The Fluidity of Love

Barbara Harroun

Jefferson’s life blew apart when he was forty-three years old, after his wife created an account on Facebook. She chose a photograph he was certain he had never seen before, where sunlight created a lacy veil, that cascaded through a deep green canopy on her upturned face. The angle highlighted her cheekbones, and her eyes, cast upward shone with curiosity and wonder. Because she was looking up, there was no evidence of the deep lines whittled into her neck, or the strange skin that had landed like an astronaut under her chin. She often complained about the extra flesh while stroking it in a way that creeped him out. He read her profile with interest, and she unfolded like one of the Jacob’s Ladders she’d tried to cajole the kids into making on the last snow day that actually turned into a snow week. She said her views were liberal, and her religion was humanist, even though she cut through Jefferson’s liberal rants like a can opener excising a tin lid, and insisted the kids squeeze hands and say grace each night, often yelling at them to come up with one lousy thing they were grateful for.

It was February, and misery simmered in everyone he encountered like some sad, pathetic soup made from bones and twigs and the sharp crescents of toenails and fingernails left in the creases of the couch on the kids’ bath nights. He was the office manager and scheduler of the dietary department at the small, local hospital. He made the schedules for the dieticians, line cooks, line supervisors, baker, and high school dietary aides. He also ordered and timed shipments, planned catering for the board meetings, and oversaw the hospital cafeteria menus and events. He did not like his job, but he did not hate it. He had pockets of time to lean on his elbows, palm his own face in his soft hands, and dream of Costa Rica and fucking Debbie from Receiving in the meat refrigerator. Always the meat refrigerator, the slabs of thawing ribs clacking as he pawed at her through her gauzy blouse and bit her neck and wrecked her panty hose. He also used this time to lurk on Facebook, although he knew, ethically, that he was stealing the hospital’s time. Somehow this made finding the three girls who had broken his heart in high school even better, and more satisfying—to see that age had wrought its terrible monotony on them too.

In a matter of weeks, his wife had over 400 friends. He could not believe she even knew that many people. In her posts, she was hilarious and wise, articulating an inner life he could not have guessed at. He would read them, sometimes three in a day, and feel his heart soften. He would look at the photos she posted—their plum tree frosted in snow—and for a moment love the life that had built up around them, often without them consciously making choices. This woman was different from the woman he’d married and even fallen in love with, and each evening he would drive home, feeling a mixture of excitement and disturbance, expecting to open the door and see this woman, the one posting on Facebook, glowing on the couch, smiling beatifically, waiting for him.

But each night he opened the door, and his wife sat at the kitchen table, reading the paper, her glasses on the edge of her nose, her bathrobe cinched tight at her waist even though it was just after 5:15 p.m. And the goddamned kids, who revealed to her (on Facebook anyway) the gloriousness and gratitude that teemed like salmon under the ordinariness of life, were tearing ass down the hallway, chasing each other with benign items they had turned into life threatening weapons. She would barely look up at him, unless it was to check that he had indeed purchased the bread and milk she had tersely texted him about.

Under her sweat pants, her legs held a full winter’s worth of hair, and when he looked at them he couldn’t help it, he thought of Jimmy Sloan, the hairiest kid on the basketball team. He also thought of Debbie from Receiving, whom he was certain was slick as a wet river otter, not a hair on her to speak of. He couldn’t help admitting there was something disturbing about seeing the woman he had so desired pluck hair from her chin while looking in the weird myopic, magnifying mirror. It was often how he found her when he came to kiss her cheek good-bye for the day, and the image chipped away and ruined what he conceived of as love. The woman who had so consumed him at one time that in public, waiting in line at the grocery store, say, he would press up against her ass so she could feel how hard he was, just hearing her talk about the day care work she loved, all that bubble gum in the background, her in those cut-off shorts that had a hole fraying on the inner thigh.

In the parking lot, twenty years ago, he’d pushed her against the hot metal of his Civic and kissed her so hard and deep she’d finally pushed him away and said his name in a whimper-moan, all drawn out, and on the way home, he’d made her pull into a park so he could unzip her shorts, feel how wet she was, make her come in the blazing sunlight, the air conditioner blasting his neck. He looked at her now, and couldn’t imagine her saying his name that way. She didn’t say his name often, unless there was blame attached, and he hated his name then, how it contorted with the quality of shame she elicited with such ease.

One afternoon, after reading a post she had written about the fluidity of love, how it is like water, and how one must choose, again and again, to not only swim in it, but to dive into it, deeply, and touch the bottom, swim the length of it holding your breath, and, also, know when to climb out of the pool, rinse off the chlorine for good, he smoked the lone cigarette he allowed himself each day, hunched against the wind and the miasma of the grease trap. It’s where all the fryer grease is dumped to congeal. It was all the bad smells in the world combined, but also the one place, maybe in the universe, where he was sure he would go undetected. Normally, his wife’s posts had a buoyant whimsy, but here each word felt like she was dropping a stone into the deep pockets of his lined overcoat, weighing him down, one side heavier than the other, so he was off balance, too. He would drown in the pool she wrote of, he was certain. He could see her, with such clarity in his imagination, down to the varicose veins and the skirted tankini, drying off the kids too, preparing to take them into the locker room, so she couldn’t see him flailing in the deep end, drowning fully clothed.

He wanted the day to slow down, to never end, so he never had to walk through the front door to see she was gone, and the kids with her, or worse, to have to look her in the face while she gave the litany of reasons why she had gotten out of the pool months ago, years even, dried off, gotten dressed, and gone to sit under a great tree, where she looked up and up at wonder, at all of the things that were right in front of him that once she had wanted to share with him, but, for the life of him, he just couldn’t see.

Author Portrait

Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming in Slipstream, Eastern Iowa Review, Empty Sink, Per Contra Fiction, Fiction Southeast and Spelk. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism. She finds crazy joy in the out-of-doors, live music, the written word, kitchen dance parties with her kids, and anything gardening/cooking/baking/eating related.


View the website of Barbara Harroun