Most mornings I awaken sweat-soaked and coverless. A lumpen heap of pillows and blankets amasses in the vacancy where Patrick, my husband, used to sleep.
I go to the kitchen, followed by a menagerie of animals I began accumulating shortly after the quarantine, a few days after Patrick’s death. The thought of being alone has always terrified me. Asked the ubiquitous question as a little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up, I always answered, married. Perhaps I was a halved zygote and have yearned a lifetime to feel completed.
Three once feral cats, a possum recovering from a headwound, and a one-eyed dog follow me into the kitchen. I fill five bowls with Kibble and then sit contentedly amongst the animals, drinking coffee that I boil on the range. When the animals are done, Walt, our dog, follows me into the pantry and we discuss which pasta we should have today. Penne? Walt barks. Excellent choice, I tell him. Soon, the wineberries on the back fence will be ripe. Fresh fruit pleases everyone. Occasionally, Walt gets a wild hair and eats grass, but he always regrets it.
Later, I open the wooden front door, and we six sit behind the glass stormer to watch for any weary souls who might venture out. We wave at the masked citizens who look up while plodding along. There have been fewer coming out. Last week, an angry mask-less young man gave us the middle finger and grabbed his crotch. He took a menacing step onto the front walk, but Walt bared his raggedy teeth. The possum and I laughed as the miscreant ran away.
Sometimes, the power sputters on for a few minutes. Lights and fans, blinking clocks, once the blender I forgot I was using, upsetting itself on the counter. We rejoice, run around the house turning lamps off or on. Music for the masses, I will yell and we gather in the study to dance to Lucinda Williams.
Not long ago, perhaps on a Tuesday, there was rain. A menacing sky lowered to the lawn and Walt refused to go out and relieve himself. The possum and the cats morphed into a fuzzy ball on the sofa. I stood alone at the bay window and watched the rain wash down the abandoned street. A single child – sized shoe sailed down the gutter. I suppose that is when I got the idea.
Before Patrick died, before anyone was sick, when power was a given and socializing was normal, we had electric outlets installed on the façade of the house so we could light it up at Halloween and Christmas. Our house was a beacon for trick-or-treaters and carolers.
So, the day after the rain, I find every power strip we own. I plug outdoor extension cords into the exterior outlets. Then, I gather the lamps and the portable fans, the digital clocks. I pick up the blender and the food processor and set both to On. Walt, the only family member allowed outdoors, follows me into the yard. The cats and the possum watch dutifully from the storm door. Walt chases his own tail as I plug the appliances in, but I know he keeps his eye wary for any strangers. When I am finished, I sit on the front stoop, as Walt rolls on the walkway, and survey my handiwork. We have a veritable barricade of electronics ready for our defense. I ask Walt to come inside and then I let the gang know about my surprise. The animals wait politely at the door as I run down to the basement. He is a little unwieldy, but I manage to get Santa up the stairs. Patrick, who dabbled in welding, made him a few years ago from chicken wire. I painted him and wove the fairy lights into his form. For good measure, I grab a holiday stocking cap Patrick used to wear and mash it down over Santa’s chicken wire hat. The animals step aside, and I muscle Santa onto the front porch, where I plug him in. There, I say to my assembled furry family. Walt barks and the possum smiles. The cats never really have much to say but one weaves in between my legs so I interpret that as applause.
It is while Walt and I are picking wineberries and gathering dandelion leaves in the backyard that we hear the ruckus. The possum, whom we have decided to call Elmo, is scratching at the screen door, smiling at us. Walt and I enter the kitchen, following Elmo who makes his crooked little way to the front of the house. All three cats are poised on the back of the sofa, fixated on the scene in the front yard.
Every fan, lamp and clock has roared to life. The blender, in a buzz of activity, has fallen onto its side. Santa is divine. Even in the bright, hard light of the midday sun in summer, sheltered as he is between the rhododendrons which flank the front porch, Santa is alive in his electric glory.
Here is the interesting thing though; if I had thought I was constructing a barricade, I was indeed quite wrong. It turns out our assemblage of appliances has beckoned our dormant neighbors. Little clusters, pods of families and friends who hunkered down together, have gathered in the street. Walt makes happy yelps and Elmo and I wave as everyone marvels at our display. Most wave back. A few brave children break away from scolding parents and run up to Santa, tap him to make sure he is not an apparition, I suppose.
