SOMETHING SERIOUS by Austin Putty

For whatever reason, I didn’t want to lie to myself and say it wasn’t cheating. No matter how undecided I was about Glenn, whether I was using the evening as a test to see if I really loved him or not, the fact of the matter was that I had agreed to the blind date and had therefore opened myself to the possibility of cheating. Of that in itself, I was undoubtedly guilty, but guilt, oddly, wasn’t the emotion that came over me—it was irritation. That feeling was blown away, though, the moment I shook my date’s frosty, glistening hand. 

My date was a hulking figure shaped in three spherical lumps. He introduced himself as Derek, and I told him I was Tushara. We were at a hibachi grill. When he sat down, he took off his mistletoe-patterned scarf and bowler hat. I slid into the chair next to him, still a bit stunned. I had a suspicion that, underneath that beige turtleneck he was wearing, he had buttons going down his chest. His carrot nose was pierced, and I was surprised to find myself liking it. The rest of him was harder to swallow. 

My date was a snowman. Like, a real, actual snowman.

Still, Derek seemed well-mannered enough. He ordered a water with extra ice. I got saké, warm. A delicate Chinese fiddle played over the restaurant’s speakers, its melody broken by the clatter of plates and silverware. Waiters who passed couldn’t help but slow their gait to look at him, to say much less of the dinner-goers at their tables. I didn’t like all the attention he drew. It was embarrassing, and it made me want to leave. 

After taking a drink, Derek cleared his throat and turned toward me.

“To address the elephant in the room, there’s nothing magical about the hat. I’m just bald underneath.”

I forced a laugh, bad as the joke was, then took a sip of my saké to keep from rolling my eyes. “Solid icebreaker,” I said, not intending for it to come across as sarcastic as it did. The night was already so much weirder than I’d imagined it. I couldn’t even cheat like a normal person. In my whole life I had never cheated on anyone, so whatever this date was turning into felt karmic.  

“Thanks,” he said. He patted his forehead with a napkin. “Any questions about my, uh, corporal situation? I know it’s a bit of a shock.”

“I’m not even sure what to ask,” I said. It was hard to look him in his eyes. They were two beady coals, right there plumb on his otherwise guileless visage. It was unsettling. 

“It’s fine. You don’t need to force yourself. I know it takes some getting used to,” said Derek. He filled the pause with another sip from his glass. 

I pulled my phone out of my purse and sent a flurry of question marks and angry emojis to Mary, the co-worker who had set us up. She had asked me the other day how things were going with Glenn, what our Christmas and New Year’s plans were and so on. Mary tends to get her hopes up for me in a way I find annoying, so I’d lied and told her I’d broken it off with him. When she asked me why I had dumped him, I gave her part of the truth—that he had asked me to move in with him, and that I didn’t want things to go any further than they already had. It wasn’t exactly a lie since I had been leaning in that direction. I still hadn’t given Glenn an answer. 

Anyways, I told her I didn’t do blind dates on principle, but she kept pushing after the story about Glenn. She said Derek was a friend from the north who had come down on business —an equivocation if I’d ever heard one. If I were to get up and leave him at the restaurant, I knew I would never hear the end of it from her. I didn’t have many friends left at work. I won’t pretend that wasn’t my fault. 

“So, how long have you been working with Mary at the preschool?” asked Derek. I kept my gaze focused on the lotus-themed wallpaper hoping to get through as much of the conversation—and the night—as possible without having to look at him. I was already being rude, so what did it matter?

“Pretty much since I graduated,” I said. 

“College?”

“Mhm-hmm. Going on about three years now.”

“Working with kids is difficult,” said Derek. “I’ll bet you’re really passionate about your work.”

“No. I figured out I don’t like kids.” 

“Should a preschool teacher be saying that?”

I shrugged. “I hate kids and the kids hate me.”

