H O P I N G   F O R   A   B E T T E R   H A L F

Scott Goodhue

Click for detailed view Uptown
the line of customers grew as the groceries rode along the conveyer belt to the checker who anxiously scanned the items' bar codes.

The good selection and the reported potential for an encounter at this, Georgetown's social Safeway, made it worth frequenting. But so far, no luck. Perhaps this just wasn't a bumper crop year.

Her breasts ached and she was hungry. She was almost to the register in the "15 items or less" checkout. The woman in front of her glared back and slapped down the divider bar. This formed a boundary between the end of her junk food products and Jenna's box of tampons (which were accompanied by an assortment of fat-free and fat reduced things). A bagger at the end stuffed the heavy items on bottom, fragile items on top. As the woman in front waited for change, the elderly man behind Jenna tapped the wheels of his cart against her Achilles tendons. She refrained from a mule kick.

Outside the supermarket, a man in a sports utility vehicle motioned her across his path. She threw the groceries on her passenger seat and attempted to back out as drivers on either side signaled for her parking space. One laid on her horn. The other mouthed curses behind a windshield, acquiesced and surged off to find another spot. With room freed, Jenna found a point of entry into the traffic flow.

Adjusting the stereo tuner to the stronger of two interfering stations, she peeled a banana to hold herself over until dinner.

As she traversed across town to Rock Creek Park, Jenna felt the thrill of nearing a secret spot where she could slip away from the hustle and bustle of the Capitol City. Rock Creek Park was her shared hideaway tucked inside Washington--a woody refuge for people to commune with nature and exercise. It was like taking a trip to another place without leaving home.

Done with the inside of the fruit, she flung the banana peel to the car floor on the passenger's side. It landed amongst the assorted mail, including a coupon pack, a postcard with a missing person on front/carpet cleaning service on back, a fitness magazine and a lease renewal agreement from the real estate management office proposing a 10% increase. She wondered how abduction empathy might inspire her to have her rug steam cleaned. Maybe hair fibers would be easier to find. There was more wood than rug in her place anyway. At least the rent increase was an anticipated proposal that was an easy commitment. A proposal from Brad, on the other hand, had become less probable and less worth the wait.

She nosed into the lot by Pierce Hill and found it full, so she crossed the street into the spaces adjacent to the Hungarian embassy. She assessed from the limited availability that everyone was trying to squeeze in as much outdoor exercise as they could before the onset of winter. The hound that sat silently behind the embassy's iron fencing watched her go about her business. Smoke curled from the chimney of a park recreation site around which families coached their young children playing soccer. A little direction and encouragement sent most confused or disgruntled kids back into the game.

The player in possession of the ball caused a swarm to form. Booted away in a direction too far to keep up, the ball fell under another's control until yet another gained possession. The chain reaction continued, a cluster chasing the one with the ball.

Propped beside the opened hatch of her SAAB, she snapped the blades' buckles tightly. At twenty-nine she felt both unready for motherhood and fearful of life without a mate. She wondered how long she could swat down the snooze bar on her biological clock.

"How's the LDR?" Maura had asked early last summer. Jenna wondered if it was a coding term or a political science acronym for something like Lesser Developed Republic, but learned she meant Long Distance Relationship. After two years of living together, Brad up and left for Seattle to pursue a better opportunity in telecommunications. She wanted someone who was successful but not one who thought she would tolerate a cross-country romance just because he had a lot of D.C. business travel. To perpetuate it would be to prolong the feelings of being stranded. Plus, it drew too much attention to the expiration date on her birthing shelf life. On the cusp of the decade that single women are made to fear, she knew where she had to start. Jenna pulled the Velcro straps of her wrist guards taut and pushed off to Beach Drive, where the gates cordoned car traffic.

What she envisioned in her mind was no abstraction, no faceless construct of preferred attributes. He was a six-foot two, 195-pound, big-shouldered intellectual property attorney named David. "Can you believe it?" Jenna was asked aside at the cocktail party where they were introduced, "Isn't he such an anomaly for his profession?" There he had sported an arm in a cast cradled by a sling. He had recently suffered a hand gliding accident at the sand dunes along the North Carolina shoreline by Kitty Hawk. His back, straight with posture, reflected stability as he described the mangled wreckage he had survived. Smile lines were etched into his welcoming features.

He said he thought he had seen her doing "inline skating" at Rock Creek. The notion that he had recognized her from a previous sighting was flattering, let alone that his word choice made her recreational activity sound so sophisticated. When he turned to partake in the heated almandine Brie wheel, Jenna saw that, beyond it all, he had a nice ass.

