Novice

Nathan Long


It was a cool overcast November day, the first Saturday of the month, and my friend Gracie and I made up a list of yard sales to hit, knowing it was probably the last good weekend.
As Gracie drove up Greene Street, I searched for the address of the first sale, but I’d had a hard time reading since the temple on my wire-frame glasses broke a few days ago. I’d taped it back on, but now my glasses sat awkward on my face, my vision askew. Half the objects I saw were warped up close, the other half were pushed back. It was like looking at the world through a funhouse mirror. I had to look away from the parked cars, which seemed to suddenly press up toward my face and then retreat. I’d already warned Gracie twice that we were about to hit a car before realizing it was just my vision.
“Two fifty-seven,” I said, after deciphering the address from Gracie’s handwriting. It was a porch sale that spilled out into the driveway along the side of the house. For some reason, the people hadn’t put stuff on the lawn, close to the sidewalk, so you’d miss it if you were just driving by.
“Novices,” Gracie said.
“Total novices,” I agreed. This meant that prices would either be ridiculously high, or possibly incredibly low. We both jumped out quickly. I made my way to the porch, Gracie to the driveway items.
Gracie was hunting for towels and a pattern set of dishes before her parents’ visit next week. It was going to be the first time they’d visit her home since she moved out of theirs seven years ago. She was nervous. They were die-hard Catholics; she now was a pagan, and polyamorous.
Though her parents would only be at her place for a few hours—Gracie planned to make them lunch—she’d been talking about it for a month, dreading what she called “the visitation.”
“It’s biblical, Jake,” she’d said to me right after her parents had announced their plans to visit. “It’s like the prodigal son’s return, but in reverse. They’re coming to me.”
“Plus, you’re their daughter, their only child,” I added.
“Which makes it worse,” she said. “I can hide the polyamory stuff—we won’t even go there—but I’m not taking down the moon goddess or the altar.”
I suggested lunch at a restaurant, but she wanted them to see her place, to eat her food, to accept her—or at least the parts of her she was willing to reveal. She’d insisted that I come too, to make her life seem more normal. Was she hoping they’d think we were dating?
I had agreed, reluctantly accepting the role of ‘normal friend,’ the geeky, bent- glasses sidekick. The funny thing was, I would date Gracie in a heartbeat, except for the polyamory thing. Gracie’s a funny, wild, and lovely human being, and I don’t even have a moral objection to what she does in bed—or beds—it’s just not what I could imagine being a part of. Even saying the word turns my face red.

On the porch were tables full of clothes and linen, and I was determined to find towels for Gracie. We worked yard sales as a team, often finding the things the other one wanted. We’d learned that if you looked too hard for something, you wouldn’t find it. It would evade you. This was a cosmic law of yard sales, we decided. Of everything, really.
Gracie disliked functional things. She had just one set of sheets and last night, when we were plotting out our course for the morning, confessed that she didn’t even own a towel.
“How could you not own a towel?” I said.
“Ha,” she said. “I just, you know, hang dry myself.”
“Is your clothes rack strong enough for that?” I asked. Gracie weighed more than me, probably close to 200 pounds, but it was a solid, graceful weight, and I couldn’t have imagined a skinnier version of her even if I’d tried. I liked her body as it was, and I didn’t say what I did to be mean. I knew that she wouldn’t take it that way either. We were that close.
“I just hang out naked, I mean,” she said. “I don’t pay heat in my apartment, so I crank it up to 80 before my bath, then I walk around, air drying.”

