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An Exchange of Gifts

A Short Story by Rob Mohr

Sex in any form had been out for fifteen years, in favor of a clean, uncontaminated body nourished and preserved from any harm that might come if she were to give into her impulses as she once had, when she let attractive men have their way with her. 'How could I have?' Jennifer wondered. Now, they would see the signs of age in her body, something she couldn’t bear, or even imagine – it has been so long. 'Besides,' she thought, 'I am safe in my comfortable home.’ Yet her thoughts were torn as she realized that something essential had been lost. She wondered if the mold for the loveless life she and her husband Blake endured might be broken.

Jennifer’s emotional needs were few, yet to Blake she was complex, an obscure, shifting presence - impossible to define. In every sense that mattered, an affirmation of absence, of collective guilt for their indulgent past, a woman who filled long days lounging on the blue couch in her living room with its high vaults, broad wood paneling, and long view through French doors across the terrace to the garden. When he dared breach her domain – walls of wooden bookshelves filled with each escape she had savored, each dream she had cherished, each hero she had loved - he was an intruder. Her books were her home, the place she was most alive – she resided within their worn pages. Jennifer had become a shadow, a memory of the young woman who once ran laughing across the snow-covered lawns of their Massachusetts home. Blake could pass her in the street and not know her, not see the handsome, refined woman she had become. She would forever be a stranger to him, a mist he could not bring into focus, an echo of sound made decades ago.



In contrast, Blake was driven. He tinkered, played endlessly with his newest Blackberry, and sat for hours in his office above the guest house at his computer talking with associates and exploring technological breakthroughs. Jennifer was an unseen presence, who stayed clear of his space, fixed (at least in his mind) curled up on her deep blue couch with a book. On occasion he would register the sound of her voice as a faint reverberation from some distant world. When they ventured to talk, she spoke in a ritual way, articulating the needs of the day, offered without expectation of response, more an anticipation of a duel, or, at least, an orchestrated dance between old yet distant enemies. His infrequent replies were equally abstract, designed to maintain her presence, if not in an alliance, at least as a fixture he could call wife. They spoke a language created over years of hard words without overtones of compassion, empty of love. They existed without relationship or hope in a world devoid of imagination or sensual pleasure.    


 Alone at a table for two, Jennifer savored her coffee. Unnoticed, unseen by anyone who might have cared, Malcolm, a tall, slender man watched her every move, absorbing her freshness, wondered about her innocent openness, her calm, her patience as she waited. 'A woman from a past age,’ he thought, ‘an apparition.'

Unable to resist, Malcolm stuffed his papers into his brown leather satchel, and strode over to her table. “You seem content alone.” Malcolm watched a quick smile spread across her face, her tongue brush her lips. He was captured by her apparent innocence.

“Yes,” she responded. Surprised by his presence, she put her hand to the neck of her mint green blouse.

“The morning light moving across your face makes you glow.” Malcolm resisted telling her how beautiful she was.

Her smile widened. “How can you say such a thing? You don't know me at all.”

The waiter placed a plate of fruit on the table and refilled her coffee, as Malcolm pulled back the seat across from her. “May I join you for a moment?”

'He has a lot of nerve. Seems nice!  “Yes, if you like.” ‘When was the last time I enjoyed a man's company?'

Malcolm glanced at the waiter, “A coffee please.” 'She's my age. Like me, not yet willing to leave her youth behind, or to sit in the sun without desire.'

She noticed that his face, like hers, revealed only the slightest hint of age, as it should have been, but could not be with the toll of years in the sun, the suffering, illness, and the fatigue that comes from living. Yet, focused on one another, they were young again - glimpsed what was possible.

“I paint.” Her words were whispered – a secret released, a gift, a door into her inner self, a place where she dwelt in safety. Her words where an invitation.

“Yes, that's important.” He sensed her fragility, the significance of the gift she had given him. 'Later maybe I will be able to tell her that I too paint.'  She sensed something in the way he looked beyond her, as if he had been captured for a moment by some interior reality.

'He understands.'

Malcolm watched as she finished her meal. “Would you like to walk along the river?” He pictured the trees, the twisting trail, occasional glimpses of wild life, of being alone with her.

Jennifer considered his invitation, thinking about the sameness of her days, the hours she sat alone reading, and the emptiness of her relationship with Blake.

“Yes. That would be wonderful.” The day had come alive for her. Searching his face for some sign that might reveal his intent - she glimpsed a questioning sparkle in his eyes.

‘She is so like Nina, my first love,’ he thought. Jennifer’s calm manner, the softness of her speech, the glimmer in her eyes, the life she radiated, all awoke in him a sense of completeness, a return, yet, at the same time, the coming into being of something only dreamed.