Ah, the allure of Lycra. Black, form-fitting, sleek. The religious trips to the Stairmaster at the gym paid off--in flesh sculpting dividends. Definition carved her calves and hamstrings on up to her own magnificent compact and athletic globes. At home she examined herself over her shoulder in the full-length mirror, inspecting results, pleased with the curves.

She took in the sound of her nails running across the slope of the synthetic material hugging her hip. How wonderful was sports fashion? An accepted public display of physique. Naked yet concealed. Surpassing the bathing suit, Lycra exhibited the body while emphasizing one's intent on improving its appearance. It said if you like what you see, keep noticing--it may look even better. And how much better could she look? By wearing it alone, she advertised maintenance, that she'd hold her form a long time.

The path from the lot to Beach Drive had bumpy pebbled tar. Leaves and wood matter were mashed into its fissured and pitted surface. This choppy stretch anticipated the smoothly paved street ahead.

A squirrel darted across her path at top speed. The city was full of those black squirrels that had escaped confinement in the National Zoo and had bred with the local population. But this looked like a standard brown one. When it dove for the base of a tree, its hind legs flew about as if assisting in gaining greater distance. It momentarily steadied enough to leave her questioning its ferocity, bounced a brief conniption, then scuttled up the trunk.

No gate seemed as welcoming to Jenna as the gate to Beech Drive. Swung shut like its counterpart on the other end, the gate transformed a conduit into a destination. Within this scheduled time, the roadway became both the means and the ends. The how you got to another place was the very place you were headed.

She rolled forward, inside. Past the diverted car traffic.

An approaching bicyclist in the other lane attempted to set a pedal speed with a leashed Rottweiler that ran by his side. Its strains in her direction caused him to abruptly stop and pull tight. The choke collar constricted and the face of the overly-enthusiastic Rott wrinkled. It let up enough to whimper and woof in place, then lunged forward and wheezed. It repeated this process despite the reprimands. As she continued ahead, she heard the scolds of the owner. Both he and dog watched her fade.

The eyes of an oncomer with too severe a stare bothered her. It felt like being accosted. She hated most when a man showed anger from a rebuffed leer. But if he were a cute guy, she'd give a brief glance of recognition, maybe even a smile. Such acknowledgements could invite greater possibilities.

She smelled the muddy Rock Creek. Translucent plastic grocery bags of blue and white and sand littered its banks, some waving in tree branches, others caught in bramble. Now was the post-beauty of chlorophyll depletion. Leaves no longer green, yellow, red or orange lay fallen, scattered, matted and mixed with sticks and fallen branches. She rolled past oak; silver maple--the young smooth and gray, the old furrowed and flaking into large shaggy plates; Tupelo, with dark bark broken into squares; purple beech and Sycamores with reddish brown and gray bark peels in jigsaw puzzle-like patterns. All blended into a flowing sepia-toned landscape, spotted with green grass and moss.

"On your left!" a disjointed voice rang into her ear. Although she felt there must be plenty of room to pass, she slowed and pulled as near to the right as she could. Three helmeted men in black and florescent colored sportswear shot past on racing bikes. She wondered if their high velocity laughter had anything to do with her. One resembled David from behind but was slighter. Rounding the bend, they quickly vanished.

Up ahead, a small group stood on the grass beside the road. They consulted what looked to be a map. Jenna used her newly learned T-stop by dragging one foot perpendicular behind the other to come to a skillfully controlled halt.

"Do you need any help?" She asked the two males and then acknowledged the woman.

"We're orienting," the woman said.

"Where to?" Jenna asked.

"The next control marker," one of the guys with curly hair and wire-rimmed glasses said. "We're trying to follow a course with these maps."

"Oh, I see, and if I help you, you'd be cheating?" she asked.

"You got it!" the woman said.

"Well, good luck," she said to the other guy grinning her way. The group then turned their attention to the compass cupped in his hand.

Jenna began the steady gradient to the top of the designated recreation zone. She absorbed the mild burn in her quadriceps. It was good for the muscles, good for the body.

A pair of speed skaters came down on the other side of the road with their hands clasped behind their backs. They had the fluid movements that made them appear like more highly developed athletes who had gone beyond hobby and into committed endeavor. The determined packs of long distance bikers paled in comparison. After all, they just peddled, even if their asses bobbed above their racing seats when they went uphill.

The male speed skater was a few lengths before the woman. As he passed with momentum and extra wheels in his favor, he yelled, "Hi, Jenna!"

