from the novella
by Panio Gianopoulos
A Familiar Beast
Out now on Nouvella Books
MaryAnne was seated in a booth by the window. Her narrow chin rested on the palm of her right hand as she read a plastic-sheeted library book.
Marcus sat across from her. “Sorry to interrupt your night.”
“Where’s the happy couple,” she asked, sliding the book beneath her plate and looking up.
“In the lobby of Harriet’s building. The main entrance was propped open.”
“That’s the worst thing about reading in restaurants,” Marcus said, gesturing to her book, half-pinned beneath a messy dinner plate. “You have to leave food on the plate or they’ll keep trying to take the plate away.”
“They try anyway,” she said, and reached into her purse. The sound of her hand rustling among the unknown trivia of her life grew noisier; it moved from the scuffle of rodents in the hedges to the rowdy brawl of a schoolyard wrestling match. She searched and searched but found nothing. Her lips tightened. The ends of her thin dark eyebrows turned down. Finally, she upended the contents of her purse onto the table with a clatter and, gritting her teeth, picked through the beautifying debris.
“I’m really sorry to bother you with this,” Marcus said. “They’re not even for me.”
“I knew you were married,” she said, plucking a slim set of keys out from beneath a jumble of black hair ties.
“I’m not married,” Marcus said.
“Single men don’t apologize.”
“We’re separated,” he said. Then, after a moment, he added, “Divorcing.”
Her shoulders softened, and the corners of her eyes crinkled, and he felt the temptation of comfort, attention, and kindness as strongly and ruinously as he ever had. “Any kids?” she said.
“One. A boy. Fourteen weeks old.”
“That’s hard,” she said. Her voice had changed. It had retreated from the clipped remoteness of her lips to the warm rounded husk of her throat.
“Hardest year of my life.”
“I mean hard for the boy,” she said.
She gazed at the disarray on the table, but made no motion to gather it. “It’s hard for you too, I’m sure.”
As her sympathy washed over him, Marcus felt an exhilarating surge of relief. But then, like the foamy crest of a collapsing wave, shame and failure came crashing down after it.
“It was my fault,” Marcus said. “I let her down—us down. I betrayed what we had.” It didn’t sound like him and MaryAnne seemed to notice, tilting her head slightly at the discordance. It was, Marcus understood, his wife’s voice she was hearing. Since the recent cessation of Sharon’s indictments and accusations, Marcus had come to provide them himself. He had listened to her litany of his offenses so many times that all he had to do was open his mouth and they would come pouring out, perfectly replicated.
“I don’t need to hear about it,” MaryAnne said.
“I don’t like to talk about it,” Marcus said. “Every day I just want to get further away from it. I don’t know why I brought it up.”
MaryAnne uncrossed her arms. “Well,” she said, eyeing him, “you do have the look.”
“What’s the look?”
“The same one my cheating ex-husband had.”
She laughed darkly, pushing aside the oval dinner plate. “That’s not entirely fair. I know women who have stepped out on their husbands. A year after I married George I almost did it myself.”
“What happened?” Marcus said.
She shrugged. “George was gone all the time. He’s a pilot. I was still waiting tables. We almost never saw each other. It was like a long distance relationship only we lived together.” She placed her middle finger on top of a loose nickel and made a counterclockwise circle with it. “Angus was one of my customers. He was half-British— he had this funny partial accent, everyone thought he was faking it, but it was really the way he talked. His a’s turned into r’s. Bananer. Idear.” She reversed the nickel’s direction. Thomas Jefferson’s silver wig peeked out from below her nail bed. “He invited me out to drinks one night after work and I said yes, I don’t know why, I guess I was flattered. We ended up at his apartment. Not much happened. Something, but not much. I felt terrible about it either way. When George finally got back I confessed everything. Threw myself at his feet.” She dragged the nickel to the edge of the table and popped it upright with the base of her thumb. “George surprised me. He comforted me. Reassured me that we would be okay. It was.... I felt like I’d found the right man. You know? Here was proof. He was comforting me. What goodness I’d discovered, I told myself in awe. What bigness of spirit.” She released the nickel and pressed its face back into the shellacked table. “Turns out he was already cheating on me. He’d slept with twenty, maybe thirty other women by then. Many of them would become my co-workers when I joined the airline.” She smiled. “Friends.”
“I’m sorry,” Marcus said.
“Did he regret it?”
“You didn’t believe him.”
“Why should I?”
Marcus shrugged. “Because he said it.”
“Really? That’s what I should have gone on in the face of all the evidence? Because he said it?”
“Sure, it’s possible. But is it likely?”
“You’re beginning to remind me of my wife,” Marcus said, and smiled. “Winning an argument with her was...” He was trying for lightheartedness but it backfired. MaryAnne narrowed her hooded eyes at him.
“This is how they started, isn’t it,” she said.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” he said, although of course he did.
“The affairs started like this. With well-meaning, playful conversation in a restaurant. Or a bar. Or the galley or the hotel lobby or who knows where. Two adults airing their grievances about their spouses.”
“We’re just talking,” Marcus said.
“Some people use candor for seduction.”
