Unfunnyby Stephen Delaney
The joke falls flat. In fact, it bombs. In fact, not only does Staci not find it funny, but he can tell by her expression, by that unmoored look once her head dips and freezes, her gaze latched on his, eyes deepening in little stutters of rethinking, reevaluating, she’s stunned. All the while his face going ugly: blood rushing in, resurfacing some ingrained little-boy shame. But as quickly as it starts he’s tamped it with an ancient survival tactic: a spacey mind-pocket, a focus-spot boring him a tunnel into nothing.
At first, she can barely get her words out. Hh—How— Then recovering: How can you even think I’d find that funny? Those big blue eyes on him, virgin saint’s eyes, accusatory, bright pellucid, eyes that have watched him with admiration, excitement, seeming gratitude.
“Don’t.” Slim hand taut like a crossing guard’s—all she needs is a whistle. “Just stop, okay?”
“Stop!” Eyes that can pin him in place mid-motion. Animal presence inside him now—cautious, stirring.
“You know I didn’t mean it like that—”
“Oh really? How did you mean it then? You can’t say something like that and not mean it!”
His mouth a gloating rictus, as if gauged to some back-around-the-pool-table friends. (He softens the look his mind sees, but doesn’t—not entirely—remove it.) Feeling little glows in his nothing space, storylines taking shape in which he remains the good guy. When talking he’s always wanted to be natural, independent, a risk-taker. A guy with a good sense of humor. Were the words he said a slip? Or the words bad, but maybe good? Maybe edgy equals good? Women always say he makes them laugh. So why isn’t Staci laughing now? Why, instead, is she looking at him like he’s some kind of monster? Like she could end things right now for something that was, after all—a lash of anger at the injustice of it—just a slip.
But now those eyes are welling up, and with a sniff she turns away. He’s not sure how he should be now. Gut feeling to stop her with sorries, but rage at this horror-with-his-face-on-it in her mind. No girlfriend’s ever cried in his presence. When they dumped him they spoke calmly, faces smooth and glowing, as if relating an unpleasant memory to him that had been effectively loosed of its hold.
His hand reaching out, trembling.
Then, seeing her body quake, in another world and his own hand floating before him, as sensitive as a boy’s to rejection, he lowers it.
It’s like he’s watching her through a hole in a wall. Is this what he does to them, what they are in private before regaining their composure to talk? Watching their growing detachment, growing distraction—maybe his slip had curtailed it all, accelerated the whole process to a blink. With him left alone with Staci’s view of him—bolstered, as with an argument, by that thick puckered brow, by the tear that jets with startling suddenness past her cheek and chin.
He feels that other self—a potential now—transpose itself over him like a film, darkening his every motive, his every flash of thought.
And as he watches her, feeling the slightest leavening that withdrawal’s power can bring, he knows he won’t threaten or yell. He knows he’ll never punch. He knows he’ll do nothing and has every right to, and he’ll hurt with awful words he doesn’t mean.