“On What It Means to Stay”

Published in Loud Zoo Vol. 1, No. 3 (December 2014).

On What It Means to Stay

As I crouch behind our cramped apartment’s front door, vacuuming for the second time today, it flies open and I have to catch it with my right hand before it hits me.

David’s screechy voice overpowers the Dustbuster’s hum in our tiny living room. “I brought Mexican for lunch.”

I twist at the waist and look up at his sparse, mousy mustache he says will soon look good. I call over the whirr, “I thought you were bringing sushi.”

“I changed my mind,” he says, swinging one of his long, slender legs so his foot hits the door. It slams and the wall rattles, rocking the picture on the wall above me like a pendulum. Asshole.

I turn off the hand held vacuum and set it on the green carpet; my guts bubble and clinch as I stand and walk past him into the kitchen. Sitting at the table in front of my cold cup of coffee, I lift my left leg over the right and shift the round bottle of coffee creamer along the wood grain on the table.

I sniff, but all I can smell is the dry, stale scent of a hangover. “How’d you know what I wanted?”

He blinks his thick black eyelashes as he looks up at me and crosses the kitchen to the table. “I didn’t. I just got you some of those spicy burritos. The meat asiado ones. You like those, right?” The plastic bags grunt against Styrofoam containers heavy with greasy Mexican food as he sets them on the table, his keys clanging down beside the bags.

I roll my eyes. Asada, not asiado. Dumbass.

He tosses his grey windbreaker over the back of a chair, and it swishes against the yellow vinyl seat cover.

As I watch him pull forks out of a drawer, I blink as if something is lodged in my eye. “Remember this morning, when I didn’t get out of bed ‘til ten because of my stomach hurting?” He was supposed to be here last night, watching movies and drinking with me instead of at the bar with Saruh and Jessie.

“Oh, yeah. Want a Hot Pocket instead?” Without glancing up, he pulls out the chair opposite me and lifts one of the square Styrofoam containers out, opens it and begins assembling his steak fajitas with quick, swooping motions.

I look down into my mug. “Nah. Don’t worry about it.” The white chocolate cream slowly roils in my coffee, the color tan and smoky.

 My mouth has gone dry; my stomach is too tight to handle any caffeine. I hate his dopey fucking face.

Outside on the abrupt little balcony, two city pigeons bring tiny branches, flower stalks and scraps of hay—where do they find these things?—to build the pitiful twig nest I have already ripped down three times this week. Idiot birds.

David is cramming half a fajita into his mouth at once. Red-brown juice drips down his chin and onto his white Oxford shirt.

“Shit,” he mumbles through soggy tortilla and peppers. He swallows hard, his throat flexing wide and then relaxing slim again, and pushes the rest of the fajita into his mouth with one spidery hand. “I’m gonna go change,” he says as he wipes his mouth with a paper napkin – the metal legs of his chair squeal along the linoleum floor away from the table and he walks  down the hallway into the bedroom.

I uncross my legs, turn to the right and stand, then slide the smudged glass door open and step outside. Fucking asshole.

As one of the dull pigeons takes flight, its fat little body pulling down the glimmer of sun on its salt and pepper wings, I brush the little pile of scrap from the corner of the porch with my foot. All you little bastards, nest somewhere else. This is my balcony.

I turn to the kitchen as David walks back out as he’s tightening a green tie. He lifts his jacket from the back of the chair with a swoosh. A drop of dried grease still clings to his chin.

“Paul, I’m just going to eat this back at the office.” He looks over at me and smiles. I nod as he scoops everything back into the noisy plastic bag, tosses his fork into the sink from across the kitchen and passes the ugly blue couch to the door. One sleeve of his jacket almost gets caught in the wooden frame as the door swings shut.

I turn and lean on the smooth metal railing of our balcony, licking the peeling corners of my chapped lips. I look down the twenty-three stories at the stained, uneven sidewalk to watch the glass door swing open and David stride out. His cell phone is balanced against one shoulder and he’s almost juggling the Mexican food to pull the grey windbreaker on over his white shirt. I look down at the blue veins snaking beneath my white, white skin. I look sick.

