Gender Swap

Mojave Desert, 2011

The Shallows and the Deep

By Elizabeth Cutright
(Excerpted from East Junction, a novel in progress)

His heart still pounded when he remembered the call.

He’d recognized her voice right away. When someone haunts your dreams, it is easy to remember what they sound like. Especially when the echo of their farewell still reverberates in you ear. And so, even though he feigned ignorance, he knew at the first hello that it was Brenda on the other end of that phone.

He successfully pretended to be disaffected when she suggested a luncheon meeting. She was in town and had a few hours to kill, wouldn’t it be nice to catch up? Taking care – because he suspected she knew every timbre of his voice as well as he knew hers – he nonchalantly agreed to a quick afternoon drink. That rest of the afternoon passed by in a blur was a given. That he cancelled his afternoon appointments was preordained. That his hands shook in anticipation and his brain raced at the possibilities was a sad, sad, truth he had no strength to deny.

When they ended up at her hotel room later, he still managed to keep his distance. By sheer force of will, he stopped himself from babbling all the things he stored up for so long in his heart. He silenced the potential accusations, as well as the avowals of love, in favor of studied ambivalence. Staring into cold, emotionless eyes, he saw the same lack of feeling returned tenfold. Only he knew that with her, it wasn’t an act.

Surely it was the new thing among her crowd to have an affair. A one night stand to stir things up at the tennis club. A secret rendezvous to whisper about during cocktail hour, with the added bonus that she was able to track down her high school sweetheart. It added an extra irony, another layer of depth. And think of the sighs when those rich, young urbanites were told how he made love to her with the same passion of a decade ago.

And he knew what she would say to them, the wealthy women with the sharpened ears and carefully adorned smiles. She would affect melancholy and lament the affections of a man too good for her, or too weak for her, or just not right enough for her. When her husband appeared, all would be banished by a peck on the check and a reminder of a weekend dinner party.

Disregarding all those facts, he held her tightly and whispered promises in her ear. He touched her skin with a reverence usually reserved for those things most holy. He made a shrine out of her: worshiping her lips, her breasts, her gasps and moans. For one more moment, he owned her. One last time he taught her all about anticipation and ecstasy. He tried to etch himself a little bit deeper into her soul.

Can it be possible to love so deeply a thing so shallow and predictable? Could he really long for the touch of one so cold. Ache for the voice of someone who can never speak with sincerity?

Why had he carried a torch for so long? When others were dropped by the wayside the minute the first real emotion made its way through his armor. Sure, different women followed her. Women ready to love him…willing to follow him…genuine in their interest and virtue. He had destroyed them all. Burned the bridges and smashed the icons.

Because, in the end, he could not bear it. Could not live with the idea that out there in a world existed the one person he had set himself up to love. A person who had failed to live up to the promise she helped create. How could they have lived in a perfect universe, think in unison, breath at once, and now live such separate lives? The reality of life without her felt like a dream. And so, he slowly isolated himself from anyone who tried to get close. He lavished attention on needy clients and ignored his friends. In the end, the ultimate hermitage made itself known. He returned to Nueva Paz, knowing it was a place she would never venture. He hoped it could offer him a chance at a new life, or at least a painless existence without her. Of course, without the bitterness in life, you cannot have the sweet, and so Danny once again found himself locked in a fortress of nothingness – his soul dead to the world around him.

When others clucked that she broke his heart, they were wrong. The dream broke his heart, not the woman. Until he could shine the spotlight on their history and see its shadows, he would continue to live in this netherworld devoid of human connection. Only by ripping her off that pedestal could he progress beyond the mere intake that sustained him. It would have to be a voluntary thing – this destruction of the temple.

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