Derek was quiet for a moment. Then he snorted. “You’re funny. Mary’s a little snarky too. Makes sense you two would get along.”

“I tolerate her.” I looked down and noticed my legs bouncing, so I crossed them. “How do you know Mary?’

“You could say we grew up in the same neighborhood.” 

“Did Mary… build you?” I asked. I felt my face grow hot at the stupidity of the question, of the situation. 

“No,” Derek said with a laugh, “but I did spend a lot of time with her whenever school let out.”  

“Interesting,” I said, although I was completely uninterested. In fact, the answer left me even more confused and irritated. I picked up the menu and wondered if Derek would pay for me. Surely, he would. He seemed like the type, and I deserved a free meal out of the night, at the very least.

“I’ve never been to a place like this before, where they make the food right in front of you,” said Derek, smiling. “I’m excited.”

My eyes were glued to the menu. “I’m excited for you,” I said. The conversation was headed for another stalling point when the chef appeared at our table and began to put on a show of flipping knives. Derek watched, an expression of wonderment on his face, but something about it seemed strained. I heard a rhythmic ticking noise, though what it was I couldn’t place. The chef tossed a bottle of cooking oil in the air, caught it, and squirted its contents across the grill. He brought out a lighter, gave it a flick, and the oil burst into a plume of flame in front of us. 

Though his body was already pure white, Derek seemed to pale. He raised the two twigs that formed his eyebrows, his mouth slightly agape. “Wow,” he said, and he began to fan himself. It gave me an idea about the ticking noise. I looked behind Derek’s chair and, sure enough, he was dripping water from his backside onto the floor. 

“Are you okay?” I asked. It came out quieter than I meant it to, as if he were a child who had wet himself and I was trying to be discrete so as not to humiliate him. 

Derek jolted upright in his chair. “I’m fine. I’m good. Something wrong?”

“Well, it’s just that you’re…”

“What? Something in my teeth?” he said. His grin was polite, but the corners of his mouth were tense. 

“You’re dripping.” I felt embarrassed saying it, for some reason. Derek’s façade broke for a millisecond, and his lip twitched. 

“Really?” he asked, turning around to check. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“As long as you know,” I said. Had I known what was about to happen, I wouldn’t have let him off so easily, but what did I know of talking snowmen? I don’t tell diabetics how to control their blood sugar, so why would I nag a snowman I had just met over his body temperature?

“Appetizers?” the chef asked, and Derek and I agreed to shrimp and rice, no eggs for my portion. As the chef went to work chopping onions and pushing around clumps of short grain, the heat of his culinary performance soared. He erected flamethrowers and volcanoes out of his ingredients, and then, when they were piping hot, launched them playfully toward our plates and mouths. A flung piece of shrimp lodged itself into Derek’s chin like a harpoon, the steam allowing it to burrow deeper after impact. 

The chef, seeming a bit unsure how to deal with the situation, looked at it and said, “Now it’s shrimp on ice!” Derek laughed in good humor, but he was grimacing. I wondered how much more he could take, why he was trying so hard to make a good impression. I had been sending him nothing but bad signals. 

Derek’s patience with the chef’s unintentional torture and my cold attitude reminded me of Glenn, in a way—how his selflessness always made things more uncomfortable than they needed to be. Mary had told me the other day that it had taken her husband a week to notice she’d dyed her hair a shade lighter. Not Glenn, though. If I was quiet for so much as a second, he’d ask me what was wrong. When I stayed over at his place on the weekends, I couldn’t even change into a new T-shirt without him feeling the need to tell me I looked pretty in it. Maybe he sensed I was getting cold feet about us. And regardless of the thought behind it, it’s kind of dumb to compliment someone for wearing pajamas, isn’t it? 

