Cover Photo: A Matter of Power by Hugh Burkhart

A Matter of Power

“All I know is Derek is my friend. I don’t see any reason why I should take his relationship for anything but legitimate. He and Celia are engaged after all.”

            Stewart Crumley had been having a good time. He and his wife, Jacqueline, were sitting in the arbor of their friends Miles Cartwright and Clarissa Peterman after taking a late afternoon San Diego Bay cruise that concluded with a postcard sunset over Coronado. The summer air had cooled in the dry way of the desert. Stewart’s stomach was hollow. The couples had had nothing but alcohol for the past four hours. Before the topic turned to Derek Clanger’s love life, they’d been talking about eating. 

            “And I would be being dishonest if I didn’t say I’m having a hard time with that.”

            Clarissa sat across the picnic table from Stewart and Jackie wrapped in the fringed shawl she’d purchased the previous summer while teaching study abroad in Guadalajara. Miles, defying the evening chill in a linen shirt with three buttons undone to expose his tanned chest, straddled the bench seat beside her, not quite close enough to suggest complete solidarity with his partner but still smiling. Insipidly so, Stewart thought. Fruit from the mulberry tree near the picnic table was scattered across the lawn. The couple’s cottage sat in the backyard of an elegantly shabby Craftsman they rented from a New York writer who’d recently done well with a memoir about her quest to orgasm. According to Clarissa, the woman took a European tour, a visit to a Himalayan yogi, and three hundred pages to reach a climax. The writer arrived a few times a year to make sure the place hadn’t fallen down and to see that the gardener was doing his job. He wasn’t. Stains on the patio where mulberries had been smeared underfoot were still visible in the moon’s glow. Flames from the tiki torches Miles had lit threw dappled light across Clarissa’s blushed face, giving her the appearance of a sort of fierce circus queen as she waved her silver-ringed fingers in the air.

            “I mean, I didn’t expect to be sitting with a colleague and one of my students at your wedding reception.”

            “Well it certainly wasn’t our intention to offend you, Clarissa,” Stewart said. “We just thought it would be nice to seat the California guests with each other. Besides, you knew they were coming.”      

            “I didn’t say I was offended,” Clarissa said, softening. Miles took the ringed hand in his. “Just taken aback. Celia was my student and this was the first time we had been with them socially.”

            “To be honest,” Jackie said. “I’ve had to get used to their relationship too. As a woman, I have a hard time with these male academics who can’t seem to date women their own age.”

            “You’re forgetting the eleven years between us?” Stewart asked.

            He glared incredulously at his wife. This wasn’t the first time Clarissa had set Jackie up with something over which they could commiserate only to knock her down with an unexpected blow once she’d gotten Jackie into her confidence. Like the time she listened graciously to Jackie fret over choosing a research question for her sociology master’s thesis and then added sweetly, Of course, sometimes you can reach an impasse because you’ve gone as far in grad school as you can go, knowing all the while that Jackie fully intended to apply to doctoral programs. Stewart was no stranger to Clarissa’s arrogance or backhanded comments either as the librarian to the literature and languages department where Clarissa taught Spanish. They were hired by St. Clement’s College the same year. Librarians, she made it known in her subtle way, were the help. The unspoken rule for librarians was that you had to endure this shit. At least hanging out with Derek and Celia wasn’t a matter of endurance.

            “You were never my professor,” Jackie said to Stewart.

            “Then why,” Clarissa said, addressing Jackie, “if you yourself were uncomfortable, did you seat Miles and I with them?”

            Jackie, as she did whenever confronted publicly with an awkward situation, turned her dark eyes to Stewart pleadingly.

            “Because we thought for about two seconds about it,” Stewart said. “Give us a break. We had other things to consider when planning the wedding besides your fragile feelings.”

            “Touché,” Miles said.

            “But you admit that you’re uncomfortable with Derek dating Celia too, Stewart?” Clarissa said with an arched eyebrow.

            “I admit to nothing other than making last minute decisions together with Jackie about who fucking sat where at a hundred and thirty person banquet. And Derek’s not dating Celia, they’re engaged.”

