Storyglossia Issue 16, October 2006.

Winner of the Storyglossia Fiction Prize 2006


They Three at Once Were One

by Kristen Tsetsi


The news recycled again on the small TV, rabbit-ear antennae half alert, half asleep: A downed helicopter outside of Mosul. A roadside IED. A flipped-over tank in the Euphrates.

Nan checked her phone again for signal bars, then set it beside the plastic plate of Chinese food, uneaten and cold, and lit another cigarette.

A flipped-over tank in the Euphrates.

Just some string of words crossing the Teleprompter, and the anchor even smiled before commercial. "Coming up," she said, "America's obesity crisis." Nan looked past the lobby windows at drifting storm clouds, their depths and flowering expansions revealed in teasing, random lightning flashes. She willed a strike to wipe Marc from her memory—flash!—and render him foreign, the way her own language had once sounded foreign when overheard at the fringes of her attention. She had thought it Greek, maybe Italian, until the words came into focus in a wash of air and sound.

Headlights lit the dark lobby, then faded. A new car—a Mustang, yellow, with tinted windows—pulled up under the awning and sat there with the engine running. Nan put out her cigarette, wiped her face with her sleeves, and turned down the TV.

She took her spot behind the counter and noticed mascara on the cuffs of her sleeves. She bunched them in her palms.

The first out of the car was a girl.


Lips red-red. Professionally-styled blonde waves touched her shoulders and Nan knew. They only dressed up like that, got their hair done, for prom, military balls, or for the other. The girl was too old for prom, and not enough military were around for there to be a ball, but Nan still hoped, anyway, that it wouldn't happen today, that it was something else, something—

But it wasn't. Nan saw the hair first—a high-and-tight—before he put on his cap, and then she saw his arms, green-and-brown and gesturing over the car roof.

Nan watched him come around the car, watched the girl step through her held-open glass door. A pressure breeze blew back the girl's hair and she smiled, her lips a narrow red line. He—name patch reading "Tanner"—followed just behind her. He pulled off his cap and held it at his waist.

"Hi," Nan said, and her throat caught. "Help you?" she said, louder.

The girl rested her forearms on the raised counter. Her nails matched her lips, and she wore a tiny round diamond on her left ring finger.

Tanner stuffed his cap in a pocket and put an arm around the girl's lower back. "Babe? It's under your name, isn't it?"

Nan noticed slight movement in his upper arm and imagined his thumb touching the girl's spine.

The girl looked up at Tanner. "Oh. Yes."

He was as tall as Marc. His chin would brush the top of Nan's head, tickle her hair.

"Mackelroy," the girl said. "Jennie." She smiled again.

Nan didn't smile back, but down-arrowed until she found their room. Fifty dollars had been added to the regular rate and the manager's memo read, SOLDIER LEAVE BEGINS.

"Computer error," Nan said. "If you'll wait a moment?" She looked up for an answer.

The girl—Jennie—said, "Sure," and shifted on her feet. Tanner squeezed her close and looked around the lobby, then out at the car. He leaned to whisper something to the girl, and she squeezed his side. "Yeah, but it was your money," she said, nudging him. "All that hazard pay."

"Almost worth it," he said.

Nan smelled—coming from his ACU's—dirt. Dust. The same desert odor that lifted off the pages she'd pulled from sweat-smudged envelopes, fine sand-grain coating her fingertips like chalk powder. She imagined his uniform against her cheek, his breath falling cool on the top of her head. His eyes were shaped like Marc's. The corners, or maybe the—

"Is that a no?" he said.


"I said, any good news?" He pointed at the TV.

Nan's face heated. "I—I don't—no. No." She looked at Jennie, who couldn't be much older than nineteen. Too young to not take him for granted. Too naïve to appreciate his standing beside her, his touching and holding and speaking to her. She was picking at her nails, and Nan imagined those nails would later rake silly teenage lines on Tanner's skin. She would write, "I love you" on his back, making love take the shape of a heart.

