I don’t know where the idea for “Perfect English” came to me, but I am 99% certain it was due to a prompt in a once-upon-a-time writing group. It isn’t strictly flash, as it’s over one thousand words, and not strictly a short story, as it’s fewer than two and a half thousand; it is what it is. I probably still have the original notebook somewhere in storage, but, without that, can only place the time of writing as “sometime in the 1990s.” Or early millennium. At any rate, in another life. It may or may not have been one of the handful of short stories that made the rounds of some small press magazines, or it may have sat on my hard drive and never gone anywhere. I honestly don’t remember.
What I do remember is Bradley, who showed up in my mind fully formed, and the nameless-until-I-noticed-I’d-never-named-her heroine. I still don’t know that she really “has” a name, and picked Jennifer because it was common for a woman of her age (early to mid 20s) at the time of the writing. I don’t have any plans to revisit Bradley and Jennifer, because they’re fine. They’re together, they’re happy, they’re HEA-ing fine without me, and he’s still doing the thing with the shirts. Not bad for a timed exercise. So, as promised, here we go, for the first time in mumblemumble years, “Perfect English.”
Bradley Ballantine was something a woman had to experience for herself. Tall. Black. Given to lounging about the living rooms of casual acquaintances on rainy afternoons in bare feet, faded jeans and spanking white sleeveless undershirts. Always white. Always new. Nobody ever saw him do laundry, and nobody ever asked him what he did with the old ones.
He was English. That always came as a surprise. Not because Bradley was Black, but because he liked to listen to a woman for a good long time before he said anything. Only then would we remember he was straight from London’s East End. He was planning on going back there someday, too, he would say in a little-boy voice over the third serving of whatever beverage his impromptu hostess – usually me— happened to have on hand.
He was going back as soon as the company would let him, as soon as he’d consulted with every computer Consolidated Mutual had, and made sure all of their electronic ducks were in neat electronic rows and quacking in perfect sequence. Back to the flat above his mother’s shop, back to a better neighborhood and his sister and his niece. Margaret and Virginia, and no there was no brother in law around. Was once, wasn’t now, and he’d better hope he doesn’t meet Bradley in a dark alley.
Bradley had ten more munfs, as he pronounced it, left on his assignment. Nine more munfs, eight more munfs.
Long, lean Bradley, who liked to eat Chinese food out of the cartons, watched Spanish soap operas in the wee small hours of the morning, and read romance novels when nobody was looking, then wrote letters to the authors on historical accuracy. He used to sit right there in the windowseat of my apartment on East Thirty-Fifth street seven munfs ago, six munfs ago, drip Mongolian beef on the pink corduroy cushions and drop rice noodles down to the carpet. I spilled my guts while the cat batted noodles, the dog ate them, and Bradley set the world aright.
It was, “Yeah, yeah, call your mother,” when she and I hadn’t spoken in two weeks.
“But she’s wrong,” I told him, because she was. “She treats me like I’m a little girl.”
“You’re her little girl.” Bradley shucked off loafers and Oxford shirt and settled into my window seat. He took up the whole thing when he wanted to.
“I’m twenty-seven for crying out loud. I have to moisturize. The kid at the market calls me Ma’am.”
He scooped the cat into his lap, long fingers stroking orange stripes. “And the partners call you Ms. Ruskin. Your mum calls you Jennifer Anne…”
I bit off both the end of my chicken finger and his answer. “Which I hate.”
“What do you like better, then? Love?”
“Tess. Tess is nice. I’m going to name my daughter Tess. If I ever have one.” But that would require a man, and I was done with men. Should be done with men.
The cat butted Bradley’s chin and dribbled sweet and sour sauce down the front of his undershirt. Hah. He’d have to do laundry now. “But first you have to find a man who calls and don’t smell like fish.”
It was, “You don’t need him,” when I groused about Phil in accounting who never called when he said he would. Especially on a Sunday afternoon when the call was supposed to be Friday.
“If he doesn’t want you, why do you want him? You want a man who is there for you. Someone who puts you first. Ahead of himself. Somebody who will be a safe place to land.”
I groaned. “Landing on Phil would be like landing on a trampoline. One good thump and I’d bounce right back up, shift in the air and hit the springs. Which is,” I added around a mouthful of lo mein, “basically what just happened.” It was. I knew it, but saying it still felt strange.
“So then you know what to do.” Bradley dropped a noodle onto the cat’s head and levelled me with wide brown eyes. He had lashes that would put Revlon out of business. “Tell him to shove off. You deserve better.”
“Better? I thought Phil was better. He’s straight, he’s employed, he actually has assets.” I stabbed the takeout container with my chopstick and stared at the chipped polish on my right big toe. The chewy feeling in my gut had nothing to do with Chinese food and everything to do with reality. “I’m not going to the partners’ dinner alone.”
Bradley rolled one brown shoulder. “You don’t have to. Go with me.”
Go with Bradley. Outside. Around people. People who might think it was a date. All I could come up with was “Okay.” I had to admit it was the perfect solution
“Never have dinner with a man who smells like fish before you eat,” Bradley said after I went out with Kevin. Kevin was after Phil, who never did call. Kevin called, but only when I was in the shower, or sleeping or juggling three bags of groceries and my keys. Bradley was usually right about these things.