The only reason I went to get tested was because David started wearing underwear. He had never worn any—no boxers, no briefs—since we had met. I immediately found it sexy, and his lack of undies directly led to him waking up in my bed. But two months ago, as I watched him get dressed from the still-warm sheets, his hips were hidden by green elastic shorts. “What are those?”

He turned to me with wide, deliberately blank eyes, as if he had ever been a good liar. “What?”

“The boxers. Are those mine?”

Face full of surprise, he looked down, apparently mystified to be wearing underwear for the first time in three years. “Oh. No. Last night. I got a few pairs. Been getting colder out.” Then he turned, one black sock still in his hand, and shut the hollow bathroom door before I could ask anything else.

So, the next day, just to quiet my paranoia—after all, we had abandoned condoms after the first month or so—I sat in the kitchen and called the city’s free clinic after David had left for work.

The woman on the other end chimed, “So are you having symptoms, or just want to make sure nothing is going on down there?”

I scrunched my nose up and squinted my eyes. ‘Nothing is going on down there?’ I thought they had to be nurses to work at these places. “No, no symptoms. Just been a while since I had a check-up … down there.” I stepped across the flower-print linoleum to the sink with the portable phone balanced against my shoulder  and started washing the day-old crust of linguine from the pile of cheap ceramic plates.

“Oh, my. Well, that’s no good. No good at all.”

I paused and raised an eyebrow. “You’re right, it’s not.” Was she high? Popping other people’s meds between appointments or something? “I was also wondering, since it’s been a while, how long do the results take?” I turned off the water and set my hip against the counter. Holding the phone with my fingertips and leaning my head into it, I ignored the rubbery pasta left on David’s plate.

“Well, for the less serious ones, only a few minutes. We’ll let you know those results before you even leave the clinic.” I imagined this woman as Dolly Parton from “9 to 5,” chipper and completely oblivious. “Now let me just see when we can fit you in.”

As she flipped pages, I scraped under my fingernails with the prong of a freshly-dried fork.

“How about Saturday at two?” She sounded as if she was smiling. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled in an STD clinic. Nor seen anyone who has.

“Sounds great. The name’s Paul Williams. I’ll see you then.”

The phone cradle beeped as I set down the clunky phone and went to the bedroom. I could feel the dusty quiet of the apartment crawl along my skin as I sat on the bed and chewed my already ragged nails for an hour; they used to look so nice, before I started getting really anxious. Then I finally dressed to take a jog and absorb some vitamin D.

Now the light in the kitchen has dimmed and I glance at the clock: almost two-thirty. I step inside and sit. The dry terry cloth wrapped around me is scratchy and rough against my bare skin as I look down at the maroon cloth clashing against the fine blond hairs on my arm. Asshole.

My cell phone vibrates on the countertop. I lean my chair back until I can reach it. My tip-toes barely touch the cold floor, and I look at the LED screen. David.

I flip the phone open and stare at the screen for a few seconds before putting it to my ear. “Hello?”

“Hey. So I was thinking maybe I could come home from work early today. Ed told everybody to take the afternoon off. So I’ll be home in, say, an hour. Sound okay?”

I lean my head back and stare at the white ceiling. “Sure. You live here, too.”

“I know, but …” He sounds nervous or anxious, like someone is standing over him. “Look, I’ll just see you soon, okay?”

“All right.” I push down the top of the phone until momentum pulls it closed and set it on a dark circle in the table’s wood grain, just beside the bottle of creamer.

I pull at the waist cord of my robe. My fists are tight, shaking knots, and it grips tighter and tighter around my torso, which feels icy and desolate inside. I wrap one thin arm around myself and reach for my cold coffee. The fog of creamer shifts and curls as I lift the cup. I sit still for a long time, picturing my zippered suitcases in the hall closet; the two bookshelves in the bedroom with my pictures and books; the last statement for my empty bank account; Mom’s face if I showed up back home, half the country away; David’s mouth as he slept after the last time we had sex.

I didn’t even tell David I had gone to get tested. They make you come back in to get the results—something about mixed-up paperwork in the eighties and a privacy of information act. So I sat in the waiting room, trying to tell everyone with my expression that I was there for a malaria shot and not for the same reasons that made them slouch into the bright plastic chairs. The only one who seemed to know was the hunched old man with scraggly grey hair who winked when the nurse called my name. I sat quietly in the exam room, smoothing wrinkles out of my jeans with my hands until another nurse walked in.