Before Marc left, Nan had closed her eyes and tried to memorize his body, the lines and bends and moles and wrinkles, with her fingertips.

"Is it not there?" Jennie said.

"Yes. It's just—one moment, please." Nan turned her attention back to the computer and found another room, nicer than their original.

"We're not in any hurry," Tanner said, and Jennie looked at him. "Take your time."

Jennie asked Nan if there was a bathroom and, before leaving, slid her credit card onto the counter. Tanner wandered into Nan's dark lobby and stood with his arms folded on his chest and watched the TV. "Chinese?" he said. He kicked a tan-booted foot in the direction of Nan's table.

She nodded.

"I haven't had Chinese in . . . damn. Too long. Hey, you got the number?"

Nan pointed at the brochure bin. While he looked through fliers, she moved Jennie Mackelroy from room 129 to room 212.

Jennie came out of the bathroom, lipstick refreshed, hair brushed, skin delicately perfumed. Tanner opened his arms and Jennie went into them. He stroked her hair and caught Nan staring.

Nan busied herself with a cup of pens.

Tanner guided Jennie to the counter and picked up the key card and credit card. He said, "Thanks for the delivery stuff," and led Jennie through the door, an arm around her narrow shoulders, pamphlets poking out of a cargo pocket.


                           ~ ~ ~


Nan pressed her pin-pricked thumb into one of room 129's pillowcases until the blood soaked through. Three days ago, it had been cornflakes softened in milk and splattered in a dark corner. The memo had read, GUEST FEARED SUBSTANCE A HEALTH HAZARD; MOVED TO SIMILAR ROOM AT REDUCED RATE TO APPEASE. The cleaning women were yelled at and the manager didn't believe them when they swore it wasn't there before, that they'd have seen it.

Nan turned off the light and took the stairs to the second floor balcony. She pressed herself against the wall between rooms 211 and 212 and listened hard over the increasing winds, mentally rehearsing what she would say if they caught her: I forgot to give you a second keycard. Here you are. Have a nice evening. A shadow passed back and forth across a narrow line of light spearing through the curtains and onto the walkway.

"Go . . . dinner?"

" . . . order in."

"But . . . to go out . . . got dressed up."

A pause.

"Okay," he said. "I'll just get dressed. Hey—did I leave my cigarettes in the car?"

His voice sounded loud. Close. Nan inched away from the door and ran through the breezeway to the stairs on the opposite side.


                           ~ ~ ~


She watched the parking lot through the window and counted money while Diana, night-shift auditor, catalogued check-in receipts.

"Any problems?" Diana said.

Nan shook her head.

"What happened here?" Diana held up the Mackelroy receipt.

"Doesn't it say?" Nan was trying to hear the TV. They were saying something—broadcasting images of various banks of the Euphrates—but it was nothing. Nothing new. She stroked the lump the phone made in her pocket.

"Did you go look for yourself?"

"Yeah," Nan said. "Blood. Like it says."

"That's disgusting."


She saw them, then, looking up at the sky on the way to their car. The girl had changed into a small dress, and Tanner wore a button-down. She wondered if he wore cologne and what it smelled like.

She wondered where they were going and didn't want him to leave.

"I wonder why I never get this many complaints when I'm working," Diana said. "You've had to move five people in two weeks."

Nan shoved the drawer into the register and took off her name tag. "It's busiest between two and ten," she said.

"Oh, hey." Diana held up a credit card. "This was on the floor when I came in. Mackelroy."

Nan said she would be happy to deliver it on her way out.


                           ~ ~ ~


Light from the walkway dusted room 212 in orange. On the bed, an open suitcase and a stuffed green duffel bag. Between them, a plastic men's-store sack.

They hadn't mussed the covers.

That was usually the first thing people did.

Nan sniffed the air and smelled man. And hairspray. She found the hairspray and spritzed it, stuck her nose into the mist. Grape-y.

His folded ACU's made a neat stack on the chair. Nan traced the seam of a breast pocket with her thumb, slipped in the credit card, then picked up the top and pressed it to her face, but it was too much, toomuchtoomuch, so she put it down and went to the dresser and smoothed her fingers along the surface, grabbed a beaded necklace and touched loose change, earrings, a box of green tic-tacs.

