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Lily Can't See Men

by Nicholas Bede Stenner

When a worn copy of Riddley Walker and Volume 21 of Hana Kimi appear on her desk accompanied by a worn library card, a gust of wind and nothing more, Lily understands this to be the work of a man. The books sit in front of her. A petite woman in a paisley dress stands a few feet away, waiting. Lily takes the card, swipes it, puts it down and scans his books. It’s an interaction she’s played again and again, but then she notices a smell, imperceptible at first, but growing. Lily pauses. It’s a different kind of scent from anything she’s ever experienced before. Lily has no words for it, no reference. “Do you, do you smell something?” Lily asks the impatient-looking woman who just shakes her head. It’s weird; it’s clashing; it’s like a breeze, like floppy disks, like meat. The smell swirls and surrounds her. Lily’s knees feel like rivers and her body shudders beyond her control Lily swipes the card again, and, trembling, she pulls up information on its owner. She knows before seeing that it is Mortimer August. Lily’s eyes search the library for him but she can’t see anybody. “Mortimer?” she calls. There is no answer. “Hon,” the woman in the dress says, “why don’t you just sign out his books.” So Lily does. The books disappear along with the smell. She stands there for a moment stunned, unable to understand what just occurred. It was like somebody just leapt out of a television, touching her, after a lifetime of static. And she forgot to give him back his library card. *** Lily exists in a quiet world, a half-world. She goes to work. She orders Chinese for dinner. She goes home. She works as an assistant librarian at a place a few blocks from her house. Her co-workers are her closest friends, yet even they try not to get too close. Lily thinks she’s like a plague rat with a flu mask. Nobody is quite sure what she really is and they prefer to keep her separate from themselves. Lily’s never had a boyfriend and she never knew her father. She often wonders who he was. Her mother won’t tell her anything and she refuses to talk about him or even talk to him for her. All Lily knows is that he’d been caught in traffic during her birth, and by the time he got there, it was too late. Lily survives and works as well as she can through her world of buses without drivers, classrooms without teachers, Grecian museums without sculptures. She reads wildly. She collects beach grass. She enjoys cooking in the morning. She imagines how much better Frank Sinatra albums would sound with the words. And she buries herself in her work. Her job affords her a measure of comfort. It allows her to function without the need to interact with men on a daily basis, but also provides her with at least some cursory contact with them. Lily often uses the cards to pull up information about their owners, to get a sense of them. Landon Carl has a hold on seventeen back issues of Pro Wrestling Insider. Guillaume Desjardins has racked up a stupendous late fee because of certain Hardy Boys novels being overdue for almost fifty years. Mortimer August is twenty-seven. He lives a few blocks away. He has good taste and he loves the sorts of books that she loves. Lily has always had a strange fascination for him. He takes out books by Heinlein and Toni Morrison at the same time. He currently has out A Prince of Tides and A Confederacy of Dunces. He checks out books she finds interesting and books that she’s never heard of that later turn out to be great. There’s no cure for it. Doctors, most people, they don’t even believe it. Lily’s come to accept it. She’s found ways of dealing with it. If she needs to know something related to men, Lily goes to her coworkers for advice. But often their answers just make her more confused. “What are men like?” Lily asks. “They’re a bunch of tubes and wires. Nothing special.” “What!?” “Ha ha, Lily. I’m kidding. Men are…men are: handsome, playful, rugged, funny, cute, assholes, clever. They really like sex. Does that help?” Lily shakes her head. She only has a very clinical idea of what sex really is. Her co-workers aren’t much help; but Lily is learning interesting things from her such as the apparent relationship between parts of the male anatomy and snack foods. The Mortimer incident leaves Lily in a daze. She finishes her work for the day and goes home without buying dinner. Her house is a lot like her: small and quiet. It’s a tiny Victorian servant's guest quarters, the last remnant of a long ago manor house. Surrounding it on all sides is a corrugated plastic suburbia. Lily eats, showers, changes. She slips Casablanca into the VCR and snuggles deeply into a pink blanket. With a movie like this, half of the dialogue will be missing, but that’s okay, because Lily has just as much fun coming up with the dialogue on her own. Famous actress says, “Will you love me forever?” Famous actor replies: “No. Because I only have six months to live.” Lily likes to imagine what the actors are like. Humphrey Bogart has wavy, dark hair; rough, pockmarked skin and a gaze that could make women forget what they were thinking. Cary Grant has a yellow smile; he sweats when he eats, has constant pillow marks on his cheeks; and he smells acrid, like burning stucco. Sometimes she likes to pretend that the world is just messing with her and that men don’t really exist, or that they’re some crazy