“Ordinary Exiles” by Brandi Reissenweber

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Sitting behind the crescent page desk facing the reading room, Clara slipped her hand between the buttons of her fitted blouse and cupped her breast. She still watched for violations—errant pens, books off reading cradles, fingers licked to turn pages—but it was easy enough for any one of the five patrons to see her. The historian, a regular, only had to lift his eyes from those old subway maps. Or Mrs. Low, the librarian, could walk by. Maybe she’d lose her job. It was the sort of thing she did on the crowded El back in Chicago, wearing thick soled black boots, ripped tights, and red lipstick, Lucian across the aisle watching as the train thrummed forward. But then, she wanted to be seen—by a shocked rider who moved to the other end of the car or, better yet, one who lowered his head, but raised his eyes to watch. Getting away with it in this stuffy, gilded place made her feel more important than everyone in the room.

The heavy oak doors opened. Clara withdrew her hand and fastened the button that had come undone. Gerard, the archivist, crossed through and stopped at the dictionary splayed open on the reference table. He was quiet, often unshaven and they had only ever passed in the back hallway, smiling politely. At the dictionary, he glanced up at her, then back down. His nose was wide and flat, his skin ashy. She should have kept her hand in her shirt to see his reaction. Maybe she’d go over, lean in close, try to fluster him. But the historian stood at his table and folded up the subway maps. He brought them to the desk and she fanned them out, counting. Of course they were all there. He was meek with them, hands sheaved in gloves, breath held when leaning in close.

“Maybe this time it won’t take so long.” He cocked his eyebrow and held out the card for the next batch.

“Maybe not,” Clara flicked it out of his hand. A man like this, in Chicago, she would have spit in his face. Over the historian’s shoulder, she could see Gerard watching her, his lips drawn down in exaggeration, mirroring her scowl. She stuck her tongue out, expected him to turn away. But he smacked his hand to his forehead as if struck.

 

When she returned from the stacks with the historian’s maps, Gerard was gone. She wasn’t supposed to leave the desk except to page, but she slipped down the hall to his office.

“Did you find what you needed?” she asked. Bent over a table, he gently worked a thin sheaf of parchment floating in a pan of clear, shallow liquid. His curly black hair thinned at the crown of his head. He was older, maybe even as old as her father. The kind of man she and Lucian would have singled out back home, Clara sidling up close while Lucian lifted his wallet. Sometimes it wasn’t even for money, but just to see what they found or to give the guy a scare.

He looked up. “I may have,” he said. His accent was singsong and unfamiliar.

“Where are you from?” Clara asked. She tapped the maps against the doorframe.

“The same place as you.” He smiled in a way that made her think of her father, when he would start a joke unexpectedly. “Jupiter, of course.”

She laughed and took a step closer so that they were only a foot away. He smelled faintly of oil, the kind she used on her bike when she was a kid. He leaned his hip against the table. The curve of his neck looked damp. If she walked away, she knew he would follow. This thrilled her and she tightened her fist at her thigh.

Mrs. Low appeared at Clara’s side and made a deliberate sound of surprise.

“I should get back,” Clara said, but didn’t move. Gerard took a step away, a generic smile closing off his face.

“I just need a file,” Mrs. Low said, pointing her chin to the cabinet at the back of the room. Gerard put his arm out to invite her in. Mrs. Low slipped between them and said, “Such a small office. Like we’re ants.”

Gerard brightened, as if this were the cleverest thing he had heard in a long while. “Yes,” he said. “Ants.”

 

That night Clara ate take out from Happy Taco Grill on her futon and listened to music. Lucian’s shift was over in ten minutes. He usually called while he waited for his train. In Chicago, she’d started to feel childish picking pockets even before she got caught, but she’d give anything to be riding the red line, waiting for him to take her hand at the Damon stop and pull her into the alley behind the arcade.

On the phone, his voice was hoarse. He’d probably been out the night before, screaming at a club with his friends. “Sitting pretty in New York?” he asked.