She looked out the window, at the black Carolina night. A sedan drove past with a dent in its side, low, just above the front tire.
Harriet and MaryAnne were not the most beautiful women in attendance that evening at Jack’s Black Smile, the boxy, noisy, brick-walled bar on Wallaby street, but they were certainly the kindest, since unlike the other women with whom Edgar attempted a conversation, Harriet and MaryAnne did not immediately walk away. As Edgar teased out their names and drink preferences, Marcus looked on with unexpected admiration for his friend. In high school, Edgar had possessed the self-assurance and charm of a lint catcher. At least some of the changes of the last fifteen years had been for the better.
“Let’s see. Rum and Coke for MaryAnne and a Coors light for Harriet,” Edgar said.
“Other way around,” Harriet said. She was a tall woman in her mid-thirties, with broad shoulders and a perky upright blonde ponytail. When she smiled her large pink gums flashed with the delighted overexposure of an exhibitionist. Harriet laughed loudly and happily, though not easily. In this, she expertly walked the line; she was neither too discerning to be unkind nor too lenient to be unsatisfying. When Marcus learned that she was an elementary school teacher, he felt a pang of envy for Harriet’s students who— besides having their entire lives ahead of them—also had this friendly, robust woman to model their desires after.
“I like women with men’s names. I think it’s endearing,” Edgar said, handing the tumbler with its plump quarter-lime garnish to Harriet.
“It’s not a man’s name,” MaryAnne said.
“Harry,” Edgar said.
“No one calls her Harry,” MaryAnne said. Her features were small and dark, her eyes owlishly hooded, and the sight of her thin lips on the bottle made Marcus think, inexplicably, of a plug of black licorice.
“Marcus, did you know that MaryAnne is a stewardess? Maybe you were on the same flight,” Edgar said.
“Flight attendant,” MaryAnne said.
“Marcus flew in from San Jose this afternoon. Is that where you came from?”
“I came from Dallas.”
“That would have been a crazy coincidence,” Edgar said.
“Crazy,” MaryAnne said, and pulled on her beer.
“Do you still like flying? After all this time? I think I’d lose interest,” Edgar said.
“She hates it,” Harriet volunteered.
“I like flying fine,” MaryAnne said. “It’s the passengers I could do without.”
“They can be pretty bad, huh?” Edgar said.
“Tell them about the woman who put her baby up in the overhead bin. Her baby!”
Harriet shrieked, laughing.
“She didn’t know any better,” MaryAnne said. “It was her first time on an airplane.”
“Who’s never been on an airplane?” Edgar said, shaking his head. “What else? You must have a ton of stories.”
MaryAnne didn’t reply. Marcus could feel her apathy; it was as prominent and visceral as rage, and though long ago he would have moved toward the bright sunlit delight of Harriet, after all that had happened to him recently, he felt a kinship to the obscure, ensnared dimness of MaryAnne.
For the first time since arriving at the bar, he spoke. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to a passenger?”
She turned to look at him. Whether gauging his seriousness or simply registering his presence, Marcus couldn’t tell.
“There has to be something,” he said.
“I’m not the vengeful type.”
“You put sour milk in that guy’s cof-fee,” Harriet sang.
“Right. Something like that,” MaryAnne said. “Sour milk.”
Edgar laughed and pulled Harriet toward the jukebox. “Come on. Help me pick some songs. If I have to listen to ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ one more time I’ll burn this place down.”
“And what’s the worst thing a passenger ever did to you?” Marcus said. He could see Edgar and Harriet negotiating the crowd toward the glass and metal stump of the jukebox and then, upon reaching it, their bodies converging to address it.
“I don’t know,” MaryAnne said.
“There has to be something.”
“I don’t remember.”
“You’re saying no passenger ever did anything bad to you,” Marcus said.
“No. I’m saying I don’t remember what the worst thing is.”
“How is that possible?” Marcus said. He had come to believe that the worst fault was the one thing we always remembered, and confronted with this discrepancy he didn’t know whether to be grateful or skeptical. He motioned to the bartender. The chalkboard posted a drink special, a beer and a shot for five dollars, and he ordered two. “So. How do you know Harriet?”
“Look, I appreciate the effort,” MaryAnne said, rolling the new silver bottle between her palms, “but you don’t have to do this.”
“I understand. You’re playing wingman for your friend. Well I don’t need to be distracted. I’m capable of entertaining myself.”
“I’m not trying to distract you,” Marcus said.
“Right. Of course not.” She downed the shot then raised the bottle of beer to the sweet black stain of her lips. After a while she stopped and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “You find me deeply, deeply interesting,” she said.
“Hey, I don’t know what I said that offended you, MaryAnne—”
“That’s it, use my name, it’s more sincere.”
“—but you seem to be having a conversation that I’m not having.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re a good guy. Okay? You’re a great guy. The world is full of great guys.” She tapped him on the arm, once, twice, and then walked away.
PANIO GIANOPOULOS is the author of the novella A Familiar Beast (Nouvella Books). A recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, his writing has appeared in Tin House, Northwest Review, Salon, the Hartford Courant, the Brooklyn Rail, FiveChapters, and the Rattling Wall, among others. He lives in Los Angeles with his family.