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What We Keep



HEY ARE IN A BOX, they are condoms, and they are used. Part of the pleasure in having a secret is telling it. Some secrets, they lose power with time. They become the stories that everyone tells. Some secrets, they only grow brighter with age.
That was my secret. The condoms, that is. They are what I'd never told anybody.
They are each sealed in their own air-tight bag, because latex breaks down over time.
The box had a latch that locked, but the lock was lost long ago. When I lived with my parents, the lock was important. There is no way to explain to your mother that you've kept something this disposable. The condoms, that is. Condoms were meant to be thrown away.
              My brother collected baseball cards. His bedroom was everything he owned spread out across the floor with no order that I understood. He could find anything he wanted to find when the need arose. The baseball cards, though, he kept safe in a folder with nonstick, nonacid plastic pockets to protect them.
He would sit Indian-style on his bed, pull a card out, stare at it, and then put it away.
"What do you do with the cards?" I asked him.
He didn't look up. "Memorize the stats," he said.
"Don't you already know them?" I asked. I crossed the room and sat next to him on the bed, my weight on the mattress causing the two cards he had set in front of him to slide together.
"I know them," he said, straightening out the two cards. They were face down, only the boxes of statistics to look at. Numbers that told a story.
"So, are you testing yourself?" I asked.
"Leave me alone," he told me.
I tried to leave him alone, but I was too young for that. Instead, I tried to interest him in my favorite game. Would you rather?
"Would you rather have a Mickey Mantle baseball card?" I asked. He looked up at that.
"Or?" he said.
"Or, would you rather meet Mickey Mantle?"
His eyes dimmed and he looked down at his cards. "Do you know how much money that card is worth?"
              It is a wooden box, the size of a thick paperback novel. A carving of the waterfall at which I bought the box from a novelty shop adorns the front. They didn't call it a novelty shop, though. Souvenir is what the sign said. But fake Indian jewelry and wooden boxes made in China are not souvenirs.
The oldest of my souvenirs, meaning the condoms, is mature enough to be embarrassing or perverted, depending on your point of view. I might have been too young to collect it, but that decision took less than ten minutes to remain undecided and then it was too late for second thoughts.
Don't get the wrong impression; there are not that many. Not that many condoms. It isn't every condom I've ever used or had used on me or in me. No, the condoms are only from the first times, and one from a last time.
Six condoms, five guys. Ten years worth of love, or something like it.
The memory of Sam lives here. Inside a plastic baggy, inside a latex baggy, tied in a knot at the open end, what was once part of Sam floats in a reservoir tip. On the outside, careful never to be mixed, is the shed cells of my most sensitive skin and the dried lubricant that brought out the best in Sam.
The secrets in this box, they aren't all secrets. Sam wasn't for long. I broke it off with him when others began to talk. When he asked why I wouldn't sleep with him again, I said, "Because you can't keep your mouth closed."
"Not any better than you can keep your legs closed," he answered, as if that was my secret.
It was a fair comparison at that age. Girls treated it like a secret. Their most private parts kept private. What good is a secret that you can't share?
Other girls, they didn't want love. They wanted trust. Somebody they could trust enough to share their secret with. Boys just wanted a secret to know and tell, and Sam was no different. I was unaware at the time that I was his secret. As I said, I may have been too young, but he was not.
Still, I'm the one who kept what we began, and I'm the one who kept it a secret. That was important to me at that time, that it be mine. Nobody else deserved to have a part of us, except for Sam, if he wanted it. He didn't.
In high school, the girls guarded and gardened their secrets. It is the first moment when a girl discovers that her secret can give pleasure that she becomes a woman. The pleasure, though, is never as great as what is hinted at.
That's a secret, too, but only for women to understand.
When I think of it, I think of Pandora and recognize that only a man could make such a stormy story and spread it around. When Pandora first opened her box and shared a secret, I know that it wasn't disease that man found. It would also be wrong to believe that the last thing to escape Pandora's Box was hope.
No. Like Eve, Pandora shared the secrets of woman. Men are always chasing and running away from these secrets and secretions.
The back seat of Sam's car, what I remember most is the smell of beer and leather. Beneath me, he spread an old black leather jacket, the green, cotton lining ripped and stained. He thought that I might bleed and he didn't want to ruin his upholstery.
Is it odd that most of my memories about sex include the threat of a stain?
It is not odd.
I did not bleed, nor stain. I was as clean as Sam was quick. His straining body and violent breath could not elicit a stain, though he was sweet and kissed my neck until my breath was as fierce as his. Then I tied him in a knot, stored the idea of him, and let the rest go.