“Don’t be like that,” she said. “You didn’t mind it when I was buying your pot.”

“You’re the golden goose,” he said. “Nothing sticks.”

“That’s what we’re talking about?” she asked. He hated that she got off. It was petty larceny and assault—but only because the guy caught her lifting his wallet—and it was either jail or her parent’s help. And to get that she had to relocate, for the summer at least. No Lucian, no trouble, they figured. And maybe they were right.  She was supposed to stay with her mother’s cousin, but that fell through, and so the studio apartment and frequent calls from home.

“I should come there and make you pick up all my garbage,” he said. “At least get you some community service.”

Outside, she heard the long wail of a car horn. “Nothing’s stopping you,” she said.

 

The next week, Clara watched for Gerard so she could take lunch when he did or walk out with him at the end of the day. Lucian would call it “daddy lust,” but it wasn’t that. It was the way he mostly kept to himself, his unhurried movements. And the way he looked at her; she felt like the sun, radiating heat.

But the historian had her up in the dim stacks often, motion detectors kicking on lights as she passed.  In the security cage where the old subway maps were kept, she could slip one into her waistband, leave it there until the reading room closed, then walk out like she did every other day. It was almost too easy. She’d stolen cigarettes under more watchful eyes. Instead, she purposely mis-shelved them, jammed a batch behind a box of slides and reported them missing when the historian asked for them. What would Mr. Schmidt think? That wealthy friend of her father’s, the esteemed member of the historical society’s board. A page job opened for her with this man’s help, assault charges dropped. She’d grown to hate him, though she’d never met him.

In the stairwell she ran into Mrs. Low. “You’re getting along so well,” she whispered. “Not that I’m surprised.”

“Thanks.” Clara’s cheeks burned. Mrs. Low put her hand on Clara’s then walked away. She must have thought Clara shy, but that wasn’t true. It was like she was twelve again, her father praising her beauty. “Tell me I’m smart,” she had grumbled at the time. “That would be a compliment.” But secretly, she’d been pleased.

On a Thursday she managed to time things right; she left work with Gerard. They walked to the subway.

“Have you visited the park?” he asked, hitching the shoulder strap of his tattered leather satchel up closer to his neck. He held a book under his other arm.

She laughed, “You’re kidding. There are a million parks, which one is the park?”

“The people of Jupiter,” he said, “they aren’t kidding.”

She played along, following him off the subway at the 4th Street station. She almost didn’t. He could have been one of the hundreds of men she passed on the street without another glance. But at the stop, in the moment before the doors slid open, he put his hand on her forearm. Those same thin fingers that hovered over the paper in the shallow bath, protective, waiting for just the right moment to take it out. What did she have to lose?

At Washington Square Park, she bought an ice cream push-up and he got a paper cone filled with almonds. They wove through a crowd that gathered to watch a flamethrower. Clara sat on a bench and Gerard sat at the opposite end, resting his book in his lap. She thought he might be flirting, seeing if she’d slide closer.

“Don’t pretend I’m not here,” she said and crossed her legs. She let the fabric of her knee-length skirt ride up her thigh. He smiled but didn’t turn and put another almond in his mouth. “I know how to reach you,” she said. “Even from all the way over here.”

He looked at her, chewing slowly with his mouth open. His bottom front teeth pulled away from each other, like they’d knocked apart.  “Show me,” he said.

“You’re already looking.”

“Where I’m from,” he said, smiling, “the men do this. The reaching.”

“Jupiter is cold,” Clara said. “Men should have to.” He slid closer and she took the book from his lap, leafed through it. The alphabet wasn’t English—the lines squiggled and dipped.

“Russian?” She held it open toward him. Then, when he didn’t reply, “Arabic?”

