Santa Monica by Wynne Hungerford

It was early and we were awake, although unwilling to get up. I straddled him so that I could look into his face. We were both in pajamas. Mine, a navy poplin set. His, a T-shirt and flannel pants. I put my hands on his chest, right over his heart, and leaned forward. My weight dispersed across my palms and his chest bore the weight. I heard his breath change, a small sound, strained. I did it carefully. He was older than I was.

I said, “Why do I feel like this is where you live? Your soul, I mean?”

He said that we had been raised with the idea, a construct of Western thought.

“But maybe,” I said, “it’s true?”

I took my hands off his chest and immediately I missed the feeling of his resistance, the hardness of his ribcage like a turtle shell. He said he preferred to think that the soul was not hidden in the heart but alive in the breath, and he held my face in his hands. His thumbs stroked my cheeks, wandered toward my lips, and probed like antenna into my mouth. I grabbed his wrists, sucking on his thumbs as I pulled them out so that there was a sound like a balloon popping. He smiled. I said, “Are you sure?” and he said, “Yes,” although we were not talking about the same thing as before.

I moved out the next day and he moved out two weeks later. The house was sold within the month and I didn’t see him again. He later died, I heard, during heart surgery. The day I found out, I went to the beach and fed seagulls. I threw so much bread that hundreds of birds gathered and someone called over a bicycle cop who’d been patrolling the pier. When the cop asked me to leave, I tried for the first time in my life to refuse to leave, to act against my nature, but the cop didn’t understand why it mattered or what it meant. I had to go, he told me, so I went.

On the way to the car, I saw a child on the pier accidentally let go of a balloon. The balloon rose in the sky and reached a point where, due to no fault of its own, it popped. It became something new, not a balloon. But is the heart like a balloon? And is the soul like the air that lives inside the balloon? No. Air is just air. It disperses when the balloon pops and is gone.

Wynne Hungerford’s work has appeared in EPOCH, Subtropics, Blackbird, The Literary Review, The Brooklyn Review, The Normal School, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. She received her MFA from the University of Florida.