            “Parry!” Miles said, laughing and holding an imaginary sword before his stubbled face. Miles, who two years ago had introduced Stewart and Jackie, was delighted most by two things: verbal sparring and vacation. The first happened whenever Miles fed Clarissa and Stewart enough drinks, the second was almost constant. For someone with a corporate position – a job having something to do with mobile technology for which Stewart could never get a straight explanation – Miles had a staggering amount of time off, almost as much as Stewart.

            “It’s been a long engagement from what I understand,” Clarissa said. “It’s not final until there’s a wedding ceremony.”

            Stewart looked at the bands worn on the left hands of the couple. Like a pair of teenagers, they’d exchanged promise rings, though, so far as he knew, no actual promise of marriage.

            “You’ve got that right,” he said.

            “Oh, come on, Stewart,” Miles said. “If it wasn’t for your green card, you guys wouldn’t have gotten married.”

            “That’s not true,” Jackie shot back. “We got married because we’re in love.”

            Stewart was Canadian, and the truth was that he and Jackie had eloped seven months prior to get through his moving from temporary to permanent resident status before the gala reception in Jackie’s home state of Massachusetts. To do this, they hired a lawyer, a step that proved wholly unnecessary and added an additional seamy layer to the already invasive immigration process. The entire ordeal left them both feeling like criminals, and Stewart, who’d been determined not to leave California once he’d gotten the job at St. Clement’s, felt like a smaller, English-first-language-speaking Gérard Depardieu.

            “I didn’t need a green card to work here, Miles,” he said, running his hand down his wife’s back. “I had a work permit. Our relationship isn’t the one on trial here.”

            “Alright,” Miles said, holding up his hands. “I stand corrected.”

            He and Clarissa traded the looks they gave one another when sharing a silent confidence, the understanding of a couple possessing secrets known only to them. Stewart lifted his glass to his lips and found it empty. He casually rattled the ice around inside it.

            “I’m not putting Derek and Celia on trial,” Clarissa said. “But you have to admit that at the very least there’s a power imbalance there. You alluded to it yourself a moment ago, Jackie.”

            Stewart could imagine his own marriage on trial at gatherings that didn’t include Jackie and him. Say what you might about Derek and his choice of mate, they was certainly better company than these two. He moved his hand from his wife’s back to her thigh under the table and gave it a squeeze.

            “Well I don’t know the particulars about their relationship,” Jackie said. “I just said it took me awhile to get used to it.”

            “What you said was that you had to get used to male academics dating their students,” Clarissa said. “What particulars are there to know? He was her professor. And she wasn’t even a graduate student.”

            “Are you saying it would be different if she was a grad student?” Miles asked.

            Clarissa stared hard at her partner and they exchanged another set of looks, this time to convey that someone had broken the public united front. Miles turned to Stewart and shrugged. He wasn’t above provoking his girlfriend if it prolonged the repartee. Stewart respected that he was an equal opportunity instigator. It was Clarissa’s turn to swirl the ice in her glass.

            “Are we going to eat?” she replied.

            She and Jackie stayed at the table while Stewart helped Miles with the barbeque. It was a charcoal burner, and Miles set a chimney starter inside to get the coals going. To burn as organically as possible, he used only strips of paper torn from the top of the charcoal bag and fallen sticks from the fruit trees as kindling. The fire was slow to take, only the corners of the briquettes catching after a few minutes. Stewart shielded his eyes and waved away plumes of smoke as he surveyed the progress. On a shelf in the open shed where the barbeque had been stored sat a plastic container of lighter fluid.

            “How long does heating the coals this way usually take?” he asked.

            “How hungry are you?” Miles said.

            Stewart pointed to the lighter fluid.

            “I think it’s time to bring out the big guns.”

            “Well you’re really supposed to pour that on the coals before lighting the – ” Miles began, but Stewart had already retrieved the fluid, opened it, and was pointing it at the smoking chimney.

            “Stand back,” he commanded, squeezing a stream of fuel onto the dying flames, which erupted with a whoosh. Miles jumped away onto the grass, slipping in the fallen mulberries and landing on his back.

            “Jesus,” he said. “That’s one way to do it.”

