Double Down

    Caleb Abercrombie found Hajna’s cigarette lighter and lipstick while vacuuming out his car. The previous night she’d badgered him about their disappearance. He’d thought nothing of either then. After all, what were they but trifles?

    He and Hajna had been, for absence of a more genteel term, fuck-buddies throughout the period he’d sundered reporting for teaching. Her acquiescence, their finding quick mutual satisfaction blurred his career transition.

    Nowhere near serious enough to have substantive conversation, both nonetheless comfortably shared intimacies. They were happily situated in the loose expanse between promiscuity and insouciance. Until Hajna’s drug use veered into irresponsible from recreational, neither saw any need for adjustment.

    Abercrombie saw women without any illusion. Fourteen years removed from romping with Belgian (Sorry. Anglo-Belgian.) actress Honor van Ruysselberghe in Holland, then surviving singed but unscathed larceny and intermittent transatlantic episodes with Marianne Messing since, Messing a woman whose brass set clanked with every swish of her hips, dissolved what few condescending notions he harbored about the fairer sex.

    It was hard to determine whether such clear-sightedness constituted a flaw or genius. Certainly his inability, or unwillingness, to amend this trait was dual-edged.

    Hajna’s behavior distanced them. Abercrombie contended with her growing aberrance for the longest. Not blind, he looked upon Hajna’s increasing sloppiness with bemusement, then concern into dismay, and finally disgust.

    What chased him was his gradual inability to orally gratify her. Not profound, yes, but direct.

    Naturally she enjoyed his attention, reciprocating like a champ. Hajna often gave better than she received. However, that deepening dependence on Schedule I drugs sped her deterioration as well as fomented dissatisfaction.

    His.

    Her now salt-sprinkled mink hair lost its luxuriance under his touch. Dry strands snagged his fingers. Her mane had also become dull. Hajna’s skin faded. Her wide, brown agate, kohl-rimmed eyes sunk further into their sockets.

    Her initial weight loss didn’t bother Abercrombie. Her dropped pounds chopped a few years off. No complaints there. Both waded in their 40s. Tough as it was accepting aging, he had the advantage of musculature on a 6-foot-1 frame. But how many years until height no longer deflected muscle loss? Any idea of maintaining youthful, a gravity defying figure throughout the middle passage had always been delusional. That he’d stayed fit as long as he had spoke well of a rabid physical culture since his teens.

    Abercrombie knew Hajna’s body well. He knew what she enjoyed and how she responded when the right points were stroked.

    Both met while on their respective late 1990s prowl. Abercrombie had often spied Hajna at his favorite bar accompanied by her then-lover. She possessed a swagger which occasionally made her former man seem feeble.

    In Hajna’s presence her prior cock appeared overjoyed to squire around a woman with overt appeal. When she stood beyond earshot, Abercrombie imagined her ex-man nudging just-met acquaintances in the ribs, and proudly crowing, “Yeah – me and her!”

    Hajna recognized his enthusiasm sliding into possessiveness. She’d never regarded herself as a trophy, though she did admit herself worthy of being prized.

    Until she revealed that inflated sense of self, Abercrombie wouldn’t have extended Hajna the honor. Even afterwards he didn’t care about the last. He spied an opening then exploited it.

    Later, once they were firmly synchronized, Hajna lamented what she’d despaired of Abercrombie’s predecessor. His adoration had begun suffocating her. She saw him as becoming as oppressive as her ex-husband.

    Until her old mister’s unexpected mention, Abercrombie never knew she had been a wife. Across the years “suddenly” predominated how she disclosed herself. Concentration, his, compiled these facts.

    Maybe facts deserve quotes. The longer he and Hajna went on, the less reliable a narrator she became.

    She dissembled sporadically, but apparent indifference, hers, hindered any real collating. In any case, those yarns produced short threads for the bare cloth of a life story. 

    The impression of her husband, ah, ex-husband, which she conveyed alerted Abercrombie that the streak of sex also contained an intellect. Hajna reduced her former spouse to a caricature. One whose old-world bluster masked modern-male anxieties. Asked about these disquiets, she answered his worries concerned being a man.

    Oh? Didn’t that encompass plenty?

    Left unsaid was whether she’d been a new woman who’d hobbled him the old-fashioned way. After separating exaggerations from grudging truth, Abercrombie accepted she’d attempted being the perfect goodwife for an imperfect man. Admirable except her ignorance of all aspects matrimonial matched his.

    Bold as the Hajna who consorted with Abercrombie, he had trouble seeing a much earlier version. The timid one who stewed in servility and comported herself squeamishly.   

