CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Universe
Susan Steinberg





One does not start with mourning doves.
      One cannot start with doves surrounding the bedroom.
      One starts with the trip to Sausalito, the quick ride over the bridge, the city shrinking in the sideview.
      One starts with the trip as the details of the trip are simple: Mexican food, espresso.
      The details are simple: houseboats and the theater where one remembered seeing a film on a first date, a blind date, some years back.
      The date, himself, one remembered, was beautiful, the night itself, and if one felt to sleep with him on the first date, if one felt to sleep with anyone on a first date, one would have gotten, one would get, one would guess, the second date.
      The film was foreign, fine; two perfect people falling in love.
      One cannot start with mourning doves surrounding the bedroom, several in windows sitting on branches, making their hollow sound.
      One cannot start with doves looking through the windows to where one lay in one’s bed, still, too late to be lying still in one’s bed.
      One starts with something lighter, light, the Mexican food, the espresso, and walking past the theatre, one told one’s friend about the blind date from years back, how beautiful his face was; how sentimental the film; how one fell for it, still, the perfect people falling in love; how after the date, one went back to his place; how one was asked to take off one’s shoes; how one was asked to lie in his bed; how one doesn’t go all the way on first dates; how there’s a stigma to this; how there’s a stigma, as well, as it turns out, to not.
      One’s friend laughed, and all that mattered, in this moment, was this moment.
      All that mattered in the next moment was the pulling in one’s gut as one laughed too.
      One mentions the pulling as it too is a detail, the detail that made one stay in one’s bedroom, shades drawn, the following day and the following day, but it was a great day, this day, to be on the other side of the bridge.
      Everything was a metaphor this day.
      Like the bridge itself.
      Like the lack of traffic on the bridge.
      Like the doves cooing from every branch that morning in bed, and one read the doves as a sign of something to come.
      One was right to do so; everything that day was a sign.
      Not from the universe, as one now knows the universe is not in control, as one now knows the universe is not calling the shots, as one now knows that neither is there human control and neither is there fate and neither is there an explanation for what there is.
      There is just the endless dialogue between one’s own soft brain and one’s own soft brain.
      One has to accept this.
      It was just a morning.
      It was just a visit one had to get to, like any visit, and as the birds flew off the branches, one by one, one got out of bed, one pulled on clothes, one left.
      It was just the usual: one’s body transported as if pulled on strings.
      Then the wait, feet up, for the doctor to enter, the doctor who called one Baltimore; How’s it going Baltimore, he’d say and laugh.
      After, one felt the need to leave the city, to see it shrinking in the sideview.
      And when one’s eyes teared up, one politely left one’s friend at the table, one teared politely, outside, in the wind, looking toward the houseboats, feeling half-pathetic, half-heroic.
      Which is to say half-oneself, half-someone else.
      Once inside, one didn’t explain the events of outside, that while one’s eyes were tearing, while one’s hair was whipping about the way one would imagine, there was a pulling in one’s gut.
      One only said one saw the houseboats, a man in a straw hat standing on one, sweeping its floor, and this seemed a metaphor too.
      But for what.
      One doesn’t know.
      Perhaps something about out with the old.
      Perhaps something about each man for himself.
      Perhaps something about something about that.
      The story itself is a force inside; the doctor afraid to move closer; one’s insides afloat, quivering black and white on a screen.
      The doctor said nothing, kept his distance.
      One knew what he was thinking.
      One now was fluent in the doctor’s face.
      One now was fluent in one’s insides.
      One now knew where to find this and that: the cord, the head, the spastic flicker of the heart.
      When the doctor sighed, looked down, one thought, Now what.
      The nurse, as well, looked down.
      There was nowhere else to look.
      This was not the time for words.
      This was not the time to say something dumb.
      Anything would have been dumb.
      Fuck this would have been dumb.
      Why would have been pathetic.
      It was supposed to happen to others.
      It was not supposed to happen.
      One was only trying to be an adult.
      Check again, one said.
      One said, Check again.
      Check again, one said.
      The heart wasn’t beating.
      One said, Check again.
      The doctor held out his hand for a handshake and anyone would have been confused.
