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Same Life / Different One
There is a man and there is a woman. There is a house with high ceilings, painted white. There are photographs here, all hanging and framed, all shrouded in shadow. There are mirrors and blankets, pillows and combs, tubes of lipstick, rolls of toilet paper. There are gallons of orange juice, razors and pens, garbage bags, stacks of unread newspapers.

They are at the center of it, the man and woman. They are lovers, have been lovers, or hope to be. They are brother and sister, mother and son, father and daughter. They know each other well, or have barely met. Television light flickers in their eyes, rumbas across their cheeks, dances on the walls. The man and woman recline on the couch. They caress each other feverishly. They cling with fear, or embrace in sorrow.

On television they watch a rocket: The spacecraft tilts back as it ascends into the stratosphere.

On television, a rocket: People dash for flimsy bomb shelters and crouch inside.

On television, a rocket: a small explosive powerful enough to destroy a building—a mosque or church.

The man rises. This is a scary movie, he says, or I hate the news, or Do you want something to drink? He walks to the bathroom, flicks on the light, squints. He stares at the mirror and decides he is ugly. His hair isn’t right, his nose is too long. He returns and flops on the couch, sighs.

Together, the man and woman watch Donald’s vacation to the Grand Canyon. The boy holds his mother’s hand as she shoots a video of the earth falling away: the reds, oranges, browns, and blues.

Together they watch a man say, I’m going to stick my prick in you. His breath is hot on the woman’s naked shoulder. Give it to me, she shouts, give it to me now!

Together they watch Julie who is in jail for killing a woman. She won’t lie about the incident. She says: I did it. I killed a woman. It’s a funny story.

Together they watch Paul tiptoe through the dark, his flashlight etching out doorways ahead. When a spiderweb tickles his cheek, he jumps and waves his palm at the air.

The telephone rings and the woman pushes herself up. Damn bill collectors, she says, or That must be your wife, or Who’d call at a time like this? She secretly loves this show and sees herself in one of the characters. From the hallway, she can hear the man laughing. She catches her image in the mirror and thinks she is beautiful. She watches herself do a pirouette.

On television there are pictures from the holocaust: humans of only bones and skin sprawled on the dirt of concentration camp barracks.

On television, a documentary about AIDS: The giant quilt unfurled, squares of color stretching across Washington.

On television, pictures from September 11th: a flaming gash on a white building, another plane, and then dust and dust.

In the room there is a man and a woman. Together, they watch television. They are not the same, the man and woman. They are never the same.

The kitchen is like any kitchen. It has a stove, a countertop, a sink, drawers, and cupboards. It is stocked with pots and pans. The woman shouts to the man, but knows he isn’t listening. She stoops to peer in the refrigerator. There is Tupperware here, food in colored wrappings, fruit. There is bottled water, a leg of lamb, some yellow cilantro, an artichoke. She is craving soda but can’t find any and returns with only a bag of microwave popcorn. What’d I miss? she asks. The man points to the screen.

The Colorado River is a geological wonder, Donald reads dryly, doing an impression of a narrator. It has been cutting through the earth for approximately six million years. 

I’m going to stick my prick in you, the man says. He is a pizza delivery boy, the woman a sexually frustrated nurse. They are both somewhat beautiful and somewhat plastic.

Julie killed a woman, but she thought she was killing a man. I thought he, or she, was going to rape me, she says. She chuckles.

Paul’s batteries are dying and his light flickers. Bones are everywhere. Shadows stretch and yawn.

In the room, there is a man and a woman. They sit at opposite ends of the couch, a cushion between them. They lean forward holding hands, or squirm with discomfort. They are the only things here, the man and woman. 
         I hate celebrities, the man says after a silence. 
         I love them, the woman says. But I hate the songs on the radio. 
         I think they’re catchy, the man says. 
         You’re joking, the woman says. 
         Yes, the man says. The songs on the radio are bad songs.
         They laugh.
         There’re so many things to hate, the woman says.
         There’re just so many things, the man says.
         Some of them are nice, the woman says.
         Sure, the man agrees.

On television, laughter: A man has been foolish. He stands helplessly in leather pants.

On television, laughter: A man gives inane advice to his teenage daughter.

On television, laughter: From behind his oak desk, a man interviews a movie star. After one of the answers, the man shrugs at the audience, smirks.

Each day on her walk, the woman carves her name in the sand at the beach. She returns later to find it washed away. She snips pictures from magazines and pastes them to the walls of her bedroom. She believes she will be famous, or she recalls when she used to believe this. The man has attempted suicide ninety-six times but can never stand the burning in his lungs and always starts breathing again. Sometimes he imagines another man in California watching the exact same show at the exact same time. He imagines laughing with this person from opposite ends of the country. He wonders if they are leading the same life or if they lead different ones. 

The Grand Canyon, Donald says, is 277 miles long and can be anywhere from 4 to 18 miles wide. In some places it is more than a mile deep.

I’m going to stick my prick in you, the man says, his breath sour on the woman’s neck. The woman answers with a roundhouse kick to his throat.