“It’s important?” He took the book back, put it under his arm. Then he said her name with long, flat vowel sounds and she liked the way he drew it out, made it sound pretty. He laughed and squeezed her knee. His nails were neat, cut straight across, and she felt the pressure of each finger on her skin. A rush of heat spread through her stomach. Gerard took his hand away quickly, as if he caught himself in a mistake. Around them, the crowd gasped at the flamethrower’s finale, but with all the heads in the way, Clara could only see the tips of the fiery pins as they hit their pinnacle.

“It’s ok,” she said, nodding toward her knee. He shook his head, dismissive. The flamethrower made his rounds in the crowd with his hat out. People tossed in dollars and coins. A woman hugged him as he passed, his arms glistening with sweat.

Gerard stood up and gestured for her to follow. They walked several blocks from the square. Gerard unlocked a thin door next to a store that sold cheap hats and held it open for her. “My apartment,” he said. They walked up a narrow staircase. At the top, he reached around her and unlocked another door.

Inside, the living room had a low ceiling and posters tacked on the wall—a desert at sunset, the city skyline, a silhouette of two people embracing. In one corner, a stone statue of Buddha wore a cap that looked like it was made of small pebbles. The two windows in the room were open but still the air was stuffy.

Gerard put his bag down, lay his book on the table next to the couch and disappeared into the kitchen. Clara sat on the couch and picked up the book again. He brought her a glass of water, slick from the faucet.

“I don’t want that,” Clara said. He seemed unsure of what to do with it, then sat and sipped from it himself and put it on the floor. From another apartment, she heard classical music.

He nodded to the book. “It’s Khmer.”

“So, that’s what?” she said. “Vietnam? Korea?” She felt small and stupid for not knowing, but he laughed in such a friendly way, like he was charmed.

“Cambodia,” he said. She ran her fingers over the open pages, the characters rounded and dipped, then closed the book.

She took his hand and put his palm over her bare knee. Her hands were still sticky from the ice cream. She could lean in but she didn’t want to do that, to make it so easy on him. He looked at his hand as if it were separate from his body. Then he kissed her, gentle, his other hand a whisper on her jawbone. Still, she could feel him restraining. Clara leaned in.

Gerard pulled back, put his hands on her shoulders like he was about to talk very seriously to a small child. “We shouldn’t,” he said. A tendon at the back of his cheek near his ear pulsed.

“What’s with you?” Her voice was shrill. Even on the El, Lucian curled his finger in the belt loop of her jeans, twined his hands in her hair or hooked his leg around hers. They were stupid and mean and constantly high together, but there was always a warm bridge between them.

“You are so young, maybe you are my daughter.”

“Really?” She bit out the words. “Did you screw my mom?” He stood up. The force of his movement knocked her balance and she toppled to the floor, the book splayed out beside her. It was barely a fall, but she was close to crying. He leaned to help her and she swatted his hand away. At the door, she fumbled with the locks and he made no move to help.

The locks gave loose and she slammed the door behind her. Outside, she was surprised to find it was still daytime. On the crowded subway back to 47th street, she held on to the bar and thought of pictures she’d seen in a high school history text book of shirtless Cambodian men at the side of the road, one carrying a wooden frame on his back, buckets at each end. All of them with skin stretched taut over the knobs of shoulders and elbows, the fluttered dome of ribcages.

 

The next morning she woke late and felt hung over, though she’d not had a drink in weeks. She thought of the way Gerard had lifted himself off the couch to be away from her. She felt shameful for kissing him, a man so old. It was like having a crush on rope.

Her mother called as she got ready and Clara let it go to voice mail. “We miss you dear,” her mother sang, when she checked it later. “Call and tell us all about New York.” As if she were on an extended vacation.

Work was slow, just the historian with his maps and a professor looking at newspapers from the early 1900s. The papers were bound into hard covers by the month, large and unwieldy and reeking of mold. When she descended in the rickety cage elevator to the basement stacks to retrieve them, she held her breath as long as she could.

The historian, on one of his trips to swap materials, held the maps high above his head as he coughed onto the desk.

“Manners?” Clara said, stepping away. The professor glanced up from his papers just long enough to acknowledge he heard.