“William?”

“Well, that’s my last name, it has an s on the end, but yes, that should be me. People do that to me all the time, especially in situations like these, where it’s listed with my last name first. They always call me William instead of Paul, but it’s actually Paul Williams, and then most people ask why I have two first names instead of a first and a last name, but my middle name is actually Lynnwood, which is so rare people think I’m making it—” Her face told me I needed to shut up. “Sorry.” I folded my hands between my knees and lowered my chin, eyes trained on her wood pulp clipboard.

She looked back down and flipped a page over the silver clip. “Your results are back.”

The only other word I heard was “positive.” It flashed in my mind like a marquee with big gaudy red letters: “AIDS” in fucking Broadway lights. I walked out of the exam room and back into that ugly crowd waiting for their turn, their news. When the old homeless-looking guy reached out for my arm, I slapped his hand away hard and glared down at him, my breath coming out in quick puffs as his eyes went big and watery. I was standing on the apartment’s puke-green carpet with the door locked behind me, holding the slip of paper labeled “POSITIVE” that they make you take, before I even thought to apologize.

When David saw my red-rimmed eyes after he got home, I told him a friend’s dog had died. He thought I was angry about doing the dishes all the time, the bookshelves he promised to build me six months ago for the living room, or at least his refusal to vacuum. He had no idea.

I bite the inside of my cheek with my molars—hard—and stand. I march down the short hall to the bedroom.

 The shelves lining the other side of the room—all the shiny textbooks that I’m still paying for, the bestsellers David refuses to read—are reflected in the mirror above my dresser, and I step up to it and watch my cheek bulge as I push my tongue against the raw, salty spot where I bit it. He would crumble if he found out. I can almost see it: his legs limp as he drops to the floor, then he looks up at me and starts to cry, his eyes smeared dark with tears, cheeks turned splotchy red from embarrassment and fear. His keys and jacket and cell phone would be scattered on the carpet around him. No more leaving me here to go clubbing with those two sluts, no more drinks after work until two a.m. or spending the night God-knows-where because he “couldn’t find a way home.” No need to pack and haul my shit across state lines.

I drop my robe in a soft pile on the floor and pull open the top dresser drawer, then slip out a pair of jeans and lift my legs into them. I clasp each cold, round button slowly. I reach for a white t-shirt, then pull back. Fuck it; I may as well look dramatic. I pick up my wallet from the dresser, pull the folded piece of paper from inside and spread it open with both hands. The bold capital letters in black ink shine through the creases, overpowering the rest of the Xeroxed print. I refold it and slide it into my back pocket.

I stride back to the kitchen and pick up my coffee mug and the creamer. I move to the sink and pour the cold coffee down the drain. The fridge door makes a soft shushing sound as I swing it open, and I set the creamer on a glass shelf.

I pull the paper from my back pocket and set it unfolded in the very center of the bare, wooden table. Even he should notice that. Moving to the glass doors in front of the balcony, I face the sun already dimming behind the tops of tall downtown buildings. At least I had enough time to get ready. I place each hand on a hip half-clad in denim and turn my back to the light. The Dustbuster still sits on the carpet behind the front door, gleaming grey in the fading sunlight that is filtering through the living room windows. Just then, David’s key rattles quietly into the door’s brass lock, clicking as the gears inside begin to grind and turn.

“Why to Act Straight at a Urinal”

Published in Houston & Nomadic Voices Magazine Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 2013).

Why to Act Straight at a Urinal

Because it’s the only place in this bar where men look at one another when they speak; because in the bathroom – on the cracked once-white squares of tile, the corners chipped, the color a dull grey, standing before the walls decorated with graffiti and dried droplets of paint – someone can hit you from behind, into the enamel and metal mold, and the reflection in the flusher isn’t large enough to see them swinging; because it makes the stream sound stronger, like “a man” would piss; because the mirror is the best place to catch a curious man looking, but they never look if you do first; and because by the end of the night, you’ll have had too many vodka tonics to even try and fake it.

“The Wild Stag Jarabe”

Published in Animal (September 2014) (under the title “The Wild Stag Tango”).

