This short story by Yoav Ben Yosef is the winner of Round Four of our Three-Minute Fiction contest.
So the date was a failure, I get it.
"He is a total plant," says Vuk, shooting me a look, all fire.
"A what?" I ask.
"A plant," he repeats, though sounding hesitant now. Vuk, a Slav, frequently muddles his idioms, taking leaps of faith in expressions, hoping, like a boy playing Scrabble, they withstand verification in the OED, if it came down to that.
"A tool, you mean."
"I know what a tool is, thank you." He waits, the sharp, crescent moon of his face twisted in consternation, as if expecting the right word to come wafting by, like a smell from the downstairs Chinese takeout place. "A veggie. A vegetable. You know, utterly comatose."
It's true that Pete, the man I set Vuk up with, is guarded and a little stiff, but in him it amounts to a sort of subdued charm. ("A dark William Hurt," was how I sold him.)
"His contribution to the conversation was minimal, mostly variations on mm-hmm," says Vuk in his slow, laborious manner.
"He's a meditater," I offer. "A listener." That's where Pete and I met, at a gay men silent retreat at the Buddhist center on 6th Avenue.
"I'm a meditater and a listener; he was caging a fly in his mouth: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm," Vuk demonstrates, his lips pinched shut.
"No, he didn't," I say quietly, letting the argument fizzle out. It is a hot July afternoon, and Vuk and I will spend the rest of the day in his apartment in Astoria, probably not moving too far from where we are now, in the living room, stretched out on his rope rug, a little scratchy island provisioned with magazines, tepid iced coffee and an unstable moving fan that cranes its neck at us, curious as a lapdog. This has become the thing we do, the two of us, two middle school teachers on the long stretch of summer vacation, all our other friends out on Fire Island.
"Why can't you and I be together?" Vuk asks. Lately he's been given to saying what he feels about us, and I've been given to allowing it.
I turn my face away. I try to think of something glib to say. "It's not you," I tell him. "It's life." Then, inexplicably, I feel like crying. Glib, but true?
"A lie," Vuk determines. "It flies in the face of reason."
"In whose face?" I ask, so he questions getting the expression right.
"Shush" he says, deep-voiced, the word lingering, becoming a soft whistle. Heavily, he lifts his hand from the rug, bringing his finger to trace the shape of my lips. "Now tell the truth."
"Don't." I push his hand away. "It's because you broke up with me. You've had your chance."
This makes more sense to him. "That's better," he says. He doesn't mind it if I hold a grudge; he finds grudges sexy and fecund (his word). But you mention something about feeling broken or irrevocably damaged, not even by him, necessarily, and Vuk shuts down, quick as anybody.
"So next week, you will fix me up with whom?" he asks, milking the "m" of his "whom."
"No one," I say. "I can't turn tricks for you anymore."
He lifts his gangly frame up on his elbows. "No. Please. C'mon. I like being fixed with your zombies."
"I know," I say. "But the zombies. Think about them."
Vuk shakes his head and smiles. "You are just as cute as a mutton," he says.
I don't say "button." I know he knows this one. I say, "Thanks."