“They’re priceless,” he said. “Do you know what bodily fluids could do to them?”

She felt a vibration, like a very large bell ringing right next to her. She snatched the maps from him. On the fifth floor she jerked open the metal door and re-shelved all but one—a small 1948 system map colored with bold primaries. This she tucked into the tank top she wore under a loosely knit sweater. As she locked the door, she felt the map’s sharp edges and cool paper against her chest and abdomen. That afternoon the map warmed to her skin and she ran her palm over her sweater to feel its shape. Her other finds—the wallets and purses in Chicago—she offered up to Lucian for praise and that sly smile that made her feel valuable. But this, it was just for her.

Leaving that evening, the guard barely glanced up. At home, she took the map out, the top end curved from lying against her breast, a small tear near the fold. She slid it between two books on a shelf and there it glowed, a hot smoldering ember. At night, she’d put her fingers to the spines of the books it was lodged between and think of the haughty way Mrs. Low would shake her head if she were to find out. The phone chain that would extend from Mrs. Low to Mr. Schmidt to her parents. And what would they do with her then?

 

On Friday morning, Lucian called just as she got back from a trip to the grocery.

“Guess where I am, C. Just guess.” His voice was wild and bright in a way she hadn’t heard since she left.

“The arcade?” she said. “Work? Where should you be?”

“I’m at the damn old airport.”

“Here? In New York?”

“Can you believe it?” he said.

She gave him directions on the subway, put away the groceries, waited a half hour then texted him. When he didn’t reply, she went to the stop. She wore a pair of jeans and a grey t-shirt and her hair was tied back. She waited a long time and finally he emerged, hulking and slumped, his eyes, as always, ringed with thick black eyeliner. She saw him pass over her once as he scanned the crowd. He recognized her the second time around.

“You look different,” he said, hugging her. He seemed so tall.

“Yeah,” she said. “I got some new clothes.”

“Take me to where you make trouble, baby,” he said and then he hollered, a loud howl. People on the sidewalk turned to look and she took a step aside, embarrassed.

In the apartment he dropped his bag and kissed her. His mouth seemed too wet and she wondered if kissing him was always like that. He held her at arm’s distance by her waist then put his hands on her face. His actions were grand, like he was in a movie, but there was something satisfying about being so wanted. She let him undo her jeans right there, just inside the door.

“Only with a condom.” And when he stopped and looked at her, she said, “I don’t know what you’ve been up to.” He dug through his bag. That he’d brought them should have crushed her, but it didn’t.

His weight felt familiar and comforting. He grabbed her wrists and pinned her arms behind her back. His motions were deliberate, as if he were feigning uncontrolled passion. She thought of Gerard, the way he seemed to hold back when they kissed. She wrested her arms free, locked her legs around Lucian’s to bring him closer.

Afterward, while he showered, Clara wrapped herself in the sheets. They’d had sex behind the arcade and in her room while her parents were out. Never on their own terms without concern for who might come upon them. This time Lucian was unhurried, like he was used to having time.

He emerged from the bathroom with her small rose-colored towel around his waist. He opened her refrigerator.

“Where’s the beer, baby.”

“Why would I have beer?” she said. “Who would buy?”

“You got friends,” he said. “Probably even a boyfriend.”

“There are other things to do,” she said.

“You hooked up?” he said, his brow raised. He seemed younger, somehow, than what she remembered.

“That’s not what I mean.”

His return ticket was for the following Friday so she called in sick to work. They took long walks, ate hot dogs from street vendors, and threw rocks into the Hudson. She didn’t want to go to clubs so he went without her. Alone, she lay on her futon and closed her eyes, hearing again Gerard elongating the vowels of her name, feeling his lips gentle on hers. She imagined him next to her, his palms skimming her skin, encircling her waist. When Lucian came home drunk and stoned, she made room for him. Curled up together, she felt crowded.

Two days before his flight home, Lucian went through her drawers and found the mesh top and ragged black skirt she used to wear.

