For a Penny

For a penny, I’d do a lot of things. For a certain kind of penny, I’d buy a friend a cup of coffee. I’d send a nice card, made from recycled or hand-made paper. I’d color a paper plate, make a sign that said “I smell delicious” and pin it to Andrew’s shirt for him to find when he gets out of the shower.

For a penny, I would not:
A) Sleep with my best friend’s brother
B) Tell my mother she’s fat
C) Strangle a dog

This last one has nothing to do with my PETA membership. In fact, it was Andrew who signed me up with PETA, because it wasn’t enough that I stopped eating meat. Fish, even, which doesn’t count as meat. Andrew said the fish farms were cruel because the fish didn’t have room to move around. “Swim, you mean?” I asked. He said, “Whatever.”When I was eight years old I found a penny dated 1945. Ancient. When I realized that was the year the war ended – and that my father was born that same year – I thought of him as a relic. I started watching him cook, and imagined that he could have been decorated a War Baby just for being born right before it wasn’t 1945 anymore. He’d flip a pancake and I’d envision a gold star on his shoulder. I don’t know what happened to the penny. I assume I spent it, because it wouldn’t have occurred to me to save it back then, and even now I spend almost everything I earn. I’ve emptied out my change purse for a Butterfinger and a bag of pretzels.Andrew isn’t like that. Andrew has money for every parking ticket, box of Red Vines and car wash he needs. He comes over to my apartment with movies he buys for the special Tuesdays we plan,and always brings the Mexican food. I can’t afford a roll of tape, and he doesn’t know which car to take to the mountains on the weekend.He’s decisive in other ways. He decided on our twenty-fifth date that he wanted to marry me. We were sitting in front of my sister’s house, which is where I lived back then, and he said that he would remember that night because it was the night he knew he was sitting next to the girl he was going to marry. I told him I might be moving to Australia, and he shrugged his shoulders. “To the outback,” I said, “to live with Aborigines and drink tree sap and piss in piss holes by the water.” He told me, “Great.”I did other things to throw him off the scent of me. I painted purple streaks and braided pieces of yarn into my hair the night before we were going to meet his mother. He asked what I was doing, and I replied that I had some extra yarn left over from the scarf I’d knitted the year before. I mentioned that I’d baked an apple pie that afternoon. He said, “I love apple pie.” I chickened out the next morning and washed the purple out of my hair, untied the yellow yarn. He asked what I was doing and I replied that I was undoing. When he asked why I told him that I’d hoped he would be ashamed of me and the yarn in my hair, and call his mother to tell her I was insane and that he’d left me for someone named Ashley. He bent down and picked up a piece of yellow yarn from the kitchen floor. He took my left ring finger in his bigger fingers and tied the yarn around it. He kissed that finger and said, “I’d rather not.”Once, I thought I might be pregnant. I lay in bed for most of the morning, did not go to work. I lay in my blue underwear, topless, running my hands over my body trying to decide if I felt different to me. My belly was warm and my breasts were only a little tender, nothing unusual. But my belly was so warm that I decided I either had to be pregnant, or my body wanted me to be very badly. I stuck out my stomach as far as I could, which wasn’t very far, and imagined that the bulge was a baby; a few cells clumped together that looked something like a sea horse at that stage of bulge. I imagined God as real – choosing my body for this creature, and choosing Andrew as the messenger that got me this way – my only link to whatever it was that made us better than animals.I discarded that idea and got up out of bed. I emptied out a small jar of paprika from the spice rack onto the counter and put my palms down into the powder. Then I stuck my hands on my belly where my hands left red stains like postmodernist leaves crawling up from my hip bones, and I decided I would call the baby something that meant “warrior” or “earth.” When Andrew came home later to find me covered in paprika and still topless, I told him we might be pregnant. He knelt on the carpet beside the bed and buried his face in my belly. He had red in his eyebrows when he finally looked at me. “We’re just animals,” I said, “This is what we get for growling at each other.”He nuzzled his nose into my belly button and breathed. I started counting how many gray hairs he had in his sideburns. When I got to twelve I stood up and announced that I was going to take a shower, that he was not allowed to join me.I cried for forty-five minutes in the shower when I got my period. I guessed my belly had been so warm because the lining of my