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"Rondo in a Minor Key" by Nina Rubinstein Alonso

I try to stay away from maddening people, better than I used to be at spotting them, but Alejandra called after her accident.

“Bad enough I have scoliosis, now tendonitis, can’t paint, don’t want to listen to anyone whining about tiny problems,” was her conversation starter.

Someone drew purple stars on her splint, but she scowled and sniffed when I suggested they might be positive energy symbols. After sipping her bitter parsnip tea, I was done, maxed out. They’re in a shabby Somerville building that once housed workers who rise before dawn, now rented by bleary looking students lugging backpacks.

She’s a painter who teaches art at the high school where Jared runs science lab, and their apartment is full of her circle paintings, plus concoctions he builds from wheels, wire and pieces of wood. He raises tetras and lizards, so their back room is lined with glass cages. With her splint she gestures toward a photo of Jared wearing a billowing cape, lunging forward on elongated skates, and says, “Captain Super-Glide. Low tide at the shore, fun, until I hit a fucking clump of seaweed.”

Cartoon ridiculous painful.

I’m in grad school scraping by on a tiny stipend, do yoga, write poems my friend Heather calls psychic mystery maps, live in an attic with a clunky space heater and gray floorboards painted by someone who ran out of ‘tropical storm’ and made do with ‘submarine.’

Since leaving Sam, I’ve met a series of dismal men, Devon, a grad school nerd, thick glasses, hairy, depressive, who took my rejection as another dark stroke of destiny. At Heather’s party Josh and Hank, dullsville duo, shaggy unappealing computer-geeks, then Kent, ginger-haired, hyper-chatty about nothing much. Bored by the deluge of boozy talk, I leave early, but around midnight there’s banging on my door, Kent, crazy drunk. How did he get my address?

“Hey, Leah,” then starts singing bits of a song I don’t recognize, hiccuping the way people do before they throw up.

From inside my locked door I yell, “Kent, go sleep it off.”

“Ten minutes, then I’ll go like a good boy. Dammit, open up, woman!” pounding so hard I’m afraid the wood might crack, but keep refusing as he’s a short-fused alcoholic though Heather said he’s a doctor at Mass. General.

“I work early, no time for this shit.” Unsure how to get rid of him, I fake-march as if going upstairs. My soccer-playing neighbor Helga is bigger than Kent and would have tossed him out easily, but she’s kayaking off the Maine coast.

Finally hear him clumping downstairs, lurching on the last step and out the front door, grateful he didn’t fall or do some emergency sort of thing. Tomorrow I’ll call the handyman for a serious deadbolt.

Divorcing Sam was depressing, mad at myself for letting a stupid fling expand into a legalized blunder. Mom said it’s impractical to discard a well-heeled Harvard man, though she didn’t like him either, agreed he’s rather boring and a snob. Post-divorce, friends turn suspicious as if I’ve turned siren, though too depressed to flirt, too broke to simulate chic, too bruised to consider getting close to anyone.

One afternoon I’m at the kitchen table red-penciling freshman papers, circling spelling errors, patching scrambled grammar, nothing to break the monotony but watching squirrels scramble over the roof, when there’s a knock—Jared.

Alejandra is Tex/Mexican, brown eyes, wavy dark hair, cute, but Jared’s cuter, hazel eyes, mop of topaz curls, gold-rimmed glasses. Puzzling what they’re doing together, can’t make sense of relationships, mine or anyone else’s, bewildering how people connect or disconnect.

He smiles his way in the door, “Appointment with a patent lawyer about my new prototype designs, but had to reschedule,” then sits on the couch, actually a mattress-box-spring with a red Indian spread and a few pillows.

He pulls drawings from a glossy-paged folder, “My upgraded Super-Glides, unlike anything on the market, electrified light-up wheels, made in Vermont,” then moves on to illuminated hose nozzles and whirling solar bicycle rims.

I have a habit of nervous politeness with high-pressure types, try to avoid confrontation, generating silence that’s easily misread. “How’s Alejandra,” I ask, sure he didn’t tell her he’s here.