After 30 minutes, most of the groups have dispersed. It seems the power is back on for good. I turn off all my toys, unplug them and bring them in. Except for Santa. Walt and Elmo agree; Santa should remain to remind everyone that faith and love are electric.
I adore this piece and am indebted to Goat’s Milk Magazine for first publishing it in July 2021.
It is 97 degrees outside, and it is only April 30th. The bright, new green leaves are wilting in the heat. A wavering haze hovers over the valley below as we wind through mountainous roads. Our car is in a dead zone with no radio reception; the silence is stifling.
I turn my body halfway in my seat so that I am facing Seth as he drives. I remind him that when we met, I told him I would bring no good luck. It was our joke; a bad fortune from a cookie on our first date. He doesn’t respond. If the radio was on, I would wonder if he has even heard me. He is lost in a thought he isn’t ready to share.
I pivot my body to the passenger window, surveying the valley. When did these people come to this place? What were they looking for? Were they running to or were they running from? The mountainsides are dotted with rhododendrons, mountain laurels, wild phlox. The beauty is undeniable, but it is marred by the hardscrabble little towns, tucked like scabs in the bends of the river, in the crevices of the mountains. Abandoned factories are covered in graffiti. Train cars sit idle on defunct tracks. We pass a child’s bike, missing the front tire, on the side of the highway. Rot, I think.
I begin to bite my nails. Seth places a warm hand on my thigh. Don’t, he entreats. He knows I bite my nails when I am anxious. I don’t want to attend this funeral. Aside from Seth, I will not know anyone here. Because I need you with me to do this, is what Seth says when I ask him why I should go. I flip the mirror down on the visor, look for lipstick on my teeth. Seth tells me I am beautiful. I wonder if a person should try to look beautiful for a funeral.
The dead person is Seth’s best friend from high school. I cannot imagine a teenage Seth. Acne and greasy hair, begging girls for hand jobs. This is how I remember boys from my high school.
Before last week, he never mentioned those years. I know his parents are dead and he does not visit his hometown. I think I just figured if there was anything important from Seth’s youth, he would have shared it with me. I look at him now, studying his face for acne scars. Was his ear ever pierced? He feels my focus, reaches for my hand, and kisses my fingertips. Placing my hand back in my lap, he pats it, as a grandmother might there, there an upset child. He turns the radio dial. Dead air.
You had a best friend, I say. He nods. Most people do, he tells me. And your parents are dead, I state. They are, he says. He locks his hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. A small vein at his temple pulses. Getting off now, he says. I realize we have reached our exit. The car begins to descend into one of those little valley towns, all shanties and convenience stores, pickup trucks, and roaming dogs. It did not occur to me that Seth would be from one of these places. We talk about Camus and struggles with students. We talk about where we want to be if money was no object. Home is not a topic.
The town’s name is Depass. There is a boarded-up mechanic’s shop, an abandoned veterinary hospital, and a brand-new Sheetz. People will always need coffee and gas to get far away from places like Depass. The radio roars to life. ABBA extols the dancing queen.
We turn left onto a gravel road called Little Hoary Holler. Seth turns the radio off. He lowers his window and the air is thick with the smell of honeysuckle, river water, recently cut grass.
Seth makes a right turn into what appears to be a pasture. He turns off the ignition, settles back into his seat and looks at me. In a voice I have not heard him use before, Seth tells me there is ruin in him. He tells me he has known it his whole life, like the way some people just know they hate asparagus even if they have never eaten it. I tell him I love asparagus. When he smiles, it is weary, and I know I should not have made the joke. I take his hand into both of mine. I tell him that I was never very good at math, but it seems that between me bringing no good luck and him being ruinous, perhaps our two negatives create a positive.
As I am wondering if these words are enough, I notice there are many other cars in the pasture. All the license plates are from other states. I am about to say something about how Sheetz will make a mint off all these people, but there is a gathering that turns my attention. The soldiers and truckers, the nurses and schoolteachers, the friends of Seth’s dead best friend. They are walking to the river; someone is singing American Pie. I reach for the door handle, but Seth stops me. He tells me it is enough to be here, we don’t have to go any further. I am about to ask him about the people here, were they running to or from. Seth puts the key in the ignition and lowers my window. He tells me his friend never wanted him to come back here, that she would’ve left if she could have. I ask him why we have come then. He tells me if you don’t say goodbye to a place, you are bound to carry it with you. I think about this. Say goodbye to ruin, I tell him. He smiles and turns the key. Taking my hand, he says he already has.
