Ellen McGrath Smith


Sharon sat straight up in bed and was suddenly cold.

Where she'd just been at work in deep musky efforts to make Abby, her girlfriend, feel good.

Which reminded her of torrid but slow summer afternoons in childhood when she'd crawl inside the blackberry bush in a neighbor's back yard and sit there, eating the berries, tatooing her arms and legs with runes from their juices, the whole time aware that no one could see her, no one could ever find her. And if the lady whose yard she was in – Mrs. Welty – did find her, she wouldn't mind her being there. She was a kind old woman in a housedress who spoke in a globby and plaintive way, her completely unmanageable tongue lolling out every third syllable or so. At first, Sharon thought it odd that a lady so old would, like her, be the victim of a ridiculously oversized wad of Bubble Yum. Given the chance to buy a pack at the Corner Store, Sharon often went too far, inserting piece upon piece into her mouth until her jaw ached and words were, like the bubbles themselves, stretched beyond the shape of anything containing meaning.

Sharon's mother soon explained it all to Sharon:

One: Mrs. Welty had suffered a stroke, which meant that certain nerves controlling her jaw and tongue no longer connected right.

Two: If you get 5 cents to buy a pack of bubble gum and chew it all up in one blob in one day, you should not be given 5 more cents the next day to buy another pack at the Corner Store.

Where she'd just been at work inside the legs of her girlfriend, the powerful half of the power-couple Grace Howers said they would be when she fixed them up, Sharon now sat up, spine straight, still, and cold. She was trying, as usual, to hear what she thought she'd just heard. She'd been hearing impaired all her life, so this delayed processing of things others said to her was normal, though now more emotionally charged. She just had to figure out

One: if Abby, from her place up on top of her body-being-pleasured, head on the pillow, muttering directions like over a little to the right there yes had really just raised her voice, exasperated, and barked out, "I don't know why the fuck you took out your hearing aids."

Two: if it was reasonable to request that one's lover wear hearing appliances when doing it.

Since Sharon couldn't figure out Two even after she got Abby to repeat and confirm One (without saying "fuck" the second time), she got up, threw on a T-shirt, and walked out of the room with a pillow, her plan to go sleep on the couch.

"Thanks a lot," Abby said.

Abby was a soft butch superstar real estate lawyer with straight black hair that hung down just below her jaw. She served on the board of every other charity in Pittsburgh, had been open and out about her civil union with a local radio disc jockey. At 35, she'd made the local paper's "Most Powerful Pittsburgh Under 40" spread. Sharon had seen her at arts events before and (take a number) thought she was pretty hot. She gave off a kind of energy that made you think she had an engine implanted that only a few other humans get. Abby never considered not getting what she wanted, a trait that, when they started dating, drew Sharon to her. Sharon was a painter with an expensive arts degree (and huge loan debt to go with) and one show in New York (Buffalo) under her belt; most fellow artists made it clear that her work was outstanding and deserved a wider reach, but she just wasn't good at the self-promotion thing. Her stature as an artist in Pittsburgh had still managed to improve despite that deficiency; she'd received, some years ago, a $40,000 award for her work. She hadn't even applied for the award, but she used half of it to begin a cooperative art gallery on the west side of Pittsburgh, where there was a need for more arts-based programs and facilities. Abby was not on their board.

Grace Howers had fixed them up because she knew both of them. Abby's much-publicized partner of 10 years had quietly dumped her for a man, her high school sweetheart. And Sharon was generally on hiatus from dating after a series of two to three-year relationships that began while she was in the expensive arts college. At 31, she'd begun thinking hard about that two to three-year span, what it meant about her and what it could mean for her in the future. Most of those years involved drinking, though she'd stopped drinking altogether when she was 28. It was easy for Sharon to meet people, easy even to get very familiar very fast, but she was using the hiatus to read self-help books, teach advanced painting classes at the community college, work on a series of self-portrait-as-bird paintings (some with actual feathers), attend meetings (AA), run the coop gallery, and train for a marathon. Men and women had asked her out, but she just didn't want to be dating, she told them nicely. Only in retrospect would she realize that the day Grace called about introducing them was about a year after she'd first started her hiatus. or what she sometimes referred to, with friends, as her "ceasefire." She'd just completed her first marathon, in Pittsburgh, the day before Grace's call. Maybe that sense of full-circularity was what led Sharon to agree to be fixed up.

They hit it off right away. Abby had a lot of questions about the co-op gallery and how it worked. "You could open me up to my artistic side," she'd said, in that early part a relationship when, no matter what you're talking about, it seems inordinately sexy. "And I could open you up to the competitive business world and help you grow your gallery."