“I like the new Clara,” he said, “all pretty and preppy, but what about old times?” He held up the skirt and she swatted at it. He gave her a boyish look, his dark bangs hanging over one eye. She put the outfit on while he turned on the music—a rage soaked song she didn’t recognize. She even put on the make up, the deep red lips, the smudged black eye shadow. He smiled, nodded his head once, forcefully. “That’s what I mean,” he said and she blushed.

There was a knock at the door and she and Lucian looked at each other. She cocked her head and turned the volume up on the stereo. Lucian laughed and twined his hands with hers and danced her around the room. She caught sight of herself in the mirror and a thrill ran through her at the garish red lipstick, the very short skirt. She felt sexy but not in a serious way, more like she was dressed up for Halloween.

“What the fuck?” Lucian yelled, suddenly. They’d come to a stop and his muscles tensed.

Clara turned toward the door and saw Gerard, one hand on the doorknob, his other holding the stems of springtime flowers—daisies, freesia and asters. His eyes were sunken and dark, like he hadn’t slept in days. The music pounded. She bent down and grabbed the cord, pulled it from the wall. Her ears rung in the silence.

“You lost, old man?” Lucian said.

“I am here for Clara.” The words were chopped and his inflexibility with the language made the statement seem threatening.

“He’s my friend,” Clara said to Lucian to soften it. “From work.”

Lucian looked from Gerard to Clara. She tried to see him the way Lucian did, as an old man, someone stiff and antiquated like their fathers.

“You’re kidding,” he said, leaning against the wall, arranging himself into a casual stance. He was on guard, maybe jealous. In Chicago, he’d hang back when other guys took an interest in her, watch how much she interacted, pretending it was all good. But she’d pay for it later in small ways—the attention he’d give other girls, avoiding eye contact, crushing his hands into his pockets.

“You aren’t at work this week,” Gerard said. His English was slow. Maybe he was taken off guard.  With Gerard there, she felt foolish in her old clothing, like an oversized doll.

“She’s been showing me the town, old man,” Lucian said.

“Did you bring those for me?” Clara pointed to the flowers. He seemed like a man who had just been slapped by a woman or a child, someone he should not strike back.  He looked at the flowers, as if he had forgotten he was holding them, then handed them to her.

“He is a boyfriend?” His voice was low, trying to have a conversation with Clara only. She wished she could explain but the words wouldn’t come, so she put her hand on his arm.

“She didn’t mention me?” Lucian said. “Sexy girl like this, you think she’s interested in you?”

Gerard didn’t look at Lucian, seemed to not even acknowledge he was there, but she could see that muscle at his cheek twitch. “You don’t look like you,” he said.

“It’s nothing,” she said. She wanted to say something about Jupiter, to share in that joke again and see him laugh like he did at the park.

“Oh, if you haven’t seen this side of our girl,” Lucian said, “you’re in for a treat, old man.”

Gerard stepped forward to stand between Clara and Lucian, as if to protect her. Clara felt a deep shock of joy. But this intimacy, wasn’t it too much? Who did he think he was protecting her from? He turned to Lucian. “I don’t need to hear from you,” he said.

Lucian smiled at this, only half way, and looked at the wall. Then he took several quick steps toward Gerard, his arm cocked back to throw a punch. Gerard moved swiftly, pinning Lucian up against the wall, one hand ringed around his neck. It was a natural movement, as if he’d done it hundreds of times.

Clara’s knees went out and she sat on the futon, the bouquet falling to her feet. “Don’t hurt him,” she said and it was barely a whisper. She thought of his fingers hovering over the torn paper and the picture from her history text book—men walking, carrying, lifting. Skin taut against bone, but the machine of the body still at work.

“You are a small boy,” Gerard said. “Remember this.” Startled, Lucian did not move. Perhaps Gerard’s hand closed his throat. Behind them, she saw the books between which she’d slid the stolen map. It seemed so frivolous that it ever made her feel anything at all. Clara heard Lucian kick once against the wall and she thought of her phone—on the counter near the door—and that she should move toward it. But then Gerard dropped his arms. Lucian buckled over, hands at his own throat, seizing for breath and coughing.