This piece was first featured in The Dillydoun Review in July 2021.
My coffee cup lies in shards on the kitchen floor. Boutros Boutros Ghali licks his paws.
Can you at least feign remorse, I ask the cat. He blinks, yawns and lifts a back leg as he begins licking his hindquarters.
You are disgusting Boutros, I snarl. I prepare the coffeemaker and then retreat to the living room, where I select an album for our day.
In an ordinary time, I would walk to The Sunnyside Up and order a cortado. I would take my coffee, perhaps a pastry and end up in Laurel Run. There, I would sit on a park bench and watch young fathers teach their children to ride bikes. The mothers, arms linked like comrades, would stroll the park, complaining bitterly of office mates or lovingly discussing children, bestsellers, Peloton instructors.
This is not an ordinary time.
When the first wave of the pandemic washed over us, I had already lived alone for eight years. After the death of Gretchen, our only child, Roland and I drifted past one another as shades of our old selves. On an early Tuesday morning, 18 months after we had buried our daughter, I stubbed my toe on a single suitcase as I walked from the guestroom to the hallway bath. Roland stood in the doorway of our bedroom. I am only taking some clothes, he said. Perhaps I will be back. I’m not going anywhere, I replied. After a year, I stopped leaving the hall lamp on at night.
The second wave enveloped us, more ferociously, six months after the first. A week into it, I received a postcard from Santa Monica. Roland’s girlfriend had died suddenly from the virus. Might he return to convalesce? No, I wrote back.
Unmoved cars, furry with pollen, look like iron caterpillars dormant in driveways. Curtains are never drawn back. Newspapers stockpile on lawns and now have moldered, rotting in wet clumps on untrimmed grass.
A week after the third and most virulent wave struck, I opened my back door to take my trash to the fire pit. I almost kicked over a cat carrier. An angry Boutros hissed from within. A note atop read I will die tonight. Please care for Boutros Boutros Ghali. Stay well. Indira.
I looked over at my neighbor’s house, trying to discern her health from the once-tidy Tudor, now marred by peeling paint and loose shutters. In the glare of the mid-morning sun, I could see the freshly painted black Xs on the windows. That is how I came to live with an insufferable cat named after a globally admired statesman.
Now, I am standing at the glass door in my front hallway, a fresh cup of coffee in hand. Madama Butterfly’s soaring heartbreak fills the house. Boutros has come to sit by my feet and we watch the collectors as they dolefully approach front doors. If I squint, in their white Hazmat suits, they look like a processional of pilgrims.
I finish my coffee. Cio-Cio San has already plunged her father’s seppuku dagger into her heart. The collectors are spray-painting Xs on the Johnsons’ windows. Boutros yawns. Pinkerton has discovered Butterfly’s body. His tenor wails. Do you hear him, Bou? Do you hear Pinkerton’s regret? I ask the cat. Boutros stands, arches his back and weaves between my legs. Boutros, listen, I say. The collectors are sealing the Johnsons’ door; their dog Suzuki lays next to the three orange body bags. The tenor warbles, wracked with guilt. I close my eyes. I see him standing over her lifeless body. Boutros, I ask, can you hear the lament?
This short work, influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, was first published in (mac)ro(mic) in July 2021.
I have maybe a dollar in change in my pocket. Steph wants a Slurpee and is irritated that I don’t have enough money. I would’ve stolen my dad’s car for her. I would’ve donated a kidney. Our mothers were in the same birthing class. Steph was my oldest, sometimes only, friend. We had known each other before we were born but she doesn’t like it when I tell people that.
God, it’s so creepy, Cat, is what Steph says. Just don’t. It’s not like that is even possible anyway. Gross. Just don’t, she tells me. So, I don’t tell people that anymore but I still wanted to believe it.
Here. Here is a quarter, Steph says. Get me a Diet Coke. And hurry up. I gotta be in Adams Morgan in like five minutes, she orders me. Steph leans against a postal box and reapplies lip gloss.
I step inside the 7-11. It smells of processed meat, burnt coffee and patchouli. The air conditioning is set so low condensation has formed on the plate glass windows. I am damp with sweat and immediately begin shivering.
