CBC Short Story Prize: "The Three Times Rule" by Becky Blake
Becky Blake won the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize for her story "The Three Times Rule"—a glimpse into the life of a damaged young woman who lives in a world of self-imposed rules designed to avoid further pain and disappointment.
Disclaimer: Please note that this story contains adult language that some may find offensive.
"Euphemisms are for pussies.” The search for her panties is not going well.
“Well, what would you like me to call it?”
“Something that doesn’t give me nightmares maybe?” There’s a strained quality creeping into her voice that she hates. She starts again at the bottom of the bed, feeling with her toes between the covers. He tries to still the pendulum sweep of her leg with a damp hand.
“Your eyes are really blue right now.”
“It’s from screwing,” she says, and her leg is free to go.
“You know.” He clears his throat. “You’re not exactly a sweet-talker yourself.”
She considers mentioning how she used to live on the street but stops herself. She can’t remember if they’ve had that conversation before. She looks under the bed, finds a recent edition of Hardly Legal and tosses it up and backwards.
“Sorry.” She hadn’t meant to hurt him—is more disappointed than angry. Sardine lasagna. Why would he call it that? Someday she’ll be an old lady in a nursing home and that memory will still be inside her. It isn’t right.
He flips open the magazine. “Women my age are gross.”
She sees her panties shrivelled up against the metal bed frame and snatches them back. Static crackles. “So what happens when you’re too old to pick up waitresses?” He’s only twenty-nine but he doesn’t have the kind of looks that last.
“Every woman is half a waitress.”
She aims a kick at his pale thigh.
“Hey!” He turns the magazine to landscape view, studies the centrefold.
She shakes her head. “There’s no way that girl is ‘just eighteen’, by the way.”
She lies back on the bed and wriggles into her underwear. Covered up a bit, she feels exhausted and nostalgic. “Remember when we went skating?” The question creeps out of the bed and towards the window.
“Yeah, I remember.”
She rolls towards him. Maybe that’s what’s confused her—the skating. It had only been a pretense for their hook up but for some reason details from the evening have stuck with her: the rusty blades, the wet mittens, the bruised knees. Skating together had felt like going back in time, like something teenagers from the 1950s might have done, layers of warm clothes between them like a chaperone. She conjures a postcard memory: the two of them rosy-cheeked and sweetly out of breath like children. They’d spent the night laughing and racing and falling into each other. At one point, alone centre-rink, she’d remembered how falling in love had felt almost the same: all slippery underfoot, all hopeful of being caught.
“That was nice,” she says.
He nods, sets the magazine aside and rolls lazily into her lap, biting at the strawberries on her underwear.
She places her hand atop the whorl of dirty hair at his crown. Usually she has a rule about casual sex: once is magic, twice is an education. The third time’s a charm, or it’s boring. Either way, three times is the limit. It’s a hard and fast rule. It’s a rule that favours the hard and the fast. So why are they in bed together again? Last night she’d destroyed her favourite lipstick writing ‘RULES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN’ on the bathroom wall of a martini bar. Today, as they pretend to know each other well, she remembers without capital letters that ‘rules are made for a reason.’ After the fourth time there are no surprises, and all words can be said out loud—even ugly words that ruin everything.
His breath is hot against her and she’s melting in the middle. She leans back. Her heart speeds up and her mind slows down. The seesawing comparison between what she’d hoped for and what she’s got loses momentum, then stops. She checks her time on the alarm clock. 3:52. It will take her fifteen minutes to come, and ten minutes to go. She’ll be at work by five.
She closes her eyes and revisits the skating image, presses it hard to the front of her mind. The effort sets off sparks of other memories: a damaged blue book on a high shelf, a road-trip smell of doughnuts and gasoline, a patch of soft fur being ruffled by the breeze. Trying to connect these fragments distracts her. They present like a puzzle but they don’t mean anything, don’t belong together.
She returns to the skating, rewinds and replays, wringing from the memory what she needs. Finally, she lets it go. It’s her second time today so she feels it less—just a quick pirouette of excitement, then ice. This will not classify as normal wear and tear. She knows that. For a moment she can feel herself aging, the sound of it like crinkling paper.
She rolls onto her side, peeling the creased pages of the porn magazine away from her body.
“I’ll get rid of that,” he offers.
She shrugs. “It’s fine.” The skating image will soon be worn through and after that she knows how things will go: they will have a maximum of six more days together before she can’t stand the sound of his breathing, the number of times he chews his food, the way he latches onto a word and repeats it again and again until its meaning disappears. It’s one of the cruelest things, she thinks, to adopt something, then destroy it.
He’s watching her from under his over-long eyelashes, and his moth-brown eyes fill her with shame. Once, when she was little, she’d caught a moth in the playground at school, cupped it in her hands and brought it in to show her teacher. She remembers the tickle of its tiny feet tapping back and forth across her bottom palm, its wings fluttering from time to time across the top. She’d been able to feel the flutter in her stomach as well.
“That’s very nice,” Mr. Jeffries had said. “But next time you shouldn’t pick it up.”
She’d thought he was concerned about it getting loose in the classroom. “Don’t worry. I’m going to let him out the window.”
Mr. Jeffries shook his head. “It won’t be able to fly anymore. The oil from our fingers—” He held up his hand and his fingertips glistened. “—it damages their wings.”
The tickle in her stomach had gone still. She’d set the moth on the window ledge anyway, and checked on it throughout the day. The breeze had ruffled its furry body from time to time, but otherwise it hadn’t moved. It’s the first thing she remembers killing.
“What are you thinking about?”
She opens her eyes, takes in the exits: the window, the door. He is stroking her very softly but still it’s too hard. She moves his hand away. “It’s like you’re rubbing the dust off a moth’s wing.”
He frowns. There’s a flicker of hurt in his eyes. “Is that a euphemism?”
“No. It’s just—” They don’t mean anything, don’t belong together. “—just nothing.” She restarts the search for her panties, fighting hard against a surprise attack of tears rising up in her like a dirty memory, like a faltering oil-soaked moth. It’s one of the saddest things, she thinks, to hold onto something until it becomes useless.
It will be a long time before she breaks her rule again.