Winner of the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Heather A. Slomski’s debut story collection takes loss as its primary subject and holds it up to the light. In prose spare and daring, poised yet startling, these stories take shape in reality, but reality, they sometimes show us, is not a separate realm from the fantastic or the surreal. Two couples meet for dinner to acknowledge an affair. A mannequin recalls a lover and the life she mysteriously lost. Two girls observe a young widow’s grief through a café window. A man’s hat is as discerning as Cinderella’s shoe.
In the fifteen stories that comprise this collectionsome short as breaths, two of them novelettesSlomski writes with a keen eye about relationships. About the desires that pull us together and the betrayals that push us apart. About jealousy, obsession, loneliness and regretthe byproducts of loving someone that keep us awake at night.
The characters in these stories share meals, drink wine, buy furniture and art. They live domestic lives, so often wanting to love someone yet ending up alone. In one story, a woman’s fiancé leaves her when she goes to post some mail. In another story, a man can’t move past an affair his wife almost had. Another story describes a series of drawings to detail a couple’s end. But while loss and heartache pervade these stories, there is also occasional hope. For, as the title story shows us, sometimes a breakup isn’t an end at all, but the beginning of your life.
About the Author
Heather A. Slomskireceived her MFA from Western Michigan University and held the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville. Her stories have appeared inTriQuarterly,American Letters & Commentary,Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art,The Normal School, and elsewhere. A recipient of a Minnesota State Artist Initiative Grant and a Minnesota Emerging Writers' Grant, she currently lives in Moorhead, Minnesota with her husband and son.
Read an Excerpt
The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons
By Heather A. Slomski
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2014 Heather A. Slomski
All rights reserved.
The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons
We are sitting at a table in a restaurant. The four of us. You. Me. The woman with whom you had an affair. Her boyfriend. I sit across from her, you across from her boyfriend. There is wine, red and white. There are four water glasses, four linen napkins, four spoons, eight forks, four knives. There are tables on all sides of us.
Behind the bar a large mirror reflects the brilliance of a chandelier.
The woman with whom you had an affair: (looking at you) How did you find this place?
You: I read a review in the paper. The owners live upstairs—they keep a six-hundred-square-foot herb garden in planters.
The woman with whom you had an affair: Six hundred square feet?
You: Incredible, right?
The woman with whom you had an affair: I'll say.
Her boyfriend: (butters his bread).
The waiter had brought olive oil for our bread, but he, her boyfriend, asked for butter. I liked that about him.
I wonder what he is thinking—the boyfriend—staring now at the couple one table over: she in a below-the-knee red dress; he in corduroys and a striped dress shirt. I imagine the boyfriend is wondering if they are lovers. Perhaps if they are both lovers first to someone else and lovers only second to each other.
She isn't beautiful—the woman with whom you had an affair. Coarse and a bit squat, she's not at all the woman I'd imagined.
The woman with whom you had an affair: (looking at her menu) Everything looks so good. Good restaurants always make me wish I cooked more. But by the time I even think of dinner it's too late to make anything, so Simon and I usually order in Greek or Thai. (She watches you for your reaction.)
Simon: You hate Thai. You're allergic to peanuts and coconut milk.
The woman with whom you had an affair: (pretends not to hear Simon; she sips her wine and is noticeably relieved when the waiter arrives).
Waiter: (white shirt, black apron, tall, and long-limbed) Something more to drink? Perhaps an appetizer?
You: (taking charge) Yes, we'll have the fried sage leaves and ... ahh ... (poring over the menu) an order of the squash flan.
Waiter: Very good. (He leaves the table in long, thin steps.)
The woman with whom you had an affair: Great choices. Simon and I love flan. Don't we, Simon?
Simon: (sips his wine).
You: I order flan whenever it's on the menu.
I notice a slight trembling of the chandelier, as if someone is walking upstairs in the spice cabinet where the owners live, bending between the rows of herbs—plucking.
The waiter arrives with the appetizers and sets them in the middle of the table. You, the orchestrator of this event, lift a sage leaf onto each of our plates with your fork and knife.
With your spoon, you slop piles of squash flan next to our sage. The three of us pick up our silverware, but you are unsure of what to do with yours. They've been designated serving utensils. Can you eat from them?
