FICTION




  




    

"You like Leo Kottke?" he asked, holding a record, blowing on it, putting it on the turntable. "I thought we'd have some music. I've got all kinds of music. Country, rock, classical, bluegrass, jazz. You name it."


    

"Me too. I mean, that's what I like. All kinds." The skin of my face was tight from the soap. I sat down on a blue couch and instantly stood up again. "So come here," I said, smiling like a maniac.


    

He took my hair by the ends and pressed it to his nose and smelled it. He wound it around his fingers, pulling me toward him, to kiss me. His mouth was cool and shaking and strange, but nice. Nicer than anything. I shoved my hands into the back pockets of his jeans and felt his ass. "I'm glad I met you," he said.


    

"Me too," I said. "Take this off," I said impishly, tugging at his shirt. He gathered both of my wrists in his hands and pulled me into his bedroom. The walls were the same color as the comforter on his bed: amber, with an edge of smoke.


    

"Now," he said, unbuttoning my shirt. We laughed awkwardly, pawed at each other. He bent down and kissed my breasts, bit my nipples tenderly. We teetered, finally, onto his bed.


    

"Do you have a condom?"


    

"No."


    

It seemed impossible that I would get pregnant. Nothing could take root. I knew it, he knew it. It didn't make any sense to think this, but we were right.


    

I watched his face while we fucked. It was haggard and tense, as if he were concentrating on something either very far or very near; as if he were attempting to remove a splinter or thread a needle or telepathically shatter a glass in France. He saw me watching him and then his face became animated again, wide-eyed and carnivorous.


    

"That was nice," he said afterwards. We were laying on our backs on his bed. A mobile of fat chefs dangled above our feet. Over our heads was a birdcage without a bird. He turned on his side and placed his palm delicately on my stomach. He found my birthmark and petted it and outlined it with his finger as if he'd known me all of my life.


    

"Was that weird for you?" I asked.


    

"I wouldn't say that," he said.


    

"How do you feel then?"


    

"Like a million bucks," he said. He stood up, jerked his jeans on.




"There's a lady down the hall who's a high school teacher," I said to my mother, even though it appeared that she was sleeping. I went to the window and stared out onto the street below: snow, cars, a slice of the lake. A long silence, and then my mother's low voice.


    

"What's her name?"


    

"Nancy Ristow."


    

"Is she a visitor or a resident?" She smiled, a small glorious smile.


    

"Resident. She's a history teacher."


    

My mother kept her eyes closed and we were silent for a long while. Then she said, "Ask her what she thinks happened to Amelia Earhart."


    

"Why?" I snapped.


    

"Well, you said she teaches history, right? History interests me. I'd be curious to know what her theories are. She might have a theory since she's in the know. I always liked Amelia Earhart." She opened her eyes and tried to push herself up to a sitting position against the pillows, the tubes swaying around her. "I think of her going off like that. Can you imagine? I mean, can you imagine? Having no idea what would happen? Imagine how brave she was. She was one of my personal heroes."


    

"Is," I said.


    

"What?"


    

"Is. She is one of your personal heroes."


    

"Well, yes," she said. "Is." My mother sat looking carefully at me. "Where have you been?"


    

"Nowhere. You were sleeping. I walked around."


    

She continued to look at me. Pale. Drained. Regal.


    

"What?"


    

"You've been somewhere."


    

"I told you."


    

"You're different."



My affair with Bill lasted only four days, but we had a ritual nonetheless. After sex we dressed and drank warm apple cider and ate toast with peanut butter in the kitchen before we went back to the hospital. We told each other stories about the lovers we'd had. My list was short, but interesting and multi-ethnic and it also included a man who was surely gay. Bill got a kick out of this. He told me about losing his virginity with Janet in a closet where his mother stored cleaning supplies; about Vietnamese prostitutes; a series of alcoholics in Alaska; and then Nancy. They went to Puerto Rico for their tenth wedding anniversary. They'd lolled in bed and made love and ate a bag of plums they'd bought on the street. In jest, Bill put one of these plums into Nancy's vagina and it sucked itself up inside of her and they couldn't get it out.


