking about you. I miss you.”

The man was using his feet to move himself across the building. At his far left, a glass elevator was gliding up. The panels were a pale milky green, reminding Mary Beth of the color the ocean gets when waves slowly break in the sun. The man’s movements, as he pressed the squeegee against the glass and drew it down, reminded her of a dancer, the squeegee having become a lovely long extension of his arm.

“Beautiful,” Mary Beth sighed, having momentarily forgotten Miguel on the other line.

“What?” Miguel said.

His voice brought her back to the slim black phone and the computer screen that had gone dark. Her head felt fuzzy, as if she’d sipped one too many glasses of wine. The computer screen swayed to the right. The phone receiver dropped and dangled toward the floor.

The man finished the last window moments after Mary Beth passed out. She would have been excited to watch him climb back up, his hands holding the rope and his feet pressed against the building to steady himself. She might have been tempted to wave and smile.

He gazed in her direction, while enjoying a well-deserved smoke. Mary Beth was slumped over, her chin bruised from hitting the keyboard.

Miguel hung up, assuming Mary Beth didn’t want anything to do with him. He’d only called, he assured himself, because he was horny.

The man crushed his cigarette butt under the good-grip sole of his work boot and turned his back toward the window where Mary Beth no longer looked out. He noted the time on his watch and then stepped into the elevator that was on its way down.

At home, his wife asked him what had happened that day and the man replied, “Nothing.”

When Mary Beth came to and recalled what seemed like a dream, she thought, I watched a man risk his life today to make the world a little bit brighter.

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Patty Somlo has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and was a finalist in the Tom Howard Short Story Contest. She is the author of From Here to There and Other Stories, published by Paraguas Books. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, the Jackson Hole Review, WomenArts Quarterly, Guernica, Slow Trains and Fringe Magazine, among others, and in several anthologies.