Yo, Cat. You riding a bender or something? You’re like totally wet, says Derek at the cash register. He graduated two years ago. We were in Chemistry together. Steph let him feel her up at a party last summer in exchange for some edibles.
Hey, D, I say. There’s just a great disparity in temperature, you know. Derek looks at me blankly. Maybe now is not the best time to practice my SAT vocab.
I try again; It’s hot outside. I need to get Steph a Diet Coke.
Yeah, alright. So, you still hang with her, he asks me.
I’m walking back to the wall of refrigerated beverages and I laugh at this question. What do you mean, D? She’s my best friend. I’ve known- Derek cuts me off.
He says, Yeah, yeah. ‘you’ve known her since you were in the womb’. I know. It’s just that she talks shit.
I feel cold and then a searing blush spreads over my face. I want to be stunned by what Derek is telling me but I have sensed this for a while. I put the cola on the counter. Looking down at my feet, I manage to ask, About me?
Derek rings me up. He’s not hot but he has soulful eyes. He looks at me over the register and I am reminded of Buster, my dog.
Jamming his hands in pockets he says to me, Hey, look Cat. I shouldn’t have said anything, you know. I figured you had heard. Just surprised to see you’re still hanging with her. That’s all.
Angrily, I respond, Yeah, well I’m surprised you’re still working at 7-11, ok? I mean, jeez, aim high, right?
Derek’s Buster eyes open wide with disbelief. The level I aimed for hit the mark.
Ok, Catherine. Diet Coke is on me. I don’t need this high school shit, he retorts.
I immediately regret being rude. I’m embarrassed. I wanted to make Derek feel as small as I do. Instead, I’ve made myself feel worse.
I plead, Listen Derek, I’m really sorry. That was crappy of me to say. I apologize. I- I don’t know why I said that. I think to myself though that I do.
Derek exhales audibly and his curly bangs briefly lift from his forehead.
It’s cool, Catherine, he says. This is kind of what I mean. Like, if Steph had said that I would’ve expected it. She’s only out for herself, you know.
I am about to refute what he has said. I am about to stand up for my best friend, tell Derek that Steph is more than just a set of DDs and a pretty face but the bell jingles and Steph leans in.
She spits out, What the fuck, Cat? You sucking his dick or something? I’m thirsty.
I reach for the cola and Derek looks at me plaintively, as if he’s asking me, See?
Thanks D. I’ll see you around, I manage to squeak out to Derek.
Yeah, ok, Catherine, he replies in a dejected voice.
Steph grunts as she reaches for the cola; You gonna hang out with that loser later, Catherine, she mockingly asks me.
I am about to laugh. I am about to capitulate. I am about to savage Derek and castigate myself and allow Steph to drag me around and keep humiliating me behind my back. I am about to relegate myself to being a backup plan. I let the door close behind Steph and then I turn back to Derek, immediately locking eyes with him. I am struck again with how emotive, how Buster-like his eyes are. The thing about Buster is his eyes tell you everything you need to know. I used to tell my secrets to Steph but when I talk to her now, she only blinks and brings up the boys she’s been hanging with at GW’s summer program. Lately, I’ve only shared my secrets with Buster. I take a deep breath.
I say to Derek, The Uptown is running a Studio Ghibli marathon this week. Do you want to go see Princess Mononoke with me tonight?
Derek smiles broadly. His eyes are only a little less brown than Buster’s.
He replies, Ghibli! Right on. I… I wish I could but I am taking night classes at NoVa. I’m, um, I’m actually enrolled at American this fall. I just needed to make some money first.
I flush hotly. I look quickly toward the door so Derek doesn’t see. Steph is on her phone crossing the street. I am certain she has no idea I am not behind her.
Hey, I am off tomorrow. You think we can catch a matinee?
I turn back to Derek. He is still smiling. Actually, he is kind of hot.
Indubitably, I say.
He says, Right on; It’s a date.
This work was first published by Sledgehammer Lit in June 2021.
Up until this summer, I had never really been sexually promiscuous. In June, I fooled around with three boys in the summer stock of the local theatre. Also, I have managed to keep my high school flame, Boyd, racked upon tenterhooks; I still climb the old magnolia outside his bedroom window for late night rendezvous. I cast these lines into the shallow dating pool in Maycomb because I am bored, or because I am lonely but mostly, I guess because I worry about my ability to succeed on my own. It is the end of August and I am 22 years old. I graduated from college in May with a B.A. in Philosophy and because the economy is slower than a blindfolded sloth, I am unemployed, languishing in this southern backwater where job opportunities vacillate between nothing and next to it.
