BY VIRGINIA KONCHAN
I met Zach while choking on a Vietnamese Spring Roll at Lemon Grass, in University Heights. I was on a blind date with a man named William, my first date after my divorce to Hank.
Confused? Me, too.
A mutual friend (mine through kayaking, his through consulting), Lori, had introduced William and I. Clean-shaven. Employed. Dimpled chin. So far so good. Bite three turned quickly, however, thanks to an over-hasty swallow, prompted by awkward conversation, and his own rapid-fire eating (he cleared the appetizer plate and half his entrée in under two minutes, without looking up), into a code-red emergency. Hands to my swan-like throat, I stood up, and tried to communicate I’m choking to death with my bulging eyes.
"Oh my God!" William shouted, quickly emerging from his bad date food coma, and standing up. "People! Sorry to interrupt your meals! Does anyone here know the Heimlich Maneuver?"
At first I thought he said "Heimlich Remover," as in, an acetone solution to remove not just nail polish but airway blockages. Or Heimlich Removal. Removal services. That’s what my brother Stephen does. He owns a landscaping company, in Medina. Stephen is also married. Two kids. Stock options. Retirement savings. Six week of vay-cay a year. A sprinkler, and a lawn.
A 30something special ed teacher, my only claim to fame is a used Mazda (210,000 miles), and uninterrupted downtime on Sundays. Woot. Those were the thoughts that went through my head while waiting for my life to be saved.
Then Along Came Zach.
"I’m a doctor," he said, firmly. Without further ado, this large stranger in a lime green Polo shirt positioned himself behind my back, wrapped his arms around me, and gave my esophagus several rapid pumps with his closed fists. The lodged piece of Spring Roll flew out. Face blue, my knees buckled, and I would have fallen to the floor, had Zack not caught me. "You’re alive," he said. "Can you breathe?"
I nodded, gulping back breath, and tears.
"I’m so embarrassed," I said. "Thank you. Jesus. How did—Jesus. I’m sorry." I turned to William, then Zack, and then the rest of the patrons, several of whom were standing up, holding their cloth napkins, alarmed. I waved, meekly. "Hi," I said. The staff then swooped down, cooing, like mother hens whose solicitous show of care didn’t quite mask their actual fear: food service litigation. I assured them of my aptitude for PTSD survival. They slowly retreated, and the rest of the patrons sat down.
"Here’s my business card," said Zack. "I’m actually a real estate agent, but I served time as a medic in Iraq. Call me if you have any concerns, Ms, Miss,"
"Elena," I said. “And I will. Call you. With concerns."
William just stood there gaping at me, the patrons, the staff, and now Zack, unsure how to proceed. Instead of "DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING," I think the message being related through his reptilian brain circuit, at the time of emergency until the present moment was Stop! Danger! Danger! Then: who, me? Why? What. Her? Near-death? No death. Rewind. Play?
I sat down, put my napkin back in my lap, and, after a minute or so of shamed silence, head down, I glanced up. "Hasn’t happened since 7th grade at summer camp," I said. "During craft hour. I was making a beaded bracelet with my friend Charlotte, while eating Cheetos. She told me a joke about an elephant, a cop, and a priest that made me laugh so hard I choked."
William paused, waiting for me to tell the joke.
I looked up, shyly. I couldn’t remember the joke. Damnit! Why was I even born?
"Tell me more about your job as a software engineer," I said, leaning back. "Now that the life and death part of the date is over, haha!" My haha was meant, as in texts and emails, as an interrogative. Haha, not echoed or reciprocated, is not an authentic haha. It is the deranged cackling of a psychopath. Divine Secrets of the HaHa Sisterhood: support your loved ones in their efforts to be found funny, or you, with your post-ironic anal retentive anti-love death wish syndrome will find yourself the butt of the joke in that ubiquitous greeting card:
Laugh and the world laughs with you. Fart in an elevator, and you laugh alone.
The following day, at work, I decided to phone Zack.
"Hi. Want to get lunch tomorrow?"
"Sure. Vietnamese, haha?"
"Haha no. Sushi."
"What about William?" he asked.
"Natural selection won out, in this case: I’m choosing a man who saves lives."
"Me? Or another men you’re being courted by who also play Superman."
Two months later, when I decided to buy a condo, I first consulted the web, then my friends, then, finally, three real-estate agencies.
"Location, location, location," said Zach, with Realty One (my number one choice).
