Fiction by Sean Alan Cleary
Paul has a problem, which is he cannot seem to wake up early enough. He likes the silence of mornings in spring before the birds even wake — the flat light of May mornings in Cambridge. Now, though, even in the dark, he hears his son stirring in the other room.
Paul has a problem, which is he has always envisioned his life as something greater than it’s become. He never wanted to be famous, or maybe it’s that he’s never wanted to be the type of famous person who knew they were famous. He would never want to be recognized in the street, he tells himself walking down Mass Ave back home from the T Station. But maybe he could be recognized in some circles, he thinks, as a man who he is sure is Robert Reich passes by him. The man wears a big hunting vest and carries a canvas tote of newspapers. Maybe he is not Reich. Maybe that’s just a regular old guy with a love of newsprint. But yes. Recognition would be nice.
Paul has a problem, which is that he can’t imagine a future for himself. And this is a person with a kid! he moans to Jules at the Cellar bar down the street. His child is asleep, and so is his wife. Jules swirls beer in her pint, looks over his shoulder as if she’s expecting someone else, another friend of theirs from their former lives. The drummer for the band setting up in the corner of the small bar hits his kicksnare twice. Then the high hat. Jules sighs, though Paul doesn’t know at what. She’s beautiful, and at one point when they were both in high school together, though he’d never really felt romantically connected to her, they shared a drunken kiss. When Paul told his wife about this, on that first time they all met up when they were all part of that messy incestuous 20s crowd in Allston, she’d laughed. Paul felt the laugh was defensive. He still does. Jules levels her eyes at him. Should you get back to your wife and kid? she asks.
Paul has a problem, which is that he feels his loved ones, his only family, tearing him up like a gardener struggles with an unruly bush whose roots have spread under a patio. It’d be better to just come along quickly, he thinks.
Paul has a problem, which comes to him when he reads that Simone Weil says “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Paul’s problem is that he doesn’t know who Simone Weil is, and that he found the quote flipping through a book of essays on The European Tribe at the Harvard Book Store. The book is in the buyback section, along with ten other copies identical but for different degrees of note taking spread across their pages. Paul imagines the most annotated book — notes in a thick blue ink in the margins with big loopy exclamation points — helped someone earn an A. He thinks of the backward economics of that person getting the least amount for their book. It costs only $2 to the $5 for the one next to it whose spine is barely broken. In the $5 book, he notices, the student has written his name — Peter McLaughlin — with curlicues around the capital lettering. It’s been scribbled out with ballpoint pen, but not with much effort. Before he can get too upset, he realizes that even the diligent note taker has sold the book. He buys Peter’s copy.
Paul has a problem, which is that he doesn’t know his parents. He knew his mother until he was twelve, so he guesses that that counts as knowing. But there are a lot of things a twelve year old never asks his mother as she wastes away from stomach cancer. Like, are there histories of spina bifida or other genetic diseases in your family? Multiple sclerosis? What about just one sclerosis? Who is my father beyond the vague romantic description of a tall handsome man?
So after Liam, his son, was born, he had to go to the genetic testing lab in Central Square and get all that shit done. It’s the same lab where Paul had gone and gotten drug tested when he got his first teaching job in a charter school run by some vaguely fast-food sounding franchisor. Both times it seems invasive, like when someone looks at you from afar and describes you in an unfriendly and foreign vocabulary. Please don’t point out my fat neck, Paul thinks. Please don’t let that be drug induced, or genetic.
Paul has a problem, which is that all of the action in his life seems to be mere description.
Paul has a problem, which is the stasis of subordinate clauses.
Paul has a problem, which is he doesn’t know how to tell his wife that he is at risk for passing on Tay-Sachs disease, which is described to him in gruesome detail by an anonymous wikipedia editor who mentions coldly the inability of an affected child to sit, turn over, or crawl.
Paul has a problem, which is that he doesn’t know how to feel about being abruptly told that he is Jewish. A specific Jewish he’s never heard of from central Europe. He looks at his son as he tumbles over and over again across the rug and wonders if Tay-Sachs comes on suddenly, or if it takes a long time to notice — at first it could be a problem that they would overlook. Perhaps the child is just tired. His problem isn’t that he hasn’t told his wife about the disease. He told her immediately and with a feigned nonchalance. He didn’t know how to tell her. So he just told her. And they had the child tested for the disease and they are sure that he isn’t one of the one in four-thousand that are affected. But he could have been. And for that Paul feels terrible.