The locust trees are now dropping their crisp little leaves, more from drought than an early autumnal advent. I am on the deck in my father’s backyard, plotting how to make Boyd propose marriage or how to escape Maycomb forever. What I am really doing is drinking too much beer, sleeping in too late and lamenting my wretched station in life.
I finish another Michelob and successfully peel the label from the bottle in one perfect, intact piece. I lick it and apply it to my forehead. Picking up a sheet of sandpaper, I begin to vigorously scratch off the black glossy paint on the chair I bought at yard sale the day before. I don’t really have the money to spend on something like a chair and I don’t even have a place to put it. I feel productive sanding it though and I get a small thrill as I glimpse the natural wood from under a well-scoured patch.
The chair is interesting, arresting even, with legs rounded out like a horseshoe. When I bought it, I pictured myself sitting in it. I thought of a sun-filled room, coffee cup in one hand, book in another, and I would feel complete, satisfied. I envisioned a tabby cat at my feet on a brick floor dappled in sunlight, partly covered by a tattered colorful kilim. I do not own a kilim nor do I have a tabby cat and I certainly do not have a sun-filled room with a brick floor. Curiously, I was alone in that room, in my chair. No summer stock boys, no Boyd. The room was distinctly mine: my books, my cat, my refurbished and reupholstered horseshoe legged chair.
My father comes out onto the deck.
“Michelle, Boyd’s on the phone.”
I know that I can’t honestly tell anyone, most especially myself, that I still want Boyd Jennings. Boyd is honest and patient, kind and perfectly suited to being a 6th grade History teacher. He wants to live in Maycomb for the rest of his life. He wants children and an annual beach vacation on the Outer Banks. He is mostly soft-spoken but can be a bit pompous when talking about the Civil War. I had entertained a thousand ways to break it all off with him but when he called in February to tell me he thought he might want to a date a girl at his own college, I could not release him. I gathered in the tether, bringing him back to me, closer than before. I wanted Boyd to want me whether or not I wanted him.
I briefly consider asking Dad to tell Boyd I’m not home but I look at his face and know that I cannot ask him to be part of my deceit.
“Okey doke; I’ll be there in a minute.”
I put down the sandpaper and stand up to go inside, kicking over the trio of Michelob bottles at my feet. Somewhat ashamedly, I glance at my dad, prepared for a withering look or some sneer of derision, but I find him staring at my forehead. As I walk past him, he plucks the forgotten beer label off my face. I scurry into the dark air-conditioned kitchen where I become immediately and intimately familiar with my own stench.
“Hey Boyd. I’m a little busy right now; what’s up?” I brush my damp, matted hair from my forehead.
I know the minute I hear my name this isn’t Boyd on the line. I feel nauseated and I brace myself on the kitchen counter as Matt, a college infatuation, continues speaking. Matt, all dark curls and mahogany eyes, the business major who somehow wrote the most brilliant and disturbing piece in Short Story Seminar, causing half the class to fall in love with him instantly.
“Hey Michele. Sorry your Pops assumed I was some Boyd dude. I didn’t want to take the time to correct him. I’m on my way back down to Atlanta. My summer internship in New York just ended. I remembered you complaining about living in some hole called Maycomb. My luck, there’s only one Harmon in the book at this payphone. I’ve got a couple of hours; is there some place around here to grab an early dinner? You’re not busy or anything, right?”
I am staring at my bare feet and notice that my toenails are still painted Dusty Rose from my graduation day. I smell rank. I see fine grains of wood dust in the golden hairs on my arms. There is dirt underneath my short, bitten fingernails. I know I am supposed to go to Shanghai Garden with Boyd and then catch the early showing of Shawshank Redemption. A small voice tells me that I should bid Matt safe travels and stick to the original plan for the evening but intrigue, lust and three Michelobs silence that reason.
“Busy in Maycomb? No such thing. I could be coerced into grabbing a bite”.
I try to sound nonchalant but I spoke quickly, belying my eagerness. Maycomb is not exactly right off the Interstate. I allow myself to ponder why Matt came here but I know why; he came for me. The cassette stuck in the tape deck of my Jetta is one Matt mixed for me. All summer, Morrissey had crooned “It was a good lay” from Suedeheadwhile I sat in the car, sweaty thighs stuck to the seat, as I pressed rewind again, and again.