abstraction that she’ll never be able to understand. Like that men are several shades of couch. Or they’re a metal city on a green peninsula. Or they’re a walking helix of wine bottles. What the hell is a beard? Does a circumcised penis really look like snack food? Do men even really exist or is everyone just fucking with her? Most of Lily’s knowledge comes from books. Reading is the only world where she can get the human experience whole. Description, exposition, action: these are the closest she’ll ever get to a man. Male characters seem not all that different from her, yet some of their decisions and motivations are fundamentally alien to her. Lily has always wanted to see a man. She lives next door to an old man she isn’t sure exists. His newspaper disappears inside every morning; his lawn gets cut every Monday afternoon; his Oldsmobile goes for long drives on weekends, but Lily has never seen anyone go in or out of his front gate. She spends hours brooding, wondering if she’d be able to see men if she were doing something differently. Sometimes, Lily likes to walk down crowded downtown streets. She knows men are all around her, moving past her or walking through her as if she didn’t exist. She sees women, seemingly arm-in-arm with nothing but air, staring up at their invisible partners, with curious expressions on their faces, as of someone suddenly entering a brightened room. An expression Lily suspects her face has never had. While sitting in dark movie theatres, she wonders whether she’s sitting in somebody else’s husband. And, seeing women with babies, Lily has the urge to have one herself, but she worries that if it’s a boy, she won’t be able to see him either. When she was younger, late at night, Lily once saw a brightly lit but completely deserted football field. A strong, warm, almost tropical breeze buffeted the field at all sides. Blurry footprints peppered the shimmering grasses and disappeared, like hail. And every bit of her was convinced there were strong, sweaty, clever men practicing sports, rolling around in the grasses and hitting each other in playful ways. And she thought if she could just concentrate hard enough, she’d be able to see them, or hear their screams or catch the sharp whiff of sweat, blood or Gatorade. She stood there for hours, until long after the lights turn off. *** The following day, Lily is expecting him, but it still takes her by the surprise when Mortimer’s unusual smell, this time of burnt sugar and wet seaweed, returns. He’s come back for the card. Lily doesn’t even bother trying to help him. She busies herself somewhere nearby and calls over Miss Stacy to help. Miss Stacy nods and talks to the empty space on the other side of the counter. “Ah, I see. Yes, we should have it around here somewhere.” Miss Stacy riffles through some papers, looks flustered, turns to Lily. “Lily, can you look after this gentleman? I’ve got to run off for a second.” Miss Stacy is a bit older, and some concepts, such as being unable to see men, tend to slip her mind. Lily walks over to the circulation desk and stares awkwardly at the empty space on the other side of the counter, unsure what to do. Lily takes Mortimer’s lost card out of the drawer and holds it up into the air. “Here it is!” she cries, feeling silly talking to air. But he doesn’t take it. Who is she kidding? Lily buries her head into her hands on the counter. She just wasn’t meant to see men. Then she hears a high-pitched sound that at first irritates her, but which quickly morphs into a more pleasing, but still confusing, static-like radio sound. Lily lifts her head up and hears a voice, faint, as if from far away. “Miss, Miss, are you all right?” The voice is deep, kind, meaningful and somehow beautiful. She holds up the card to the air again, waiting, and this time, it disappears from her hand. “Thank you,” the voice calls, growing fainter and fading away. Mortimer’s smell becomes a part of her daily life, a normal thing. It always returns, accompanied by his card. She doesn’t hear his unmistakable voice, but sometimes she gets a ringing in her ears or hears deep, faraway laughter. Over time, Lily starts to forget what he sounds like. Until, one day, she’s sitting in the café just outside the library, thinking about him, wondering if he is somewhere close by, doing his laundry or buying groceries, when she hears him again. “Can I talk to you?” he asks. She recognizes Mortimer’s voice immediately. Lily gets a whiff of his scent. It’s changed, gotten more specific, like the pine smell of a wet forest, or the dusty scent of drywall in a new construction site. She looks around, but still, she can’t see anyone. “Yes,” Lily whispers, “please.” She hears the chair in front of her scrape against the pavement then feels a presence next to her at the table. “I’ve had the urge,” he says, “for a very long time, to sit next to you in a café patio like this. My name is Mortimer August.” “I know,” she says. “How?” Because of the way the air feels around him, but Lily can’t say that. Lily smiles at where she thinks he’s sitting. She can’t see him, she can’t touch him, but for the first time in her life, she is having a conversation with a man. They start dating. It’s such a change; her world feels so much bigger. They go to new restaurants. They have picnics on mountaintops. She introduces him to her mother. He has a voice like an accordion and a mind like an athlete; Lily’s smitten. Lily