Susan O’Neill writes about her story “Pink”:
The missionaries we knew in Venezuela were young men who always traveled in pairs. oneill-s-sht-stor1I’ve often toyed with the idea of what might happen if circumstance or fate separated them in some exotic locale. Then, five years ago, we traveled to Amsterdam for our younger son’s wedding to a Dutch woman. We wandered on foot or on bike over most of the center city, and I was amazed at how, when you’re not used to the layers of traffic — cars, trolleys, bikes, pedestrians —it’s an incredible challenge just to cross a street.

The two ideas — paired missionaries, and the exotic, precarious city of Amsterdam — meshed in this story. It was once much longer, but I’ve tinkered with it over time, until it became rather naughty and twisted and something close to “flash fiction.”


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Pink

by Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973–74)

James tenses, coiled in pink, his hand hovering.

Buzzzzz —

He lowers the hand. Presses hard, harder. Lifts. The mosquito is a red splotch on the pink sheet.

Thank you, Lord — the prayer curdles.

God sees him.

His finger is sticky; he aches to wash it. My blood? Hers? Or — a shiver — both?

Pink pillowcase. Pink ruffled curtain, growing luminescent with the sunrise. Lollypop-pink toenails, peeking from beneath the pink quilt-ish thing, so unlike his mother’s quilt on his bed in Provo.

They don’t call it quilt in Amsterdam. Dekbed, she said. Comforter.

Comfort.

James pulls his soiled hand under the dekbed. Stares at hair that pours over her pillow, liquid, oil, blackening as the light hardens. Silky as her skin. His hand remembers. Not blonde. Before he came here, all Dutch girls were blonde.

His eyes trace bare, curved dusky flesh half-hidden beneath the dekbed.

He inches up to sitting — must not wake . . . Martha? Marge?

Martje.

Martje. She wrote it on the napkin: t and j. You see, my sad boy? She laughed — low, bubbling, familiar. Promising.

Oh, God.

It’s Matthew’s fault.

He slips free, folds himself in shadows. Naked. So naked. Acid climbs his throat. Think of Sarah. Sarah’s dress, yellow flowers, swingy skirt . . .

He creeps toward the bathroom. Think of Sarah.

He eases the door, sweats at its squeaking. Inches it shut, drops in darkness, knees on cool tile. Now he knows what lies under Sarah’s flowered skirt —

He grasps the toilet.

What floods the toilet’s porcelain shelf — the few Dutch toilets he’s known here display what you don’t want to see like some fetid trophy; you can turn away, but you still perceive it . . . stupid thought; this bathroom has no window; he sees nothing — what he vomits here is disgust, fear, shame, but not the pancake. The pancake was last night and it must be digested by now . . .

Oh, God.

He retches again.

He draws back, empty. Gropes crepey Dutch tissue, tears it, mops his mouth. Drops it in the toilet, lowers the lid softly, softly. Lifts his buttocks onto the cool closed lid, presses sticky fingers into his temples.

He sits, panting.

It’s Matthew’s fault.

Matthew, his spirit Gemini; his slightly-elder Elder. In the rooming house, the streets: twinned shirts-and-ties in this city of orange soccer jerseys, T-shirts billboarding bands neither knew. Together they looked to grace, away from red-neon windows. Together, they damned sin, consoled sinners. Together —

He is so alone.

James wants to wash his finger. The blood. The smell. But Martje would wake; how would he explain? He’d had nothing to drink, no reason to be sick.

Irony.

More irony: she’s not from the red-neon windows.

He didn’t meet her in that coffeehouse Seth warned against. He doesn’t drink coffee. He doesn’t do those . . . other things.

They hadn’t met in a bar. He’s never stepped inside a bar.

It was a pancake house.

Not that you couldn’t buy beer there. Amsterdam is full of beer. Drugs.

Sex.

Which is why Amsterdam needs James and Matthew, Seth announced during their orientation. It had seemed logical then. Last week.

It’s Matthew’s fault.

He blames Matthew for being big and slow. They called him Ox. In Comparative Religions, one long year ago, Dr. Hershell said the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas’ name meant Ox, because he was big and slow. Bart Orham punched Matthew’s arm and the name was his.

The plastic toilet lid slews; James shifts. He is as big as Matthew, but agile; he stepped back when the fat woman on the bicycle came beating down the bike path. It wasn’t easy to look out for trams, buses, cars, bikes, especially in rush-hour traffic near Centraal Station. James had pulled back, pulled at ox-bulky Matthew —

Big, slow Matthew went down hard. The fat woman toppled. Her chipped grey bike, a fist-sized teddy bear tied above the fender — limp, mud-matted figurehead, streaked red-brown over one ear from Matthew’s blood, or hers . . . or both —

The toilet lid creaks. James freezes.

He remembers the dead mosquito, aches to wash.

She’ll hear.

Matthew lay prone, bleeding. An old man pulled over and waved bike traffic to a bottleneck. The fat woman rose. Matthew didn’t.

The old-movie two-toned siren.

James followed the ambulance in a taxi, the siren fraying out ahead.

Matthew is under observation at the Medisch Centrum. A concussion.

James is alone.

It’s Matthew’s fault.

No. Matthew didn’t tell him to go, alone, after, to the Dutch Authentic Pancake House for dinner. Matthew didn’t tell him to answer when the dark girl with the flowing black hair said, “You look sad. I will buy you a drink and you will tell me your trouble.”

Matthew would have approved when he declined the drink. And Matthew certainly would have approved of that pancake — sausage, cheese, peppers; a soft, eggy pizza, sinfully delicious.

Matthew might have approved of his plan to nudge her parched soul toward the Lord’s refreshing springs.

But Matthew would have pulled James’ own ox-dumb soul off the steps of the #1 tram to this suburb, this apartment, this pink and terrible mistake.

He was alone.

Now . . . he is more alone.

Sweat tracks James’ naked armpits. From the humidity. The humility. The bathroom walls press; the tired air reeks of vomit.

He cannot pray.

Light creeps beneath the door, behind which a woman he does not love — does not even know — will open her eyes to pink and wonder where he is. He slumps on his skewed seat, bent by the pain of her awakening — and worse: an awakening in that sly beast that reared up last night and buried itself in willing, slippery flesh.

His brain whirls. Think

Do not think of Sarah.

He is aged. Yesterday, he stood young and strong in the Lord, swathed in true love, family, friends, future.

Now he is marked. Samson shorn. Tainted soul; filthy hands.

He cannot wash.

He cannot pray.

He cannot open the door to her pink room, her lurid pink bed —

And yet . . .

And yet.

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Susan O’Neill’s own story — Susan is the author of Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam (UMass Press, 2004), a collection based on her stint as an army nurse during the Viet Nam war. She edits Vestal Review, a literary magazine for flash/sudden fiction. Her essay blog and some of her fiction and non-fiction can be found from her home page at SusanOneill.us. Susan is a photographer in addition to being a writer. You can see her black and white prints at her site. She and her fellow military and Peace Corps veteran husband live in the fantastic foreign land of Brooklyn, New York. Susan’s blog here on Peace Corps Worldwide is Humor: Off the Matrix.