ALL ACCOUNTS AND MIXTURE: Prose from Emma Atkinson

Let’s Talk About the Forest

            When I go out with women, I like to wear clean denim and a shirt with buttons. That’s what I feel confident in, especially once I’ve laced up my boots. I have to be prepared to talk and be witty - that’s what women are really after, the wit - and I personally can’t do that if I’m teetering around in heels or worried about my mascara smudging.
            When I go out with men, everything is reversed. Those are the evenings I find myself zipping into a tight dress and dabbing liquid blush onto my cheekbones. It’s all uncomfortable, but that’s more or less what I’m looking for with a man. The uneasiness makes me feel vulnerable, and the vulnerability gives me the same sensation as catching my breath at the edge of a rooftop.
            Tonight I’m squashing my feet into a pair of high heeled sandals. The man is someone I met online, a kind of blandly handsome guy who works at the university. He reached out to me, and I responded because he was the first person in weeks to open with a full sentence instead of just the word “Hey.” We’ve spent the last few days messaging back and forth about Indian food and Patton Oswalt. He seems okay.
            I try on a new shade of lipstick, but it makes me look like a sad clown so I scrub it off and apply an old favorite instead. While I delicately draw my eyeliner on, I run through a list of potential conversation topics. It starts off in earnest, with stuff like the new superhero movie and a writer we both like, but quickly devolves into random junk that makes me laugh. Let’s talk about purgatory. Let’s talk about which part of the brain you would rather get a tumor in, if you had to get a brain tumor. Tell me about your favorite bug you ever met.

            I stop between my car and the restaurant for a cigarette. I prefer not to let people see me smoke on the first date until I’ve ascertained how they feel about that. I once went on five dates with a woman before she found out I’m a smoker. We saw each other three or four more times after that before we just kind of meandered away from each other.
            I’m almost to the restaurant, about halfway through my cigarette and scouting around for a trashcan or an ashtray, when I hear someone call my name. I’m so surprised to see the internet guy before I expected him that I shout my own name back at him. He gives me a quizzical look.
            “David,” I correct myself. “I meant to say David.”
            “Sorry to startle you,” he says. “Do you want to finish that before we go in?”
            “Yes, please.”
            We didn’t have any kind of “I’ll be wearing a red tie and you’ll be carrying a yellow flower” conversation before we met up. I guess no one really does that anymore, yet it always surprises me when my internet people recognize me in person. I always see someone different, depending on whether I’m looking in my bathroom mirror, my hallway mirror, or a store window. I probably wouldn’t have recognized David if he hadn’t approached me first, truth be told.

            The restaurant is Persian. I have lamb and David has an elaborate looking stew. So far we’ve discussed our jobs and our pets, and lightly danced around the topic of the upcoming election. He smiles a lot in a nervous way. I look to the side a lot in what I hope is a demure way.
            I don’t go on dates because I want sex, per se. I don’t mind the sex at all when it happens. I just don’t care much if it happens or not. I think it eventually does happen with about thirty to forty percent of the people I meet online. I haven’t done any charts or anything. That’s just my guess. I’m not a prude. There is just a certain percentage of single dates with no follow up in my recent history.
            “So how’s online dating treating you?” David asks.
            I know damn well I should answer with something flirty, like “Tonight it’s treating me great.” I rest my chin on my hand and take a moment to reflect on the question instead. I set up my dating profile when I got out of the hospital about six months ago. To me every date has been a natural progression stemming from the afternoon I turned my purse and cell phone over to the intake nurse, but it’s hard to tease out exactly what the pattern is or where it’s taking me.
            “It’s definitely been interesting,” I say.
            David laughs, and I realize I must have come across as world weary or “You know how strange people can be.” That’s not what I meant, but I’m willing to play along.
            I also don’t go on dates because I want companionship, exactly. It’s true that I don’t have many friends in town, and that’s almost certainly a factor in my decision to do this. But lately my state of mind, my whatever is at the center of me, doesn’t feel any different whether I’m with someone else or not. It’s a blessing, really, compared to the days when the sound of another person’s voice would set my guts boiling every time.
            David is telling me about a weird date he went on last month. I want to tell him about my cat Lois, how she climbs onto my shoulder when I’m sitting at my desk. It seems like the most honest direction I could take our discussion in, since Lois is the most important person in my life these days. I want to tell him about the window in the hospital. It was at the end of a long hallway, and you could watch tree tops shake and shimmer in the wind. It was more soothing than any of the breathing exercises or thought experiments they taught us.
            The check comes and we both hand over our credit cards. David invites me to get a drink at a bar around the corner.
            “It’s a little dive-y, but not gross,” he says. “And they have an amazing backyard.”
            “That sounds great,” I say.
            I give him my best cute little smile. I hope I do, anyway. Tonight, for whatever reason, I’m feeling especially disconnected from my body. It feels like I’m locked in a control center in my chest, pushing buttons and pulling levers. David puts an arm around my waist when we step into the street. I let him steer me like a tugboat or a puppy.

            I light another cigarette once we’re settled on a bench in the bar’s backyard. There’s a wrought iron coffee table in front of us with our cans of beer and an ashtray. Above us the moon is fighting valiantly to push through the clouds. We’re surrounded by people louder than us, apparently having much more enthralling conversations.
            David is resting his arm on the back on the bench, leaning towards me. I have to bend my neck a bit awkwardly to avoid blowing smoke in his face. My left thumb begins tapping each of my fingertips like it does when I’m nervous.
            “Do you like it here?” David asks.
            “I do,” I assure him. “It’s cozy.”
            I’m wearing my black dress with the short skirt and the bell sleeves. It’s slightly hippy and slightly goth at the same time, which is why I bought it. I like clothes that can’t quite be pigeonholed. I realize my lipstick is probably gone by this point and my mascara is likely smudged, if it’s behaving like it always does. I feel no urge to excuse myself to the bathroom to fix it. David saw my makeup when it looked right, and that’s all I needed it for: the first impression.
            “I’m having a really nice time,” David says.
            His gaze drops down my body like a trickle, a lazy waterfall. We both look at my thighs at the same time, peeking out from the edge of my dress. My scars have been there for so long that they’re just part of my body now. I don’t notice them any more than I notice my eyelashes or the lines on my palms. I don’t think about them at all until someone else sees them.
            “What happened there?” David asks.
            Some of my scars are in neat rows. Some of them jag out in starburst patterns. Some are white and some are pink. There is no plausible cover story here. There is no way these injuries were created by a dog or a car crash or a surgeon.
            “Oh, those are really old.”
            That’s what I always say. It’s my way of offering reassurance that this sticky, scary problem is in the distant past. There’s no way to escape the fact that it happened, not with the remnants embedded in my skin. All I have control over is the way I talk about it now.
            “Okay,” David says.
            His eyes climb back up until they meet mine. I resist the urge to scan his face for clues to his reaction. My assignment right now is to change the topic. Let’s talk about piglets. Let’s talk about imaginary spy gear. Let’s talk about the most frightening creature in the ocean.
            “The weather is so nice tonight,” I say.
            I put out my cigarette in the ashtray right as he leans over to kiss me. I let him do it, but I’m watching the moon.

About the Author:
Emma Atkinson lives in Houston, TX. Her writing has been published online in Sixfold, A Lonely Riot, and The Mighty.

About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as "queer," while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream. Submissions open May 18th and run through June 19th. Poetry, prose, visual art, reviews and interviews will all be considered.