loves listening to him talk about books. He loves the relationships, the interiority of mind. They're so personal, so intimate. He loves to imagine their worlds as his own. Mortimer hasn’t lived the happiest life. He met a nice girl in high school, thought she was the love of his life. But after only three years of happy marriage, she left him for an exciting man from a foreign country. Mortimer never quite got over it and he’s existed outside of dating ever since. Mortimer owns and operates a restaurant in the heart of downtown. It’s called Dapper Knees. It doesn’t serve any dishes invented after the nineteen twenties. It’s a popular spot for the business lunch. “What do you look like, Mortimer?” “Hmm…what do I look like? I guess...I’m a glass of water with a pair of googly eyes.” Lily laughs. “I don’t believe you.” “No, but seriously, I’m a white-winged angel.” “Ha! Are all men angels then?” “Other men have jaws like lanterns and eyes like burning coals and fiery tempers. You’d hate them.” Lily feels more at peace than she ever has before. But her happiness is tempered by a tiny, nagging fear that she is doing all of this wrong, that she, having no experience with men, is going to screw it up. For the three-month anniversary of their first conversation, Mortimer takes her to an expensive café along the beach in the tourist quarter. Mortimer jokes that it’s finally a place he can bring a girl and not have to worry about some exciting foreigner trying to steal her away. They share the steak and seafood. They watch women along the seawall, holding hands with nothing, being held by nothing. Lily talks and laughs and jokes with her own personal brand of nothing. “What do you see when you look at me?” Lily asks. He takes a while to answer, finally saying: “To some extent, I see a girl. At least, the blurry image of one. It’s like looking at you without my glasses. Sometimes, you sort of disappear, or warp into whatever is behind you, like a chameleon. Right now, that patio chair looks empty, but it’s no longer a patio chair, more like a gilded throne. Basically, when reality warps, I know you’re there.” “That doesn’t bother you?” “No, but I wish I could see you. Where you are, what you’re looking at, where is your hand, can I touch it?” “And will we ever be able to get closer?” Mortimer doesn’t answer at first. He takes so long to reply, Lily almost thinks he’s gotten up and left. She watches the ocean and takes in the approaching smells of the summer night: wet cement, thick humidity, warm exhaust. Lily then hears a ripping sound and notices a sheet of loose-leaf paper hovering in front of her. It has a hole shaped like a pair of lips cut into the centre. Lily laughs. She doesn’t think it will work, but she still appreciates the gesture. She reaches over, nervous because, cute gesture or no, she’s never done this before. Lily places her lips through the hole in the paper. At first, it doesn’t feel like she’s kissing anything but air, yet something is different. Lily can’t feel his lips, but she can taste them. She opens up a bit wider and the air is full of flavour. First she tastes saliva. She leans in, tastes more. The air becomes like butterscotch, like sawdust, like coffee. Colours and pictures solidify and morph in front of her. She feels pressure against her lips, texture. The tastes intensify. Hamburgers, then asphalt, then sea-water. This is it. It’s happening, but it frightens her. She can’t take it. She isn’t ready to see a man. She wouldn’t know what to do. Lily cries out and pulls away. The colours flash white and disappear. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, wait,” Lily says. She leans forward and tries to kiss him again, but the tastes are gone. “What’s wrong, Lily?” His voice sounds distant. “What’s happening?” He’s fading away. “Come back!” She cries. “Lily…” She panics. She grabs at the paper; but there is nothing holding it up. Lily slaps herself to break out of the spell. She’d known from the beginning that she’d end up doing something like this to ruin it. “Where did you go?” Lily cries. “Will I ever hear from you again?” Tears fall down her cheeks. She sits alone, long past nightfall. The restaurant closes. She tries to pay the cheque; but she finds Mortimer has already covered it. Lily goes home in silence. She takes a few days off work. She watches movies. Harrison Ford has clear skin, he complains about jaguars, and he often wears spandex shorts inside-out because he can’t tell the difference. Lily reads a lot of books. She tries to imagine which characters are most like Mortimer. For days, she’s haunted by the ringing of her phone and the pounding on her door. But whenever she answers, there’s nobody there. Lily knows that it’s Mortimer. But there’s something she’s doing or not doing, that’s keeping him from getting through to her. Lily feels like she should have known it wouldn’t work. She’s only recently been on a date. She doesn’t have confidence. There’s so many little things she’s never experienced. She’s never had a man tell her that she’s beautiful. She’s never had a man climb mountains or steal stars for her. She’s never had a man try to woo her favour with beautiful gifts. A few days later, Lily finds a cassette tape on her doorstop. She takes it inside, pops it into the player; she braces herself for static and silence and disappointment. “Hello, Lily—” Lily chokes back a sob. There’s only one man in the world