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In the Winter by Puloma Ghosh


Puloma Ghosh’s “In the Winter” is one of three winners of the 2020 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith.


“In the Winter” is quiet and dark and strange (in the best way). The descriptions are so vivid and beautiful. The language is so evocative and resplendent, I wanted to reread everything again and again, so I did. Bright fruits and sunset persimmons, sunrise grapefruit, late afternoon mandarinsDamask wallpaper. Wet and unpretty. His room smelled kind of like weed but a lit candle cast cypress and cloves over it. Wow, the whole story, really. Such beauty on a sentence level, I knew immediately that this was one of my favorites. Stories like this are exactly why I love reading and writing fiction, especially fiction that reads and sounds and tastes like poetry.  —Leesa Cross-Smith


 

I become quite pretty in the winter, in the dim afternoons with sheet metal skies. I line my lips with brown, burgundy, wine and whiskey stains. I crave bright fruits as though they’ll substitute the daylight—sunset persimmons, sunrise grapefruit, late afternoon mandarins crushed into the horizon bisecting my dark mouth. This is why he noticed me between the bare trees.

Where are you going, class is starting soon. That was none of his business, but he asked anyway, just to talk to me, I think.

The cemetery, I replied, because I thought that would make me seem interesting somehow, to be caught eating a clementine on a gravestone.

You’ve already missed one, he said. So he had noticed me, slipping in and out of the seat closest the door.

I don’t have the book, I said. (I did; it was in my bag.) It will be pointless for me to go.

Come and listen.

No.

I walked away, satisfied to know his gaze had not been an accident. He liked to sit by me, close enough to catch my tangy scent, what was once citrus turned sour from spit and the oil in my hair. Did he like that smell?

He didn’t follow me and I never went to the graveyard. I went home and ate soup alone at the wooden dining table, between the damask wallpaper. I hated to eat hot things, too-wet too-solid things, in front of other people. I don’t like to show my teeth or risk a small drip from my lips. I drop silverware a lot. Was I lonely back then, you might ask. Of course I was. Who isn’t lonely “back then.” In the winter I’m pretty because the loneliness makes my face slack, my eyes intense. There are no stories without loneliness.

He sat beside me in the cafeteria, where I was alone with a sketchbook and some fruit and the plastic container I filled with things to eat later, alone at home. I knew other people coveted his company but he chose me, maybe because I looked pathetic, or maybe because he liked to watch my fingernails dig and carve into pith.

I have the book, if you want it. I’ve read it many times already, if you want to borrow it.

What makes you think I’ll read it.

You’ll have to write about it eventually.

I don’t have to do anything. (But I did.)

Here was the plan. I would go to his place to pick up the book. But of course, any time one went somewhere to retrieve something that could easily be carried, handed over in a hallway or across the cafeteria table, there was more to it. Especially at that age, when we all sought excuses to make more of things. It was a warm afternoon for that time of year so when the sky shed it was wet and unpretty. His room smelled kind of like weed but a lit candle cast cypress and cloves over it. A little redundant in these months, when only the evergreens have sound or smell. He handed me the book and I examined the cover, its neutrals and black serif title.

What’s it about?

Two women who are friends but also not friends.

I lay on his bed without invitation, on my stomach with my shins dangling off, the book open in front of me. His duvet smelled deep-in-closet musty, like maybe he hadn’t washed it since last winter. I waited for his voice, or perhaps the creak, sag of the bed under his weight, but instead I felt a hand, warm and large on the back of my neck. I waited to be yanked up or pressed in but neither happened.

Don’t hate me for this, he said. I don’t do this with anyone.

Read? I asked, turning my head so my cheek rested on paper. He didn’t acknowledge my weak joke. I closed my eyes and felt his fingers, the other ones.

It was a strange way to come, treated a bit like a fleshy little vegetable that had to be held down and scraped clean of seeds, tights pulled only to my knees, but it worked. Sometimes sex isn’t sexy, just effective. I left a dark spit mark on a block of dialogue in his book. I tried to turn around, offer something inevitably awkward in thanks or return, but his hand tightened on my neck—Stay there. Don’t look at me.

How many orgasms does it take to achieve intimacy? How many times does a thing fuck you from behind before you realize you only ever saw him in the woods, in the cafeteria with meat between his teeth. In that classroom where you were both supposed to be the closest to human, with his hair combed smooth, coat buttoned, scarf tight, he looked completely different. Maybe not even the same thing that fucked you from behind over and over and never let you see his eyes when he came because they were violet, gold, cut with oblong pupils. Sometimes you glimpse his hand on the bed beside you and the hairs on his knuckles look thicker than you remember, and you realize your own hand underneath is small, soft, sticky-spitty like a toddler’s.

Was I the creature, or was he? Because the walls changed, I know they did. The doors disappeared. Outside became black not with night but because we took the room and tipped it into another world where it was never supposed to be, left a double of it behind so nobody would know. The magic came from somewhere, but with our bodies so tightly pressed it was hard to say where.

How did I escape that room, you ask, and I’ll tell you that to outgrow a room is not to leave it, only swallow hard and walk around with it rattling inside you until eventually, you fill up with enough things that it doesn’t make a sound.

 


PULOMA GHOSH is a writer of lonely creatures & fierce magic with an MFA from Bennington College, where she was the Spring 2020 Residential Teaching Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Cantabrigian and Another Chicago Magazine, and her story was a finalist for the 2020 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize. She lives in Chicago, IL.

 

Featured imaged by Léa Deleligne courtesy of Unsplash

 


Our Twitter micro-interview with Puloma Ghosh:

Author’s Note

I didn’t actually realize “In the Winter” was a piece of flash fiction until I had written all 1,000-ish words of it and realized I had nothing more to say. Of all the stories I’ve submitted to publications, this is the least polished and the least worked on. I tweaked and cleaned the sentences, but I had this feeling that it was something tender and very breakable, and might fall apart if I dug into it too hard. This is the biggest lesson I learned in my process of writing this: Sometimes feeling is more important than tightness, and being messy and vulnerable on the page has value. Every story has its own needs that I have to relearn each time I sit down to revise, but at the end of this I thought, sometimes trying to assert too much ambition, intellect, and control on my work will get in my way.

The feeling of this story comes from something I remembered in early 2020, when I spent a month on a college campus as a TA before the pandemic sent us home. It was a very liminal space, being neither student nor truly part of the faculty, in rural Vermont far from most things. It reminded me of the most isolating, lonely parts of being an undergrad. The meals eaten alone, the classes skipped, the people I was in bed with but not with. In photos from then I have a different look to me, what I thought was pretty but now find a little scary. That feeling, that version of myself at my lowest point, is something that I don’t think has ever left me, or will ever leave me.

I learn the most about both what and how I want to write when I read. I wrote this right after finishing a lonely, lyrical book that reminded me of my days as a TA, remembering that feeling. Often, when I write I channel my worst moments, not because I like being dreary (or maybe I do, I don’t know) but because those are the feelings that linger and chase me around. I had no end in mind when I wrote this, no quotations, no real plot, just a few scenes strung on the loneliness of “back then,” and it ended when that feeling ended.

Also, I had just bought a cypress candle, and burned it while I wrote. The little things always find their way in.

 


PULOMA GHOSH is a writer of lonely creatures & fierce magic with an MFA from Bennington College, where she was the Spring 2020 Residential Teaching Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Cantabrigian and Another Chicago Magazine, and her story was a finalist for the 2020 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize. She lives in Chicago, IL.