    

"Well, it came out eventually," he said, laughing, rubbing his face, laughing again, laughing so hard that his eyes filled with tears. I sat with him and smiled. I nibbled my toast. "Now there's something," he said, finally getting a hold of himself, wiping his tears away. "There's something you don't do twice."




I caught glimpses of Nancy as I passed by her room. She had a position she liked: on her side, her thin hip a tiny triangle, her blond frizzy hair matted into a flat nest at the back of her head. Besides my mother and Nancy, there were the old people. Old old. They were so old that no one knew them anymore, or, if anyone did, they only came to visit on Sundays. As I passed their rooms, I came to know them the way one knows the houses along a familiar street: the lady with a hole in her throat, the endlessly sleeping bald woman, the thrashing man tied to his bed, the other man who beckoned and yelled, "Jeanie! Jeanie!" when he saw me walk past until, finally, one day I stopped.


    

"Jeanie?" he said.


    

"Yes," I said. I stayed in the hallway, peering into his open door.


    

"Jeanie," he said.


    

"Yes."


    

"Jeanie."


    

"Yes," I said. I twisted my hands into the wrists of my sweater.


    

"You ain't Jeanie," he said at last, gently, as if he were sorry to hurt my feelings. "I know my Jeanie and you ain't her."


    

How impossible it is to hoodwink the nearly dead.


    

Often I saw their private parts. Gaping and grappling among the sheets, musty and chafed, dimly shimmering like the rinds of hard fruit. I didn't care, they didn't care. Who cared? Nobody.


    

I never saw Nancy's, but I imagined it, that plum. Purple, red and black; sweet, soft and bruised. Held warm inside her, as if it were still there: a thing she would not release.


    

  

           

  

Commentarium (31 Comments)

Apr 26 01 - 6:22am

Very good.

Apr 26 01 - 7:39am
AW

Whoa. That's a loaded piece. I'm not sure how I feel about the dynamics - social, emotional, moral... This piece was certainly not about the sex.

Apr 28 01 - 6:44am
gfz

I loved this story.

I don't know why but I identify with much of it.

Take care.

Apr 29 01 - 4:19am
s.b.

I've never cried so hard reading anything...

Apr 29 01 - 5:31am
CVS

This story was well written and rang true. For someone who has lost a parent to Cancer, I can relate to the narrator's need for intimacy. Grief makes you do "crazy" things, as does loss. I loved the imagery used to describe Nancy - I'm referring to the plum metaphor. For the author: Keep writing. I'll definitely keep reading!

Apr 29 01 - 6:28am
kay

thank you, cheryl.

Apr 29 01 - 4:31pm
hal

so nice. i remember the hospital, and the people dying and my friend dying and life weaving through anyway. my friend's girl and i sat in the hallway while she cried for her grandpa. we all played with the kids in the sun outside, singing stupid songs and playing statue and tag. we had a party in his room the night before he died, some wine, a couple of joints, some singing.

catching people when they come into this world, holding them while they leave, caring for them while their here. fucking as healing.

thanks for the story.

Apr 29 01 - 4:34pm
hal

re: AW's comment, "this piece is definitely not about the sex..." how is it not? isn't life all one cloth, and fucking and dying and grieving and joy all one thread?

Apr 30 01 - 6:33pm

Beautifully written, very emotional and devoid of crass sentimentality. There's definitely something sexual about death, however slightly it may manifest itself. Perhaps it's simply the urge to procreate in the face of mortality. But whatever the psychological reasoning, the way in which the needs of the two main characters are portrayed - and their unconditional love for those short days they were together - is a lesson to us all. It shouldn't take a death to do, but it so often does. Thank you for the story.
Chu Nagara

May 02 01 - 2:24am
bean

What a beautifully crafted story. Coming from central Canada, images of Manitoba, Fargo, and Duluth rang that much more poignant. I lost a good friend to cancer three years ago. I got transfered before he passed away three months later. I empathise with the desire for intimacy, however I found the last (non-)sexual act somewhat out of synch with the situation, more a psychological musing rather than an actual act.

May 02 01 - 9:12pm
sean

I feel so quiet inside having read your story.
Grief is our milk.
put on Lou Reed's "Pale Blue Eyes".

uncarbon@hotmail.com

May 03 01 - 9:18am
pmh

This is a beautiful story...