uterus had been ready to tear itself away from the rest of my body entirely, as though I was all acid inside, and no sea horse baby would want to live in such a wasteland. I couldn’t blame it, little Earth. Andrew somehow jimmied the bathroom door and got in the shower with me. He had turned up the water heater so we wouldn’t run out of hot water, and he held me for another thirty minutes in there, at which point I decided I was wrinkled enough to be worried for the state of my fingertips. He combed my hair and wrapped me in two blankets before putting me to bed that night.The next day I took off work again to move out and into my sister’s basement. When Andrew found me and asked why I’d gone, I told him he’d be a terrible father and then I continued to dust. He kissed me on the back of the neck and told me he’d see me the next day.One night a long time later I made dinner for Andrew and bought a Sade album to play while we ate. I waited until twenty minutes after ten o’clock to call and find that his phone had been turned off; I was immediately sent to his voice mail. I became terribly angry at him for not charging his phone, and for taking whatever extra work he had taken, and that he did not know my number by heart so that he could call from his office. I turned off the repeat button on Sade and went to bed with the TV on.I think it was around 4am when Andrew let himself in. I woke up immediately but pretended to be asleep. I did this until I heard Andrew sniffing, and I decided I’d better warn him not to get close to me if he was sick. When I saw him in the light of TV, though, I saw that he was crying, and by the looks of him, had been doing so for quite sometime. He sat down on the foot of the bed and I turned on the lamp.I thought maybe his mother had been killed. He hit a dog. Found out he was adopted. He said, “I slept with someone.”There was a power outage. Today I still imagine this was because, with my hand on the lamp, something surged through me, through the lamp and into the circuitry of my whole building, cutting off people’s refrigerators and alarm clocks. Or, I thought, maybe he’d hit me. I knew he hadn’t because I was still sitting up with my hand on the lamp, but it was so dark and the blood in my head was so loud I thought he might have told me he slept with someone else, and then immediately hit me to make the initial pain of what he’d said less painful.“Elle?” Andrew asked.I thought of the time I took up weight-lifting. I thought of being on the floor of the gym on a mat, clenching my stomach muscles together, while looking only at the one poster of a woman sprinting across a desert like a cheetah. I thought of my weight-lifting philosophy; that if I held onto and breathed through the pain, while lowering myself into it, I could become part of the pain. I could inflict the pain on myself, and then let it go, and stretch.I put my hands over my head in the dark, and started teetering back and forth, reaching for one corner of the room and then the next.“Elle, what are you doing?” The sound of his voice through the sound of the blood in my head was sterile, like he was speaking out of a glass test tube: thin and in a straight line.“I’m stretching,” I told him. My voice sounded small to me in the room, like the sound happened only in my mouth, and stopped where my teeth beckoned entrance.“Did you hear what I told you, Elle?”I stretched for another three seconds and then put my arms down. “Yes,” I said. I could ask for details; the color of her nail polish, what kind of shoes she’d been wearing. I imagined Andrew smitten with her toes – that he’d followed her toes all the way to her townhouse, and up the stairs to a bedroom with a hanging star lantern over the bed. I could ask what her earrings looked like. I was imagining tiny silver flowers growing from her earlobes when the power came back on.I had not been breathing, and so I took a breath. Andrew looked like he hadn’t been breathing, either, and his face was red and blotchy. He was much uglier than I thought he’d been in the morning.He reached into his pocket and then lay his palm open so I could see the tiny copper penny laying in it. He said, “There’s a twenty-four hour coin shop across the river. That’s why I’m late.” His voice dropped off at the end of “late.”I thought of the irony of that statement. Late because he’d been searching for a 1945 penny for me, after sleeping with someone else. Searching for a penny.I stared at it for a long time. I decided if he closed his hand or took the penny away before I was finished looking at it, I would tell him to leave and never come back.

For a Penny

Morgan Wade

Redlands, United States

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Artist's Description

A friend and I decided to play a game where we pick three words and write a short story from them. I picked three words off the back of a Chipotle cup, and viola!

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