Glenn’s a nice man, and, at first, I thought his fussing over me was cute. I’d been in a string of casual relationships for a while, so when Glenn came along, I thought I was ready for something serious. But the more time we spent together, the more Glenn’s concern became smothering, his deference annoying. When I told him I had started weekly therapy, he grabbed me all suddenly and started whispering sweetly how proud he was of me, how good and courageous my decision was. I didn’t know if I had a boyfriend or a second therapist. 

Still, there’s something about Glenn I couldn’t get away from. He’s brave, I think, in ways that I’m not. The kind of bravery that lets you do karaoke sober. He’s generous, adventurous, open-minded. When we spent a weekend in New Orleans back in August, he gave a ten-dollar bill to every street performer we came across, even the suspicious drummer kid smoking a roach outside Jackson Park. Nights like those, Glenn could be the best person in the world.

It was easy to fantasize about our breakup and whatever came after when I was alone, but I always felt weak when I was with him, and I would start second-guessing everything. That’s probably the thing I hate about myself the most—I’m never cynical enough when it matters. 

Poor Derek was trickling, but somehow he and I had made it through the preparation of the main course. The chef lit up another oil splatter to clean the grill, and Derek endured it wearing that same pained grin. Singe marks speckled his arms and sagging dimples. 

“Buddy loves to kick up the temperature, doesn’t he?” said Derek.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked. “Yeah.” Derek’s eyes widened, and he nodded vigorously. “Don’t worry about me. He’s turning the grill off and we’ve got our dinner here. Let’s go ahead and eat.” 

Derek lifted a spoonful of fried rice to his mouth. In an instant, his snowball hand slid off his wrist and plopped down like a blob of yogurt, spoon and all. A middle-aged woman eating tempura in the booth across from us let out a sharp gasp. Everyone in the restaurant turned and froze. Our chef, who had been in the middle of wiping down the grill, looked over to the manager at the front of the restaurant for rescue. The manager only shook his head and ducked behind the lectern. I stared at Derek’s mushy hand resting atop the mound of fried rice on his plate like an overzealous dollop of mayonnaise. 

“God, this is so embarrassing,” muttered Derek. His idiot smile finally disappeared.   

I found myself scooping Derek’s slushy hand off his plate and putting it into an empty cup. 

I locked eyes with the manager as he was peeking over the lectern. I mouthed, “Check, please.” 

***

Lately, Glenn had been pushing for us to get to know each other’s families more. His family was small—he’d lost his parents when he was young, and both he and his sister had been raised by an older aunt. I think it would have been easier if it was a big family. I come from a big family, so I can trust in generational distance and my louder cousins to keep things superficial, but Glenn’s family is claustrophobic. I can’t ask Glenn if I forget someone’s name. There’s only three of them. And as much as he wanted me to get along with them, I didn’t want to spend all my Sunday afternoons with his nosy aunt and hermit sister. 

I thought about how I might end things with Glenn. Glenn and I had never told anyone, nor did we speak about it much, but we had begun as a one-night thing, originally. For me, Glenn had sprung into existence from the corner of a bar. I figured, at first, that was where I would eventually return him. He was good in bed, so I replied whenever he texted me, and Glenn pushed our relationship along from there. He was the one who had asked us to become exclusive, he was the one who had changed our dates from coffee shops and bars to sit-down restaurants and weekend trips, and he was the one who had asked me to move in with him. Wouldn’t it be fitting then if I ended things by slipping out of his life as easily as he had slid into mine? To tell him that I had cheated on him with a gentlemanly, bohemian snowman because, like I had always tried to tell him, I wasn’t cut out for anything serious?

I feel like I’m misrepresenting Glenn, or maybe it’s that I can only say how he acts when he’s around me. He teaches math at a Catholic high school. He’s an assistant coach on their football team. I’ve been to some of their games, and I’ve seen Glenn chew out his students in front of the crowd, in front of their parents and siblings and friends. God knows who else. The Glenn on the sideline who spits and yells is not the one I talk to every day, so it makes me worry if other parts of him I don’t like will surface given time. That’s the point of dating, isn’t it? To be around someone until you figure out why it’ll never work between you? Sometimes it takes one evening and other times it takes a year of saying yes until you can’t any longer.   

