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LOVE IS THE PLAYGROUND OF THE THING by Michael Mungiello

This love story has nothing to do with me. I’m not involved. Even the small parts—the earrings, the dog, the money—I only care a little bit about. What’s actually important is how it ends. It ends on a boat.

I started following Lorenzo because he lived next door and he looked exactly like me. It was an added advantage that he was ignorant of almost everything. For example, he never noticed I was following him. I followed in my car and on foot, I took buses I didn’t have to and sat in the row behind him. Lorenzo always wore headphones.

I was amazed at the emptiness of his life: how much of it he spent at work. There was a coffee place across the street from the BMW dealership. I read some good books there when spying got boring. Mostly self-help books. How to Find a Job. How to Find a Job Part 2. How to Find Another Job. Etc. Lorenzo biked to work.

I saw him sell. He made my hand gestures. His teeth were whiter, he seemed more at ease than me but I saw him clench his jaw after customers walked away.

I followed him back by car, relying on mild traffic to make my otherwise menacing creeping speed look accidental.

I’d watch and wonder, is that what my back looks like? Do my shirts also get detucked during the day? I guess I hoped some other stranger (maybe another neighbor) was following me. (He could answer my questions.)

The whole time I lived next door, I never heard Lorenzo play music. Which means he wore headphones inside his own house. Do you see Lorenzo? As tall as a refrigerator, pale, blue eyes, prematurely grey hair; long pants even when it’s hot outside, button-ups. I never saw the inside of his apartment, I can only imagine it perfectly. Delivery people rarely came so he cooked his own food.

Then came Sheila. Sheila ruined everything. One day Sheila thought, “Well, why don’t I buy a car?”

On that day I did what I’d never done before: cross the street, cross the lot, come inside and look around. BMW 1 vs BMW 2 and so on. Made a thinking face. Fixed my posture like I’m a regional manager with kids.

Lorenzo looked up and saw me. I saw his face go, “What? No way. What?” And he got up to come talk to me like I was a normal customer and cancel out the uncanniness. But he failed. The door opened and he was distracted.

It was Sheila.

Short as an oven, artificially white hair, very small nose.

And Lorenzo forgot I exist. Seeing Lorenzo see Sheila, for a second I forgot I exist too. Sheila broke through his big ignorance. I felt him change.

I assumed they became boyfriend and girlfriend because I heard him say, “I’m Lorenzo” and I heard her say, “I’m Sheila.” My face was velvet drapes. I didn’t belong there anymore. I dashed out and never followed Lorenzo again.

I went home and fed no pets, watered no plants, watched no TV. I didn’t read anything. I didn’t have plants or pets or a TV, although I did have books.

Next day, a knock at my door, a note slid under.

 

Dear Weirdo,

I know you’ve been stalking me. Stop. Get help. Or I’ll call the cops.

 

I thought about telling him I’d already decided to stop, but no. I didn’t want to stoop to his level.

I did want to explain myself, though. “Hey buddy” or “Dude” or “My man” or “Uh excuse me?” My fingers went numb with excitement as I contemplated the first words I’d say to Lorenzo.

I opened the front door in time to see a shiny BMW pull out of the parking lot. Sheila driving, Lorenzo in the passenger seat. I felt whatever song they were playing, the car’s bass hurt. I thought, “BMW must stand for ‘Blasting Music, WOO!’” I thought, “Ha.” Then I thought, “Blasting music? Lorenzo, you’ve changed.”

I was going to go back in but I saw something glint in Lorenzo’s bristly welcome mat. I bent down and saw two earrings.

 

. .

 

Modest but elegant. The kind of restrained jewelry that says, “I’m actually rich.”

I picked them up and put them in my jacket. They clinked together with spare change. I walked to the beach. It was 7 on a Wednesday night. Lorenzo and Sheila were probably on a mid-week date night date. They were probably eating dinner at a place where the napkins were linen and on a table, not paper that came from a cube.

I got a dollar slice and took it to the beach. I sat on the sand and munched. I chomped. I scharfed. I was some kind of gavone I kept my mouth open because the slice was so hot.

A lady was walking a dog. Both of them were tiny and white with frizzy hair. I love dogs so I trained my eyes on some adjacent cloud so I could watch the dog out of my peripheral vision without making the lady suspect I was staring at her. I didn’t want to stare like a “weirdo.”

But soon enough I was staring because the dog saw something and started barking. But not a normal bark, a bark like it was begging for its life, crazy. The lady said the dog’s name four times: confused; cloying; stern; scared. She pulled on the leash but the dog pulled harder and the lady fell forward and let go of the leash. The dog looked left and darted left then looked right and darted right then stared straight ahead past the horizon and ran into the water.

