“Did you hear he used to beat his wife?”
There are only three of us still sitting outside the bar that is closing down, and Pink Floyd plays behind us. It is fall in New Orleans, and the air still holds the summer heat late into the night. We each hold a cigarette. My mouth tastes like fireball and cider mixed. I hold my purse in front of myself and try to blend in, sipping my beer slowly.
“Wait, what?” The Poet replies.
“Yeah, [redacted]’s wife told me,” The Man says. He is all angles in his button-down shirt and wire glasses. We sit beside each other the bench, The Poet standing above us. The “he” in question is The Poet’s thesis advisor, a poet himself, a professor at our school.
“He wears floral ties.” The Poet runs his hands through his hair. “He’s late for everything.”
“You’re late for everything,” The Man replies.
“I’m half Puerto Rican,” The Poet offers, and they both laugh.
The Poet tells us a story — they went abroad together, him, the professor, and the professor’s wife. A window broke on her head, he tells us. It was crazy; It was a freak accident. And the professor just held her, ever so softly afterwards, the way a child holds a firefly. No signs of abuse.
“It was tender, you know, how he is,” The Poet says.
“I don’t know if it was the same wife. Was it?” The Man beside me asks.
Pink Floyd switches to something else, something softer with a mandolin that feels out of place against the conversation. The bar lights start to go off.
“Was it this wife?” The Poet repeats, tasting the question more than asking it.
They concur that neither of them know if he has been married multiple times. I take another drag, hoping to make the cigarette last as long as possible.
“Do you know?” The Man asks again. “I mean, are they still together?”
“What does together even mean?” The Poet replies. “They have a big house. A son. She’s the head of the English program at the other college.”
It’s worse then, if he beats her, because she’s an academic like us.
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” The Man says.
The Poet is quiet for a beat and pulls out another cigarette. “He stays in his office until eleven most nights. I think he has wine there,” he says. “Why doesn’t he go home?”
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” The Man says again and leans back slightly. “Just pretend I never said anything.”
The poet says nothing. I say nothing.
“Can you?” The Man asks.
“I don’t know, man.”
My cigarette burns out, and the song finishes.
The Man turns to me. “What do you think?”
I don’t realize I was biting at the inside of my mouth until I open it again. My body, distinctively female, feels like a weight. Like I should have an answer. My tongue tastes soft.
“I don’t know. I think your answers are more interesting,” I say. “I’m processing.”
The Man looks away from me.
“Just forget I said anything.”
Kirsten Reneau is working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of New Orleans. A Pushcart nominee, her work can also be seen in Hippocampus Magazine, Xtra Magazine and is forthcoming in (Mac)ro(mic) and The Threepenny Review.