I poke the sage leaf with my fork and bite a third of the leaf. It looks and tastes like a fried anchovy. I grab my water and try to swallow the fish like a vitamin, but I (cough cough) choke a little and spit the fish into my water glass.
You: (ignoring me) Oh, this is great. Have you tried the sage? (You are looking at her—at the woman with whom you had an affair.) Have you tried the fried sage leaf?
Through the windows the sun is setting. It is nearing eight o'clock and the last rays are reaching through the glass. They are sliding down the panes like a coat of sheer gold paint, and the restaurant seems to float in this buoyancy of light. I hate New York. I am beginning to feel a sick longing for my before-life—when I lived in Boston and I didn't know you.
Me: Simon. What do you do?
Simon: Taxes (breath). I do taxes.
Me: What do you do for fun?
You and the woman with whom you had an affair look at me simultaneously, as if I have just said something wrong, awkward, inappropriate.
Simon: For fun?
Me: Yeah, for fun.
Simon: I play cards—I'm in a bridge club. I golf, go to the movies. Just bought a new bike.
The woman with whom you had an affair: We were in Seattle a couple weeks ago and saw—what is the name of that film (she turns to Simon)—that Spanish one—oh you (she looks from you to me) really have to see it. What was it called, Simon?
Simon: I don't know. I'm glad I forgot. (He looks at me.) If you're into movies where people are so obsessed with books they masturbate in library bathrooms, then maybe you'd like it. (He sets his fork against his small, blue plate.)
You: (looking at her—at the woman with whom you had an affair) Are you talking about the one with lighting or making light in the title?
Make light, I think. Make light. What words, I wonder, did you use with this woman? Fuck? Have sex? Intercourse? Make love? Make light?
The woman with whom you had an affair: Yes! Making light of it or lighting it—wait, maybe it was Danish.
Simon: Swedish. (He turns to the table next to us. The woman's fork catches the last of the sun as she lifts it to her lover's lips—if he's even her lover. He almost chokes, and they are laughing.)
The waiter takes our order, and when he's finished he closes the sun into his black book. Another waiter hurries around the restaurant, holding a cigarette lighter above the tea candle on each table. I watch Simon yawn, and the gold cap on his back tooth twinkles in the candlelight. Something about the gold in his tooth (I turn to look at you) makes me think of the absurdity—the absurdity of us.
You: (to her, of course) Are you reading anything? Any thing good?
The woman with whom you had an affair: In the last week or so I've accumulated so many new books that Simon and I barely have room to walk.
Simon: (turning briefly from the lovers) I don't have problems walking.
I stand up to find the restroom, but your foot is in the way, so I kick it.
You: (leaning forward) What the—
Me: (I look at Simon, then at the woman with whom you had an affair.) Excuse me. (Turning to you) I'm sorry, did I catch your foot?
You: (squinting) That's all right. It was an accident.
Me: Of course it was. (My voice sounds like cranberries.)
Small squares of light drip from the ceiling and illuminate my path to the WC. A few paces ahead, a waiter is slowly approaching. He is balancing two bowls of soup on his right forearm and holding one in his left hand. He looks so young—his red hair sticking up by his ears because someone cut it too short. His belt is the smallest rubber band, holding up his pants like tying a balloon.
Me: (slowly and evenly toned) Careful, I'm right here—right in front of you.
The young waiter: (lifting an eyebrow) I see you.
Me: Do you want me to—
The young waiter: No. I have to do this on my own.
I step aside, and he passes by. I watch him walk along his tightrope to deliver the soup. He makes it.
When I am back from the WC, our meals arrive, and the waiter sets them before us, admiring our choices. He leaves, and I look down at my plate. My pasta is green, too pretty to eat. I push my plate forward and reach for the wine bottle. I begin to pour and the waiter rushes over—mortified that my fingers touched the bottle. I wave him away.
Me: (to you) What?
You: (whispering sternly to me) He would have done that, you know. In places like this you're supposed to let them pour your wine.
Me: (to you) Places like this? Like this? (I'm not sure why the repetition.)
I watch you cut your meat and sprinkle your salt. Sometimes you're a vegetarian, and sometimes you're not.
Simon: (taking a bite of his tre funghi penne) This is terrible. I hate mushrooms. (He pushes his plate away.)