Such privacy they'd created in just minutes with their clothing, their little things, their scents. The air was heavy with their presence and Nan thought of Christmas lights strung under snow, or of the soft melody made by a body moving under bathwater in a still room, and she was there, right in the middle of it, drowning in it, but not really, because even with her eyes closed and her fingers clutched around the girl's necklace and her breathing deep to take it all in and make it hers, it wouldn't take, and trying to be a part of it was like trying to throw a lasso around a ghost. It wasn't hers for the having, not for a long time, not until Marc came back, and he wouldn't be back. Not for a long time. She let go of the necklace and picked up the hairspray and sprayed it in her mouth because it was the only thing in the room she could ingest, but it didn't taste like grape, not at all. It tasted the way bug spray smelled, and it burned.

"Fuck." She spit on the floor and felt her tongue and lips swelling. "Fuck." She started for the bathroom to rinse out her mouth when she heard movement, talking, outside.

" . . . just so tired. I'm really sorry, babe."

Nan hurried to the space between wall and bed. There was just enough room for her to crawl underneath.

The carpet dug into her elbows and smelled like dust.

Their feet came in, a set of heels and a pair of black leather shoes. The heels stopped near a chair, crossed one over the other, and then slid off. The black leather shoes stopped at the end of the bed, and it bowed when he sat.

They were quiet. Nan imagined them smiling. Looking at one another without knowing what it meant that they could. So quiet, so quiet, and Nan had to swallow but was afraid they would hear. She opened her mouth and a pool of saliva dripped down.

The leather shoes shifted, toes pointing outward. "Sorry about dinner. You got all dressed up, and . . . " He trailed off.

The girl's toes curled. "Well, I wanted . . . " She sighed. "Anyway. We don't have to do everything tonight."

He moved on the bed. Turning toward the girl, Nan guessed. He said, "Everything?"

"You know. All these things that—just stuff I thought would be fun, you know, and—"

"Do you have a lot planned? Something every day?"

"No . . . " She sounded beaten. "Well, yes, actually, but don't you want—"

"Oh, yeah. Yeah."

Nan heard him take, and then release, a deep breath.

"Listen," he said. "Would you mind if we just kind of hung out and watched TV?"


"It's just . . . " He used the toe of one shoe to push off the other. "It's been eight months, you know, since I could do that."

Nan watched the girl's feet, which had become still.

"I—if you want to."

He took off his other shoe. "Cool."

The girl climbed on the bed. Nan heard her sniffing, and then the TV powering on.

The bed squeaked. "Sorry," said the girl.

"It's all right. Hey, you like this show?"




"I said, you like this show?"

"It's all right, I guess."

One television character said something to another and the other made a noise—Nan couldn't see what was done from underneath the bed—and she heard Tanner laugh loud with the laugh track.

"Tanner?" said the girl, so low Nan barely heard her. She wondered if she might have imagined it. But, there again: "Tanner?"

He laughed, said, "Ahhhh, shit."

Nan tried to stay under, tried to keep herself from clawing out and standing over them screaming, her mouth numb from wanting, wanting what they had if only they knew it but they didn't and she hated them.

Tanner scrambled toward the phone, Jennie toward the door, but soon, shamed for not doing not saying not being, they were back on the bed, fingers—her right hand, his left—pretzel-locked and white. They guarded their faces when Nan threw their shoes, Tanner rising just a little to say, as if to a private, "That's enough, now."

Nan slumped to the floor to check her phone for a signal. She moved it this way, that way, never getting more than two bars, and her lips felt sticky and thick when she said, "Can you turn on the news?"

Jennie found the channel and she and Tanner went to her. Each held one of her arms, stroked her shoulders, her back, her hair, until she calmed.

But there was no news.

Some minutes after midnight they helped her up and walked her to her car in the rain.


Copyright©2006 Kristen Tsetsi