Matt Briggs is the author of eight works of fiction. The Publication Studio in Portland, OR, released his latest books, Virility Rituals of North American Teenage Boys (stories) and a novel (The Double E) in 2013. Briggs' novel, Shoot the Buffalo, was awarded an American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation in 2006. Recent work has appeared in MOSS, Bull, The Chicago Review, and MonkeyBicycle. You can find him online at suburgian.com.
Emma's husband, Don, picked Maria up at the airport. When he hugged her, she discovered he gave malingering hugs. What bothered her about his hug wasn't the length or even the whiff of his sweater, a faint odor of pipe tobacco and onions, but the fact that he shifted his weight while holding her so that her breasts squashed against his chest. Also, she didn't recognize Don even though she had seen dozens of pictures of him. He said he was Don, so she figured it must be him. Who else would claim to be him? So what if he doesn't look himself? We all have Photoshop. It wasn't until he was standing in front of her and holding open his arms that she realized he was Emma's Don. This man had the same scruff of reddish fuzz on the upper lip that Don left in his digital photos. A signature. But, it wasn't until Maria and Don came across his car in the airport parking garage that she became struck by the strangeness of her one-day trip to Seattle. She didn't actually know these people.
"You look just like your photo," he said.
The hell I do, she thought. "Thanks," she said. "So do you."
Don's car, frankly, was a shock. Emma and Don weren't complete strangers. She had known them from The Boards of the Web community they belonged to and she had been deeply involved in Emma and Don's decision to move from their cramped condo in Capitol Hill to the suburbs north of the city. She had taken virtual tours with Emma. She had talked about the problems of living so far from the downtown that Emma loved. Emma didn't drive because of a vision problem that had plagued her after a month-long flu she suffered through in her early twenties. Emma suffered, and it was all Maria could do to help her. Of all of Maria's online buddies on The Boards, Emma was the most candid about her weight problems and health problems. In return, Emma could really listen. The pair had spent many late nights in chat.
When Maria's husband left suddenly in the middle of the night, Emma helped Maria find him. Maria's husband had moved in with a saleswoman from the Houston branch. He'd moved to Houston without telling her. Maria tried to imagine Houston, and together Emma and Maria explored her husband's neighborhood in Google Maps. When he called to explain to Maria that he had been waiting his whole life to do what he was doing right this moment, Maria wondered why she had not noticed his patience, his sense of loitering, his expectation about something during all the years they ate Sunday morning breakfast together, the stacks of DVDs they'd watch, the dog they had owned and then had cremated after it was hit with a car. He had been waiting through those years, but what had Maria been doing, she wondered? She had no idea she was a waiting room.
Emma calmed her down. With Emma, she looked at her husband's new neighborhood while listening to a selection of songs popular in Houston last summer. It looked similar to any other place. It sounded similar to any other place. Maria wanted to sit down with Emma and repeat this experience in person, where she could hear Emma breathing and where she could hear Emma's voice. Maria imagined the two of them sitting down at the coffee table with the conversation played out and the two of them just sitting at the table not saying anything. Maria would curl the knuckles of her naked toes on the linoleum.
Although Maria felt she knew Emma, she needed this confirmation that Emma really existed. Emma seemed more real to Maria than many of the people she knew in the physical world. But Maria sometimes wondered if her idea of Emma was an example of reading between the lines, of making more out of a turn of a phrase than was really there.
Don's car, an early-model Infinity, hadn't been washed for some time. A patina of road grime covered every square inch. It had been cleaned in arcs around the windows. The hunks of mud draped from the wheel wells held tiny pebbles. The interior held stray music sheets, banker's boxes overflowing color-coded folders, and festering foodstuff sealed in Tupperware. "Excuse the mess," Don said. The car was irrefutably not virtual.
