White Tennis Shoes
Alina Stefanescu

The guitar steps into the white tennis shoes on the front porch, a tune to the left of the doormat, a lullaby the girl sings to the boy she hopes will notice her. I hear what’s left after two houses intervene. I hear how bad she wants him. The boy right there in the room where the same seven notes strum but he can’t hear a song except the one crocheted of lace between two parents who really loved one another and the lace is so delicate with variations and details that he can’t imagine replacing it with a thread.

The girl’s voice tangles in aspen leaves but comes out slender, a slip of bubbling stream, a place where things began. Movement is a melody we invent from instants in which we perceive a pattern. The boy cannot invent. The boy sees only what came before. He cannot touch the thread she wishes to weave into a journey. He cannot see the pattern through.

My husband is behind the front door. Two steps behind the doormat. Missing a set of white sneakers.

He can’t go anywhere without shoes. Not since the surprise of splinters.

If I had big white tennis shoes, I would avoid the undertow of family time and miscommunication removed from the freezer to thaw alongside a bottle of wine. I would never leave frozen materials on the counter and wait for the soaking.

As his wife, I sit on the front stoop and guard the sneakers he should use to escape me. The music grows tight at the corners. The night is a paper airplane half-folded and all the motion in the world doesn’t mean any of us are going anywhere.

I don’t remember our ski trip last year. My husband retrieves the event and preserves it as a keepsake. We are not lost, he says. But who is looking?

He says things to keep them from being true. But he sounds so honest when he says things he doesn’t want to happen even if the saying itself is a lie. Like retiring at Glacier National Park as stewards. Like a man struggles to make more and more money for forty years and then suddenly decides he doesn’t need it. Suddenly decides he can work for free.

When we passed each other in the hall earlier—en route to children-bed deposits—he stopped me and said, if we make it to forty, the statistics of sexual infidelity dramatically decline. His eyes glowed like volume buttons on a car radio. Two volumes glowing in opposite directions. I didn’t know what he meant.

Why forty? I wondered. Why stop there? What’s at forty?

Well I thought it might make you happy to know. It makes me happy.

What is happy? I wondered. What comes after happy and is it well-rested?

These are melodies that never made it out into music because my husband doesn’t appreciate mocking serious topics. It reduces his trust in me when I avoid topics by laughing them away. These are melodies that were rejected at first rehearsal. Sheet music stocked away in an old hatbox I open when the kids are at school and the house could be anyone. The home could be a red brick woman named Margaret whose arias perfume the air whenever she opens hatboxes. The home could be a hatbox full of unsingable songs kept inside because music went out of style and now everything is recording. Mixing or looping other people’s songs in to a cacophony of Facebook pages, each one earnest, each one sure this is the real me. Or she.

My mother wasn’t a gypsy but that’s what I tell him when I can’t admit to being unserious. That’s preposterous but it’s better than funny because he doesn’t know what to do with absurdity since maybe it’s a form of innocence he missed in his all-American childhood. We played with toy guns, he admits.

He hasn’t been spiritually-certain since we left the megachurch. A good church grows. It attracts people. The church we attend is too liturgical. My husband doesn’t know what to do with too much silence. Who can be silent after the Shoah? Isn’t our duty to speak about important social events? Isn’t it our duty to parse the news with scripture?

For a moment, he looks like a bald version of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or maybe more Martin Niemoller on June 27th, 1937 his hands white against the glossy wooden pulpit saying, “No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak. For it is, and must remain, the case that we must obey God rather than man.” But it sounds like a pick-up line, a plea for sex, a bungled belief system. It sounds like a loose thread we can’t pull into a pattern. How we want to be formed is not how forming happens.

I fell for him over tennis. The tennis ball he couldn’t hit became the ball he sliced open with a kitchen blade. He carved it like a holiday turkey. Inside the green felt a hollow tan rubber layer about one inch thick. It looked so cheap. You aren’t a loser, I wanted to say but it was too easy to misunderstand in context. A parking lot and eyes like flints. The anti-progressive exultation of the moment when something we respect is cut apart. The kiss that follows.

You’re aren’t a loser, I swore. The game is cheap. Its core empty except for the shit we plant inside. A plant is a plan dyed green.

The cantus firmus is a yarn we’ve woven over and no one can recognize it from the later layers. White tennis shoes and a song I might step into if ever I was invited. We relate in the racket, the churned noise of full-throttle family. The music is something others hear in us but we know only the noise and clatter of frozen jawlines. The color of sun setting is more shadow than hold, more entry than anniversary.

A boy on the floor laughs because he can’t hear what the girl who longs from him is saying. He laughs because she smiles and the smile is easy tender to which the laugh returns or begins.

I want to help the boy see the girl even though she is a stranger possibly with lice, possibly a feline-lover who likes the idea of the boy more than the reality of what he might bring to a picture.

Later I go inside wearing the white tennis shoes.

What are you doing, he asks?

Those are my shoes, he says without meaning.

I’m running away. I sit on his left knee and let him touch my back, let his hand drift down toward the haunches of hips of such scenes.

My hands smell like sage, I say, even though I didn’t gather any sage or use a like-minded lotion. I let him smell my fingers.

Yes, he nods. Sage.

His shoes are too big. When I sink into his chest a tennis shoe thuds to the floor. I am a plant that doesn’t grow here but the story requires me to smell foreign and home-like. I am an herb that tastes good with turkey.


Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and “reared” in Alabama. She lives in Tuscaloosa with her partner and three small native species. Her poetry chapbook, Objects In Vases, will be published by Anchor & Plume in March 2016. She wants to imagine you reading it. More online at www.alinastefanescu.com.

“White Tennis Shoes” is the winner of the 2015 Ryan R. Gibbs Flash Fiction Contest judged this year by Ander Monson. Please see our contest page for more information.