Paul has a problem, which is that he still stares at his son and waits for the nonexistent genetic disease to occur. He looks at the boy playing on the rug with a train, running it back and forth across the rough berber fabric, and wonders if in an instant he could just stop. Stop moving. If the spinal cord could dissolve like an alka seltzer tablet in a glass of orange juice. He hasn’t told his wife the story behind the genetics. Even all this time later. And he feels vaguely anti-semitic about it, about keeping it a secret, but then again, his mother had, and her family had, always kept that silence. And he thinks that finding out you’re Jewish through genetic testing seemed sinister and invasive and if he had known the result when the swab went into his cheek it might have been a wholly different sensation of dull pain. He might have gagged on the swab.
Paul has a problem, which is that when he goes to the temple over in Brookline, he is too embarrassed to tell his wife about it. So he tells Jules instead. He’s half in the bag and his wife is asleep back at the house. Jules takes a big swig of her beer. It’s not a big deal, she says. It is a big deal. But not like, something he should be worried about. So, though, how was the temple? I just sat there in the back, Paul says. I just sat there and listened to the whatever. And, Jules asks. How did you like it?
Paul has a problem, which is that the whole genetic piece makes it hard for him to stick to his guns about his distrust of the ontology of racial fellow feeling. It’s essentializing bullshit, he tells Jules out at the bar. This is another time. Too many times in three weeks, Jules tells him. Though she is unrepentant in buying him a shot of Jameson with his normal pint of beer. It’s the end of the school year after all, she says. Paul tells her he hasn’t been back to the temple. Not my thing, he says. Never has been, and not starting now. Jules doesn’t mean to tell him his business, but she tells him he should talk to someone at the temple. Nope, nope, not for me, Paul says. Very white male of you, says Jules, looking back over his shoulder in that annoying way she does. Sometimes, she says, you need to accept the liens the world has on you. And, she adds, those you have on the world. Pearls of wisdom, Paul says with a bite of sarcasm, and takes his shot of whiskey.
Paul has a problem, which is after a year he still has not had sex with his wife, and he still has not told her that he is Jewish. Am I Jewish? he asks himself in the mirror one morning, almost subconsciously saying it aloud. What? his wife calls from the bedroom. Nothing! Paul yells. Paul’s concern has made him self loathing, and even this trait, which for his whole life has felt comforting and right in its placement at the center of his being, now feels trite and even a bit cliche, which of course Paul finds anti semitic of himself to even think that. To ease this twist of feeling he walks down the hall and places a hand on his wife’s hip. She seems back to her normal self — though it seems shallow of Paul to think that her normal size is her normal self. She shrinks from him, but his hand doesn’t lose contact with her skin.
Paul has a problem, which is a bleeding hemorrhoid that stains his favorite pair of jeans.
Paul has a problem, which is that he can’t get out of his mind that every time he goes to act romantically with his wife, he imagines that all she can think of is the feeling of descending away from the room as blood hemorrhaged from the six inch tear between her anus and vaginal cavity. She can’t think of his touch without finding in it the feeling of drifting down from that bright room and the gentle lifting of Liam off of her chest. Paul goes through exercises trying to understand that feeling, but it all feels indulgent. He doesn’t know it, can’t know it…
Paul has a problem, which is when he was in college he wrote erotic fiction, and got into the habit of imagining people he saw in street in the midst of ecstatic coitus. He felt it was part of his creative process. But then it became a habit he cannot shake.
Paul has a problem, which is that when he imagines Jules in ecstatic coitus, he often imagines her wearing a pair of panties that he remembers from one night, when a bunch of friends rented a cabin down in Rhode Island, they all went skinny dipping. She wore this green cotton pair of panties and they were sheer and Paul remembers them twitching in the moonlight as Jules trotted down the street, prancing like a deer. Paul remembers the panties his wife wore as well. They were blue, and she still, all of these years later, still owns them. Though she hasn’t worn them in a while, even in his — now quite forced — imaginings.