Malcolm's life had been like a man skating on a small pond, where he alone controlled his movements, when, for no understandable reason, the ice beneath him gave way and pulled him down into the dark cold water of anguish and desperation. Only the heroics of his close friends who pulled him back to the warm fires of community saved him from the shock of his wife’s departure in the night – her tracks deep in the snow, marked by the weight of a suitcase, led across a field to a neighbor’s house. Their car was gone.

The pain and loss overwhelmed him - throbbing with a life of its own, unattached to any other aspect of life, burning but unable to consume itself, or cool his sense of failure. His suffering ate at the core of his being eroding every understanding that had shaped his life. For a time every act seemed futile. Hope was only found in knowing that he must begin again - to apply the lessons from his inadequacy in a new circumstance, to experience a new birth rooted in the young man he had been when he painted without restraint, when he dreamed without compromise. Yet, fearing the unknown even as he began to awake, Malcolm avoided involvement with the women who had sought him out, and who, when turned away, spread rumors of his aloof behavior. “Too cold to love,” they had said, words given life within their self-interested tribunal.



Sitting in the morning light, seeing Jennifer’s clear face, and guileless blue eyes, listening to the soft lilt of her voice, Malcolm felt revived, the cold water driven from his lungs, the words she breathed warming his body. ‘I could make this woman happy,' he thought.  Malcolm looked at her through eyes focused by an understanding reached as each part of his being aligned itself in harmony. ‘How does she see me?' He wondered, 'Are the pockmarks of failure evident?’

'Malcolm is the exact opposite of Blake,’ she thought, realizing that there was both hope and danger present in shifting her focus from personal comfort to the joy she experienced as they walked together. The mixture of introspectiveness and charm excited her, while giving her a sense of being celebrated by his ability to be attentive to the flow of words and thoughts that had been dammed up so long. His presence was synonymous with freedom.

“I'm married,” she said. “He and I live as strangers.” She wanted to tell him everything, and would before the day was over.

“Yes. I thought as much.” Watching her, trying to read every nuance, her smallest reaction, Malcolm felt warmth spread through his body - so complex a woman, more than flesh, her mind so vibrant. 'How fresh her way of thinking is,’ he thought.

'He enjoys what I have to say. “Him!”, that man I live with, never listens, never hears me!'



Filled and nourished, their plans made for meeting tomorrow, satisfactions digested - Malcolm and Jennifer reluctantly readied themselves to part. Without hesitation, he pulled her into his arms. “You are so warm, so strong.”

 She smiled up at him and hugged him closer. “There are no words to tell you what I feel.” She turned her face up to kiss him. He breathed in her sweetness, and hesitated for a long moment, before letting her go.  She turned and walked away, stopped and looked back - saw he has not moved, and knew he would not move until she was out of sight. ‘His attention to my words, his concern, and his ability to anticipate my needs are so welcome. A gift.'  She sighed.



Malcolm entered his house in the dark, and lay down on his bed to reflect, anticipated being with Jennifer again. His mind raced, brightened as if he had somehow turned on a brilliant light, a flickering, pulsing presence, which enabled a clarity he had never known before. When he had digested what was essential, and had given himself over to those parts of the day that gave him peace, he slept.


Curled up on her deep blue sofa while she waited for the Sushi she had ordered for supper to be delivered, Jennifer tried to analyze just what had happened with Malcolm - remembered his smell, the taste of his lips, his measured words. Thoughts drifting, she examined the comfort of her home, the rock fireplace, the shelves filled with books, watched the last light of day play on the tips of the trees in the garden. Feeling the evening chill, she walked over and with a long wand lit the kindling. As the fire began to roar, Jennifer considered her life, how hard it had been back in Massachusetts, before Blake had begun to make any real money.

Settled back on the couch, she pulled her alpaca shawl around her shoulders, savored the heat radiating from the burning logs, and enjoyed the crackling sound that filled the room. 'I am comfortable.'  She opened her book started two days earlier, turning to where Helen Ross had just realized that she loved Buck Calder. ‘How easy it would be to fall in love with a man like Buck.’ Her mind drifted as she thought about being with Malcolm tomorrow.



Seated again at the table for two, sipping coffee, Malcolm waited for Jennifer to arrive – his mind recreating every moment of the day they had shared. When he realized that she was a half hour late, afraid of missing her, concerned he may have misunderstood the time, he went into the restaurant and called the number she had given him. It rang once, twice, then ten more times.

He both understood and did not understand.

Rob Mohr is an artist and writer who has won numerous awards for his paintings in national art exhibits and his book,The Arts at Black Mountain College, was published by East Tennessee University Press. Rob has had stories and poems published in both national and international journals.

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