The Wild Stag Jarabe

Sometimes when Maria imagines Travis – as her mom reacts over the phone when she hears that they already live together, or as Maria tells one of his jokes to her coworkers at Home Depot, or as she sprays the perfume he bought her along the bones of her clavicle, her wrist, just below her ear – she pictures him the way he looked the night they met at a mutual friend’s dinner party: his plaid shirt tucked into his jeans as he pawed softly at the carpet with his boot, watching the fibers bend and flex as he spoke about how different Virginia was from the Midwest, then later with his head tipped up toward the cloud-covered moon as they drank on the back porch and he chain-smoked, lighting each cigarette from the cherry of the one before it.

Each time she sees him he standing washed in moonlight the way he looked that night, though, colors shift and mute, his clothes drop away, and she looks down at his narrow, hairy feet and wiry legs, eyes trailing up until she comes to the soft brown hair across his chest – the smooth, broad muscles of his shoulders and thighs tighten just like a buck in rut as he senses her looking at him, turns, and she sees that his ears have fanned, are sitting a bit more out and look almost pointed, between them eyes now wide and glossy, dark like a deep pool in cool wet forest, and crowning his head, emerging through that shaggy brown hair, two golden antlers sprawl, scattering the sterling light and completing his nude form in a way she’s never had the right words to describe: something like “a part of nature” or “a prince of wilderness,” but she’s always laughed at herself – once or twice out loud – as soon as those phrases came to mind.

When she sees him this way, it is always so fleeting she really doesn’t even consider it any other time – in her mind, he will spin around and disappear over the edge of the porch, drop to the ground like water falls and stream away from her the way she has seen prey do from the advantage of a hunting platform, cold metal resting against her cheek.

“Appearances”

Published in Off the Rocks Anthology Vol. 17 (2013).

Appearances

(I.S.O. “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid)

            Remember, son, to always look your best and never forget to comb your hair – part it on this side to look quiet, over here to appear showy. This is how to wash dishes, gently, and always with an ear on the other room. If one of the boys screams insults at school, be sure to walk away – you’re too small to fight and probably always will be. Wash clothes in the sink if the machine is broken, only use a few drops of detergent and give them time to soak. Ask your father how to knot a tie, more than one way, and teach your friends who can’t. Learn to keep your hands by your sides and don’t wear the same jewelry as girls, even if it’s a gift – boys don’t wear pink and purple beads. Burn a loose thread on a colored shirt to keep it from pulling further; pull a string on white cloth so it won’t leave a scorch. Hang your nice slacks like this so Grandma won’t think you’re a heathen. Try to squirm less in church, but don’t fall asleep. Tuck in your shirt and speak clearly, no one wants to hear mumbling. Be aware if your mouth is hanging open while you listen, close it as soon as you realize. Try not to laugh while chewing, it makes other people look away. Never smoke cigarettes, it killed Granjack and it can kill you too. Brush your teeth every night, slow even circles, so they will shine white and wet like snow on the fields. This is how to spread hay – over the fence, several piles evenly spaced. Don’t throw gravel at the dogs and never near the horses; if they kick you, it’s your fault. Never toss walnuts by the house, bust a window and you’ll pay for it. Wipe your feet before walking inside, especially if you live there. If someone is your friend, hug them and look into their eyes; if it’s a person you don’t like, smile and shake their hand firmly. Always be a good host, it will be useful with the right guests. Hold the door open for people, especially if they’re only a few steps behind. Look at pictures without touching them. Knock before entering a room. Learn not to be upset when your father comes home later than usual or not at all. Try to not ever cry – it’s not becoming on a boy. Learn to listen more than you talk and never swear in front of ladies, it attracts the wrong kind. Before leaving for a date, line your buttons up correctly, sloppy boys never date pretty girls. But what if the date isn’t with a girl? Wait, you don’t – you’re sure? All right, son, all right. No, no, you can cry, come here, it’s fine. At least you’ll be happy. Know that my arms are always here for you, okay? Always be judicious. Stay close to girls who aren’t afraid to fight – you’ll be tougher that way. Don’t tell just anyone. Never let your guard down, hear me? And don’t ever stare – no matter how safe you feel – in public.

“On Colonialism”

Published in Gutters and Alleyways: Perspectives on Poverty and Struggle (October 2014).