Gerard turned from Lucian, a look of surprise on his face as if he didn’t expect to see her.  For a moment it seemed he might say something, but he stumbled out, leaving the door open behind him.

 

Lucian left that night and didn’t return the next day, though his duffel bag was still half-unpacked in the corner. Clara waited one day, then a second, and when she knew Lucian’s flight had left, she went back to work. Mrs. Low asked her how she felt, put the back of her hand against Clara’s forehead and clucked that it was a shame she was sick for so long.

Clara watched the patrons, the silence broken only by a cleared throat or a sniffle. She heard a woman chewing gum at the back table and walked to her with a tissue, whispered “spit it out” much more forcefully than she needed to.

She thought about the map at home. It could take years for the library to find it was missing. She could bring it back in the way she’d left with it. Or throw it out. She imagined it in Gerard’s hands, coaxing the paper together to mend the rip near the seam.

At the end of the day, after the patrons left, she stacked the professor’s old volumes of newspapers on the cart and hauled them into the caged elevator. Down in the stacks, she pulled the large volumes, one by one, off the cart and shelved them. The air was heavy with the smell of aged newsprint. Clara took shallow breaths so as not to cough.

At the other end of the stacks, she heard shoe leather across tile. She froze, a volume balanced on both her palms between the cart and the shelf. Silence. Any of the employees could be down here but there was something unnerving about assuming she was alone, only to find she wasn’t. She finished what remained of the stack, more aware of the noise she made. She wheeled the cart back to the cage elevator and opened the door.

Gerard emerged from an aisle several rows back. He was in shadow but she recognized the breadth of his shoulders, the shape of his body. He held a book in one hand. Clara stopped, the elevator door held half open. Gerard almost bumped into one of the shelves then looked up and saw her. When he did, she wished she’d slipped in the elevator and was already cranking up through the floors. It wasn’t a quick get away but the steel caging between them would be a buffer. Standing in front of him she felt wounded. He stood still, the open book making a v in his hand. She should say something, but she couldn’t think of what.

But then his arms were around her and he was leaning her against the wall. She lost hold of the elevator cage door; it shrieked closed. His hands were up under her blouse, his lips dry against hers. She put her foot up against the wall to brace herself. This was not the gentle way she imagined from their kiss in his apartment, but she didn’t stop him. He smelled musty, like the stacks, his mouth bitter with coffee.

He wrenched up her skirt, unfastened his pants. His breath was hot and hard in her ear, the base of her spine a knot against the painted concrete wall. On his back, her hands ran along a severe indentation and she rested the tips of her fingers there. Only later, when he bent over to pull up his pants did she put her palms to his back and lift the shirt all the way to reveal this mark: a long rope of scar as thick as three of her fingers, tracing up his back, crossing the spine.

 

In the cage elevator Gerard shifted the levers to take them to the main floor. Clara could already feel the ache set in on her back and thighs. Gerard leaned against the wall, as if exhausted. Clara felt the distance between them like a solid mass. She stepped through it. His face tilted down, so she bent her knees to kiss him. He took her wrist in his hand and brought it to his lips. He let out a ragged breath that reminded Clara of crying. In any other man it might have been.

The elevator creaked upward. They would be there soon, emerging into the dimly lit reading room. They both had to lock up still, punch time cards and pass security.

“I thought you were,” he paused, looking for the right word. “I don’t know. Carefree,” he said. He shrugged and she knew this was not the right word, not quite what he meant.

“I’m not,” she said. “Not since you’ve known me.” But she was speaking only to be heard, responding to something she knew he didn’t mean.

 

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Brandi Reissenweber’s fiction has appeared in The DrumWillow SpringsThe Briar Cliff ReviewLos Angeles Review, and other journals. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a writer-­in­-residence at the Kerouac Project of Orlando. acm56 brandi