"People have already started to come to the house," he said as they swirled down the cruller-shaped parking garage ramps. He was a person who looked at the person he talked to, and while he talked to Maria he hardly glanced at the direction of travel. Drizzle slicked the fresh asphalt . A long line of steaming cars shuffled to the freeway, and then the car hopped along in the stop and go traffic. Even though Don kept his attention directed to Maria, he hardly looked at her face. Instead the conversation turned into a twenty-five-minute monologue addressed to her breasts. He was paying attention to her body. She was at once annoyed and flattered. Don wasn't a bad looking man. He could lose some weight as could, she imagined, everyone who belonged to The Boards. It was a weight loss forum.
Alongside Emma's problems, Maria's issues seemed insignificant. Maria wanted to lose twenty pounds. Maria's loss would move her out of the mildly-plump body she now had into a stunning height weight proportionate, or as they said on The Boards, HWP. With her loss, Maria could tuck a t-shirt in and go into public. Emma wanted to lose 274 pounds. Emma's loss would allow her to move freely, to fit into a compact car, to go to the movies, to live a normal life.
Don parked in the driveway of a rambler under gigantic evergreen trees. To Maria's surprise, the house was impeccable compared to the car. The grass was short and plush. Black plastic liners defined the beds around the base of the trees. Tulips and daffodils bloomed in the late winter. A dozen cars sat parked in the driveway and along the street. They could see inside to the front living room full of bodies. The sound of voices inside the house overwhelmed her. Everyone talked at the same time. She could recognize the language but removed from the context of a computer screen, from a chat window, she didn't understand anything anyone said. She recognized everyone as well, but the variation from their virtual selves was immediately evident.
The food was also a shock. The kitchen table didn't have any room for plates. A hank of roasted lamb rested on a plate with platters of rice, loaves of homemade bread, a plate with various steamed vegetables, and a ewer filled with a creamy lemon soup. The coffee table held plates of Belgium and Swiss chocolate, dates, and cookies. They belonged to this group in the first place because they were people who liked to eat.
Emma sat in the couch in the middle of the room drinking a glass of wine. Her high-pitched voice, a twitter, became lost in the general din. Emma mostly laughed and didn't say a thing. She was enormous in a way that was hard to categorize. Obese didn't begin to address her magnitude. Her size was well documented online, but in person it was another matter completely. She was a cluster of immense spheres. Her face was the three spheres of her cheeks and wide face. She was flushed with translucent red hues like grapes. Wine and lipstick stained her lips. She showed her teeth when she laughed, tapping her scarlet tongue against the tips of her white and square teeth. She was clearly delighted at the presence of all of these people in her home. To acknowledge Maria's sudden appearance in front of her, Emma squealed.
The physical manifestation of the online group expended itself on the production of talk and the consumption of bottles of wine and beer and platters of food. They sat down to dinner, and Don ran the plates from the kitchen. He had been cooking all day, and the food came in a steady stream.
After diner Maria sat with Emma, who had lifted herself from the table and moved back to her place on the couch. Maria looked forward to finally beginning to talk with her.
"So here we are," Maria said.
"It's good to see you," Emma said. "You look just like your picture."
"Your house is lovely," Maria said.
Emma smiled and drank her wine, draining it until it left a faint film of red fluid clinging to the empty glass. As they tried to talk, Emma kept turning her head to listen to the conversations going on around them. "Do say!" she would say and get drawn into a talk on water witches, a long account about someone's Spanish Pilgrimage, the health problems of an elderly beagle. There was so much noise that when Maria spoke to Emma, it was as if she was trying to speak to someone on the edge of a freeway.
Maria waited. She would get her chance later.
Emma seemed trapped by her body. Emma strained to stand. Don was a great help to her, making sure that her glass of wine was full, that her plate was stocked with cuts of meat and pieces of chocolate. Because Maria was within Emma's sphere, she also received top-offs and soon she was quite tipsy. Don brought plates of food. When everyone else sat around the coffee table eating cake, Don brought Emma a piece of cake.
When she began to feel the effects of the wine, the sugar, the heat of bodies packed into the living room, Maria escaped to the back porch. Emma's garden was famed on The Boards for the trials Emma had with the neighborhood pests. The carp pond attracted raccoons. When she planted her seeds, crows assaulted the beds. In the darkness, the deck was cool and smelled of freshly tilled earth. Moisture dripped from the fir boughs. It was nice to be outside by herself to cool off.