    Unlike the men he succeeded, Abercrombie steered and drove with cool quiet authority. At their start, usually in her bedroom’s unflattering light, both embraced abandonment. Her lack of reserve strode alongside his own.

    Abercrombie spotted kisses across what was then her lightly corded neck. His lips drifted along a fit woman’s carriage, when giddy enough almost girlish in its firmness. Sometimes Hajna insisted, sometimes she hastened his natural progression, either way he rarely neglected letting his lips and tongue unfold the petals between her thighs. These most trusting of all ministrations never failed rousing her appreciation.

    Hajna always shuddered before her breathing rattled and slowed.

    He even began incanting her name. With previous partners he left out vocal exclamations. Sexual call and response was too cheesy for his liking. But by chance Abercrombie discovered her real name. Its sibilance affected him. He willingly broke form and caressed her ears through “Hajna.” Intoned reverently, the hush of her name let Abercrombie realize minor Lawrence Durrell, Sir Richard Burton, as well as Kurban Said indulgences.

    All that issued from a portion of a meal which displeased her.

    Until she owned up, he’d known her as “Micki.” Those with whom they associated knew her as “Micki.” Who could’ve suspected otherwise? Not that there was anything amiss.

    Hadja the woman presented herself as normal in the American sense. The uncommon stitched her background. Foremost she followed Islam. Or had. Or like Christians and Jews selected which devotions suited her while flouting those that didn’t.

    Having come of age before America readily accepted discordant ethnic names, “Hajna” screwed up faces anywhere outside home or her immediate neighborhood blocks. Indeed “Micki” could’ve been the girl next door instead of one who resided in an apartment where shoes required removal before entering and the family worshipped at a mosque, not church or temple.

    How many Americans during her formative years were aware of Muslims and mosques? Anywhere. That was, before the 2001 attacks. Besides, hadn’t she been a high school cheerleader?

    Of all tells, pork pulled back this curtain for Abercrombie. Hajna habitually ate plain pizza. She always fed her face right-handed. Once he mistakenly ordered them a sausage garnished pie. Rather than just chew through her slices, Hajna’s left hand painstakingly removed every trace of offending meat.

    Abercrombie saw these removals as some queer diet demand. Naturally he asked. Disclosing her religious background tumbled from Hajna’s mouth easier than the name change. The latter, she emphasized, wasn’t a disguise. A white bread name eased her passage through mainstream society.  

    Abercrombie reflected a Hajna coming along now, swaddled, defended and promoted by multiculturalism, might have it hennaed across her forehead and be commended for exceptional boldness in the face of dominant hegemony. Or some such bend over backwards twaddle.

    For him, Micki’s name, her real name, conjured exotic associations. The mysterious Orient of pulp potboilers and scholars who readily hied East then went buck-wild native to escape the straitlaced and confining West.
 
    She was born in Brooklyn to émigrés. Herself first generation, a straddler. Abercrombie asked what “Hajna” meant, whether it conveyed a particular trait her parents had hoped she carried.

    His query flattered her. Who’d ever wondered that aloud about her? Nobody, that’s who. Hajna’s modest reply to his striking request, “May God favor me.”

    Over time, Abercrombie saw Hajna’s parents naming as optimistic or clairvoyant.

    The first last time, the circumstance precipitating their break, produced slight relief. Mind seemingly elsewhere throughout long sporadic drifts, Hajna also suffered pallor. Their pleasure losing it reward, Abercrombie couldn’t ignore the decline. What man could? Moreover, the perfume of her sex disinvited him.

    Abercrombie dismissed Hajna. He thought it ought have been bloodless. To an extent it was. When abjectly lucid, she accused him of abandoning her. Okay. True. He countered, stating her behavior had pushed them apart.

    She reacted very badly. Far more injured than the shallowness of their involvement occasioned.

    Convenient for each other, good to the other in a truth be told facile manner, sure. Hajna raged as if there’d been – what’s that word? – affection between them. A measure of fondness on his part, certainly. Beyond that? Not quite and not by a long shot. Both knew how to satisfy, never failing to conclude sated. Yet after interminable interludes hadn’t they just elided into carnal muscle memory?

    One deviation because even the steadiest routine produces hiccups. A few summers ago driving to or from somewhere she’d drawn a heart into the felt of his car ceiling. How had she managed withholding their initials and scratching an arrow through the symbol? Neither ever mentioned her gesture. He was reluctant to erase it.

