Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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What You Keep

By Lindsay Merbaum

You keep souvenirs from each of your lovers, if you can call them that: a hair tie, a ticket stub. You feel like a serial killer with a jar of severed ears.

Afterwards you talk. You are like a child who has misbehaved,
simultaneously denying and confessing, saying "I didn’t break it," before
you’re even asked if you know what happened to the vase that was on the
mantel. You tell them anything: that you were captain of your high school field hockey team, that you graduated from college Phi Beta Kappa. They say, “Mm hmm.” Sometimes they don’t know what “Phi Beta Kappa” means.

It begins, sometimes, before the sex is even over.

“I wasn’t athletic,” you say as he pulls you up onto his thighs. “But they made me captain anyway.”

He says nothing in response, grunts as he enters you again, breathes loudly into your ear.

Lately you’ve changed strategies. You ask him questions which he answers matter-of-factly. But he doesn’t say, “What about you?” the way he’s supposed to. You find yourself explaining why you don’t look like anyone in your family to someone who has begun to snore. The men you sleep with always snore. One even laughed in his sleep. He seemed unnerved when you told him about it the next morning.

Still, you find yourself awake in your underwear at five in the morning, a body curled away from you like a rolled up blanket. You turn over, put your ass to him, then turn back again. You pick a scab. You listen to the whistle of the 5:20 commuter train. Is eight too early to make him take you home?

They never ask about your work. If you say you are writing your thesis they do not say, What about? If you say you are going to become a dental hygienist, a horticulturalist, an astronaut, they say, Yeah? So you talk to them in your head, which is basically talking to yourself. At least you are interested in your impersonations of your boss, your fleeting socialism and the friend you had in college who was a lesbian and tried to kiss you once. That story at least gets to them, if you manage to tell it. Usually you don’t get that far. By then they’ve put their boxer briefs back on. The kind of men you sleep with wear boxer briefs. They sleep with their arms above their shoulders, hands clasped behind their heads. You might roll over and pick lint from the covers with your fingernails. If you don’t have a ticket stub or a note in his handwriting that he left on his apartment door saying, “Come on in,” you might get up and put the lint in your jeans’ pocket. Your jeans stand on the floor with their legs like compressed accordions, waiting for you.

You don’t know exactly how you got started with this. Maybe it was the one who actually wanted to hear you talk. He lay beside you in his boxers and said you were unlike any woman he had ever met before. He was sheltered. You didn’t really like him. You made stuff up. You let him believe outrageously not-you things, like that you appeared in low-budget porn. You told him your father was dead when, really, he lives in New Jersey. Months later he is still calling, but you never call him back.

Now you are beginning to wonder if something is wrong with you.

When they come out of the bathroom in the morning, they find you dressed. You are rumpled, your hair is a tangle of frizz.

“That was quick,” they say, referring to the speed at which you put your clothes on.

“I’m fast,” you say.

At home, you examine the hair tie, your collection of movie ticket stubs. Which one was that, you wonder? You could label them. You think maybe you should give up men like cigarettes. All the things people thought were harmless turned out to cause cancer. You think penis could be next. You tell one of them this when he calls.

“You’re kidding, right?” he says.

“No,” you reply, “I’m dead serious.”

You start dreaming about having sex with your college professors. “I love your work,” they say, lifting your skirt.

“Make sure you have everything,” the last lover says. He is a repeat performance. Perhaps it makes him nervous. He looks around the room as though checking to make sure you haven’t brought in any furniture while he was in the bathroom.

You reassure him with sarcasm that you know he won’t get. You tell him he could always mail you anything you forget and he nods, considering this option.

The rooms you leave smell of sex, your sex. Stray hairs you’ve shed tumble in rusty curls over the floor. He might find one a few days from now or he might step on it, carry it outside on his sneaker, never knowing a bit of you is there.

You get a call from one you’ve nearly forgotten, the one who had a tongue ring and pulled your hair. He says he’s sorry. He temporarily moved to a country where they don’t have phones. You ask do they have toilets? Mirrors? Do they cook their food before eating it? Yes, yes, he says. He chuckles. He thinks you are in on the joke.

You could tell him not this week, you have dysentery. You could tell him that since he last saw you you’ve grown a moustache and now wear slippers out of doors.

