thedetroiter.com fiction

SYLVIA'S SALAMANDER
by Mark Benedict



Pretty much out of nowhere she says that I am sincere, that I am honest, and that she feels like she can tell me about the tangled situation that is making her stomach grind and her hands twitch. Well, I am honest, though I don't see how that connects to her sudden need to confess. In fact, I suspect there is no link or that if there is one only she can see it.

"It's my father," she goes on, incorrectly assuming that I give a crap.

From there she launches into a monologue of her relationship with her old man, which apparently since her birth has been characterized in turn by a mutual devotion that borders on incest and a reciprocal malice that stops just short of violence. All the while I listen intently but say nothing. I am by now a little sick of girls thinking they can puke up all their sad stories on me, but then it probably serves me right for asking if she was feeling okay. I've always heard that college girls are dying to make out, when in reality all they really want is for you to listen to their sad stories and let them dry their tears on your Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirt. It's a letdown of epic proportions: You want to play the lover -man, or at least the friend-man, and you end up playing cost-efficient therapist. Or at least that's the way it works with honest guys like me, though after six months of trying I've finally managed to snag something like a girlfriend. I lean back in the chair and guzzle my beer.

"You're the salamander," this other girl, not my new maybe-flame, tells me.

I have no idea what this means but I go along with it on account of it's better than talking about her father and it doesn't sound like an insult and could even be sex talk.

"That's right," I say, improvising. "I'm your salamander."

Sylvia laughs. "That's not quite what I meant."

I wonder what she meant but also what she thinks I meant. "I'm your salamander" could mean a hundred different things and I find it strange that she could have sorted the matter out and settled on one.

"What'd you mean?" I ask.

"I meant, you are him. The guy, the salamander."

"Ah," I say knowingly, as if this clears matters up.

Still, I am nobody and am pleased to think that she has mistaken me for somebody. In the other room someone, maybe Alice, my new sort-of-steady, puts on a Bob Marley record. We're all waiting here at Jim's place for Jim and Karen to get back from a beer run and then we're heading out to this kegger that's supposedly happening on State Street.

She smiles, though it is more like an amused snarl; she is a wild dark-haired thing-sexy but scary-whereas Alice is tame and pretty and blond.

"When I was little my mom used to say that one day a salamander would belly up to me, grinning all friendly, and that I'll be able to tell him from all the snakes that came before because he won't slither. And that this person will be my friend forever."

It doesn't sound like any bedtime story I've ever heard, but then her family sounds pretty weird all around.

"Neat," I say.

She sinks farther into the beanbag and continues to smile-snarl at me. Suddenly I realize that this girl whom I've met only a few times isn't really a friend of anyone here-just someone Karen vaguely knows from comp class-and that for all we know she might have just transferred in from Green Valley, the nearby loony bin. She looks a little too wicked to be crazy, though.

"Do you want to hear more about my father?" Her smile-snarl fades and her eyes brim with hope.

I almost say okay, then almost say no, and finally split the difference with a shrug. Girls like this appeal to your sympathy and make you feel like they're gonna off themselves if you don't listen, which obviously they won't though you never really know. It's a dirty game-at least as bad as the scam guys are always pulling of faking sincerity to get some action-and you don't even get a tumble for your troubles. I vow to myself that if this happens again I'll start charging.

Apparently she picks up on my ambivalence.

"I just wanted you to know about me, is all."

"Naw, it's okay. "

"But you'd rather not hear it, I can tell."

I decide to set the record straight.

"I didn't say that. It's just that-well, we come in here and we're talking about concerts and stuff and then all of a sudden you're all shaky and telling me about all this evil stuff with your dad and it's like, where the hell did that come from?"

"I just wanted you to know about me beforehand."

"I know, it's just-" I look at her. "Before what?"

She lifts herself up and goes over to close the creaky door. "You know."

I don't know, or at least I am only beginning to.

"Uh, I'm sort of going out with Alice."

"You can get rid of her or not tell her, it's nothing to me."

This has never happened to me before, I've never been chosen.

"Hold on, I don't even-"

"Don't be cruel," she says. "I could love you if you let me."

The words hit me as though she has thrown something-something thick and sticky-sweet.

She is a little unstable, at best, but telling her sad story wasn't an end in itself but a way to warn me about what I am getting into; she is honest. I am honest too, or at least I was until two seconds ago, so I respect this. In my head I see the whole thing unfurl, and for a while though I don't approve of it I have them both and somehow I sense that Sylvia wants it this way. On the wall above me hangs a crumbled Hendrix poster; I idly wonder what Jimi would make of all this. I now know why people cheat and why I myself can't rule it out: more is more, after all. Clearly I am shoving aside the matter of personal integrity, and also the idea that less is more, but I've been starving too long to turn down a double helping of dessert though a triple helping might be stretching it. I sense that the whole thing will come to some stormy bitter end, and that I won't be good for Sylvia even if I try to be. Still, stormy is preferable to stillness, and bitter to no flavor, and I might not hurt her that much and will probably hurt her less than others have.

Now she is right in front of me stroking my shoulders and looking down into my face and the thick and sticky-sweet feeling is spreading through me like a virus I hope I never get over even if that means I have to die. I try to speak but can't manage it; I am practically a virgin and can only imagine what this girl with her slightly gothic look would do to me in the dark behind closed doors if only I say yes, I am the salamander. In the other room Jim and Karen are back with the beer and everybody is calling for us to come out to the kitchen and play a quick round of quarter bounce.

Sylvia looks me in this eyes, waiting. I am pretty sure I am in love with her already.

"Okay, yeah," I say. "I mean, of course I'll let you."

She breaks out into a sweet happy-girl smile, slightly demented but not at all like a snarl.

"Later then," she whispers, still smiling, and then turns and heads for the other room.

 


Waterford resident and 1997 Oakland University graduate Mark Benedict apprenticed under local author Loren Estleman at Cranbrook's summer writer's conference in 2001. Favorite writers include John Updike, Anne Tyler, and Joyce Carol Oates, whom he met during her recent visit to Marygrove College. he can be reached at benny01@sbcglobal.net.

Novelist/Michigander/Essayist Lynn Crawford is thedetroiter.com's Fiction Editor.

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