The Real Thing
Phil Caron

On the last Thursday in October he went to meet her one more time. It was overcast and cold, and Richard's thin overcoat did little to keep him warm. He stood by a statue near the river, faced himself into the wind, and felt miserably romantic, like a character in one of those black-and-white posters he likes at the Museum. They'd met on days like this before; they'd kissed and exchanged warm breaths. But they hadn't kissed in two weeks and those last ones were memorable only because they'd been rationed so carefully.

The Drake Hotel -- their hotel -- was two blocks away. They'd always rented room #312, across from the hallway's vending machines. Mary, he discovered, was a slight exhibitionist. During their first visit they played a game of Truth or Dare, and when Mary lost the first round she offered to go to the vending machines wearing her bra and panties. She was in the hallway for just a minute, buying diet ginger ale for herself and regular coke for him, but it definitely thrilled her. After that it became one of their rituals.

Room #312 had a West-facing balcony, and in the summer months after making love they'd stand there and watch evening descend on the river. Mary liked it best when the sky was clear and calm and rich with vibrant colors. While Richard liked watching thunderstorms roll in from the distance. He liked how the wind chopped the river into a billion pieces, and how the leaves on the trees would be turned upside down, exposing their pale underbellies. He liked the arrival of the storm's air, cool and thick with the smell of places far away, and how the first flash of lightning scattered the pedestrians like startled mice. Finally the rain would drop from the sky, often in a single unified release, and the world was filled with its soothing, crisp chatter. On the balcony with their arms entwined they felt safe -- at least for while.

"I don't know how you can drink diet soda," he'd said two weeks ago, "Aspartame tastes like crap."

"Well what about you and your soy hot dogs. If you want a damn hotdog eat a damn hotdog. Why pretend?"

"But aspartame makes the drinks taste worse. At least a soy dog tastes like the real thing."

"Who said they have to taste like the real thing? Diet soda and regular soda are two different drinks, even if they're the same flavour. No one expects them to taste the same -- diet drinkers aren't that stupid."

"I never said you were stupid."

"Well, I'm married and I'm here; I must be a little stupid."

And then she pushed him far away. At least she tried to, but he'd begged for another meeting, and they agreed to see each other again.

Now the sun behind the clouds had set, and the streetlights came on. The cold was in Richard's blood, like it is with a reptile, and he and his environment were one. Richard looked at his watch and decided to wait five more minutes. She'd never been late before, he thought. Then he rested a hand on the stone beneath the statue's feet. It felt smooth and good.

Published in Out/Words #3 (view contents)
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