whose voice she can hear and who could have made this tape. “—This is Mortimer. I’m not very interesting looking. I’m five foot nine. I weigh one hundred and forty pounds. I have dark hair, blue eyes. I wear a lot of solid-colour, blue t-shirts. You wouldn’t pick me out of a crowd. Women tell me I have a nice smile.” Lily starts crying. She’d feared she would never hear his voice again. “Young Harrison Ford is dashing. He has short brown hair and a mischievous grin. Humphrey Bogart has thick eyebrows, wears hats and he smokes a lot of cigars. It’s probably what killed him. Your neighbour’s name is Elmore. He has a long, grey ponytail and a trim, red beard. He works in retail and spends his weekends at the next town over, visiting his grandkids. Guillaume Desjardins is your second biggest fan after me. He knows how overdue that Hardy Boys series is. Long ago, his mother sold them in a garage sale. He’s been searching for them for years. The last time I talked to him, he’d retrieved two-thirds of the books. He hopes to one day return them all.” Mortimer went on describing the men in her life, the ones she never knew, who they were, what they liked. “Lily, your father is still alive. He lives with your mother. He teaches a course on teleprompting at the local university. He has blonde hair, flattering hands, and an instinct for great jackets. He is so proud of everything you’ve done and he loves you very much.” Lily spends hours listening to Mortimer’s voice, replaying it over and over, laughing when he laughs, breaking-up when his voice cracks with emotion. She keeps going back to the tape’s ending because it doesn’t leave her satisfied. “Lily, men are lovers of love, but they have problems conveying these feelings. Men don’t like it when they’re sexually frustrated. Men like it when beer is combined with other activities, such as showering. Men don’t like it when women give up on them too easily. Lily, I—” The tape cuts off right before what, Lily imagines, is the climax. She agonises; she suspects it might contain the secrets to why she is the way she is. Determined to find him, to not give up or hide, Lily runs outside. If she were Mortimer, where would she be? Lily travels all over town. She visits the library. She checks the beach café. She visits Mortimer’s house, ringing his doorbell until her fingers hurt, but nobody is there. She tries to remember what he’s like. He smells like meat, like computer disks, like seaweed. He tastes like sawdust, like hamburgers, like butterscotch. Where could he be, a candy shop near a pulp mill? A hamburger cart near the water next to a PC repair shop? Lily finds these places and she finds evidence that he’s been around, but she hasn’t found him. She wanders down the water, sits down on the beach and stares listlessly out onto the ocean. The smell of ocean and salt proves too overpowering to her, too reminiscent in their strange ways, of Mortimer. She gets up to leave, but then she realises, of course, she knows that smell. “I don't know how you found me, Lily.” It's Mortimer's voice. She stiffens, but she's too tired to react. “But I've been waiting for you.” He goes on as if she can’t hear him. “Though you still probably can't hear me, I'll say these things again and again until you do. It doesn't matter, Lily. Don't be so hard on yourself. I want to know you better. I don’t have much experience with your kind of problem, so I don’t know what to do. I think I love you, Lily. And I think you love me too. If you’ll only believe that you can. I just want—” “Stop!” Lily says. “I can hear you.” She hears a sharp intake of breath beside her. “Just…before you disappear again, tell me again what the end of the tape says.” Long pause. “It says that maybe I love you.” “Is that really true?” “I hope so.” “Mortimer, where are your lips?” “Right here.” Lily stumbles around the porch. Her arms held out in front of her, she gropes the air. Mortimer offers quiet murmuring sounds to guide her way, as if they’re playing a low-key game of Marco Polo. Finally, Lily picks a spot. She reaches upwards and kisses the air. At first, there’s nothing. She feels like an idiot. Then, he finds her or she finds him. And this time, Lily doesn’t pull away. The air begins to shimmer in front of her. Wisps of smoke and light materialize and dart around. They form into a likeness of what Lily can only guess is Mortimer. She grabs at the shape of his arm only to have her hands pass through him, as if through steam. So she kisses him, feeling the misty wetness on her lips. And again she's scared. The image of him wavers. What happens when she lets men into her life? She didn't need Mortimer to be happy did she? What is she even doing here. But no, it isn't about that. It's about finding someone that understands her, thinks that reality warps whenever she enters the room. It didn't matter whether he was man or woman. It is a chance for her to finally break out from whatever it is she was before. This time, she won’t give up. The smoke thickens. Lily squeezes a now viscous arm. She feels his shape begin to solidify into a man. She’s assaulted by the smells, tastes and colours of him. Everything, the burnt sugar, the wet sawdust, the raw meat, it all swirls and coalesces into Mortimer and shows him for what he is. Lily sees his eyes, nose, ears, feet, hair, pants, t-shirt. She sees him, smiling down at her with that look of suddenly entering a brightened room.