The woman with whom you had an affair: I don't know why you ordered it, then. (She lifts an asparagus spear to her teeth.)
I had a neighbor, years ago, who cultivated asparagus. Locked out one scorching afternoon, I knocked on his door and asked to use his phone. My boyfriend at the time had the only other key, and when I reached him he told me to stay at the neighbor's or climb through a window. When I repeated this to my neighbor, he said not many people know this, but asparagus is actually a member of the lily family. Come, I'll show you. We walked through his house and into the garden. That night when my boyfriend brought over the key, I broke up with him. Did you know, I said, that under ideal conditions an asparagus spear can grow ten inches in twenty-four hours? I'd forgotten about my neighbor until tonight.
Simon: I always think this time I'll like mushrooms. (He leans back in his chair.)
You: (to the table) This lamb is amazing. (Chew chew chew.) Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb? Mary had a little lamb whose tush is on my fork.
The woman with whom you had an affair: (smiling and blushing) That's so mean!
I look to Simon to return my expression, but he's engaged with the lovers.
The lovers: (Her long arms reach across the table for his face, and he drops his chin into her palms).
I've forgotten what it's like to feel a range of emotions in a single day.
Waiter: (bowing) Is something wrong?
Waiter: With your pasta dishes?
I shake my head no, and Simon does the same.
Waiter: (annoyed) Very well, then. I'll wrap these up.
You and the woman with whom you had an affair finish eating, and the waiter takes our coffee order.
Simon: (sugar, no cream).
Me: (cream, no sugar).
The woman with whom you had an affair: (black).
You: (after debating between Earl Grey and coffee, you order coffee—black).
The waiter follows his outstretched arms into the kitchen and a few moments later appears with a tray of coffees. One by one he lowers a cup and saucer from above each of our heads like birthday cakes we aren't expecting. Then he leaves and returns with the dessert tray.
Waiter: (leaning forward) This is the raspberry-ginger sorbet. This is the prune tart. This pretty one is the Chinese Lantern. This—with the ladyfingers—is the Accordion. This is the Brooklyn Brownie. And this is a petite madeleine.
The woman with whom you had an affair: (sucking in her stomach and patting it) Just coffee for me.
Simon: (to the waiter) Do you have any lemon tarts?
Waiter: No, sir. Only what I have here on this tray.
Simon: You're sure there aren't any lemon tarts stuffed in the back of the freezer?
Waiter: No, sir. We only serve homemade desserts that are baked fresh daily.
Simon: What are they having? (He points his thumb at the lovers.)
Waiter: (leaning to the side in order to see past Simon) Looks like they got the last pear flambée. We're discontinuing that dessert after tonight.
I look over to the lovers. Two spoons. Two mouths. Ten fingers—five his, five hers—entwining themselves in each other. A bit over the top, I agree. She reaches for his wrist and turns it toward herself. Clearly they are late for something, because the lovers set down their spoons. They weave through the tables—their raincoats billowing out behind them like the kites you and I flew on that terrible day that began our love. Your kite kept wrapping around mine, and at first I thought it was sweet, but eventually mine nose-dived into the sand. I knelt down beside it as the waves crept closer, wanting to take the kite—a small sailboat—out to sea. Your kite was still up in the air, and you were balancing yourself beneath it. Look! Look! you yelled. Watch how it twirls!
I turn around in my chair to face the door, but it's too late. The lovers are gone.
Me: (looking at Simon) Where did they go?
You: Who? Where did who go?
Simon: To a movie.
Me: I doubt it.
You: (to the woman with whom you had an affair) Who are they talking about?
The woman with whom you had an affair: Simon, who are you talking about?
The waiter leans over the table and places the bill in the middle. You and the woman with whom you had an affair begin grabbing at each other's fingers.
You: (swiping the black book from her grip) You bought last time, remember? Those burgers that were bigger than our plates? (With these words you pause and look at me.)
Me: (whispering) I'm embarrassed.
You: (your hand on my shoulder) I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up. We can still—
Me: I'm embarrassed that you would be interested in someone like her. I'm nothing like her.
You: (looking around for the waiter, because you won—your credit card made it inside the black book, and you want him to take it) Of course you're not—there's no one like you. (You raise your hand awkwardly, as if you're hailing a cab for the first time, and you're not sure you're doing it right.)