              The next is as nameless as the brand. The college girl takes a lover, but I did not take him very far at all. What I know about this one, the memory that lingers until my stomach cramps, is the discovery that semen does not stay fresh. Never a pretty smell to begin with, bleachy and sugary, semen only gets worse with age. The plastic bags are sealed as airlessly as possible, because once they are sealed I never want to open them again. That smell is not what I want to remember, but what remains in that bag overpowers any other memory of a man.
              In the church pew where I sat, I could only see the top of the Father's head as he droned on endlessly about eternity. Sunday, to me, meant wearing a dress, and since I took that dress to church, I thought of it as dressing up for God.
My mother had told me to always wear clean underwear, just in case I was in a wreck. I was afraid that if a car crash didn't kill me, the embarrassment of a good looking doctor seeing me in dirty panties would.
Every time I had to take a trip in a car, I would change my underwear, but I walked to church and so I never considered it, even when it was a new dress that I wore.
The Father was only as tall as the wooden box he stood on behind the podium made him, because I never saw him anywhere else in the church. He could tower over us all, his voice a boom and drone at the same time, the lighting suited to justify his ends.
While other girls were at the beach to drink water and sun and work off the small headaches of sweet drink hangovers, I went to the church because I did not know any better nor any worse.
The collection plate was passed. This week, the Father said, would be for the children.
As it passed, I was finally old enough to tell who gave folding money and who gave change not by the sound, as those who had only quarters and dimes to add did so with soft precision, but by actions of folding money people after the plate passed. They would give a look around, a fake guilty look, as they wanted to be caught giving so much and wanted to look humble for having so much to give at the same time.
For the children, they would mouth to anyone who would look, which would only be the others who had folding money to give.
For the children. I didn't know whether to give or take from the collection plate.
A child with child, I wanted to give as much as take, but I did neither.
              The third and fourth are from the same man, though from very different years. The first of his contains no semen, but is tied into a knot just the same. He said that he was too nervous to finish. I took the condom off of him, and he was not too nervous to finish between my lips.
We loved each other for years, and then we didn't again for twice as many years. But we met again, as people in the same town do, when we were both drunk and starving and clumsy. I saved our last one as a novelty more than as a souvenir.
Number five, perhaps he became confused at the numbering when he sat me down and opened my secrets on our queen-sized bed. Maybe he didn't understand what I said when I told him that some secrets were meant to be kept, not shared.
On the quilt that my great grandmother had tied for my mother, he spread the little bags out in a row and looked up at me. Most of the bags contained only white and yellow dust.
"What is this?" he said, and held up number three. The end ring of the condom stuck to the plastic bag. I can almost smell the taste of lubrication in my mouth, the way it numbed my lips and throat and how I inhaled a breath that needed to last for only half as long as it did.
The rust red cotton comforter shined through the bags, casting hues that made evidence look worse than it really was. Number six, still full with wet, quick pleasures, looked especially offensive.
"They aren't yours," I said.
"They better be," he said, meaning something different.
Maybe I slipped and lied. I don't remember well enough to care or care enough to remember. But he thought he was number six, and that was enough of a secret for me.
He wanted more answers than I had, and so he left after demanding that I return what he had once given to me. In testing him, I found that he would leave just the same even if he did not have what I wanted to keep.
Keeping the secret until it was time to let it go is a pleasure I cherish. Nobody owns the truth, and a secret is always true, even if it isn't. When the truth escapes the prisons of secrecy, it becomes complete. Like a child locked in a womb, a secret always struggles to escape, kicking and fussing until even the most dedicated captor must give in to the needs of freedom. Just as some secrets get better with age, some secrets die, turn to dust, lose their meaning. Secrets are meant to be kept until it's their time to be told.
The truth shall set you free because the truth only wants freedom. Secrets are lies until they are spoken aloud.
Number five is as free as the secret I held. Used, kept in a box, but now free.
Inside the box there's a little bit of him and a little bit of me and a little bit of our secret, and I don't see why that should be thrown away.

In high school, the girls guarded and gardened their secrets. It is the first moment when a girl discovers that her secret can give pleasure that she becomes a woman. The pleasure, though, is never as great as what is hinted at.

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About Bryan Howie

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Bryan Howie lives in the American Inland Northwest, where he has been searching for a muse in the trees and rivers. He loves photography and motorcycle riding, but has a hard time doing both simultaneously. His short story “Your Mother’s Smile” was featured in Volume 6 of The Best of Carve Magazine and can be found online at http://solarcide.com/special-guest-content/guest-stories/your-mothers-smile-by-bryan-howie/.


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