“Having a hard time,” takes off his glasses and rubs bloodshot eyes. But instead of putting them back on, sets them on the side table, grabs my shoulders, pushes me against the pillows, reaching under my sweater with rapid fingers.

“No, Jared,” muffled by his mouth.

“Don’t worry, not making babies,” yanks my hand to his rapidly ripe penis, comes with a few quick jerks and sighs,“What about you?” He’s dabbing himself with tissues from his pocket, as he’s unzipped, pants open, rapidly detumescent. Shoving his hands away, I spy his wrist tattoo, a fork-tongued black serpent.

“Want some fun?”

“Not like this,” disgusted he assumes it’s fine to force himself on me, even expects me to be turned on.

“You’re so slim,” he says, breezily comparing my body to Alejandra’s rounder one, infuriating.

He picks up his glasses, goes to the bathroom, while I scrub at the kitchen sink, hook my bra, pull down my sweater, zip my jeans, pick up toss pillows from the floor by his drawings, spot a semen-slime blotch on the spread, pull it off, stuff it in the laundry bag.

The phone rings, but I can’t answer.

Jared puts on his glasses, hawk-squints at me, picks up drawings and slides them into neatly labeled file folders.

He animal-grabbed me so fast I couldn’t push him away, his standards of encounter entirely selfish. Revenge comes to mind, but what and how? Too late to rip designs as he’s counting pages, making sure nothing’s lost under the couch.

“I have papers to grade,” I say instead of cursing this nasty bastard. He’s obviously stronger than me, and I want him out of my apartment more than I want to make a political statement or start an argument that might keep him there longer.

Once he’s gone, I snap the lock, hear the downstairs door slam, try to rearrange my psyche so I’ll never make this kind of mistake again with Jared or anyone else. I wasn’t attacked at knife point, not a raped virgin, but was overpowered, forced, insulted. Maybe I shouldn’t have opened the door, but couldn’t guess he’d be such a nasty shit. I declare myself innocent, get into the tub and soak.

Next day Alejandra calls. “Can you come over? I’m overwhelmed, don’t know what to do.”

Did Jared tell her? Unlikely, as she’d be screaming, not looking to confide, assume he keeps escapades secret, like notes on his drawings, printed in tiny, code-like letters, tucked in his briefcase. “Busy today,” I say, not willing to hear what’s bothering her or accidentally run into him. I’m in no mood to indulge her, just need her to shut up.

No way to revise the past, but if Jared calls, I’ll hang up, if he knocks at my door, it stays locked, and if he won’t leave, I’ll call my muscular neighbor or the police.

Weeks pass and there’s no next time, no Jared knocking, no calls from Alejandra. She sends an invitation to her circle painting exhibition, but the gallery’s in Rhode Island, and I don’t have a car.

Months later I see her at the farmer’s market, with a slim, dark-haired man she introduces as Diego. Her splint is gone, hair streaked purple, and she’s wearing a loose black sweater that camouflages uneven shoulders.

We chat about how ‘busy’ we’ve been, the sort of excuse that maintains distance. If we ever talk, my secrets will stay secret. She doesn’t mention breaking up with Jared, but says he’s gone to Copenhagen where there’s commercial interest in Super Glides.

They leave holding hands, and I walk across the square to meet Heather at Cafe Mozart thinking, “Good for you, Alejandra,” as it’s not easy to end a relationship, however big a sleaze a guy may be, get past an injury and keep painting.

But what if she’s not entirely the wronged innocent, maybe screwing around with Diego while Jared was messing with me? There are maxims about sauce for the goose and gander, but what do they explain or excuse? No use finger-pointing, a strategy that lets us feel justified running around, doing whatever. No need, as we’re clever enough to do that all by ourselves.

Nina Rubinstein Alonso's work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, Broadkill Review, Peacock Literary Review, Writing in a Woman's Voice, etc. Her book This Body was published by David Godine Press, and her chapbook Riot Wake is upcoming from Cervena Barva Press.

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