LETTER TO A STRANGER: AMHERST, VIRGINIA
BY CHRIS LESLIE-HYNAN
You’d driven her down from New York, four hundred miles plus a detour to see the island of feral ponies. I’d flown across the country to be the man you saw walking toward you as you drove up. I’d been there already more than three weeks waiting, eating the institutional schnitzel and the mysterious starches presented as polenta, sleeping in my narrow bed. It’s true I’d searched the names on the list above the mailboxes, to see if anyone beautiful would be coming. But really, I was just there to do my work.
I imagine you were pleased with the look of the place. Some residencies are said to be dangerous places to leave a woman you love, but this one just looks like a home for the aged. Were our positions reversed, I would have been relieved to meet anyone who held a bed there that night—anyone but me: long socks and pale legs and neck hair notwithstanding, the lone straight man under fifty. I waved to you. You did not wave back. You wore sunglasses and something like a frown. I had to tuck my elbow lest your mirror strike it as you drove past. As I walked on toward the road I had a strange reverie in which we met again on your way out, after you left her. In it, you pull alongside me and roll down the passenger window, and tell me to stay away. I promise I will do my best.
What can I tell you, my brother, my victim—what can I possibly say? I didn’t stay away. The heart is a fist wrapped in blood, says that overrated play. The wronger the hotter, a friend once told me. It was my first time being that kind of man. How surprised I was that it gave me no trouble.
Details about you were scarce, mostly gleaned from overhearing her talk at the dozen or so meals we share before I have to give up my bed and go back home. You’re a writer, too, of course. She is careful never to say your name. On my last day there we try to talk about you, but the field we’re walking through is too full of gnats to allow a serious conversation. As we leave the field she says the words eight years and I fall out of step with her for a moment. I can’t break up with him, she says at last. He loves me so much.
And then she did. Even now I halfway disbelieve it. I spent almost all of a long, delirious summer weekend in New York not knowing we weren’t cheating. She didn’t tell me until the end of the last night. I was unknowingly auditioning for a lead role I’d believed was already cast. I thought I was just the other man. I paced around her tiny apartment, knowing the withholding of this information was a betrayal but too thrilled to figure out how. Of course I took the part.
It’s a year later now, and I know so much more about you. Your canon of impressive and unreadable works, your little glasses and your baseball bat. She came West and you wouldn’t stop calling her. I flew to New York in the fall and we got off the subway at your stop, Carroll St., and she started looking over her shoulder like she could hear the surveillance cameras click on. I want to tell you that you ruined her, you fucker, with your paranoia and your cheating, but then I would have to say that you made her, too—that you shaped that lithe live sweet bitter girl so well, so much better than I. But then again, here we are, two of last year’s men, neither of us with her now, and really it was her mother who ruined her, and she who made herself.
In the cabin near Bend in February, she and I are breaking up. I wait until she’s done spitting bile at me for the night and gone to sleep and find a video of an interview with you. You explain why you’re not the kind of Jew to hang out in Tel Aviv discos with your cousins, and it makes me smile through all the pain. For the first time in history I like you for a second. She made me hate myself more than I ever have, and for better reasons, and I will never hurt myself for her again. But you, I would cut my palm and mix my blood with yours if you would have me.
I know you will always be my enemy, but I imagine us taking a train together through the mountains. You are already aboard when it pulls into the empty depot where I wait. I climb up and it rolls slowly on. We sit in the dining car and talk about anything but her, though everything we talk about is her by other means. We are trying to get past the hate, to get to a place where we can bear to look at her together, to look at her as one, two climbers gazing down the long blue hills, two surgeons in the amphitheater with our loving blades. The waiter serves red wine in small china glasses. The meat tastes like something that died for us, and the water tastes like rust, and we talk until the meal is ended, and we must both get off the train.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Leslie-Hynan's debut novel, Ride Around Shining, was published by Harper and nominated for the 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. His short fiction has been published in ZYZZYVA, Harvard Review, American Short Fiction, Joyland, Cream City Review and the anthology New Stories from the Midwest. He lives in Portland, Oregon.