            Ordinarily not one to assert his masculinity by igniting a fire so recklessly, Stewart knew Miles hesitated when it came to anything that might be perceived as a manly feat. Miles was at once eager to display his physicality – the opened shirt revealing the bronzed chest and nest of dark hair – and fearful of appearing as if he might be trying too hard. Masculine insecurity was something Stewart couldn’t understand given the soft circles in which they ran, though things might have been different in the corporate world Miles inhabited during the day. He was actually much more athletic than Stewart, cycling forty miles up the coast on a Saturday for a view you could get much easier with a twenty minute car ride. He worried privately to Stewart about somehow not measuring up to other men when out in the evening with Clarissa. Stewart repeated to Miles that San Diego was a military town. Top Gun had been filmed there for god’s sake. Any man who didn’t have a requisite number of pushups as a job requirement might feel he didn’t measure up. But despite the fact that both their fathers were schoolteachers, Miles seemed to regard Stewart as more rugged. This had something to do with Stewart once mentioning his college job at an auto plant, though that position entailed little more than pushing a broom for one half of a shift and playing euchre with the high seniority maintenance workers for the other. Yet Stewart could take the lead when necessary. They had to eat sometime.

            When the men returned with a plate of steaming burgers, Clarissa and Jackie had fresh drinks in front of them – Cabernet for Clarissa, an IPA for Jackie. Jackie had barely touched the beer. Clarissa had also whipped up some guacamole. A Mexicanist by profession and Texan by birth, Clarissa prided herself not only on native Spanish fluency but on ethnic culinary skills as well, expanding her repertoire beyond Super Bowl favorites to include things like pozole, mole poblano, and menudo. Stewart enjoyed her meals more than he did the heavily accented explanations which accompanied them – When I was at the Universidad Nacional in México last summer, I learned that pozole was originally made by the Aztecs by mixing the cacahuazintle maize with human flesh! It was considered a sacred dish. Perhaps it was because Stewart grew up in a border town on a diet more common to American Midwesterners that this self-conscious presentation smacked of cultural appropriation. He did feel for her concession to her new gluten free regimen though. While she didn’t suffer from celiac, Clarissa had adopted the popular diet, as well as avoiding most carbs, and claimed to have been unable to find an acceptable nacho ever since. Tonight she was dutifully dipping fresh veggies into the guac. She filled another glass of wine to chase them back. Miles set a bunless burger before her. She stopped her slurred explanation to Jackie about how much more energy she’d had since ridding her life of the dreaded cereal protein and turned her mascara-lined eyes to Miles.

            “In answer to your question,” she said as if they’d just been speaking, “yes, it would be different if Celia was Derek’s graduate student.”

            “That’s funny,” Stewart said dryly. “Miles and I were just arguing about the same thing.”

            Jackie pinched his arm as he sat down beside her. She flashed her eyes again and Stewart considered that he was never fonder of his wife than when she was irritated with him. It proved that she could still hold her own despite their age difference. He was no Derek Clanger. Jackie mouthed, “Let’s go,” as Miles took his place.

            “It would?” Miles asked Clarissa. “How’s that?”

            “It’s a matter of power,” Clarissa said confidently, pulling her shawl across her chest. Stewart had admired that chest from the moment he met Clarissa, found it one of her most redeeming qualities in fact. He was disappointed to see it rendered so shapeless by the shawl. In their first semester at St. Clement’s, before anyone knew about Miles, she’d displayed her breasts as proudly as a Texas cheerleader.

            “So a semester, say, could conceivably make all the difference,” Miles challenged her.

            “Sure, why not?” Clarissa asked. “What’s that on your back?”

            She turned Miles by the shoulders to examine his shirt, where the pristine linen now bore a deep crimson streak.

            “You didn’t notice Miles’ tumble when I fired up the grill?” Stewart said. “Barbequing is tough business.”

            “Honey, you have to take care of that right now or this shirt is ruined,” Clarissa said.

            Miles suddenly pulled the shirt over his head like a wild beast, fully exposing his compact but muscular body. He grinned wildly open-mouthed at Clarissa. Stewart was again reminded that Miles knew Jackie first, though never intimately so far as Stewart knew. Not that Stewart didn’t suspect that Miles was interested.