“We met at the fish market. Everyone smells like fish at the fish market.”
Bradley pointed a chopstick directly at me and batted the baby browns. “Not if he really is a stockbroker. My stockbroker smells like posh cologne. Too much of it.”
I rolled my eyes and batted the dog away from my container of Kung Pao pork. “You don’t have a stockbroker.”
“Do so. Lives three doors down in my building.”
“And you routinely smell him, I take it?” I couldn’t picture Bradley sniffing his neighbors.
Bradley popped the top on a can of store brand cola. “Course not. I’m making a point. If the bloke can’t trust you with what he does for a living, how can you trust him with your heart?”
“Marisol said the same thing.” Several times. Usually at night, when I was trying to wash the fishy smell out of my hair.
“Marisol’s right.” The rain washed the windows in a steady sheet. The cat twined around my ankles, and my bare feet were inches away from Bradley’s. “So how come it makes sense when you say it?”
He flashed a lightning grin. “Because I’m righter.”
These are the words I hear when it rains, the off-beat chocolate covered cherry of Bradley’s voice. Even though he never picked up the stray noodles. Even though he could only sing off-key. Even though he developed a serious karaoke habit four munfs ago, three munfs ago. Even though he drafted me to sing cheesy seventies ballads with him. Peaches and Herb, Donny and Marie, Captain and Tennille. “Reunited” and “Deep Purple” and “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Even though he was as likely to turn down the page of a borrowed book as to use a bookmark. “Whatever’s easy, love.” That was Bradley.
Bradley was easy, and easy to love. He didn’t seem that way at work, not in gray flannel and school tie with a battered old briefcase. When he was in my apartment, and down to undershirt and advice, that was when it happened.
We were all halfway in love with him, me and Chelsea and Samantha and Marisol. Chelsea wasn’t looking, Samantha was engaged, and Marisol was married. I had just ended something with Kevin-who-smelled-like-fish, and I wasn’t looking, either. I called Bradley my friend. He called all of us “Love.” He called everybody “love” for that matter. Everybody outside the office. At work, it was all last names and titles. Mr. Baumgartner, Mrs. Evans, Ms. Bukowski-Chang. He always remembered the hyphens.
He had a dichotomy about him, some inner switch he flipped on or off when he needed it. He was prone to inviting himself over on Saturday afternoons. Never called ahead, only showed up, a smiling face through the peephole, a voice on the intercom three munfs ago, two munfs ago.
“It’s Bradley, love, can I come up?” He always asked the same way, and I always buzzed him in. He always had food. He washed dishes. He walked the dog. He listened, he ate, he advised, and when it was all over and the sun went down, he shrugged into his shirt, shoved his feet into seasonally appropriate footwear and ambled off into the night. Presumably to do laundry or go shopping for undershirts.
It hit us like a dash of cold water in the face one munf ago. Was that an airline ticket on his desk?
“Yeah, yeah, first class.” Big white teeth flashed, swimmer’s shoulders rolled under navy blazer and French blue shirt. “Been great, really, we should keep in touch.”
Bradley wasn’t there, then he was, and then he wasn’t again. All in a matter of munfs.
We all saw him off, loaded his carryon with salted pretzels and gummi bears and books he could read when nobody was looking. We promised we really would keep in touch. He didn’t do email for social reasons, he told us ahead of time. It was too much like work. So, that left Chelsea out of the loop. He wrote to Samantha first, since they were both lefties. Longhand, black ink on white paper, with smears where his hand brushed the still-wet ink. Sent a silver spoon from his mother’s tea shop when Marisol’s baby was born.
What I got was a fossilized rice noodle under the nail of my big toe when I lunged for the answering machine in the middle of the night two days after my father died.
“It’s Bradley, love. Want me to come over?”
I almost choked on a surge of hysterical laughter. “Come over? Here? Now?” I heard voices in the background. English voices. Margaret and Virginia, most likely. God, how I hoped they were. The thought of Bradley with someone else would have pushed me over the edge. “Where are you?”
“I’m home, love.” Like he wouldn’t be anywhere else.
“You live in England.”
“I know. It’s no trouble.”
“No trouble? Flying across the Atlantic Ocean on the spur of the moment is no trouble?”
There was only a heartbeat of silence before he answered, “Not for you it isn’t.”
Not for Bradley. Not for Bradley Ballantine, who programmed my DVR and hated all my boyfriends. Not for Bradley whom I’d never kissed, but always wanted to. Not for Bradley, who I wanted to hold until I stopped shaking. Not for Bradley who would keep holding me even if I never did. “Are you sure? You never met my dad.”
There was a pause. “I’m sure, love. I’m not coming for your dad. I’m coming for you.”
I shook my head. He wouldn’t see that, but I imagined elegant dark hands brushing the hair from my face, wiping the tears from my cheek with the tail of his shirt. “It’s expensive.”
“It’s less expensive than listening to you on the phone all night. Which I can do.”
I knew he would. “Okay.” I let the cat come into my lap and scribbled Bradley’s flight number and arrival time on a sticky note by the red blink of the message light.
“How long can you stay?”
No pause this time, but Bradley’s voice warm and smooth as a touch. “How long do you want me to stay?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. A month, a year, forever? “Pack a lot of shirts, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, and I knew I would be.