Yes, Virginia?

Usually I forget Justin’s gay, but not today. Hands raised shoulder high he says, “Well, Suzanne, that’s just my opinion.”

And then he turns, he walks away.

Now that, actually? That was pretty gay, for him. Not the way he said “my” (which was, admittedly, a little gay), but the way he held his hands, as if Suzanne, holding a gun, was about to commit a hate crime.

Me? I’ve never been attracted to men. And here, in the USA, we probably don’t even have the word (although, in Germany, they probably do). An analogy: I’m what you’d call a priest who doesn’t believe in God.


I’m a critic, like Justin. Only instead of books, I review TV.

But I do love Justin’s poetry. A bona fide Buddha, that man. The real deal. What’s better? From, like, nine to five? He’s my best friend. Today, though—although, to be honest, today isn’t unlike most other days—Suzanne found a way to sully things. And just when the evening turned beautiful, too. A Wednesday, the municipal parking lot is empty, the surrounding hillsides, low to the ground, blurring their smokey, hazy blue. The east end of the parking lot—where you can smoke—dips to inform a narrow ravine defined by symmetrical plots of meticulously mowed turf, the grass heavy with green, encapsulated within long ovals of concrete curbing, urban architecture created to slow those cars intent on using the lot as a passing lane. Yellow daffodils make the green grass greener, green grass makes the yellow flowers brighter, a gentle give and take.

What god, I wonder. What anything is at play? At stake?

“Well,” Suzanne says. “I suppose I chewed his ear a bit longer than he deemed necessary.”

Suzanne wasn’t anything if not self-aware. This shit though? This problem at work? It was getting to her. And you can’t have that. There was no point. I wanted to tell her that You can’t let this shit get to you. But this was easy for me to say, given that I wasn’t the one pushing seventy Our society is built to resent experience, so the weight of modernity crushed me whenever I spoke with her. She took my silence as compliance.

The other thing about Suzanne: She doesn’t tolerate platitudes. This isn’t to say she enjoys misery. Had I some verbal tonic that would absolve her? She’d have gulped it. Obviously. That’s just what old people do. But she’s the sort to mention having had a glass of red wine. As in: Honestly? I didn’t even feel like it, tired as I was. But I just had to have a glass of red wine. And now look at me.

The sun sets and we sit on a stone bench. Like Suzanne, these benches are pretty, but not practical. Hard as trigonometry, coldblooded as reptiles, I shiver. Suzanne doesn’t mind. These aren’t the best conditions for problem solving.

“You’re right,” I say.

In addition to the truth, Suzanne appreciates short, declarative sentences. This is what I like about her: She loves the world but has no poetic sensibilities.

“I know,” she says. “That’s still no excuse.”

She’s been on about the editors again. I don’t fully understand her problem. I get why she’s upset, but I can’t figure why such a seasoned veteran experiences, let alone wallows in, vulnerability. She’s been writing for decades. Her column, Ask, Virginia, is nationally syndicated. She writes opinions with one foot upon either side of the Mason-Dixon. Good stuff, assuming that’s your sort of thing. The conversation was far more interesting when Justin was here. Because he likes Suzanne—we all do—he assumed a serious tone. He even put out his cigarette, which was kind, considering she was old, and, for her, smoking wasn’t back in vogue.

“No,” I say. “You’re right.”

Suzanne runs a hand through her hair, which, surprisingly, hasn’t been washed. She makes to speak, but her voice breaks. She doesn’t understand the suspension. It isn’t strange to see her upset, but it is sad to find her defeated. Management isn’t necessarily as old, or older, than she is, but their positions within the institution? These are. It is difficult to separate the face from the faceplate.

“You could let me buy you a drink,” I say, desperate.

Suzanne shakes her head, says, “When the building comes tumbling down, does it really matter if you’re trapped on the first or the fortieth floor?”

I’m not sure what this means. Parents write her; they marvel how tough kids have it these days. Suzanne doesn’t buy it, and she says as much. When she was a teen, girls her age worried about tans. Today? They worry about sepia tones. She wants to believe things are the same but knows that they aren’t. For Suzanne, this makes living inscrutable.

“If you can’t write about Christmas,” I say, given her an opening. I don’t know what else to say. It’s not that I don’t care, exactly. But, if we’re being honest, I don’t.

She nods. But her heart isn’t in it.

“When we can start the fire, and run, but the trees can’t?” She raises an index finger, shakes her head.

She says, “No, Simon. Those men know all about ‘Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus.’ The first one, I mean. I don’t expect you to. Or to even understand. But they do.”

I wait.

“It’s one of the most wonderful newspaper columns ever. Google it. You’ll see. They knew exactly what I was doing.” She laughs. “They say I’m after. But believe me. They’re not saying I was after something.”

She smiles.

“You’re probably placating me. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter. What does is that you don’t believe, except you see. In this world there’s no longer anything real and abiding, to borrow from much wiser editors. And you, Simon. You have an excuse to be stupid, given all that TV!” She doesn’t do anything particularly old-womanly, like pat my hand, but she does stare me down, which, if you think abou—

“I’ve answered every letter that’s ever been submitted. What’d they expect me to do? Discriminate? Not that it matters, but I never thought the kid’s parents would post it. That I’d create some sort of,” she lifts a hand. “Backlash. If it were the tooth fairy, they’d be fine. If it was Allah,” she mumbles. “It’d be fine.”

If I didn’t know her better, I’d have sworn she was about to spit.

“What gets me,” and she bites a knuckle. “What I can’t reconcile is that no one can conceive of anything any longer. Every race? Fixed. Or a tie. Everything else? A white lie. We’re running out of songs to sing, Simon.”

We talk a little longer. Eventually I’m forced to beg off (not squirming is painful), and she says it’s fine, waves away my excuse while I’m still talking.

That night, in bed, I hear her in my head. I side with the paper. Not because I want to, but because bumper stickers are rarely funny, and always wrong: It’s just not possible to be the change you wish to see in this world. I will say this, though: It’s pretty goddamn dreary living in a world absent Santa Claus. Of smelling something burning and remembering nothing. How in that space where words are absent, that place where our eyes should remain, there’s no longer a difference between suffocation and pain.

Oh, Suzanne—and I reach for sleep, for a sleep which is the soporific progeny of a body and soul in union and which, finally, are not endlessly upsetting the other—I understand. Imagine, if you can, a world where spoken language never evolved. No birdsongs. No vocalizations. A plane where feelings are felt, and nothing is implied. Misconstrued. Relationships, all relationships, reduced to base levels. The ultimate sums of dis- and affection. All there is but giving. And taking. Or giving and taking.

There are, as it’s been said, no masses, only ways of seeing people as masses. We expect happiness when, in reality, we should be happy it permeates existence.

But that’s no sort of truth.


Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Richard Leise recently accepted The Perry Morgan Fellowship in Creative Writing and the David Scott Sutelan Memorial Scholarship from Old Dominion University. While completing a MFA, he has a novel out on submission, and is finishing a collection of short stories. His work may be found in numerous publications, and was recently awarded Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions nominations.