“Oh my god,” I said.

“My dog,” the lady said.

Then the crazy thing. The dog doggy paddled maybe five feet out. Retrieval’s no problem, right? Except a dolphin slid by and swam under the dog, essentially acting as a self-steering surfboard for the dog, who was shuttled far away before our eyes. I imagined doggy legs quivering.

“Wow,” I said.

The lady looked upset.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “He’ll probably come back when he’s hungry.”

She nodded at me solemnly like I was right. Or like she wanted to tell me to go fuck myself.

A long whistle insinuated itself. It was Lifeguard Joe, huge arms, with his paddleboat.

“Let’s go,” he said. This was the day he’d been preparing for his whole life.

The lady started to walk over but fainted.

“Shit,” Joe said.

“Wait,” I said. “Sir, that dog is my wife’s pride and joy. She’d never forgive me if I didn’t try to save him myself and besides the dog is very anxious and only responds to me or my wife.”

We rowed hard for a long time. I teared up when it was clear the dog was gone.

“Dolphins move fast,” Joe said. “I’m sorry I got your hopes up.”

We got back but the lady was gone now too. Or maybe we’d just rowed away from her by accident and she was still waiting. I never saw her or Joe again, after I helped Joe put away the rowboat.

I lay on the beach. I closed my eyes. I couldn’t sleep, probably because I was outside. My jacket wasn’t actually warm. But I bet Lorenzo and Sheila were snug near a blazing candelabra at their fancy restaurant. BMW’s had seat warmers. I left the beach and took a Lyft home. The driver’s name was Fred. I said nothing.

When I got back my key didn’t work. I tried four more times before I for some reason knocked. Of course nobody answered.

I used the flashlight on my phone to look at the lock. I also saw an envelope taped to my door.

 

Dear Tenant,

We are alarmed to hear of your behavior which has affected another tenant. We have changed the lock on your door using your security deposit. Your possessions will be returning in due course.

Regards,

Management

I fidgeted with the earrings, turning them around in my fist like they were stress release balls but they weren’t stress release balls so one I wasn’t less stressed and two the earrings stabbed my palm. My bleeding hand.

“Fuck.”

I didn’t want to stain the jacket pocket so I slapped my hand onto Lorenzo’s door and smeared. I smeared until the tiny hand holes stopped.

On the boardwalk I saw flyers. “See This Dog? Call 1-800-LORENZO, it belongs to (my gf) Sheila’s sister, $5,000 reward.”

Who was the dog? The dog on the dolphin.

I was touched by Lorenzo’s generosity. And if he could be so selfless, I could too. Why not? We looked just like each other. This flyer told me something about myself, some soft bright thing.

I remembered where Joe left the boat.

I picked it up.

I ran to the ocean while carrying the boat.

The whole time I was thinking how meaningful Lorenzo’s flyers must’ve been to Sheila.

Imagine, some guy loves you and proves it.

Tries to find your sister’s dog.

The water was too cold but I ran further, slowly.

I threw the boat on the water and got on.

Sheila was opening Lorenzo’s door, probably, returning from a visit with her sister.

I paddled.

Lorenzo finished cleaning the kitchen. He got a glass of water for each of them.

I was looking left and looking right and paddling forward.

Lorenzo showed her dogs up for adoption on Craigslist. He showed her pictures of a dog on the beach. She smiled. She said, “Our own family.” She said, “Alaska.” She lay her legs on his lap. She knew he wanted to quit his job. His life before her—creepo neighbor, shitty job. His life with her—“it would be amazing,” he said. She put her hands on her stomach.

I didn’t dress for this; it was cold. I thought salt from the water was being blown into the holes in my hand. I had nowhere to live. I didn’t even know what dolphins do at night.

For all I knew Lorenzo was proposing to Sheila that night, on the couch, on their way to Alaska. They were sharing his headphones. They were on Craigslist selling his bike. Lorenzo was reading a book about Alaska, learning everything, stroking Sheila’s hair. Attentive.

The moon was big. No stars or clouds. And I saw a tiny white dog gliding toward me on the back of a dolphin. The dog was making its long way from far off and I realized that in my fantasy Lorenzo had cleaned my blood off the door before Sheila came home so she wouldn’t get scared.

The dog telepathically asked me, “Are you scared?”

The moon telepathically answered, “He is.”

The dog was zooming now, closer, and I tried to paddle backwards but couldn’t. I was excited like I’d been playing a game with someone better at the game than me. He was about to make the winning move and out of admiration I took pleasure in my own defeat because it was his victory.

The dolphin zipped past me and into the horizon forever.

I paddled.

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