I don’t realize that I am holding my breath until my dad walks in and gives me a worried look. I put my right hand over the receiver and exhale. I flash Dad a quick smile, giving him the thumbs up. Matt, of course, is oblivious to my tumult.
“Yeah, ok. I can just as easily hit a drive-thru but if there is some….”
“No, don’t do a drive-thru! I mean, unless you are pressed for time or something. There’s a place right on Main Street that makes pretty good burgers. You’d hate yourself if you missed out on a Brogan burger”. I sound desperate. The song in my head: It was a good lay, good lay. It was good lay, good lay.
“Brogan’s? Ten minutes.”
He doesn’t bother to ask me if that is copacetic. I hang up the phone and rush to my bedroom. I am peeling off my shirt and hopping on one leg trying to disengage myself from my filthy jeans when Dad walks in and then turns abruptly to face the hallway.
“Oh! Sorry! I didn’t realize you’d be stripping down. I guess you’re going out? Rebecca invited us over for dinner but I told her you’d probably have a date with Boyd. Try not to crawl in too late tonight, ok?”
“Hhmmm,” I mumble back at my father. I’m not thinking about him and Rebecca, his longtime, patient girlfriend or Boyd or my curfew. My mind is on Matt. Matt leaning close into me. Matt’s cigarette dangling from his full bottom lip, a smoky basement, The Pixies wailing Gigantic. Closing my eyes, I can smell the tobacco and stale beer and can still feel an electric tingle as Matt slurred in my ear, Too bad you and me never got together. I leap into the bathroom and turn on the shower. Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I am both amused and mildly horror-stricken. Well, at least I am tan, I think.
It is much later now. I have paid the check for three beers, a Cobb salad and a Brogan Burger with the works. The waiters have already pooled their tips and clocked out. The dishwashers are putting away the last pots and pans. Matt has probably gotten back into his late 80s Saab, crammed with CDs, tattered Hemingway paperbacks, his one good suit and headed down I-81. He’s going back to Atlanta and his undoubted future working for an uncle or his father’s fraternity brother. He will most likely never write another utterly provocative and heart-rending piece of fiction. He will be an account executive or a marketing director until nepotism catapults him to his pinnacle position, establishing him as another captain of industry.
Here is how my infatuation with Matt Mason comes to its’ spectacular demise: Me, standing outside Brogan’s in a short sundress, the right strap slightly off my shoulder, my hair still damp thanks to our southern humidity. Matt, satiated from a free meal and swollen with pride from citing his accomplishments as an intern at “a notable firm”, lifts my errant dress strap, his thumb casually brushing my nipple, electrifying my fiber.
“So, I’ve got time for a quick fuck. Your house close?”
I hear a thousand simultaneously deflating balloons, the snap of a rubber band to an exposed thigh. I am not indignant so much as I feel awakened. I don’t bother to verbally respond. I turn and run, Matt calling out my name. Each step, right, left, right, left, as Morrissey wails the ending refrain; I’m so very sickened. I am so sickened now.
I’m standing on Summit street, not quite underneath the streetlight but just out of its’ golden halo. A trickle of perspiration snakes its’ way down between my breasts. My dress clings to dampness at the base of my spine. Boyd’s light is still on. I know that if I climb the magnolia tree and rap lightly on the windowpane, he will let me in. I know Boyd will accept my apology; I was just so busy! I can’t believe I forgot. Let me make it up to you. I look at my sandaled feet poised on the periphery of the circle of light on the pavement. I don’t see Boyd come to the window but when I look back up, he has closed his blinds and only a sliver of golden light from his bedside lamp peeks out. The light winks at me, a signal telegraphing that all I need to do is climb the tree.
The cicadas screech into the thick summer air. The few stars visible in the soupy sky pulse. Maycomb, Boyd, Matt and all the other minnows in my shallow little pond are caught in the ebb; I am standing in clear water.
A version of this story was first published in K’in in June 2021.
On the floor, about two feet away from my face, are the remnants of the crack pipe I found earlier. Its splintered shards wink in the light of the late afternoon. Still sitting upon my chest, he lowers his furious face inches from mine. His breath is sweet and sickly: it reminds me of when he was an infant. I couldn’t produce enough milk and he didn’t tolerate Enfamil well.