May 03 01 - 9:55am
sd

That was a beautiful story. I'm at work & I'm all choked up.

I'm going to call my mother now & tell her I love her.

May 04 01 - 11:35pm
B.J.

What rare vision and heart Ms. Strayed possesses. Her brilliant short story Good is that rare piece of writing that addresses life's unspeakable hardness and beauty with both unflinching clarity and generoisty of spirit. I look forward to reading much more of her work.

May 10 01 - 2:46am
RT

Cheryl

I was surprised by your short story, Good. I enjoyed it! It had an emotional depth that conveyed honesty and the sexual components were integrated naturally within the story.

I do enjoy erotica that is set naturally within general contexts.

Thanks

May 14 01 - 3:08pm
nbs

A great short story. I can relate. Being a sexual person, I can see the same sort of thing happen to me. Looking forward to the next story.

May 15 01 - 5:30pm
TAD

"Good" is more than good. It's the best short story that I've read in a long time and it's the best story I've read in the entire history of Nerve magazine (and yes, I have read them all!!!). Thank you for this great story.

May 16 01 - 6:01pm
jm

Amazing. Wrenching. True. Keep writing the truth and shaming the devil, Cheryl.

May 19 01 - 5:31pm
C.S.

An excellent story. Just excellent.

May 21 01 - 10:21pm
AA

Such a sad story...My mom has just turned 66. I have to remember that she won't be around forever...

May 28 01 - 6:21pm
NG

Ab odd little story, about unusal circumstances. Very well done... Nothing like sex with middle aged men!!

Nick

Jun 03 01 - 1:36pm
C.K.

Touching,yet erotic.Great work like this is rare but welcome.Showing sex as a comforting,healing act rather than just a selfish pleasure.
More soon please. Choco

Jul 05 01 - 1:01pm
Q.S.

Obviously Ms. Sontag's nom de plume, Ms. Strayed unleashes her real metaphor of illness in "Good." Good. Call me (in the afterlife--your next step). Mr. Quintin Crisp Strayed.

Aug 10 01 - 1:56pm

two snaps up and a circle

Aug 10 01 - 2:02pm
LSD

Exelent and tender...Healing and full of the litte wierd little things that we do...Grab "mugs that say Wyoming!" and scrunch up our faces during the sexual act "as though we are concentrating on something very close or very far..."

"It meant something to him that we had the same drink..."

The whole story had a sort of hikou quality to it....Its truth tender, tiny and transient...An amazing work please write more PLEASE...I NEED IT

Sep 15 01 - 11:41pm
KLN

This is a marvelous story, so beautifully written, so deeply true, so incredibly wise. It's precisely what I needed to read at this dreadful time of loss for so many in our nation. Thank you Cheryl Strayed. Thank you Nerve magazine. This story changed my life.

Sep 16 01 - 9:50am
km

What's so amazing, touching, well-crafted and emotional about a story of a man being unfaithful to his wife on her deathbed?

Sep 16 01 - 8:43pm
bd

that was absolutely beautiful. wow.

Sep 19 01 - 1:14am
BET

With my emotions on my surface because of 9-11, I wondered if I would be at my mother's side when she dies - would I be at my wife's side when she dies? Tremulous.

Sep 25 01 - 1:33am
smp

What an amazingly human story. I'm familiar with the types of grief involved in watching a loved one slowly go, and this account made me want to laugh and cry about my own memories of it. I have to wonder if the author is writing autobiographically about parts (or all) of this, because if not, the empathy evident in her writing is nothing short of staggering. I was touched on many levels and wish I could more personally express my appreciation to the author for her insight and her candor. Some of the most beautiful things in life can make a person cry.........

Nov 10 01 - 9:46pm
BB

How intense! There's so much to be said for the healing power of sex. My boyfirend's dad passed away a few years ago, and he and his three sisters and all of their significant others went to stay with their mom. The night after the funeral, after everyone left and we finally went to bed, I remember that while he and I were trying to be quiet while having sex, I could tell that his sisters and their SO's were all doing the same thing. Even though we broke up over six months ago, he still swears that he had the best sex of his life that night. As for me, the best sex I've ever had was the night we broke up. My pain definitely intensified my pleasure.