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Today's Story by Laurie Ann Doyle

I slipped the condom wrapper in the pocket of my jeans and set out on my morning walk around the lake, wondering who and what I'd meet.

The Duck, the Clock, and the Condom

Every night famous authors read not only to us, but the duck. As we were gathering in the amphitheater, a wild female emerged from the lake beyond, settled her gray-brown feathers down by the podium, and sat there…quiet but not asleep, because sometimes you saw her black eyes flashing. It was weird, but a good weird. Because instead of the nervous silence that usually filled the air before readings, it got us talking. The man with the wire-rimmed glasses on my right—fortyish like me, and a short story writer—was convinced the duck wasn’t moving till she got a whole lot of bread crumbs. The young woman in a pink hoodie on the other side—she was halfway through a novel—speculated that the podium had been placed on the poor creature’s nesting spot. I said the duck was courting something, but who or what I had no idea.

Early on the fourth morning of this writing conference I was attending, I took the amphitheater steps down two at a time, wanting to spot the duck close up. The lake was a rippled green, shadowed by the pines surrounding it. Finally in the distance I saw her, spinning circles in the water, dipping down, pushing up. I watched a long time before she disappeared. I turned, but instead of leaving, found myself walking to the oak podium. I stood behind it, looking up at row after empty row, rising above me. What would it be like, I wondered, to have three or four successful books under my belt, be able to draw crowds? I had a dozen or so stories—or were they novel chapters?—sitting on my laptop, but with all the nervous fiddling and revising and planning I’d been doing lately, my writing seemed to be moving more back than forward. I was here at the conference to get unstuck, jumpstart all sorts of new and of course perfect work. But whenever I sat down on the narrow bed in my dorm room or in a back corner of the cafeteria and put pen to paper, the words still seemed forced.

I pulled out the inner shelf of the podium—one hidden from view of the audience—and discovered three unexpected things: a crumpled, half-empty bottle of water, a big white clock with black hands, and a torn condom wrapper. The condom was missing, but I could see gel oozing from its right corner.

It wasn’t one of those fancy condoms, not ribbed or flavored or glow in the dark, but your basic Trojan. The kind boys in high school liked to carry in their wallets and brag about, then sit on day after day until body heat ruined it. I picked up the bright blue wrapper by an untorn corner. Two Greek warriors looked back at me, spiny white helmets rising from their heads.

I imagined a body leaning into the podium, another body thrusting against it. A long-haired woman and a bearded man at first. Then two men in khaki shorts. Next a threesome. Writers liked screwing both on and off the page, I knew. But here on this grassy stage? That surprised me. I wondered if someone’s book had inspired this. Or maybe the reading of the night before? Plenty had been X-rated. I looked around for other signs of the lovers: a crumpled note, forgotten panties. But there was nothing. I peered down the trail that circled the lake, half expecting to see entangled bodies, even a bare backside.

It’d been a while since I—or more accurately, my husband and I—had used a condom, years since we’d made love outdoors. One day in some July or August, we found a clearing in the pines above our house in Berkeley. It was warm, perfect for being naked and doing naked things. We spread a quilt over the lumpy dirt and were just getting down to some of those things when a helicopter began to buzz overhead. Soon it was joined by others. Before long, flashes of bright red were circling in the sky and I was sure that they’d spotted the two of us.“Don’t be ridiculous,” my husband said. “Probably a forest fire.”

But the mood was broken and we went home to satisfy our desires on the king-size bed. And it’d been pretty much the same since—particularly after the child we both wanted arrived: our smooth Posturepedic, clean sheets, and a door that locked. We used condoms sometimes, a French tickler once or twice—complete with pleasure enhancing rubs—but usually things that didn’t involve an interruption. With an eight-year old in the house, we hardly had all the time in the world. Were we stuck? I hadn’t thought so. But standing here in the open amphitheater, holding what I was holding, I had to think again. Our sex was boring.

I slipped the condom wrapper in the pocket of my jeans and set out on my morning walk around the lake, wondering who and what I’d meet. I imagined people emerging from a dreamy reality, their faces flushed pink. I pictured them holding hands, pretending they had never met, awkwardly pulling on shorts, walking toward me half-naked and unashamed. Alert for signs of sex, I saw what I hadn’t noticed before: blackberries in the mad bramble dash of late summer, wild bees flying into hidden nests in the grass, dragonflies mating wing-on-iridescent-wing, a pair of Steller’s Jays feasting on red elderberries. The lake smelled lush, rich and slightly rotten. Toward the end of my loop, I met a man I’d caught myself staring at during the readings, attracted by his lanky brown bangs and endearingly thin ankles. This morning he was sharply dressed in a striped button-down and white shorts.     “Hello,” I said, smiling. He smiled, too, and we walked past one another.