Sharon distrusted the use of the word "grow" as an intransitive verb except within the context of gardening, which she loved more and more each year she did it.

Abby loved that Sharon gardened as well. She was always traveling for business and speaking engagements, always eating lunch and dinner away from home; she loved when Sharon made some organic meal. As the relationship advanced to a half a year, Sharon realized that she and home were to be one and the same for Abby. Not necessarily that she would be Abby's housewife, but, rather, that she was to be the constant to Abby's variable. Around that time, Sharon picked Abby up at the airport. The flight from Chicago had landed at midnight, and Sharon was there. Upon seeing Sharon, Abby was upset by two things:

One: That Sharon had, as a surprise, done something she'd long been wanting to do, which was have a good colorist strip her bleached blond hair back to its original auburn color, which it hadn't been since right before she'd stopped drinking.

Two: When Abby said, "Oh, I'm starved. Do we have anything to eat at home?" and Sharon started listing what was there and Abby interrupted her and said "No. I mean made?" and Sharon said no.

Abby went into a funk about how Sharon probably hadn't even missed her, and Sharon threw in a comment about how, if Abby hated her hair now, then she must hate who Sharon really was.

"Well, no," Abby said. "I think you look gorgeous, I always do."

"I know what it is," Sharon said, herself still able to be surprised by the lack of blondness in the rearview mirror. "When we first hooked up, you told me that one of the things your ex always accused you of was looking at blondes. You told me, remember – you were wearing your big Michigan shirt – 'Yeah, she always said I really wanted a blonde on my arm and now, ha! wait until she sees me with you.' And then you went out of your way to get tickets to that one fundraiser where we had to sit with that couple that looked like twin turtles?" Sharon rehearsed this all in a joking way, and Abby didn't interrupt her. In fact, she left a pause after Sharon finished – rare for Abby – sighed and said, "No, really, of course that was unrealistic of me to expect you to have dinner for me at midnight. It's just that I missed you so much and I've been eating such fatty food."

When they finally settled in to sleep for the night, Sharon said to the dark ceiling, "The opening went really well tonight. We sold two pieces. One to your ex and, you know, the guy she's with. Who's really nice, by the way."

"Thanks for ruining my chances for a good night's sleep, Sharon."

Sharon had been really anxious about the opening the gallery had held that night. It was a group show of really amazing work from all over the country on the general theme of STRUCTURE. After all the pushing Abby had been exerting on her to change it from a coop to a nonprofit corporation so that Abby could work on the leasing of a new multi-use warehouse space in that area, Sharon assumed that she'd be pleased that they'd sold two pieces in a non-buying city like Pittsburgh, or that she'd at least have asked how much the pieces sold for. As she turned to her own mound of pillows, she simply pretended that she hadn't heard the only thing Abby had had to say about it. This was one of the uses to which she put her hearing impairment. Everyone she'd ever been close to–parents, siblings, roommates, lovers, friends–had been happy to enable her in this.

* * *

The first time and only time she had sex with Abby with both of her hearing aids in, Sharon flashed on the image of tiny transistor radios tossing in an endless sea of 500-thread-count Egyptian sheets and goose down.

Abby's solar plexus sounded like a boiler in the basement of a large institutional structure, say a casino complex or hospital. Intimacy's noises were not meant to be this loud, and on top of this, Sharon had to be vigilant about how she moved or positioned her head because those suckers cost a lot of money, and time, when you count all the programming. When Abby put two fingers inside her and she moaned, she heard not only the sound of her brain wiring but also her moans magnified to whalesongs underwater over great distances.

These were the whole clauses Abby said during:

Baby, you're so wet for me.

Point your tongue like it's a bullet.

What did I ever do before you?

But many fail to understand–and though Sharon often tried to explain, Abby didn't get it–that volume and frequency are two really different things. So, for at least three weeks after she broke up with Abby, sure she was doing the right thing but often tempted to pick up the phone, Sharon kept her resolve strong by reminding herself of what it was she'd heard:

You'll never get real love from me.

What you do is bullshit.

You are what I make you.


Ellen McGrath Smith's flash fiction is published or forthcoming in Weave, Switchback, Thickjam, Thumbnail, The Shadyside Review, and Atticus Review. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Oxford Magazine, and Southern Poetry Review (Canada), and others. Among her anthology publications are For a Living: The Poetry of Work (U. of Illinois) and Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos). Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and in the Carlow University Madwomen in the Attic program.