Your son is a “failure to thrive” baby, the pediatrician had lectured me.
Jeremy’s hands tighten around my neck. Failure. Thrive. My hand finds the largest shard. Blood.
A version of this microflash appeared in Versification’s Misfit Micros in June 2021.
Maybe I was just tired of bleeding, I say to my husband the morning after my hysterectomy. He has brought me toast and weak tea. I am lying in our bed petting our cat Schrödinger.
Jess, he says, it was bit a more than that. He puts down the breakfast tray next to the cat and heads back downstairs.
He is probably right, I say to Schrödinger. Quint is usually right. Still and all, I never did care much for the bleeding. It didn’t help that I started so much earlier than my friends. I was barely nine and got my first period at recess. I wasn’t even aware that girls bled. It was my dumb luck that Richard Atwell’s dad was a gynecologist and Richard announced to the whole fourth grade that I had started menstruating.
Reflecting back on all of it now, it strikes me as terribly sad that I was always so ashamed of my body, the swelling and the hair and the blood. I was supposed to be tightlipped – what an expression. What a metaphor. Mom handed me a Wal-Mart shopping bag with boxes of Kotex and I could have made better sense out of being handed the Dead Sea Scrolls. You’re a smart girl, Jessica; read the directions on the box, my mother said. No further instruction. I suffered embarrassing accidents almost monthly for the rest of that school year. It wasn’t until summer, at Girl Scout sleepover camp, when Jenny Hill brought a calendar with her that I understood I did not have to wait in agonizing horror for the next blood to come. The red dot on July 16th marked her last period and the green dot roughly four weeks later signified her next. Planning, she said. Later that will be important when I am married and planning on babies, Jenny confided. Jenny Hill was catholic but her mother was an obstetrician.
It was so simple really. I was good at planning. Upon returning home from camp, I told Mom I needed a calendar and a box of markers. I never had another accident again. I certainly didn’t embrace bleeding and I didn’t relish the idea of having babies but I found a new power. I started planning my escape. I mapped myself a future, brighter and less bloody, far away from a home littered with empty vodka bottles and cigarette butts. My planning took me to Quiz Bowls and forensic debates and quickly enough to an academic scholarship from a lovely school where the girls wore pearls and the boys had roman numerals after their surnames.
It was at said school that I met Quinton. How odd that I began to bleed, unexpectedly, unplanned the night we met. I probably should’ve realized then that the cavity of me had begun its slow fester but at 21 what could I have known? I was as clueless then as I had been at 9, hanging upside down from the monkey bars in soiled shorts.
Later, after graduations and first jobs, and LSATs and law school and engagement and a hasty marriage and an ectopic pregnancy, later after the D&C, we would hear the word cancer. The word uterine. Hysterectomy. Hyster. Hysterical. I had always loved etymology but this was a bit too on the nose for me. I was stoic. I took it all in with more recognition than realization. While Quinton drove us home, weeping silently hunched over the steering wheel, undoubtedly mentally bidding goodbye to long-desired tow-headed toddlers, I pressed the seat warmer button. I began planning my bloodless future.
A version of this story was first published in Sledgehammer Lit in April 2021.
Celeste shifts uncomfortably on the wicker loveseat. She wishes she had worn a sundress or at least a skirt. Her shorts are tight and pinch across the width of her thighs in this seated position. Fortunately, the loveseat has a cushion but equally unfortunate, the cushion is plastic or some sort of waxed fabric and Celeste is aware that the backs of her thighs are slick with perspiration. She peels one thigh from the cushion and spills some of her lemonade. Celeste jumps to her feet.
“Celeste! What seems to be the problem, Honey?”
“Ms. Mason! I just…”
“Clarice, Honey. Call me Clarice.”
Clarice Mason breezes back onto the porch, having fetched two linen cocktail napkins from the butler’s pantry. She hands a napkin to Celeste, who towers over her. In her flat sandals, Celeste stands five foot nine. The unflattering short haircut she received at the beginning of the summer is further compromised by the withering humidity and her dark curls are a frizzed mass. She has a wet streak of lemonade down the front of her white tank top and she is suddenly, appallingly aware that she has not shaved her legs for at least a week.