"It’s a foreclosure market," said Janet. "Are you prepared to channel your inner vulture?"
"If you can’t front $50k grand cash, forget about it," said Pete.
I went with Zach. I’d pick rhetorical truths over cold realities any day! And his pitch had an anaphoric hook. Final sale: we liked each other, romantically, and clearly, he could separate business and pleasure.
Harlequin bodice rippers topple the market, way beyond "literary" fiction. It’s not sex that sells, though, or even the promise of a secure, desirable reality. It’s fantasy. Could I have both?
Fantasy: I’m a member of the Green Party. I have long believed that the environment, and animals, need to be actively protected, not just with citizen activism and "Giving a Voice to the Voiceless" bus station posters featuring mute and eye-glistening baby seals, about to be clubbed to death, but changing one’s own consumption habits, along with speeding along wildlife protection legislature and affixing steep penalties to corporations that exploit nature and animals for profit. Steep as in, tread on the toes of the agents that keep this planet habitable and worth living in, if habitable, and you’ll be retconned to hell, without a return ticket, in seconds.
How did I get from the foster-care system, to a PhD in biology, to a broken marriage, welfare, then back to a living wage—I worked in pharma sales—and a condo purchase, Zack wanted to know, on our second date.
Well, the first two life stages were all guts, and no glory, I explained. As for the marriage, I was raised to believe, that, if lucky enough to find a liberal-thinking, wage-earning man, marriage was a form of social insurance comparable to none. It gave you, in a patriarchal system, an identity, lodging, and name. So I got married, in 2001—the Sun was in Jupiter, everyone was running to the altar, feeling hormonal and optimistic—to a car wash owner named Hank. And then, within two years, divorced, after Hank pled guilty, in word and deed, to not being able to distinguish from hating and fearing women. It's once during those years that my spine began to slump by noon. The need for self-medication had taken over any trace of consciousness. My hair was a balled-up, Brillo-pad mess. Once a killer shark at any game involving puns and word scrambles, for a few years I was as dull as a cubic zirconia ring from Kohl’s Department Store.
Well, that was then, and this is now, as they say!
Hence, the condo. Hence Zack, or the idea of what Zack represented: a future.
My knight in shining armor fantasy was delayed slightly, not by Zack, however, whom I’d very unprofessionally slept with, on the night of the closing, but by Peter, my new neighbor, whom I fooled around with after the first condo association meeting, and whom I told to call me Judith, in bed. I was feeling bold, riding the rails of divorcee self-invention and afraid I was falling in love with Zack, who had a slickness about him that was threateningly familiar.
What’s easy—the devil opens up his black trench coat and shows you the wonders of the known world: cash, sex without fear or remorse, steady flows of the best wine and liquor, gourmet eats, world travel, fashionable clothes, home gym, and a secure future, promising more, when really, "all you ever wanted," was good skin care products, a home library and a Netflix account.
That was what Zack seemed to be offering, which I was determined to, at least initially, refuse.
My Zen journey away from temptation (the Western saints weren’t helping much) began with the following post-coital conversation with Zack, while eating veggie pate with pickles on a patio table outside our local vegan joint. "I don’t need a bill of sale or housing deed. I need a certificate of presence," I said, nervously, playing with my fork. "It’s hard to feel legit after a divorce. It’s hard to feel anything, really. Your own family and friends pretend you don’t exist, your work suffers. Your kids, if you have any, hate you, and you’re filled with regrets."
Was the fear of the unknown going to be the death of my every last hope and desire? Was a failed relationship that brought out the worst in me and made me physically, mentally, and emotionally ill the lesser evil to spinsterhood? What to do about the X-factor, and the wind chime twinkling just beyond, the Y, suggesting Robert Frost’s forking path of alternative realities, without which ideological conflict cannot be thought, nor sensorial reality, perceived?
The devil I knew was debt, fear, and loneliness. The devil I didn’t was life, disguised as death.
Zack leaned forward, and tenderly brushed my lip, dewy with Pilsner.
(Did I mention it was super sunny outside, and my hair was waving fetchingly in the breeze?)
"Elena, I’m sorry to break the news, but the only certificate of presence is you."
Virginia Konchan is the author of Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press), and a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (forthcoming, Noctuary Press). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Republic, and Verse, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly, Joyland, Hobart, and Requited, among other places. Her work has also been anthologized in several collections, and acknowledged with grants and fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, Ox-Bow, The Banff Center, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.