13 Versions of Surrender
Michelle Murphy

Show me your shoulders he demands when their cups are empty. Like gardenias he says and she laughs at the white thought, the surrender implicit between them.

These days the skyline is sad with damp laundry, the stretched arms of dresses pinned at the point of horizon. He leaves a note under her door saying he's going to be late and she remembers a careless town square at dusk, newlyweds sitting on the low walls surrounding the park yet not smiling. A shyness in her eyes and the world beautifully ignoring them.

A grandmother painting red lips on her mouth, pinching the blood up her cheeks. The heavy earrings and lessons on smoking. This will take the soprano off your voice, she said, lighting a cigarette. Men won't pay for a voice of your range. She remembers her long eyes and nose, worn cotton sticking to her skin. Smoke on everything.

Lovers hole up beneath the staircase, their flat sighs rise through her open window. She feels entirely at ease inside these interchangeable faces, the broad daylight of their loss, the celebration and uncorking of champagne. The taxi drivers were doing all right too, money went from hand to hand and nothing came to a conclusion.

The grandmother sharpened her pencil, drew her mouth ripe. Barbarians want circuses, she told her. Under his eye, she pulled off her stockings, tried on fishnets, sheer black hose with sequined stars rising from the ankles, high heels with thin leather straps, push-up bras. She stood like a trapeze artist, emphatically erect, learned to sip champagne as if there would always be more.

We resemble where we've been, though that's not always true. She wears a wedding band so that she won't be bothered when she works alone. Attributes to landscapes spaces in which figures are more than peripheral. Her wedding band wears itself smooth in its fiction.

He stirs their coffees, watches the sugar dissolve. When he runs his hand between her legs, she turns her face to the crowd. Let them stare, she says, and passes them a candle from the table to better see.

She becomes the daydream neither of them can recollect when alone. A kiss blunted by their lips. What is set in motion, he says, pulling the bobby pins from her hair, is a surrender so refined in cathedrals that one is forced to their knees in whisper. When he opens the last bottle, bubbles surround their devotion. Pins clatter.

This is a place of unhinged doors, dripping faucets. The vendors sell their wares and their tongues glisten. She sends him a telegram, tells him how they've shut up the sermons and now there is nothing left but lanterns, her strong teeth and patent leather heels. She reverts to signing her name the old way. Gaunt letters. Absent in hesitations, she disguises herself in errands, tries to stop missing his voice, red knuckles. But, she writes, ambushes are waiting everywhere I turn.

He imagines the veins on her legs, her silhouette, stray hairs. A series of simple gestures he can't nail down. He is the same without her except now he creates diversions, spends hours measuring the angle between the bed and its reflected image. Polishes his shoes until they shine. He dreams of collecting her but his hands have grown stupid. In the dark there is nothing he can write that will begin to say. His shadow points true north.

The circus has come to town again. This time with more jugglers than one cares to watch. Hatchets, apples, pears, bowling balls, fire batons. All of them in the air at once. The woman that used to ride the plumed horses now sells sticks of cotton candy, her waist unrippled of glitter, flushed eyes bright on her daughter's head as she rides the wide circle of applause. The dancing bear drops one of his white gloves and is whipped. Savages, a mother screams. To feel your sweat, he writes, like this dank heat building and reverberating inside the tent. It isn't enough to simply lean into desire, but stagger in this outburst of belief, this fire-eating need.

Fire hydrants are split open with metal poles and the gutters swell. More than ankle deep. She washes her hair in the open where everyone can watch the dark roots escape from the crown of her head. Sleep is secular, she writes, even dogs know that. Running in tight packs then hunkering down on each other's shadows. The streets have been rerouted. Where do I go? I can't keep pace with everything. All I hear on the phone is hum and static.

Antennas of old radios flirt from the window sills, musics scrape against each other, plunge to the sidewalk in a hodge-podged cacophony. He designs a new chapel in his head where pain finally allows the crowds to pour inside. Praise wider than a man's shoulders. He writes, come home. I've found bottles with the corks still intact, fixed the latches on the cabinets, swept the rooms. Come back, see for yourself, everything is clean again.