      It was not a handshake but a way to help one up.
      Tomorrow, he said.
      One did not want to get up.
      The technical term was aspiration, and this was not the time to deconstruct words.
      Get dressed, Baltimore, he said.
      One left him hanging, hand in the air, and he left.
      When one’s phone rang, one was still undressed, standing barefoot by the screen.
      One’s friend said, What do you need.
      It was too big a question.
      There were machines in the room one did not understand.
      There were jars of sticks one could not figure out, not the jars, but the sticks.
      One’s man was supposed to be there, helping to pull one’s underwear on.
      One’s man was supposed to tell one what now.
      One’s man was only in one’s mind.
      In one’s mind he had those long legs one loved, ragged jeans, a t-shirt, hair hanging into his eyes.
      One’s friend said, What.
      It was too hard a question.
      One had a sudden need to be melodramatic.
      One had a sudden need to be difficult, loud, one’s default before one learned to perform.
      Then came the need to be driven fast across the bridge, the need to see water, seabirds, houseboats moored to a dock.
      A sign on the wall said to avoid drinking liquor.
      A sign on the wall said to avoid eating swordfish and shark.
      But one could now do shots.
      But one could now devour a shark.
      One would try to remember to say this to one’s friend.
      I can now eat a whole fucking shark, one would say.
      But one would forget this joke until now.
      And what good is it sitting here now.
      One stayed undressed until the nurse knocked on the door, knocked again, said one’s name, knocked again, opened the door still saying one’s name, still knocking.
      The menu said the espresso was the best in Sausalito, and not having tried it elsewhere, one believes it was.
      The Mexican food, too, one feels was the best.
      One liked to see the theater again.
      To be reminded that one cannot force a spark in another.
      That one can get undressed, get into his bed, and still get sent home in a cab.
      That one can watch a clichéd sunrise by oneself on one’s living room floor.
      That one can make some decisions about one’s future on one’s living room floor, as the sun moves from chair to couch to wall.
      And the silent melodrama of this.
      One used to think mourning was spelled morning, and then, as morning, it was a different kind of dove, a different sound they made.
      That was in Baltimore, and then one was young and one was dumb.
      And then one thought one was tough.
      And that was then, and everything then was Baltimore Baltimore Baltimore.
      And the brilliance of this.
      Now though.
      This is the west.
      This is what it is to be an adult.
      And one cannot handle the accuracy of these birds.
      One cannot handle the sentimental fuckload that is these birds.
      One cannot even write these birds without feeling like one of those people one detests.
      One of what people.
      You know what people.
      This is not the time to be a snob.
      The café would close and the ride back to the city was looming.
      There would first be a joke about cigarettes, about picking up smoking.
      There would first be a joke about whiskey, about drinking oneself sick, about drinking oneself under the fucking table.
      There would first be the hope that one’s friend would head the car north instead, along the coast, that one would never return.
      But one’s friend needed to get back to the city.
      One’s friend had a wife, kids, waiting on the other side of the bridge.
      For one’s friend, there was dinner waiting, warm, and talk of the safe and dull events of a day.
      And for one there was night, then later night.
      And the melodrama that was a ceiling coming into view.
      And the melodrama that was one’s brain considering the ceiling.
      And the sudden deep thoughts one had that only seemed deep, that only seemed sudden.
      About each man for himself.
      About out with the old.
      And so on and so on.
      Listen to this, friend.
      One had it going on in Baltimore.
      One was never safe, never dull.
      One had different aspirations.
      But that was then, and now a new city forced its way through the windshield.
      And one could pretend one was tough, still.
      One could pretend one could handle it all.
      One could say, Beautiful, and point to the skyline.
      One could pretend one had never fallen in love.
      With a brilliant thought.
      A nameless man.
      A rapid flicker on a screen.
      It’s all heart at this point, the doctor once said and shook one’s hand.
      And one could laugh out the window, not one of those people, not one of those sentimental fucks, and pretend one’s own heart hadn’t stopped.



Susan Steinberg is the author of the story collections Hydroplane and The End of Free Love. Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, McSweeney’s, the Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction, Boulevard, Columbia, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of San Francisco.