Don arrived with another glass of wine. "Here you are, and here you go," he said. He stood with her a second.
She smiled at him but didn't say anything. He kept looking at her. "Emma and I hate parties, too." He laughed. "But Emma likes the food, and I like to cook." Maria smiled even though she didn't feel like smiling.
His lip shook his fuzzy mustache, and then he turned back to the party.
When she went in, the party was winding down. Emma sat alone in her place at the couch. "Emma?" Maria asked. At last, she would be able to sit down and have some words with her.
"Excuse me?" Don asked. "Can you give me a hand with the table leaf?"
They picked everything up and washed the dishes. With her hands in the soapy, scalding water, Maria heard the piano throb in the parlor. Emma only played when she was right and properly drunk. But Maria wouldn't know it to hear her play now. Emma played something by Brahms, precise and exact. Emma stopped, stood. "That was some party. I have to call it a night," she said. "See you in the morning." There would be no late night conversation without words. There was tomorrow morning, Maria thought.
Don had made a cup of coffee. It was two o'clock. "Do you want a cup?" he asked Maria. She didn't want a late night conversation with him.
Maria smiled. "It will keep me awake and I'm too tired to stay awake."
"Do you need to be seen to your room?"
No. She didn't need to be seen to her room.
"That's all right," she said. "Good night," she said.
She brushed her teeth. In the hallway she could hear Emma completely asleep, snoring faintly. The guest room looked out over the garden. It was used as Don's office, too, and so smelled faintly of pipe tobacco. The smell was actually pleasant. The room had been aired out. The sheets had been laundered. Maria sat down at the desk. They did have a wireless connection. She considered checking her e-mail and The Boards before turning in, but then decided she would risk getting caught and she had to be at the airport at noon tomorrow.
She stared at the ceiling and then slept.
She woke. A shape moved in the middle of the room. Don. She could just see his silhouette. She almost screamed, but she thought that might wake Emma. This was her immediate thought, and then she thought maybe she should scream after all just so that Emma would know. She should know what Don was.
"Wrong room," Don said. He mumbled something and said he was tired and had thought he'd do some work or something before turning in. He didn't move from the middle of the room.
"You are in the wrong room, Don," Maria said a bit louder.
Maria looked at the ground and saw a dark shape. Don shuffled to the hallway door.
Maria prepared herself to leap up if he should come toward her.
Don opened the door. Faint light fell from a night light down the hallway. She saw that he didn't have any pants on. They were bunched in his hand.
"Don dear?" Emma called. "Where are you honey? It's late." Emma had an edge to her voice. When Maria was a child her mother used a voice when she caught Maria taking a spoon to the sugar jar in the pantry. "Maria dear, where are you?" her mother said when the pantry door opened. Emma used the same voice. Don closed the door behind him. Maria lay still, half-awake, until dawn. She listened to the house wake and waited until everyone seemed to have settled after waking.
Emma sat in her place at the breakfast table. "Coffee?"
"Oh yes," Maria said.
"Don left early this morning; he won't able to take you to the airport, but he left cab fare."
"He didn't need to do that."
"Did you sleep well last night?" she asked.
Maria looked at Emma. Emma had her mug in both hands to distribute the warmth of the hot coffee into her palms. Emma had her head tilted toward Maria, a gesture that indicated that she wanted to listen. Maria, though, couldn't imagine them sitting together now and talking until the early hours of the night. A jay landed on the bird feeder hanging from a fir bough, scooped out the seed, sending yellow bits bouncing across the deck, and hopped to the lip of fence. Maria found herself tapping out what she wanted to say to Emma on the coffee table as if the table was a keyboard. Without a chat window screen, she didn't know how to say a thing to her. Maria looked forward to getting back home and getting advice again from the virtual Emma. She could tell the virtual Emma almost anything, anything at all.