Paul has a problem, he tells his son, which is that although perhaps he would have like to have known all of this from the get-go, it’s difficult for him to imagine himself telling his son about this strange and troubling past. His son is learning to walk. And he looks at Paul quizzically as he holds onto the coffee table. He has bitten a chunk out of the foam guard they’ve stuck onto the hard edges of the table. Paul thinks it’s a sign. You are Jewish! he tells his son. You almost killed your mother. I don’t think she’s ever going to forgive us. He levels with the little kid because he knows he can’t comprehend and won’t remember this. Speaking to him truthfully almost feels guilty, or wasteful. I thought you might’ve had Tay-Sachs, he says, suppressing the guilt of the confession. I used to watch to see if you’d slow down in your motor movements. I still do. Paul laughs.
Paul has a problem, which is that when Jules came back from the bathroom, the band-edge of her bright green panties were twisted and poking out from the edge of her jeans. At least I have retained my white maleness, Paul thinks, as he is amazed at how someone’s choice of undergarments can so forcefully become a problem. A complete accident. But a problem. Paul’s mind flashes to Jules bent over with her upper body twisted to look back and a hand reaching back to ease the back edge of the green panties across to expose the soft pink of…She is being penetrated, but invisibly, as if by nothing, and she arches her back into the pleasure of an orgasmic moan. There’s something about it that is violent, possessing, but Paul tells himself he can’t help it. And, he thinks, it’s not her, there in his head in those green…but still. This time it’s his job to look out over her shoulder. What is it? she asks. Nothing, says Paul.
Paul has a problem.
Paul has a problem, which is that when he and his wife finally make love four months later it is short and although it is unsatisfying for her, she seems to feel like she’s done her job. She goes to the bathroom immediately afterward as if to rid herself of his touch, and when she gets back into bed she puts on an eyemask and turns over. Can we snuggle a bit? Paul hears himself saying meekly. You can rub my back, she says, as if he must return the favor somehow, and this is her chosen currency. In the other room, Liam lets out an unconscious little yelp that sends Paul’s stomach turning. He finds it hard to rub her back as she lies on her side there next to him. In the morning he wakes up before even the worms and is out on the street alone. He has brought along Peter McLaughlin’s copy of The European Tribe. The author speaks of displacement. He speaks of racism. Of anti semitism. Paul digs this, and feels, guiltily, that he digs it more now, that maybe before he wouldn’t have been so into it. And in that guilt, he ruins the very feeling of displacement.
Paul has a problem, he tells his son, which is that he feels he has spoiled everything he tries to understand: ancestry, family, sex, love, childhood, adulthood, race, art, self. Once he grabs the thing, it crumbles. Like a turd, he says. His son smiles at the roundness of the word turd, which Paul thinks is fair enough. Or maybe he crushes it in his grasp — love stomped into the shape of erotic possession, a self held at arm’s length like someone’s bad version of a Boston accent in a movie. Only drunkenness is left, really, he thinks, though he doesn’t say this to his son. And perhaps the feeling of newness when…
Paul has a problem, which is that now that his son is beginning to understand tones, and many words, that he has no one to talk to, now, to confess to, and that he knows that impulse is selfish and that he should talk to his wife, and that they should work, work, at their sexual, and now their romantic, relationship after Paul feels he’s neglected her in many ways.
Paul has a problem, which is that he’s always associated love with some sort of mystical romantic bullshit. He doesn’t mean like cupids and arrows and shit. He means like the British Romantics and the sense of the otherworldly and awesome sublime. Love should be like staring at the fucking sun as it roars at you at a million miles an hour, he tells his son, who looks at him concernedly, his brow furrowing in exaggeration of how Paul must look when he is thinking of what to say. I know, I know, Paul says. I’m the child.
Paul has a problem, which is that when he tells his wife he’s Jewish, finally, she is upset with him for holding onto this secret so long. She thought there were no secrets, she says. And to which Paul replies: there are some important things we keep from each other. And she says: what does that mean? And Paul understands that things are not going well, and that what he meant is that she’s kept herself physically and emotionally at a remove from him, that when he kisses her she keeps her lips closed and her cheek muscles tight against his searching tongue. She doesn’t say anything about it, he thinks, she just does it.