Julie is in jail for killing a woman, but in the interview she says she wishes she had killed a man. Later she claims she did not kill anyone.

Paul stumbles and jams his foot on something soft. He curses, catches himself, covers his mouth. For a moment, there is only the dark closing in. He knows he’s found what he’s been searching for. He knows he’s not alone. 

The man and woman recline on the couch. They laugh softly or harshly. They scowl in anger, or peek at each other though the dark. Sometimes they catch their reflections in the mirror. They are destroyed, the man and woman. They will sew themselves together.

The windows are blackened too, the shades drawn sharply over them. Outside there are grass and trees and further away the buildings of the city. The moon is out and beautiful. Its light reflects off the water. It is winter and devastatingly cold. It is summer or spring or fall. Cars glide down the street yielding at four-way stops. Trains wail. Lights flick on and off behind glass. There are convenience stores here, gas stations, churches, fast food restaurants. There are condominiums, pancake houses, car dealerships, abandoned basketball courts. There are lawns, sidewalks, cracks in the pavement.

And then on television people speak in serious voices. There is an election soon. It will decide the fate of the nation.

And on television, a death: A woman smashes the head of her husband with the dull edge of an ax. Blood splashes on her white blouse.

And on television, the electric chair, its searing volts, its skinny wooden legs.

When I was a kid, the woman says. I always imagined the electric chair would be scarier. I thought it would be metal, and huge.
         It is scary, the man says. It reminds people that death comes from where they least expect it.
         That’s good in theory, the woman says. But it’s not as scary as a big metal chair.
         Like one with belts and spikes? the man asks.
         Yes, the woman answers.

The woman often wishes she could really lust after a man. She keeps a list of her mistakes and reads it once a month for a laugh. She only attends Super Bowl parties because she’s heard people in China watch it too. The man can’t stand the grocery store but still finds himself there once a week. He wishes only to watch cartoons and eat cereal. He is always in the process of choosing a religion. He likes to think he’s considering his options for the afterlife. 

Donald poses for his mother on the canyon’s edge. He stumbles and his body slips though the guardrail. His mother screams and shakes but captures footage of her son bouncing off the rocks.

I’m going to stick my prick in you, the man says. That would be divine, the woman answers. I love when you talk dirty; but don’t get too loud, your wife—my sister—is chained in the other room.

Julie dashes away from police. A handheld camera follows. It records her heavy breathing and the moment when the officers throw her cheek against the cement.

Paul has been bitten. He knows the pain of the creature’s teeth on his arm, the scrape of its tongue against his flesh. He is bleeding. He fires his gun blindly into the dark.

In the room, there are a man and a woman. They are often here. The flicker of television dances in their eyes. It lights their faces, shadows the walls. They recline on the couch. They whisper, they talk, or are silent. They are here, the man and woman. They are here.

The man rises to get the door. You’ve got me so turned on, he says, or Must be the pizza, or Your friends really watch this shit? He turns on the kitchen light, squints. He feels the presence of the woman behind him. Ahead, he catches his reflection, distorted on the steel fridge. To his left there is a hallway with bedrooms branching off. There might be children sleeping there, nightlights, a baby, a crib. There might be a single bed for a single adult, empty drawers and closets, a pile of dirty laundry, an assortment of wigs, a vial of cocaine.

The man steps outside to smoke a cigarette. He steps outside to get a breath of fresh air, or he steps outside because he is on his way to Utah. He wants to leave and never come back. He wants to stay. The shades are drawn but he can still see the blue glow behind them. Inside the woman is pensive. She barely watches the figures on the screen, barely listens to what they say. She wants to take a trip. She is unhappy with the movies the man has rented. The man returns and touches her shoulder. The man returns and sits, hunched forward, his palms on his knees. The man returns and the woman cannot stop herself from kissing him. 

The video of Donald is shown all over the news. This is very sad, the anchor reports in his stern voice. He was a great kid, Donald was.

I’m going to stick my prick in you, the man says. But the man is actually a woman. She is the sister who is supposed to be chained away. And now she ties her twin down and exits to where her husband is waiting.

In jail, Julie watches her broadcast with the other inmates. They applaud when she says she wished she’d killed a man. They hoot when she asserts her innocence. Afterward, Julie smiles when they all come to hug her. 

Paul opens his eyes to a bright light. Doctors above him shout and run to stay with the gurney. You’re a hero, one of the nurses tells him. For what? Paul asks.

Sometimes on the street, the woman pretends a sniper is tracking her. Sometimes when he walks to the copy machine, the man pretends a woman in his office has a crush on him. Sometimes the man and woman feel, or hope to feel, the electricity of someone’s gaze on the backs of their necks. The woman believes that only on camera would she have the courage to be herself. She decides she has no secrets. The man is afraid to die. He desperately believes in ghosts. 

Lucas Southworth’s first fiction collection, Everyone Here Has a Gun (University of Massachusetts Press), won AWP’s Grace Paley Prize. Recent work has appeared or will appear in AGNIAlaska Quarterly Review, and Pushcart Prize XLVI (forthcoming in 2022).