***

Derek had his head inside one of the freezer doors in the frozen section. We were in a Walmart, the one across the street from the hibachi place. Vapor leaked out around him along with the hum of the freezers. I was shivering with my arms folded across my chest. Shoppers prodded their carts around us in the aisle, and I wordlessly apologized to each. Mary still hadn’t texted me back. 

“I’ll be fine, just give me a second,” said Derek. I stood a measure back from him and the freezer, waiting. We had gotten his hand reattached, but I wanted to make sure he was out of danger before I took off. He had lied about his condition in the restaurant, after all.

“Does this happen a lot?” I asked.

“No, I’m usually pretty good about managing it. Doctor says it’s anxiety.”

“I mean the melting.”

“Yeah. It gets worse when I’m nervous. I’m a nervous melter,” said Derek. I felt bad about it, but the remark made me snicker. Derek missed it though, his bulbous head resting between a stack of DiGiornos. It was a bit of a shame, too, since he had been trying so hard to get me to laugh at dinner. I doubted he would say anything half as funny in the remainder of our time.

“I haven’t been out in a while,” said Derek. “I bet I look pathetic.”

“You’re fine. I haven’t been out in a long time either.”

Derek turned his head. “Oh yeah? What’s the story there?”

I thought about lying to him. Instead I said, “I’m not really sure what I want, if I’m being honest.”

Derek took his head out of the freezer and rolled it around his shoulders like a ball in a socket joint, casual as a morning stretch. “Silver Bells” crooned softly over the store’s speakers. It was December, after all. 

“That’s understandable,” said Derek. “Everybody goes at their own pace. Take me: I’ve called off two weddings last-minute, but I’m trying to put myself out there again.” 

“You had a fiancé? You’ve had two fiancés?” I tried to imagine Derek getting down on one knee. 

“And both times I got cold feet. I mean, I always have cold feet, but—”

“No, I got you,” I said. Derek caught me smirking that time. He grinned and smoothed his soft-serve scalp. 

“It’s scary, you know? Normal relationship stuff is frightening on its own, but I’m a snowman. There’s a lot of uncertainty that comes with that. A bad weather report could kill me, so how could I ever be a life partner to someone?” 

“I can’t quite understand that,” I said, “but I can empathize. I used to think I was going to marry the guy I dated through high school and college, but he dumped me senior year. I loved him––he was my first love—so I feel like I never really learned how to date until I was older, and now it feels like all the good men are taken or maybe I still don’t know how to look. I don’t know. I sound whiny and simple when I say all of this out loud.” 

“No, it’s not simple or stupid or anything,” Derek said. Our eyes met. 

“Listen, Tushara, I’m sorry about dinner. Mary probably twisted your arm into coming. I won’t be hurt if you want to cut out.” Again, Derek put forth a weak smile. 

“Maybe that’s for the best.” I crossed my wrists behind me, and my fingers tethered themselves onto the handle of a freezer door I didn’t know was there. Across from us, I spotted a tub of Very Berry ice cream. “Actually, I’m up to grabbing dessert if you want.” 

Derek raised a twiggy eyebrow. “Really? You know a good bakery around here?”

“I was thinking ice cream. You down for ice cream?”

“Can’t. I have sensitive teeth,” he said.

“You’re joking.”

“Of course I’m joking,” said Derek. “I’m a snowman. I’m always down for ice cream.” 

When I had the tub in my hands and closed the freezer door, I saw Derek gleaming behind me. It didn’t seem forced like it was at the restaurant, either.

“What?” I said.

“Nothing,” he said. “I just think you’re a good person, is all.” 

I wasn’t sure I agreed. I’ve never been one to like compliments, especially unexpected ones. I may have blushed a little. That’s all I’ll say. But then I remembered Glenn, and whatever had been warming inside me vanished.

