What He Was Missing
E. Christopher Clark
She wore her sun dress through the thunder storm, but even when it was soaked through and she was shivering and they could see everything there was to see of her, she didn’t care. She didn’t care because she wanted them to see, wanted them to gawk.
“Where are her boobs?” a small boy asked his mother.
“Never you mind,” said the mother, turning his face away.
“They’re gone,” Ashley told the boy, who was peeking at her through his mother’s fingers.
The mother stood, took the boy’s hand in her own, and walked him to the other end of the train.
Ashley grabbed hold of one of the overhead handrails and steadied herself as the train lurched out of the station at Lechmere, toward the Science Center and the river beyond.
“You get yourself a new phone?” asked an older fellow, pointing at the white bag she held, the silver apple on its face.
“I did,” she said.
“Those things’ll give you cancer,” he said.
“Well, I’ve already had that,” she said. She pushed her dripping bangs away from her wet forehead. “Doesn’t that make me immune?”
He chuckled. “Wouldn’t that be grand?” he said.
“Just like the chicken pox,” she said.
He nodded. “Everyone should go through it once.”
“Makes a man out of you,” she said, with a fierce nod of her own.
He chuckled again. “Not much left in the world that’ll do that, these days.”
“And not many men interested in being real men besides.”
When they were through, she was worried about him. She’d heard heavy breathing before, prided herself on inducing it, but this was something else.
“You okay?” she asked him.
“Wasn’t sure I could still do that,” he said, panting.
She wanted to ask him when the last time he’d done it was, but she was afraid of how he might answer. So, instead, she brought it back to her: “You ever been with someone this flat before?”
He said nothing for a moment, as if unsure how to answer, as if uncertain their banter on the train could continue here, with her naked, exposed. Then his face lit up with a wide, toothless smile.
“Yes,” he said, slapping his knee. “Took me a minute to remember her name, but as a matter of fact I did. Girl name of Tildie. Sweet young thing when I was in the service doing basic training. Last one picked at the whorehouse, but those boys didn’t know what they were missing. She was a great kisser, that Tildie. Mmm hmm. And pretty as all get-out, long as you kept your eyes up where they belonged anyway.”
“Like a gentleman,” said Ashley.
“I suppose so,” he said.
When the cancer came back, it hit her first, but it hit Sean the hardest. Sean, that was his name. They’d spent three days in bed together before she’d thought to ask for it.
“Can’t hardly take a piss,” he said now. “It’s into my balls,” he said, massaging his wrinkled sack, hairless now because of the treatments.
“Mine, too,” she said, replacing his hand with her own, cradling him, not sure whether something more vigorous would hurt or help.
“You have balls now, have you?”
“Ovaries,” she said. “Same difference. They were the same, in fact, back before we were babies.”
He set his hands on her abdomen. “Whereabouts are those things, anyway?” he said.
She pulled his hands lower, until they were in place, until the inside of her ached at his touch.
There was a tear on his cheek. “You’d think He could have spared one of us,” he said.
He. Ashley couldn’t bear the thought of that capital H, the one she was sure she’d heard in his reverent tone.
“Maybe he did,” she said. “If he’s up there, he spared me the disappointment of believing.”
He looked as if he were about to say something, his tongue slipping past his gums, his chapped lips. But then he pulled it back, held it in.
“I hope you weren’t expecting a prayer from me, once you’re gone.”
He laughed. “A prayer?” he said. “Hell no. I’m Irish, Ashley. All I expect is for you to get plastered and cry in your Bushmills.”
She didn’t go to the wake — she’d never been properly introduced, after all, and she didn’t feel like explaining herself to the niece from Manhattan who was running the thing, that woman who was older than she was. Instead, she rode the subway, sipping whiskey from a paper bag and trying not to stare at the bald kid who got on at Charles/MGH — the hospital stop — a pale boy with headphones like hers, a phone like hers. She tried not to tell the joke, the one the old man had told her, but when the kid smiled at her she couldn’t resist.
He couldn’t resist either. When she asked him to come home with her, he looked into her eyes and he said “Yes” without a moment’s hesitation, without a moment to look down and see what he was in for, what he was missing.