Paul has a problem, which is that he’s smart enough — just barely — to realize it’s incredibly unfair to criticize the physical toll of something he can’t possibly comprehend. He’s also just barely smart enough to know that he can’t possibly go the rest of his life without the feeling of love and sexual desire he’s come to associate as the lifeblood of his being.
Paul has a problem, which is that he thinks maybe becoming Jewish can replace his libido. What a fucking stupid idea, he tells Liam, but takes the little toddler to temple anyways. He’s told the rabbi his story and the rabbi is all for it. This is Massachusetts and the rabbi is Harvard educated, of course, which Paul finds a bit problematic in how forward the rabbi was at offering this credential. As a native, Paul is naturally distrustful of Harvard. The endowment built of the blood of slavery, and the official anti semitism for all of those years. Paul thinks people should be more modest, which he will freely admit is a bullshit sentiment, too. But he thinks it anyway. Still, the rabbi is great with Liam. And a number of the other members of the temple come and say hi and coo at Liam, who, during the whole shindig of the post-service potluck dinner, runs around like a madman and eats nothing but Lays potato chips. Are those even kosher? he asks the rabbi, immediately regretting it. Yes, but it doesn’t matter, the rabbi says, we’re cool and all.
Paul has a problem, which is that the other day, after him and Jules had gotten some beers down at the bar, when they hugged goodbye, he lingered a bit in the hug and she placed her head on his shoulder. She’d broken up with Tim, her boyfriend of umpteen years, and now Paul couldn’t invite him over to watch Sox games. I know it’s been a tough couple years, she said. And she held him by the elbows and leaned back, her hips against his.
This, Paul thinks.
Paul has a problem, which is that he’d never been in love, really, with Jules, and because of that he’d always hung out with her. She was their last real friend left over in Cambridge. Those were Jules’s words: left over. Like the rapture took everyone to New York and San Francisco and Denver and left just us sinners behind. Paul wonders if he’s an idiot, and it’s only him. But he remembers how they hugged goodbye, and he thinks he couldn’t be conflating things. But maybe he is. Maybe he’s being cloying, stupid, one of those friends who is so fucking desperate as to restrict someone’s movement to the purely platonic or he immediately falls in love. They are having Jules over for dinner, and whenever Paul’s wife leaves the room, the conversation seems to pick up between him and Jules. Like there’s an electricity to it. They laugh. Paul makes homemade pizza for them all, which Liam loves. The oven heats up their little apartment, and Paul opens all the windows to let in the damp September night. Jules takes off her blouse and has a tank top underneath. Paul’s wife is sitting on the sofa, drinking a glass of red wine that reminds Paul forcefully of the color of her blood on the floor of the delivery room. How it seemed to congeal on the floor instead of spreading out. It’s Liam’s birthday, actually. And Paul is wearing the same purple button-up he was wearing when he first held Liam. It still fits. Jules is wearing the green underwear, Paul imagines. They talk about the Sox, they talk about the new school year, they talk about Liam’s new sets of words and at what age he can be potty-trained. Paul knows this bores Jules, maybe. Paul’s wife holds her wine glass by the edge of its bulbous cup. She puts a finger around the edge. Paul plays these situational games to get everyone out in the open. What animal would you come back as? Paul says — this is a recurring joke — he’s seen what humans have done to other animals, so he’d come back as a human. They laugh. Liam laughs too, but just at what he assumes is a joke. Though we’ve seen what humans do to humans, Jules says. There is something cutting in her words, and Paul slowly draws into a smile. When Paul’s wife looks at him laughing along with Jules, Paul catches what he recognizes not as seduction or love or hatred, but jealousy. She bites her lip, and looks down at the ground there between Paul and Jules.
Paul has a problem. Paul has a problem.
A high school English teacher, Sean Alan Cleary spends his time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he grew up and came back to years later. He is a fan of walking around town before dawn. You can find his work in Beecher’s Magazine and forthcoming in Another Chicago Magazine. He has an MFA from the University of Montana.