    Hajna gone, Abercrombie missed having her at hand. How she tugged his hair. (Amazing, that, because he usually cropped it short.) Or how her own steamy summonses (likely the only phrases of her parents’ langauge she spoke effortlessly – and wouldn’t they have been surprised to hear the old country tongue in that context?) before insufficient words yielded to more pointed ear gnawing.

    Surely if asked, and answering honestly, Hajna would agree what they’d shared was, um, stirring, yes, though instinctual. Objectively, beyond the mutual gratification, really nothing connected, much less, adhered, them. At least Marianne Messing shared that with him.

    After Abercrombie considered his neat assessment, he laughed. He knew no man should ever put himself in any woman’s mind. Aside from the obvious consequences, the man would forever be wrong. Especially when he had been right.

    Abercrombie reverted to form. Hajna’s successors were younger. On the campus of Pelham College, his suburban New York paymaster, young women eager to have their horizons challenged and expanded ran rampant. A fortuitous thing about his willingness for extracurricular guidance: not only were the coeds deficient inside classrooms, but bedrooms as well. Slender yet unformed they came. Older now, Abercrombie could better appreciate the accumulation of some miles than his younger self.

    How many months passed? Six? Enough nubile distractions hazed Hajna’s memory, though none were solid enough to dislodge her. Then she re-appeared in the flesh.

    Clearer eyed. Healthy skin tone. She’d even shown her hair and clothes care. Wiser one hoped. Abercrombie neither asked the “why” behind her transformation nor curious behind her reinvigoration. Shortly after their second and final scenes ended, he wondered would a greater egotist have attributed what proved a brief Act II to his irresistibility, his talent to fulfill.

    But that man would’ve been a rapper, not an academic. Well, maybe a few of his Philosophy colleagues …

    Thankfully Hajna skipped contrition. Abercrombie might’ve rejected her anew had she returned as a supplicant.

    Rather, she returned brazenly. Not a long separation so much as an absence across a holiday weekend.

    He admired her bluff. She played it off like a man. Mistakes had been made, yes. Acknowledge them, yes. Compound that with irritating suspect gestures of appeasement? No. Rarely complain, seldom explain. Lifted directly from the updated John Wayne Handbook. Can’t get any more monosyllabic or simple-minded than that.

    Since they didn’t have far to return, the pair quickly recommenced where they’d ended.

    Act II started the way the first act ought have ended. That night Hajna draped herself across Abercrombie. They took turns devouring and reveling one another. Reunited, Abercrombie believed he’d missed her after all. The next happy afternoon Abercrombie went outside to vacuum his car.

    Seat cushions hid her lip gloss and lighter. In daylight, both items fascinated him. Acquainted with her lips as he was, Abercrombie had no inkling she glossed them. Not cherry, but some derivative of cocoa, a shade complimenting her complexion. To his eye, red would’ve slashed misapplied neon across the lower third of her face.

    Hajna’s kisses were sweet. Thinking it over, what woman’s weren’t? Did the tube’s contents enhance hers? Were there such commodities as flavored glosses? A man, he couldn’t put anything past cosmetic manufacturers.

    Himself a nonsmoker, Abercrombie indulged her nicotine habit. In that respect sex weakened his resolve. How many cigarettes had she consumed in his company? Hundreds. Or so it seemed.

    Her lighter, a slim, filigreed, gold peg, had metal heft. A keeper, not a disposable. Not knowing who she was someone could’ve mistaken the device for a retirement memento.

    Abercrombie pondered both items longer than he believed they deserved. Strangely, they’d transfixed him.

    How long had Hajna applied this color (flavor?) gloss? The men, the number of men upon whom she’d smeared traces; among those she’d favored, how many would remember that taste, her taste?

    The lighter. It was too substantial to have been an impulse purchase. Nor would she have bought it herself. Doubtlessly a gift, not a self-procured vanity. The more he contorted reason to that end, the more logic solidified it as a gift. The sort presented to a woman from a man who meant it to convey the all-encompassing, vague “something” to him.

    From her husband? Ex-husband. Someone she graced between him and Abercrombie. He laughed. No way to plumb that mystery without her larding his simple question with greater meaning than it deserved.

    Abercrombie pocketed the two trinkets. Hajna would be glad to have them returned. Glad, not grateful, that was her. He chuckled at himself. He wondered how a woman who ultimately meant little to him could provoke any consideration above his waist.

 

    Caleb Abercrombie is the dominant figure in Reveries and Cool Brass, two short-story compilations from Slow Boat Media LLC. Every story contains frank passages that may disturb some readers. Both e-books are available through Amazon Kindle.

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