FICTION: The Conditional Gift

Image: Bull Fighting, Petr Konchalovsky, 1910

“I assume you picture me naked.”

Regine knocked on my door. Hunched and hungry, but still typing at ninety words per minute, I wanted this off my chest. The document was to be emailed by 11:59 P.M., before the first of January. If not, I’d be the guy they talk about in the lounge at seven in the morning. The guy responsible for a four percent cut in everyone’s already meager salary. Academia and nonprofit work were never as laidback as my sleek, lawyering friends perceived them to be.

She had the appeal of an okapi. Not typically an animal you would read as a favorite, perusing your students’ “About Me” surveys at the beginning of each semester, but misplaced stripes can be nice to look at. A nose too small for her Broadway face, a forehead forsaking side bangs recommended by her mother starved of attention and friends who lived to impress. Regine cared not for cosmetic conventions, and neither did she care to appease the breathing room of our superiors repressed in their khaki trousers.

I hit “Send,” opened the door. She looked at me, expressionless, catching my gaze upon her arrival. Those olive eyes, so lively, terrified me still. I walked into the wall, shut myself in, and remained in my office for the next nine hours. I stared as she hooked her arm onto the inside of my elbow, guiding us to my car, telling me she liked sushi.

That was two years ago.

Tonight, we sit face to face. Really, it is my dining table. The grill, the couch, the bullfighter’s tapestry from 1960s Portugal, these I bought with the job I didn’t want to take, but needed should I prove myself worthy to prospective in-laws. Not that they genuinely cared about their daughter’s security, but I sensed they wouldn’t hesitate to mention me at all dinner parties attended.

Her salmon lips curled, her head bowed down, the chandelier blinding eyes that once blinded me. Shredded pictures and a keyed car. A disgruntled student would do this. Or one infatuated, scorned. But Regine has been untruthful about attending anger management classes, baring her ass to the art professor as he prepares his gallery. There she laughs, in a picture. Naked. Open to a selected handful, though hidden from me for months at a time. Once, I counted the freckles that fell across her clavicles, growing darker like inkblots on napkins as I gazed downward, numb fingers recharged by her steady breaths. Now, I can hardly report the tally of freckles to the least degree of accuracy.

“I’m keeping it.”

Forty-five minutes pass. This is the first I’ve heard from her. At the table’s center stands a crystal prism, all dimensions of equal length. The size of a Rubik’s cube, but without such complication. It is filled entirely with green fluid, the sort that swirls in different shades like mood rings do on girls with high fevers. Lime, olive, forest. Hold it in your hands, shake it and watch shallow rivers branch into murky tributaries. I was willing to paddle this rowboat, despite its suspect creaking. But unanimously, we chose to swim away, to the nearest sandbars miles apart.

I never liked Kay Jewelers, or Jared’s Ring Shop. I don’t blame the jingles. Just, the expense. The cosmetic convention behind it all. I knew Regine still dared to defy, her brashness unchanged. If I were to have popped the question in Revelation Park, for her to call me names and throw the ring in a gutter, well, that would be bad. Perhaps not. Frankly, the rejection might have saved me several dimes or so. Living together, my saying nothing, finding comfort in political essays, journal articles, and regional conferences as she embarked on her journey to become a lingerie curator or something like it, modern yet mindless. Buying bras on eBay, reselling them at a price three times higher. Making the money to buy us a house, though she never told me how well she was doing while her friends often asked her for advice on how they too could work from home.

Today, we avoid each other in this four hundred fifty square foot space. This cube of green, churning like the eye of an oncoming storm, is the only reason we sit, her forehead level to my chin. Who does it really belong to?

I suppose it could substitute for a ring, and I did present it to her when professing my wish to marry. I bent both my knees and looked in her eyes, perhaps the third out of the four times I can remember doing so over the course of this shared life. The absolute or conditional? That’s where we diverge. I loved. I gave. I admired. Forgave. But if I had not taken the measures I did—leave the place where we first met for one that sent my chest to fits, abandon the whiteboard, markers, pupils, office hours respected, and the joy of giving the timid a voice I just now claim as my own—would Regine still want me?

I did go through with my promises, wrote her requests down in a journal, though she never asked me how I liked my steak. Leathery, but sustaining. Always well done, if she ever wanted to know. But appeasing her eccentric likings with a custom gift? Learning to prepare dinnertime meats to glisten, medium rare? It’s not exactly calculus, and I’ve taught it several times, several years back. When I was Regine’s age.

But I am a man. Not one to speak aloud on any of these aspects.

Regine says nothing, and I assume she’ll keep my gift without further discussion. Maybe she didn’t quite intend to impose conditions on our relationship, despite her clear expectations. I met them, but still, she wanted an artist that I was not, treating me unlike her best friend I only thought I was. At the table, I glance at her in feigned indifference. There was nothing I could have done better.

No matter what I do, the severance is going to burn. Stain these walls with bygones’ blood, frying pans flung, handles bent. Teflon clings to burnt toast like panties I see still hanging from multiple armchairs. Regine does not like to fold lingerie. Moreover, Regine does not like laundry, though where the money went from peddling bras is a mystery she authors well.

