SmokeLong Quarterly

Share This f l Translate this page

A Matter between Neighbors

Story by Jennifer Wortman (Read author interview) June 18, 2018

Photograph by SmokeLong Quarterly

My husband had been dead for five weeks and my neighbor came by to help. He would take my girls to play with his girls that weekend—he had his girls on weekends–so I could do what I needed to do. I didn’t know what I needed to do. There were practical matters and emotional matters and spiritual matters. I couldn’t keep track of all the matters, nor could I keep track of myself. I’d be in the bedroom, then the kitchen. Inside, then outside. Flatland, then mountains. Boulder, then Denver. Right now, I found myself in the living room. I also found myself naked, in front of my neighbor.

I will stop here to say I had no designs on my neighbor. I will also confess I found him attractive—thick forearms; scruffy dark hair; warm, tired eyes–that broad-shouldered-yet-beaten-down-by-life look I so loved. However, since my husband’s illness, my attractions repulsed me.

My girls were out back, in the yard, with his girls, who had run to find them. I was in a hurry to get somewhere, but I’d forgotten where, along with forgetting that my neighbor was in the room. I’d taken to changing my clothes in the living room because my bedroom was the coldest room in the house. And because undressing made me extra sad.

I’d also forgotten, it seemed, that I’d no need to remove my bra and underpants, which I’d tossed on the floor. I stared at my neighbor, shocked at his behavior. Look at him, sitting in my living room, fully clothed. Then I remembered what’s what. My flesh was the faint, mottled white of a daytime moon. A black moss, tinged grey, hung between my legs. My nipples went hard with fright, large goosebumps. I covered myself with my twiggy arms.

“Lila,” my neighbor said. Only my husband had ever said my name like that. He walked over, slowly, and grabbed a throw blanket from the couch and draped it over me. A gentleman. But his breath rasped against the thickening air. He was attracted. I was attracted. And, I promise you, repulsed.

“You can put your finger inside me,” I said. “If you want.” What better way to please and punish myself?

“Lila,” he said again. Everyone’s hands, lately, looked to me like mutant spiders. I stared at his: brownish and smallish and strong, his nails well-groomed.

“The girls,” he said. “Will be back any second.” I could hear them in the backyard: a cackle, a shout. Just as I nodded my head to say I get it, no problem, he slipped his finger inside me. A gentle, exploratory probe that felt deeply considerate and considered, but must have surprised him, given the diameter of his eyes.

“Thank you,” I said. He extricated himself and, as if he’d just realized he’d lost something, whipped his head around, looking everywhere except at me.

“I forgot you were here,” I said. “Just so you know. I forget things these days.”

“We should probably forget this happened,” he said.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll forget.” I retreated with my clothes to the bedroom.

Once he left I remembered how his finger had sent an ice-water chill high into my throat, a coolness I could taste on my tongue. I believe my mouth had opened then, in sync with his eyes.

But soon, as predicted, I forgot my neighbor’s finger. I forgot my neighbor’s finger so completely that a day or week or month later I found myself in his bed, wondering how I got there. Then I remembered his finger, because it was inside me again, then another, then all four. I also remembered my girls, home alone at night, sleeping, a half-block away. Though they were at the age they could stay alone for a time during the day, I’d never left them like this. It was a matter I should have discussed with my husband. I looked over my neighbor’s shoulder: surely my husband would show up now, to scowl or cheer me on. But all I saw were the kids’ drawings my neighbor had tacked to his wall, his hotel-plain dresser, his ancient boom box.

My neighbor seemed to be in some kind of Sisyphean agony, engaged in a desperate quest to find something my cunt wouldn’t yield. Another plunge of the hand. Another groan. Another retreat.

When he removed his hand for good, it was a shock. I pulled him inside me, and he froze, clutching my shoulders, his head bent against my neck. We stayed that way, breathing. Finally, he whispered, “I’ve been so lonely.”

“Yes,” I said, smoothing his hair. “Say it again.”

He looked straight at me and said it. My eyes went wet.


“I’ve been so lonely,” he said, thrusting.

Still I lifted my head in search of my husband. Still he was gone.

About the Author

Jennifer Wortman is the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. Her work appears or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature, Brevity, The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction America, and elsewhere, and has been cited as distinguished in Best American Short Stories. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and MacDowell, she lives with her family in Colorado, where she teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

Support SmokeLong Quarterly

Your donation helps writers and artists get paid for their work. If you’re enjoying what you read here, please consider donating to SmokeLong Quarterly today.

"Reading Your Work Like a Pro" with Farhana Khalique

Book Now!

Are you nervous about reading your work aloud, or worried that you’ll ‘flatline’ or sound monotone? Join writer and voice over artist Farhana Khalique for this workshop, which includes tips on how to deal with nerves, how to ‘mark-up’ your story so it’s easier to read and hear, how to inject more energy and emotion into your performance, and more. We’ll also do writing and reading exercises to put the above into practice.