Miles had met Clarissa on a plane to San Diego the year she moved from grad school in Colorado to teach at St. Clement’s. He was traveling to visit a college friend there on a whim after being downsized from a corporate tech job in New Jersey. The downsizing apparently came with a hefty severance package. Miles didn’t look for work for a full two years. Instead, he cycled ceaselessly along the coast to La Jolla and back and read in coffee shops. That’s where he first encountered Jackie, who at the time was spending hours in coffee shops, where she labored on her laptop as an online marketer and social media expert, the post-grad call center job of her generation. Miles struck up a conversation with Jackie one day while she toiled away fueled on double mocha lattes. Stewart instantly understood the scene as a pickup when it was described to him later, though Miles insisted it was platonic. Miles was constantly arguing for the sustainability of nonsexual friendships between straight men and women, while Jackie later maintained privately that with his bike shorts, sculpted physique, and puckish demeanor she just assumed Miles was gay. Whatever his stated intentions, Miles kept his relationship with Jackie so discrete that Clarissa apparently knew about it only in passing. Meanwhile, she wore her new lover like a prized fur to junior faculty get-togethers, which was how Stewart met Miles. Miles’ two-year string of “friend dates” with Jackie concluded one evening at a bar when he brought up the hypothetical situation of sleeping with someone who already had a partner. Jackie was unwavering in her belief in monogamy. Miles’ reluctance to invite Clarissa on any of these outings had already made her uneasy. Miles then impulsively texted his friend to join them for drinks. That’s how Stewart met his wife. Clarissa probably hated her from the beginning. Such was the nature of their circle of academic frenemies. Everybody had a beef.

Presently, Stewart flexed his own meager chest muscles beneath his shirt.

“Are you alright?” Clarissa asked, to Miles or himself Stewart couldn’t be sure.  

            “Actually,” Jackie said, pulling Stewart’s wrist toward herself and checking his watch, “I’m getting kind of tired. I think I got too much sun this afternoon.”

            “Oh, come on,” Miles said, tucking into his burger like an animal. “I just got shirtless.”     

            “You’re drunk, He-Man,” Clarissa said, sloshing wine from her glass onto her burger. “And seriously, you’ve got to treat that stain.”

            “Really,” Stewart said, “we probably should get going.”

            Jackie was up before Stewart was halfway through his meal. She was probably right about this being the opportunity to make their exit, but Stewart had always been one to ride out an uncomfortable scene whenever alcohol was involved, especially if that scene included Clarissa, who could be counted on to retire early, leaving Stewart, Miles, and, when the mood suited her, Jackie to resume enjoying themselves. This time the day had simply gone on too long, the specter of their absent friend’s transgressions returning repeatedly to haunt them.

            Miles and Jackie accompanied them through the arbor to the walkway alongside the ramshackle Craftsman. The couples pushed their way down the uneven brick path through tangled hedges and low hanging citrus tree branches heavy with fruit, the air thick now with the saccharine smell of rotting oranges and lemons. An awkward series of hugs was exchanged under the Craftsman’s motion sensor light when they neared the street.

            “Thanks so much, guys,” Clarissa squealed. She was never more enthusiastic than when saying goodbye.

            Miles had Jackie in his arms and was regarding her warmly like a former lover for whom he had nothing but respect and only a little lust.

            “I promise to keep my shirt on next time,” he said.

            “Aw, don’t say that,” Stewart said.

            After continuing their farewell waves until Miles and Clarissa retreated back down the overgrown path, Stewart and Jackie leaned tiredly against one another on the way to the car. Stewart handed Jackie the key to the Volkswagen. He began once they were out of earshot.

            “You don’t even have to say it,” he said.

            “Another awful night,” Jackie said.

            “That’s academia for you. The constant mixing of business with displeasure. It actually wasn’t so bad until we got back to their place. I had no idea Clarissa felt that way about Derek.”

            “That doesn’t surprise me,” Jackie said. They reached the car parked at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac abutting a craggy canyon. “What pisses me off is that Clarissa could be so bitchy about us seating her and Miles with them at our wedding. They didn’t even get us a gift.”

            Stewart took a moment to process this last piece of information in his muzzy state. He’d not taken nearly as much interest in recording who gave what after the wedding. He would have thought Miles, Jackie’s oldest friend in San Diego after all, would have at least coughed up a couple hundred to cover the meal. He imagined how it felt for Jackie to have held Miles’ naked torso. A jolt from the phone in his pocket brought him back. He opened it to a new text as Jackie started the Volkswagen. A parting shot from Clarissa to both of them:

Thanks again you two :) That was SO much fun! See you soon!!

Hugh Burkhart lives in San Diego, California. His short fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, 2 Bridges Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a novel.