We will not call the other for a gentle catching up, and mutual friends have since been shooed as banter turned to war. Her mother may ask me what went wrong, but then again, I wasn’t the one she birthed, raised, or secured. My mother taught me differently, cultivated love. Regine is the girl lighting cigarettes on balconies, photographed and interviewed in underground newspapers. I am simply a decorative fixture, what you see through a sliding glass door.

I take the green cube, place it in its case, and rise to take a drive to my former place of employment, a gentle catching up with people who would understand.

“You don’t give someone a gift just to take it back.” Regine’s voice is hoarse, the whites in her eyes curdling. Her hands are shaking, while mine are locked around the cube and my dangling car keys.

“And you don’t stay with your first love just to prove a point.” I smirk, feeling full, ready to call it off, ready to drive alone.

“That’s not what I intended at all.” She lowers her head, staring at her feet. I walk away from the apartment door and sit on the ottoman oddly placed beside the television. I continue to hold the cube, fluids shaken, greens coagulating, but I place the car keys on the ground.

“So what did you intend with me?” As much as her timbre annoys, I want to hear her again. We haven’t spoken this honestly in months. We haven’t really spoken at all.

“Do you remember when you took me to the museum?” She remains still in her rosewood chair. My rosewood chair.

“Where are we going with this?” I pull at my shirt collar, smelling the lazy squatters nearby on the interstate, knowing full well that at this point, it would waste more time to walk out the door just to argue with traffic instead.

“You know what amazed me about that trip? After you took me out for sushi?” Regine clears her throat. Her voice remains hoarse, her point still unclear. I stare at her, clutching the cube.

“It amazed me, that vase you pointed out. It amazes me when you see ancient pottery in a modern museum, filled with so many people. You know, pottery that’s not chipped or cracked.” She smiles, waiting for some appraisal. She writes the way she speaks, treating her college papers as opportunities to brandish what she thinks is the best in experimental prose. I remember the day she asked me to read over her senior thesis. I remember declining. I remember the solid line that spread across her face when I gently told her, “I don’t like your writing.”

“That vase was crafted thousands of years ago. For decoration or water, I can’t remember. But thousands of years later, that vase is still perfect.” She looks into the light dimming above her and I roll my eyes.

“Is that what you wanted? Perfection?” I smirk. Then I snort.

“What I’m meaning to say is that even through all of what your parents went through, your workaholic father and poor depressed mother seemed to work things out.” She rises from my rosewood chair, crossing her arms across her modest breasts that I suspect are supported by bras she never successfully sold.

“It is best you say nothing about matters you know little to nothing about.” I feel my molars crack as my grip on the cube tightens.

“I don’t have to know everything about them, and I know the topic upsets you, but it was pretty clear that they fixed things. Glued them together. That vase, while old and beaten down, managed to hold itself together. So did your parents.” Regine’s smile crinkles. Her eyes only grow muddier.

“My mother got some sort of free ride. The kind when your spouse gets sick and dies. Or, you know, the kind when someone with several years on you thought you had something special and was worth all the investment.” I gesture to all that surrounds us, setting the cube on the ground. I point at the tapestry, the television, and of course, Regine.

“So you only stayed with me just to wait for a payoff. In a way, you stayed just to prove a point.” Regine refuses to move. I open my mouth to respond, though I don’t know what to say to her first worthy attempt at logic.

“Regine, remember our differences. I’ve seen more than you could ramble about in all of your goddamn term papers. We’re two different people with separate consequences, whatever our involvement.” I breathe slowly, looking away as I feel her glare strike my scratched glasses.

“We may be different and do things differently, but I guess you can say we’ve committed the same crime. But don’t you think we can fix things? Or come to peace with what we’ve done and do the best with what we share?” The greens of her eyes are visible again as we breathe with the same tempo. When we met, she was twenty-two. Today, she is twenty-four. I shake my head, impressed at the lessons she learned in two years, this blooming maturity she hid so well until now.

“I mean, every plate I’ve had since we moved in together ends up chipped or totally broken. Every single one. We’ve never had problems with that. You eat your toast on cracked plates. Of all the things you criticize me for, you’ve never brought up the fact that I’m horrible at washing dishes. We eat on what we have. Why can’t we work with what we have?” She throws her hands on her thighs, pleading.

I still struggle to speak, but her blossoming is too much. I grab the cube off the carpeted ground and throw it against the stucco wall, its blankness mocking my new irrationality. I stare, counting the seconds before each trickle of green spills over the crown molding and onto the floor, beaten by our feet that paced, ran, and crushed any dust mites that scattered amidst the fibers. The gift is totally broken. The gift Dad gave my mom before Lou Gherig’s.

“Good thing we didn’t have kids, huh?” Regine breathes slowly. Each breath burns me.

I watch her pull her keys from her shallow pockets. She walks towards the apartment door, closing it behind her. Though she never asked me how I liked my steak, she sometimes asked if she was too loud, lowering her voice accordingly. Tonight, without my asking, she gives me a silence that leaves me naked, gaping, and dumber than I thought I could ever be.

Kristine Brown, when not writing web content for small businesses, makes the most of old magazines through mixed media art. She prefers her pancakes without syrup and takes photos of neighborhood cats featured on her blog, Crumpled Paper Cranes ( Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Hobart, Vending Machine Press, Burning House Press, The Pangolin Review, Eunoia Review, Burningword Literary Journal, among others. Scraped Knees, her first collection of poetry and flash prose, was released in early 2017 through Ugly Sapling.

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