Only Child

by John Humpal

He wants it in leather. He wants it in black. He's had his eye on it so long he can taste it: the creaking woody scent, the slick warmth. He's had his mind on it so long he can feel it: parchment dry, salty as life itself. "Are you talking about a belt?" his wife asked. "Oh yes," he said, "a belt, yes." "Then go on out and get one," she told him. "Nobody's stopping you."

Every few weeks, he arranges to meet a woman for lunch. They met about a year ago in the waiting room at his dentist's office. He knows what she likes. He brings her curried egg on pita and ice tea. "What's in the bag?" she asks. He pulls out the belt. Her name is Sabra, an old family name -- he asked about it once: "Are you?" "Yes," she said, "I am a cactus." They are sitting on a low wall outside the building where she works. It is a fine afternoon, not yet too warm for a weekday picnic. He places a napkin on her lap and lets his hand brush the smooth sleeve of her motorcycle jacket. "Do you realize," she says, catching a yellow chunk of egg that falls from her sandwich, "that when you got married, I had just started wearing a training bra?" Sabra's glasses reflect the street, the people and cars and bicycles. A woman pulls a red wagon piled high with boxes. "My boyfriend makes packing material," she says. "Foam peanuts and bubble wrap. Of course, he's also an artist."

"This belt is reversible." He shows her its two sides, black and brown.

"Robert and I fight all the time, so we're going to get married. You're the first to know that, but you didn't hear it from me."

Dogs in her lenses, now, two of them. A baby carriage.

"We've talked about having a child, but my wife isn't sure the time is right." He touches her jacket, rubs the leather between his fingers. The fabric whispers to him. "What did you say?"

"My friend," she repeats, "just had her second baby."

"Boy or girl?"

"I don't know. She gives them away. Lanie doesn't want kids, but she's so fertile she can't seem to help it. Says it would be a shame to waste ovaries like hers."

"And you?"

"Someday, sure. My boyfriend is an only child. He wants to keep it that way, but he'll come around."

He leans against Sabra's shoulder. Her jacket is soft, pliable where the sun is touching it.

"Your wife will come around, too," she says, then brushes his knee lightly, briefly. "I'm sure of it."

He holds up his belt, turns it, twists it into a helix. "I think she'll prefer the brown side," he says. "I already have a black one, you see." He wraps the belt around his wrist. The buckle glints back at him in her glasses. He reaches out and takes the lapels of her jacket, pulls her close and kisses her forehead, her lips, as gently and quickly as a breath. His wife met Sabra at a party once, about a year ago, and pronounced her "cute." "Too bad she's not your type," she added.

Sabra lays her hands over his knuckles, leans in and rubs her hair against his chin. They stand, sweeping the grit from their backsides, gathering trash and crumpling paper. "See you," he says.

She smiles, holds her hand up. "Lunch is on me next time."

On his way to the bus stop, he removes his old belt and begins threading the new one through the loops of his pants. About halfway done, he realizes the belt is twisted, and stops. His hands don't move. He looks over his shoulder, but Sabra is gone, back inside the building where she works. He feels the sharp edge of the belt where it bends in on itself, and knows he has only to turn it this way or that to make it show all one color. A bus wheezes down the street, and people pass around him. They move slowly, at leisure on this fine day, and the lunch hour is not quite over yet.

Copyright 1995
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