We took the ice cream and a packet of plastic spoons to the car. Something about the way Derek brought his head low to ease himself into the passenger seat caught me. He had to adjust the seat to give himself more room, but even once settled you could hardly fit a hand between his head and the car ceiling, and his left arm smothered the entire middle console. He swallowed up space no matter where he was—like Glenn, you couldn’t ignore him if you wanted to—but being boxed inside the car with Derek magnified his presence, made me notice just how immense he was. I, on the other hand, had always felt a bit sad at how little I filled the space around me. I’d have to lean my whole body over to rest my arm on the console as nonchalantly as Derek. The distance between me and him was all on my end. 

“Can you move your hand?” I asked. Derek complied, and I slammed the tub of ice cream down on the console. We opened it, digging our spoons in. Derek’s lips turned pink and purple. The color of the ice cream diffused around his chin like a drop of paint in clear water. I put my spoon down and reached across to touch the coloring. Derek’s face had the same texture as packed snow. 

“There’s something I have to tell you,” I said, and Derek cocked his head. “I’m with someone right now, and I’m thinking about leaving him. He wants me to move in, and I like him —I really do—but I’m scared. I keep making up all these excuses and explanations, but I don’t know what I’m afraid of.” 

I looked down and saw that my hands were shaking. I brought them into my lap to keep it hidden. Derek leaned back and mulled over my confession with a bite of strawberry ice cream. The car was off, and the radio was off, so I heard nothing but the crunching of Derek’s enigmatic maw, a sound that reminded me of boots on fresh snow. 

“You should leave him,” said Derek.

“I’m surprised that’s your answer.”

“Really? Did I seem like an optimist?” 

“You were just talking about putting yourself out there.”

Derek laughed. “I guess I was. But I think, in most cases, if you have doubts about something important, you should play it safe. You and I are paranoid people. I have my reasons, and I’m sure you have yours.”

“Maybe, but look at us,” I said. “This has obviously not worked for either of us.” Derek crossed his arms and leaned into the window, away from me, but I continued. “I think we should try something bold for once.”

Derek knit his stick eyebrows together and sighed. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve already faced mortal danger tonight, and I’m getting a little tired.”

“It’s okay,” I said, “because I’ll be the one taking all the risk this time.” I leaned over, closed my eyes, and pressed my lips against Derek’s. It took him a moment to register what was happening, but eventually he got around to kissing me back. I expected at least a shiver, but instead I only felt numb sloshing my tongue around the insides of his frozen mouth. It wasn’t satisfying but it wasn’t horrible either. More than anything, I was saddened at how little Glenn came to mind. There was no sinful thrill or overwhelming guilt. No invasive, on-the-fly comparisons. This was a man who loved me, and I could hardly think of him in the act of cheating on him except for noticing how little I noticed him. .I climbed on top of Derek, and he pulled off my cardigan. My inner thighs felt like fire, his lap was so cold. 

My mother used to tell me that my grandparents had lived almost their entire lives without ever having seen the snow. It was only when they came to America in their twilight years that they had first felt its gentle sting upon their cheeks and upturned palms, but the new experience had shaken them deeply. Nothing reminds you of the fact that you are a warm-bodied, living being more than the shock of cold. I knew that Derek and I would never speak again after that night, and I knew Glenn and I weren’t going to make it either. 

What happened next—it didn’t matter anymore whether I was making a mistake or not. All that mattered was that I knew what I wanted in that moment, so I held tight to it. Mary would chew my ear off once I told her everything, and that was fine. I still had time to figure my life out. This was a winter story, but the seeds of spring were still packed tightly beneath the frost.


Austin Putty is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. He has heard every variation on the nickname "Silly Putty" and is often sleep deprived. Currently, he is the editor of mojo and Mikrokosmos, and is a third-year MFA candidate at Wichita State University. 

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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