Clarice Mason on the other hand is the very picture of cool composure. Her smooth chestnut bob falls straight and gracefully just beneath her chin. She wears a pink pleated sundress which despite the muggy atmosphere remains remarkably unwrinkled. Her dainty feet are shod in Ferragamo flats and a delicate strand of pearls encircles her small neck.
Clarice neatly tucks herself into a rocking chair facing the loveseat.
“Sit down, Honey. I believe we have much to discuss.”
Celeste begins to hiccup, a wretched nervous trait she acquired in early childhood.
“Oh my, you are a hot mess, aren’t you?” Clarice flashes a treacly smile. “ Relax. I don’t bite. We’re just going to have a little conversation about you and my girl Tinsley. You two have had quite the time this summer, I believe.” Clarice smooths the pleats on the lap of her dress and looks up coyly through her fringe of dark lashes. “Sit down, Honey. It seems like you have been over here every day since coming home from your college.” She leans forward and pats Celeste’s hand. “Y’all are always playing something! Playing records, playing cards, all sorts of fun and games! Isn’t that right?” Clarice pauses, pursing her lips and cocking her head to the left.
Celeste feels sick. The screened porch tilts and she closes her eyes. Visions from last night before swim before her. She and Tinsley, slightly drunk on rum and Coke. Laughter, almost hysterical. Trey, Tinsley’s little brother, calling out the contorted positions for Twister. Reggae and dim lights, an overhead fan softly ruffling the steamy air. Tinsley, in impossibly short cutoffs, a faded Tipitina’s t-shirt, the neck gaping open. Celeste, struggling to steady her long legs in a triangle pose, also struggling to keep her eyes averted, trying so hard not to stare down the neck of Tinsley’s shirt. The other girl’s lithe body, golden, caressed by the summer sun. Tinsley is not wearing a bra. Trey calls the next move for Celeste and she is reaching her left hand, tremulously, through Tinsley’s thighs. The laughter. The heat from the girl’s body. Celeste shifting, her face so close to Tinsley’s breasts. The smell of baby powder and rum and some muskier, enticing scent, the girl’s own body, the essence of her skin, fully in Celeste’s nostrils as the two bodies strain to remain apart. And then the searing touch, the electric exchange as Tinsely, convulsing with laughter, leans into Celeste’s body, her mouth on Celeste’s bare neck. And as their bodies slide into each other’s, Trey laughing riotously, Celeste aware of her hands on Tinsley’s breasts, aware of her rosy nipples hardening beneath her palms, the shrill staccato of Clarice Mason’s voice piercing the fabric of the night, “Tinsley Mason! That is enough! This instant! Get up off that floor!” Celeste opens her eyes now.
“Sit down, Celeste.” Clarice commands, inclining her head toward the loveseat.
Celeste looks at Clarice. She has heard before what this woman will say. Ugly words. An eighth-grade moniker: Celester the Molester. Her friends suddenly suspicious and uneasy in the gym locker room, taking care not to change into their uniforms in front of her. Her precipitous fall from the pool party and sleepover guest lists. Her high school best friend’s mother tersely telling her to stop coming around. As if she had something catching. As she if would turn their gold to dust. Celeste hears the old taunts and rumors, feels the sting of all the other times a mother, a sister, a boyfriend threatened her, rebuked her, condemned her. Celeste looks down at pretty, polite Clarice Mason, poised like a viper.
Celeste frowns. This summer had been different. She had not tipped her hand toward to Tinsley. She had been so careful when Tinsley had asked her if she had a college boyfriend; Celeste had demurred and Tinsley, stretched out upon the lawn, a lithe feline in repose, dappled by sunlight underneath the fragrant mimosa, had coquettishly inquired if she had a girlfriend. Even then, as tempted as she had been, Celeste felt the fluttering uncertainty deep within her. “No, don’t be silly” Celeste had said.
There is a giggle from the butler’s pantry and Celeste snaps from her revery as someone, most likely Tinsley, shushes the laughter.
Clarice Mason smiles a small patient smile. She gathers her stature like pulling in a tether and thrusts her shoulder back.
“Sit.Down.Celeste.” Clarice practically whispers the words but manages to spit them in rapid fire.
Celeste, profusely sweating now, can smell the mimosa’s intoxicating scent from the lawn. She closes her eyes for a just a second.
“No Ma’am, I don’t think I will.”
A version of this story was first published in Sad Girls Club April 2021.