I was thinking about that image of Gracie, naked in her apartment, as I shifted through stacks of folded cloth. I wanted to find a beach towel for her, one she could wrap around herself, as well as more formal ones for her parents to use in the bathroom.
I adjusted my glasses to minimize the distortion, then stepped forward carefully, so as not to run into anything or step on anyone’s toes. I’d gotten to the far corner of the porch when I spotted them, under a stack of pillowcases: a set of maroon hand towels with tiny white crosses at the bottom. They looked like they’d been in the bathroom of a rectory. I didn’t know if Gracie would be upset or laugh when she saw them, but I had to get them for her.
I found the woman who ran the sale and asked how much they were.
“A dollar,” she said.
“I’ll take it,” I said, pretending she was referring to the set. I quickly handed her a dollar, which I keep loose in my pocket, for just such moments. Then I distracted her by asking for a bag. Gracie and I knew all the tricks.
The woman handed me a large paper grocery bag, and I slipped the towels inside.
Just then Gracie was coming up the porch steps holding her own paper bag. “I got something for you,” she said.
“Glasses?”
“No, sorry, but I think I told you, you look cute with them tilted like that.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but I also occasionally like to see straight, too.”
“Are you not willing to sacrifice anything for fashion?” she replied.
This was an old argument we had going, something so familiar, it bordered on reverence. Gracie was forever stylish, with multi colored nails, Indian scarves, and dyed leather shoes. I didn’t even pay to have my haircut, and I’d bought the same brand of sneakers I’d worn since middle school, switching once from white to black in college, but only because Gracie dared me.
“I got something for you too,” I said, veering us away from our tired track.
“You show me yours, and I’ll show you mine,” she said and laughed.
“Gracie!” I said, looking around. “Let’s go back to the car.”
“Nothing else on your end?” she said pointing to the porch.
“Nope. And yours?”
“Nothing you’d want, “she said, “except this.” She held up her bag. We knew each other’s tastes, which saved us from both looking at every single thing and let us get to twice as many sales.
We walked back to the car, which was far enough down the street that no one was around.
“So what’d you get me?” I asked as we got in.
“You first,” she said.
I handed her the bag with the towels.
“Oh my god,” she said, and started laughing as she unfolded them. “These are outrageous. I can’t use them for my parents--especially for my parents. They’ll know I’m mocking them. I don’t want to be mocked, and I don’t want them to feel mocked. I just want to be understood.”
I nodded. “I understand. But I had to get them for you.”
“I totally get it,” she said. “They’re perfect. I love them. I’ll use them as cum rags or something.”
I blinked the image away. “Whatever,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
“And I had to buy this for you,” Gracie said, handing over her paper bag, “knowing that it’s been a long time since you’ve dated.”
“It’s been more than a long time,” I said. “It’s been forever.”
She laughed, as though I were exaggerating, but the truth was—the truth I’d never told Gracie—I was a virgin, at twenty-seven.
I held the folded up grocery bag at arm’s length, trying to figure out what her words meant, trying to decide if I even wanted to open the package. It was lightweight, and it was difficult to tell how big the object was inside.
I know it’s silly, but the first thing that came to my mind was that her gift was a ring, that in her quirky way she was proposing to me. In a split second, I imagined this whole scene, back at the side of the yard sale house, of Gracie seeing a ring on the table and realizing that what really scared her about ‘the visitation’ was having to acknowledge that her parents were happier living together than she was in her multi-partnered life. I pictured her picking up the ring and recognizing it as a pagan symbol of unity, one that predated Christianity. Then she decided she wanted a life-long partner, and that I, Jake, her best friend since junior year in college, was that person.
I imagined all of this at the same time I knew it couldn’t be true. Still, my eyes glistened at the possibility as I set the package to my lap and started to unfold it. I wiped my eyes clean as I pretended to straighten my glasses.
It was larger than a ring, something more like a finger, but I didn’t give up hope. I reached into the dark bag and pulled out a long, rubbery thing with red and black swirls.
Gracie was already laughing.
“What is it?” I asked, looking down at it.
“Oh my god,” she said. “Don’t tell me you don’t know.” She was laughing so hard, I could barely make out her words. “It’s a dildo. They were selling a dildo! I asked if it was used, and the man looked at me strange and said he didn’t know, he thought it was some art piece of his son’s. They’d just cleaned out his closet.”
I dropped the thing onto the paper bag so that I wouldn’t have to touch it.
Gracie kept laughing. “I didn’t actually mean for you to use it, unless of course you want to. I can show you how to sanitize it and all, if you want. Totally safe.”
I just stared at her, unable to say anything. I heard a voice within me saying, You knew it wasn’t a ring. You knew it, you knew it, you knew it. But it wasn’t a comfort.
I did all I could not to cry in front of Gracie, and when I knew I could hold it in, I looked right at her. My glasses made her seem far away, which was a comfort.
“Thanks,” I managed to say. “Unfortunately, these are not my colors.” I was pretty good at hiding what I felt, even from my closest friends.
“Sorry, Jake, I thought it was funny,” Gracie said and held back another round of laughter.
I managed a smile as I set the bag on the floor. I think it was then that I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to her place for lunch when her parents visited. I wouldn’t be a good enough friend, and I couldn’t pretend to be her date.
I took out my phone to look at the map and our list. “Should we hit the next one?” I said, trying to sound chipper.
“Sure thing,” Gracie said as she started up the car.
I looked away into the side mirror as Gracie backed out of our spot. I read the familiar phrase etched in the glass: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
But everything seemed far away as Gracie pulled out from the curb.


Nathan Long grew up in a log cabin in western Maryland and lived for several years on a commune in Central Tennessee, before earning an MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. His work has appeared on NPR and in various journals, including Story Quarterly, Tin House, The Literary Review, and Crab Orchard Review. His collection of fifty flash fictions, The Origin of Doubt, was just released by Press 53. Nathan now lives in Philadelphia, PA.