Me: But tell me. I want to know what you saw in her. Oh, who am I fooling—what you see in her.
Simon: (pointing at you with his pinky) Hey—I'm embarrassed that she would be interested in someone like him.
You: (to Simon and me) Who the hell do you two think you are?
I laugh out loud.
You: Listen. The affair came about because there were problems, and now there aren't. We're handling this in the best way possible. (You look from me to Simon.) Both of you agreed to this.
I am laughing harder now, and I snort once.
You: (to me) What? What is funny?
Me: (blowing my nose in my napkin and looking at you) You are funny. I am laughing at you.
The lover: (appearing behind the woman with whom you had an affair) Have you seen a pair of glasses?
The four of us look up at him.
You: What the hell is going on here?
The lover: (to you) Look, buddy, I'm just looking for my reading glasses. I thought I left them on my table, but they're not there.
Me: (to the lover) Where is your—
The lover: She's out there (he points to the door) waiting for me. Just forgot my glasses—that's all. Anyway, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt.
Me: Oh. (To you) I was just about to say that I'm not going to be with you anymore.
You: (pointing at the woman with whom you had an affair) Because of her?
The woman with whom you had an affair: (opens her mouth slightly, as if she might say something, but she closes it and slowly reaches for her coffee cup).
You: (to me) Come on, you don't mean it. You're just upset.
Me: But I'm not upset. I've been upset for three years, and I'm not anymore.
You: What are you talking about you've been upset for three years? I only saw her (again, pointing at the woman with whom you had an affair) for six months.
Simon: (to the woman with whom you had an affair) Six? (He looks from her, to you, then back to her.) You mean you two didn't get your story straight before our big night?
The woman with whom you had an affair: (reaches into her purse and pretends she is looking for something very important).
Simon: (to me) You want to split a cab?
Me: No. Thanks.
Simon stands up.
Me: (to Simon) But I'll walk out with you.
You: (to Simon and me) I knew it—I knew it all along. I knew you two were seeing each other.
Simon starts for the door, the lover follows him, and I follow the lover.
Me: (to the lover as we step into the night) But I don't see your—
The lover: She's holding a cab somewhere ... (he scans the curb). There she is—see?
The lover's lover is pushing against the grill of a taxi to keep it from moving forward. The driver is yelling and swearing out his rolled-down window.
The lover's lover: (calling from the street) Are you ready, my love?
The lover: (to Simon and me) Well, looks like we're off.
The lovers disappear into the yellow of the taxi, and the taxi (huffing and puffing and chugging along) disappears into the side mirrors of other taxis.
Me: (to Simon when we can no longer see the lovers) It was a pleasure meeting you.
Simon: And you.
I take a step backwards and a crunch! erupts from beneath my foot.
Simon: What was that?
Me: (quickly) Nothing.
Simon: You stepped on something. I heard it.
Me: I'm afraid to look. I know what it is.
Simon: (Bending down to the pavement, he picks up the lover's glasses.) You snapped off the right arm.
Me: (taking the glasses and holding them up to the streetlamp) The lenses aren't cracked. (I look more closely.) There's not even a scratch. (I fold the left arm and carefully place the glasses inside my coat pocket.) I should get these to him. He probably can't read without them. Where do you think they went?
Simon: I don't know where lovers go.
Me: (stepping backwards toward the restaurant) I'll check inside. He might have left his information with the host. Maybe I can catch him before they've gone too far.
Simon: (handing me the broken arm) You should take this.
Me: Thanks. Well. I guess this is goodnight.
After a brief handshake, I watch Simon walk down the street, becoming smaller and smaller before getting into a cab. I reach into my pocket and pull out the glasses. I set them on my nose and fit the left arm behind my ear. Hazy shapes begin fusing and breaking apart, like organisms on a microscope slide. My eyes focus, and the images sharpen. Then: clarity. The world stops. The streetlamps turn red. And the moon, as you would expect, is enormous.
Excerpted from The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons by Heather A. Slomski. Copyright © 2014 Heather A. Slomski. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsThe Lovers Set Down Their Spoons,
The Allure of All This,
A Seat at the Table,
Iris and the Inevitable Sorrow, or The Knock at the Door,
A Fulfilling Life,
Blue Door: A Collection of Passings,
Before the Story Ends,