I returned to the podium without having discovered the lovers. The white-faced clock stood waiting for the readers that evening, but someone had taken away the crumpled bottle of water. I thought about putting the condom wrapper back so that no one would know I’d been there. Maybe the lovers would want to come back and remove this bit of evidence. Maybe I should let somebody else have the chance to discover it. Instead I kept the wrapper in my pocket. I liked the imaginings and half-stories it had sparked.

I attended a couple more readings, and so did the duck. On the last night I got up the nerve to slide in next to the man with the brown hair sitting two rows above the podium. The pale skin of his cheekbones shone in the half-light, and his eyes—which I had never seen full on before—were the color of whole ginger. Trying to hide my longing to move closer, I nodded toward the blue-black lake. “So the duck, has she made her appearance?”

He shook his head, and we talked of other things. But halfway through the reading when the duck still hadn’t shown up, he leaned over to me. “Maybe she’s disappointed,” he whispered. I raised my eyebrows, not understanding. “Because she hasn’t heard any Dickens.” We smiled at exactly the same moment. “But I’m not really kidding,” he said, his face bright with expertise. “Read the first two pages of Great Expectations.Listen to its cadence. You don’t have to be human to fall under that trance.”

I loved Dickens. I imagined this man reading great novels late into the night, something my husband never did.

He walked me to the bar and the dance of the final night. We bought a bottle of Korbel’s champagne and he poured me a glass. And another. When the DJ put on some Rolling Stones, we pushed toward the dance floor together. We danced close, then farther apart, but not so far that I couldn’t feel the pull of his shoulders. It was only when he moved away that I started to stare. His arms, elbows bent and held straight out from his ribs, looked like droopy wings. And he was stepping just so from foot to foot with the unhappy precision of a perfectionist. I’d been wrong about his ankles. They weren’t delicately thin, but bony. But worst of all was the smug half-smile on his face as if he were admiring himself in the mirror. My husband was a goofy dancer. He liked to slide the distance of the dance floor as if he were riding a skimboard, do a wild funky chicken, rival Elvis with a hip swiveling twist. People laugh. I laugh. I missed him.

“Excuse me,” I said to the man with brown hair. “Be right back.” I ducked into the women’s room, splashed water on my face, washed my hands, stared in the mirror. So what if he’s a bad dancer, I thought. Could be good at other things. Why not find out? I pulled my hair straight back from my face and let it spring back to its weird shape: thick and curly and impossible to control. In that moment, my longing changed. I didn’t want to dance with the brown-haired man anymore, didn’t want to go back to his room. I went out to tell him I was leaving. But the man who loved Dickens was talking to another woman.

I wandered back to the dorm alone, the night reaching all around me. In the darkest shadows on the grass, I thought I saw the duck, an even darker shape that moved under the trees . Or maybe it was my imagination. I walked slowly. I couldn’t see the moon either, but I knew it was there by the way the clouds burned white around the edges.

By the time I got back to my dorm, it was late, later than I’d realized  I began to quickly pack. My husband and son would have been asleep for hours now, both of them ready to get up early and meet me at the airport in the morning. I laid out T-shirts, folded jeans. From out of somewhere the condom wrapper fell and I slipped it in the pocket of my suitcase. Why, I wondered as the plane pushed up into a sky still half-lit with stars. One reason was clear. To make my husband laugh,—he would laugh, I knew—to spark some new wildness in us. Indoors, outdoors,both. But there was something more, something underneath, still waiting. All those mysterious, messy things—seen, imagined, weird, imperfect—all those things, I wanted them, too. It was terrifying.


Laurie Ann Doyle is the winner of the Alligator Juniper National Fiction Award and recipient of 2012 Pushcart Prize and 2008 Best New American Voices nominations. Her short stories and essays have been published or are forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review, Midway Journal, Farallon Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, and other literary magazines  She teaches writing at UC Berkeley and lives just south of campus with her husband and son.


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