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**PRINT: THE2NDHAND’s 31st broadsheet features a short by Portland-by-way-of-Montana writer Aaron Parrett that captures the power and glory of ambivalence after, during, and prior to what the unemployed poet-protagonist comes to clearly see as, if not love, then surely "Tolerance," the story's title. Parrett is the author of The Translunar Narrative in the Western Tradition as well as numerous stories that have been featured in lit mags around the nation. No. 31 also features a piece by Kyle Beachy, author of the newly released novel The Slide, out from Dial Press, and a vanguard discount coupon and special FAQ from the herbal remedies and soap makers at The Left Hand (thelefthand.net).

BLUE CARTS Zachary Cole
DECISIONS Matthew Brian Cohen
VERY SMALL CURES Alec Niedenthal
HIDEOUS BOUNTY: G.O.D. | Andrew Davis

Philip Brunetti

Brunetti lives and writes in Brooklyn, N.Y.

We didn't know where we were going or why we were going there. We sat around and talked a bit. The conversation was very general, almost dull. I had so little to say to this woman but she was like many of the other women except more so. I said a few words about the weather. It was trite and noncommittal. How could one commit to the weather? It's always changing, even if nothing else is.

I had to say something else. Think something else. So, here is this woman, I thought. She's built up her own dreams and layers of insights. She's wanted to make something of herself, too. And here we find ourselves beside each other in the same moment in time. It's no mere accident. Everything in the universe may be an accident -- but this isn't. It has a purpose and a grand eloquence almost as if it's already happened. Like it's fate that's found itself unfolding from the napkin of time and the ever expanding. I had to close my mind then for a few seconds. I was stupidly thinking so big, but the moment was very small.

Columbia College Fiction Writing Department

All in all, everything in my life has been a failure. I've tried several different courses with several different women and careers and all has come to naught. You might call me bitter, but bitterness takes too much energy. I have a sardonic streak, but that's par for the course. I had a lot of things to take advantage of. I expected a lot more by this point. I was very quietly ambitious, not ever admitting it to myself. I wanted a Nobel by now. No, not really. I have no use for awards or public acknowledgement. I merely want to say a few things clearly. Why is that so hard? The hardest thing in the world is to write a true sentence and when I say true I don't mean factual. Those of you who know anything understand me, and those of you who don't, it doesn't matter.

So the woman, etc. We came here together but we're not really together. We merely met here and struck up a conversation. She said a few things about the neighborhood. I commented on the weather. The chemistry is not necessarily right. Who knows? So little is knowable these days. After a few minutes she crossed her legs. I took this as a come-on. I wanted to come on those legs. Of course I wouldn't have told her this. I told her things about the weather instead. Cumulus clouds. It seems I'd just been reading an article about cumulus clouds. I tried not to sound too much like a know-it-all. I felt a little uptight. I wanted to ask her about Elliot Gould. Had she ever heard of this actor? What was the point of Elliot Gould now? It seemed scary that someone could just come and go, even a famous person. I didn't want to get too deep with her. I didn't think I myself was very deep. Just obsessive and confused. Tired and weary, too.

"So, what about Elliot Gould?" I said.

"Elliot Gould?" she said.


We turned the conversation over to the topic of Elliot Gould. She said a few meaningful things. I tried to be insightful. This is what's been called a conversation. A conversation about Elliot Gould.

The next day. Well, the next day. There wasn't a next day, yet. It will take a long time to get to the next day. You don't just mention the next day and expect it to arrive. We'd done enough, taking a chance on Elliot Gould. I liked to say that name, too: Elliot Gould. I said it to her a few times. She didn't seem to grimace or frown. I didn't use the name as a weapon but as a conversational tool. We were just having a conversation. It was all these conversations later. We'd both had about 40,000 conversations in our lives with a host of different people. But right now it was a conversation about Elliot Gould and, so, what about him? If we could understand the truth about Elliot Gould, could we understand the truth about ourselves? I had my doubts. I didn't want to be so ambitious. It was a trick question in a lot of ways. So much of a trick question that I didn't dare ask it to her. To her. Her. She. Words like these to identify the woman on the other side of the table. The woman I've got many things to say about. The one over here. Yes, very near to me, her, she.

And so, well, yes, it's a little different now. I'm not going to get into too much of it -- but it's a little different. I won't give the woman a name. I didn't learn her name. At least not her real name. Maybe she was Lillith. Or maybe she was Fran, Debra, Gracie, Ernesta, Lulu, Katerina, Louise, someone special or not. I won't get into names. Names have destroyed me. Real life has hurt. But this, in a way, was also real life. We had each other there. We had our conversation. I think we each held a cup of coffee. I tried to balance the saucer on my knee for a time with legs crossed, one over the other. My knee was rather flat. I was aware of my flat knee. I wanted her to put her hand on it but that was desiring too much.

"Not yet," I said out loud.

She looked at me a little curiously.

"It's OK," I said. "There's so much to tell you."

"I want to hear it all," she said.

"All of it?" I said. "You're sure, all of it?"

"Of course," she said.

We grinned. It was a happy moment. It was a way of understanding that we wouldn't have to go over everything after all. Most things can be passed over in silence. Most things are understood with a nod, a gesture, or just the lines on the face. What are the lines on the face? They're every story that you've ever lived or been told. Why take away the lines from the face? Take away the lines and you take away the stories. Take away the stories and you might as well not have lived.