“Oh, c’mon,” he says.

Alone in your apartment, you throw out your ticket stubs, your hair tie, the post-it notes left on doors for you. One by one you drop them into the trash. The action feels unceremonious so when you are done you take the trash bag, empty except for the souvenirs, and toss it out the window. It coasts for a moment like a balloon and then settles quietly onto the pavement, blending in with the flock of debris on the sidewalk. But some old woman sitting on a stoop you can’t see yells, “Hey! Hey!”

You sit in a park near your apartment building and write furiously in your journal. The pages fly. You write about one-footed pigeons, about the sign you saw in a Lutheran church window that said in loopy handwriting, “Exercise daily—walk with God.” You haven’t kept a journal since high school. You are riveted. You feel you might be losing weight. Yes, you are definitely losing weight.

Men walk by, with or without dogs, and stare at you. When you look back, they don’t smile but they don’t look away either.

You peek out the window at night to see if the bag is still there. Your window is at such an angle that you actually have to put your head through it to see the sidewalk and you feel, for a moment, with your neck on the edge of the sill, as though you are in a guillotine. You can’t see it and wonder if maybe the old woman took it away. But no, there it is. The trash won’t be picked up until next week and so you know it will stay there. And, even when they do come for the trash, they might leave it behind. It might get overlooked. Then maybe someone, homeless with legs swollen and cracked like the earth in a draught, will look through it hoping to find food. Instead, he’ll find your blanket lint, your locks of hair. The bag will remain there, waiting for that, unless you do something about it.

Standing outside your building, you gingerly pick up the bag of souvenirs, examining it as though you’ve never seen it before. It’s wet and you think “dog piss” but it doesn’t smell. Not from where you hold it, which is too near your body for something that might have been peed on.

Someone is watching you. There’s a man across the street, leaning against the building as though that’s a normal thing to do at this time of night alone. He is not even smoking.

“Snowflake,” he says and you think he is selling drugs.

“Snowflake.” He says again. He is looking at you. “I see you, baby,” he says. “I see you.”

You drop the bag then slowly walk back into your building as though you have no reason to rush.

You go out in sweatpants. Bright ones. Gray ones. You feel slothful and insular as if you are invisible.

Someone says, “Nice ass, baby.” When you turn he blows you a kiss.

A man on the subway asks what is your perfume? His accent is thick as Russian furs.

“Furniture polish,” you say.

He looks at you, his forehead like thick rumpled cloth. His laugh stops short.

You know the snowflake man is going to look in your bag. It’s not tied tightly enough. He’ll look. What secrets do women keep? But, no. Maybe he won’t look for that same reason. No, he won’t. He doesn’t want to know.

Sometimes you point out what should be obvious. You’re naked, kneeling on the bed, and you say, “Look.” You thrust out your chest, hold your arms at your side. He’s just finished and he’s tired. His body is half turned away, his legs going one direction, his torso another. Perhaps he wants you to leave, perhaps he knows your name, but can’t remember right this second. But you want to see if he can tell that your breasts are uneven so you just repeat, “Look,” as though it’s the only word of English you know and he squints and says, “What? What?”

The bag is gone, though the rest of the trash is still there. You feel like you’ve wounded a small animal, a cat or a squirrel.

There was the one who couldn’t sleep with any sheets or blankets on the bed. You shivered. There was the one who wouldn’t let you touch his records. There was the one who commented on your thighs. There was the one who had somebody else’s pills in the medicine cabinet. There was the one who clapped afterwards. You weren’t sure if he was applauding you or himself. There was the one who asked if he could trim your pubic hair. There was the one who called it “making love.”

You come home. There is a message on your machine. It’s one of them. He wants to see what you’re up to. You know what he means. He wants to see what kind of underwear you’re wearing.

You press the machine’s buttons furiously but it doesn’t work. His voice keeps coming. The thing flips over on the table and cracks, but his voice, muffled, keeps coming out. It unspools until it fills your apartment. You know you will find it in the medicine cabinet. You know you will find it in the far corner under your bed.

Lindsay Merbaum is a student in the MFA Fiction program at Brooklyn College. She earned a B.A. at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Manhattan.

Top photo courtesy of
Bottom photo "Stomach" courtesy of Kathy McCallum.


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