A jolt shivered through her. The greeting resounded in her mind. Then it registered. It was David. And his woman-friend was close behind, gracefully rolling past with a pleasant smile. Off they went to cover a wider distance. Jenna released a weak "Hi," uncertain if it went unheard. She had to keep moving. To break this pregnant pause. She forced herself to continue upward.

At the point where Beach Drive crested, she grabbed onto the barrier gate that flaked with rust and brown paint. She pressed against a cautionary sign bolted to it. Some cars stopped and turned at the intersection on the other side. Blood coursed through her veins. Her eyes pulsed and the scenery seemed to breathe in the rhythm.

Jenna rolled back from the black-and-white diagonal stripes and blinked off the sting in her eyes. She fixed a hard stare downhill, then thrust forward as if breaking out of a starting gate. She pressed one set of wheels into the tar, then the other. She parted her legs to a set spacing. When the wind resisted her upright figure, she crouched into a tuck position. Low to the ground, she rapidly gained speed. Her legs burned but the wind felt exhilarating. She penetrated the surrounds and strove to become indistinguishable from the blur to the sides, aloft but grounded.

The slowing started as the hill planed. Ahead were David and his companion. Straightening caused her feet to wobble. Jenna crouched low again but continued to slow as the road leveled. She dug her skates to propel forward in an attempt to catch up. She rebuilt speed with side-to-side shifts of weight.

The shrill scream of tires pierced the air. A white mini van swerved away from a golden sports sedan on a sidestreet to the left of Beech drive. The two vehicles jockeyed beside one another. The driver of the sedan leaned out his window, cursed, shook a fist and yelled, "Sonofabitch--cut me off!"

He then hurled the prescription bottle clenched in his fist. The brown vial deflected off the van's roof. He defiantly flipped his middle finger to the van driver. The van darted over, sideswiped the sedan and jerked away. The dueling cars were coming closer. Before her, David and his companion were chatting closely, oblivious to the world around them. All was converging at the side street intersection of Beech Drive.

Jenna exploded forward with every ounce of energy she had.

"Look out!" she screamed and lunged forward. The van broke through the chain sectioning off the side street. As David fell back, Jenna tackled his companion. The women sailed onto the earth alongside the street. A loud metallic bang was followed by another.

Jenna sucked in to replace the wind knocked out of her. She gazed above at the branches of a beech reaching at the gray-blue sky. She turned her head and saw the van crumpled head on against an oak. The sedan was mushed against the rear of the van. Original forms were all lost. She tried to interpret the crushed glass, plastic bits and masses of metal against their previous state. But their previous state was no more.

"Don't come any closer!" David said, turning wild-eyed from the crash remains. Jenna rested her cheek. She watched him circle the wreckage.

Changing her focus, she saw something small and wishbone shaped. There it lay on the muddy earth a few yards from where she lay. Too far to touch but near enough to see. She called them helicopter leaves as a kid. It must have fallen from some neighboring maple. The paired forked wings looked so symmetric. Each served as a flying apparatus for the seeds encased at their respective ends, where they joined. And so frail and crispy. Between the thumb and index finger, their tiny, veined brown structure would crumble with one rub. But if she could, she would pluck it up, hold it as high as her arm would stretch and beyond to some dizzying height, tip the seeds facing downward and release.

She imagined a drifting, spinning flight path. The cleaved leaves propelling downward on a mission to seed new life. Whirling a predictable motion on an uncertain course. Waiting for the landing. To settle.

She rotated her head in the other direction and rested the opposite cheek. David's friend lay facing her, shaking in a fetal position. Jenna rolled herself to her side. They lay before one other in a mirrored alignment.

She heard the near again, far again sound of a siren. More people rushed to the scene. Jenna reached out and squeezed the other woman's hand. She pressed it against the earth. The blood that flowed from between Jenna's legs felt welcomed. She couldn't be disturbed from this spot. It was the most connected she had felt in a long time.

Across the paved path she saw the mountain biker with his Rottweiler. It lifted its leg to mark a beech tree. Its owner stretched his legs on the pedals to elevate his ass over the seat. When her gaze locked with the Rott's bulging eyes, it sprung forward, barking. As it jerked on its leash, the biker attempted to reposition. He slipped. His balls slammed hard against the frame.

He wrested himself away from the two-wheeler's light but sturdy alloy construction, stumbled and fell. He too lay in a fetal position, cupping himself with one hand and restraining his best friend with the other. The dog behaved as if this dismount was a playful action. It noisily worked at coaxing its speechless master to his feet.

Too bad for the awkward set of circumstances, Jenna thought. From her vantage point, he looked kind of cute. In a vulnerable sort of way.

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Swagazine 9
Winter 2001

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