I understood then that Elliot Gould was not a handsome man and never had been. But he looked like a man. That was important.

"Elliot Gould looked like a man," I said.

"I know what you mean," she said.

"Not many men look like men anymore," I said.

"I know what you mean," she said.

There were other things said in this vein. I can't report all of it. I can't explain the whole conversation except to say it had some life to it. Some vigor. After all, we were just there in that coffee house to escape time and destiny for a little while, but we found time and destiny instead. It was time and destiny in the lines of Elliot Gould's face.

"I love a few lines in the face," she said. "I even love a couple of dark circles under the eyes. It depends," she said. "It depends on the whole face. The whole man, even."

"Yeah, I can see that," I said.

The place was painted a pale orange. It was not the burnt orange of the walls of Florence. Instead we were in New York City. It wasn't a chain place. It was independently owned. It was as close as a coffee house gets to Elliot Gould's face, but I certainly wasn't going to say that. I wasn't going to report that or make that oddly weird comparison. I didn't want her to think me completely obsessive. I had a lot of things I wanted to say to this woman still. And a lot of things I wanted to do. I wanted to sit down at a sewing machine with her and watch her sew the hem of my pants. She told me she'd worked as a seamstress once. I couldn't believe it. I didn't know anything about sewing machines. But sewing machines were suddenly sexy. Sewing machines were suddenly turning me on. I could see her passing the material of pant's leg or whatever through the base of the machine and the stitcher going up and down. Her foot on the pedal. I knew a little bit of how it worked. I wanted to ask her what a bobbin was. What's a bobbin? That's what I wanted to say, but I couldn't let myself. It sounded idiotic. A bobbin. How could anyone ever talk about a bobbin anymore? It was beyond the constraints of contemporary time and space.

"What are bobbins?" I said to her.

She smiled. She told me what bobbins did, how they were just reels that held and spun wound thread. It was enough for me. Now I wanted to fall down on my knees and whisper a proposal to her. Why not? What was the difference between a thirty or forty-minute conversation and two or three years of dating? All I could see was that you built up routines in the latter case, and with the routines came masks. Not that we weren't wearing masks now. Of course we were. We were wearing our it's-nice-to-meet-you-what's-the-weather-like-what-do-you-think-of-Elliot-Gould? masks. I kept this mask as a regular part of my repertoire. I probably hadn't even known I had it, but now I knew I had it. But other things were happening also, other masks. There was the mask of sewing machines. I hadn't worn that mask in a long time. It was a special mask. It even had a separate bobbin mask that came along with it. I wore the bobbin mask. I told her I was wearing the bobbin mask. She grinned. Besides the bobbin mask I was wearing the Elliot-Gould mask. The his-lines-on-the-face mask. The why-don't-more-men-look-like-men mask. All of this. She had her masks too. She wore her seamstress mask and her bobbin mask. We both wore coffee-cup masks. I don't even know how many masks there were. I knew that in 45 minutes I'd exhausted so many masks. How could I date this woman for two years -- and then ask her to marry me? I'd run out of masks. Or the masks would get so plentiful that I wouldn't know what I was talking about or who I was anymore. I wanted her without so many masks in the future. I wanted her now, before the masks could accumulate. All this time I was thinking about masks, she was sipping her coffee and smiling.

"Masks," I said finally.

She nodded knowingly.

Maybe we hadn't met after all.

Finally it was time to leave the café. She had a dinner date with Elliot Gould. I was going to see an Elliot Gould movie. Those were just masks. We didn't want to talk about it anymore. The conversation had gone quite well. But it was time to go. The end of the coffee cup had arrived. The empty cup is heavy in your hands. It's a shiny white cup with vague coffee-stain residue inside it. You look at the bottom of the cup. A hundred or a thousand or ten thousand other hands have held this cup and drunk from its contents. Lips where your lips were.

"I've got to go," she says.

"OK," I say. "Too bad."

"What's too bad?" she says.

"I don't know," I say.

She smiles softly.

"I don't know," I say again. I want to say something else but can't think of what to say. I'm losing the thread of everything we could mean to each other. Maybe I should tell her. Tell the former seamstress about this thread.

"Thread," I say.

"What about it?" she says.

"I don't know," I say. "There's a lot of different threads."

"So there are," she says.

She stands up. There's something wrong with one of her hands. Her left hand. It looks permanently craggy or cramped in an unnatural position. I don't ask her about it. It's probably a side effect from so much sewing. So much sewing once upon a time.

"See you," she says. At least you think you hear her say this. It's been a long time. A lot of words get said. It's a wonder you hear any of them. The time comes and goes. One day it's Tuesday and the next day it's Wednesday. Some people are busy and some people aren't. There's a lot of money being spent. Money on Botox and cosmetic surgery, too. Lines taken out, lines put in. Some people are born ugly and some are beautiful. Sometimes you can change this and sometimes you can't. Usually, you can't.

I get up and leave the coffee house. I trip slightly on the little lip in the doorway on my way out. "I want to carry you across the threshold," I say to the ex-seamstress. But she's gone. I think she went to see an Elliot Gould movie. Or maybe that was yesterday. Or maybe that was me.

I get to wondering about all this space that's between you and me, between your life and my life. It seems like you're doing a lot of stuff but if I ever get with you I know you're not doing that much stuff after all. And even if you are, it's just stuff. It doesn't mean anything more than that. It's just a lot of stuff. But there's a lot going on here. You don't need me to know that.


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