On Colonialism

Haseya has a horse within her, a flash as bright as lightning
a dappled mare, belly jeweled with the crooked symbols
grandmother used to scratch in dirt from the steps of her double-wide
on the reservation that echoed with gunshots and addicts’ moans
the place where, despite bit between teeth and leather against ears,
Haseya learned to run, to buck and jump and snort
and disappear across the plains like a retreating promise of rain.

“On Having Faith”

Published by The Bookends Review (May 2014).

On Having Faith

Mid-afternoon sunlight filtered into the Hayfords’ living room, throwing long, thin shadows across the carpet and softly illuminating objects in the room: the bookshelf, creased spines of mysteries and romances lined up beside photo albums, auto repair manuals; the plaid couch, matching crocheted doilies on each arm; the wood laminate china cabinet, glass doors protecting the shelves of plates, cups and saucers inherited from parents, aunts, a great uncle; and the padded rocking chair where Maureen sat, her body still except for her slowly pushing legs and tense, restless hands – which moved between fluttering about her lap and twisting the gold cross around her neck until the chain went taut – as she watched the light touch the objects around her.

Maureen looked from her and Gerry’s wedding photo on the wall to the cold, quiet street out the window, and then at the half-table that was pushed up against the aging wallpaper facing her, willing the cordless phone sitting on the smooth wooden surface to ring. The table was one of the only things Maureen still had from her childhood home – her grandfather had made the table for her mother, carving the edges to look like the elegant, lacy trim that the bank manager and mayor had ordered for their homes – and she kept it nice by polishing the hardwood surfaces, hammering in a new nail when one of the legs got loose. The table being older than herself comforted Maureen, let her believe that if a tiny little table could withstand the world for that long, then so could she.

Gerry had said he would call her the night before – he was hauling the rig cross-country in five days, and she hated when he’d try to get ahead of schedule by not sleeping, so she made him promise to call when he stopped each night – but as she sat up waiting on the third night, twisting and tugging on the cross hanging from her neck, the phone never rang. She had tried calling him around eleven thirty, an hour after he usually turned in, but his pay-as-you-go cell phone hadn’t even rung. Not unusual, she had thought while replacing the receiver, he turns it off while driving so he won’t be bothered – he’ll probably turn it on in a minute. After half an hour in the rocking chair, her sore knee began to loosen up a little and Maureen dozed off only to wake up seconds later, frantic that she had missed him. Once she saw the red LED zero on the answering machine, she got herself a glass of water and laid down in the bed.

But today, rocking slowly forward and back, her index finger rubbing the small freckled indent between her clavicles, she was worried, because the last time he’d taken this long to call, he’d been with another woman the night before, one of the lot lizards that stalk through truck stops. Maureen had never figured out if it was guilt or fear that she would somehow know – as if her feminine senses told her all his secrets – that had kept him from calling that time, but now that he still hadn’t called, she was just sure that it had happened again. She had spent the last hour racking her mind, mumbling to herself as she tried to recollect some clue in their recent lifestyle that would or even could allude to him considering such a thing – perhaps something he had said he’d do but didn’t, a mysterious tension when saying “I love you,” or maybe a foul remark she had tossed out in anger – but there was literally nothing that she could come up with. Still, though, if it happened once, it could happen again. “Bastard,” she said to the empty room as her fingertips moved against her chin, her lips. Her stomach felt suddenly hollow as she thought of the tearful look he had given her when he had confessed months later, sobbingly telling her it was the only time and that it would never happen again, and that really, he hadn’t even enjoyed it. She glanced up as she heard the wheeze and rumble of an old pickup truck turning the corner outside, then looked back to the phone. Nothing. That just has to be it, she thought, because he always calls when I ask him to.

She tried to come up with excuses for him: that maybe his pay-as-you-go cell phone had died, though he had a charger in the rig, or maybe had run out of minutes; that the pay phones at the stop where he spent the night had all been out of order; that the rig had broken down last night in the middle of nowhere and he had been trying desperately to call her, but was in a place with no reception – “And,” she said dreamily, as if only half-focused on the words, “in this cold, it’d be too dangerous to walk anywhere to try to call.”

A cool, dizzy feeling crept over her chest and head as she imagined Gerry walking through snowy banks on the side of a deserted road in the middle of the night, coat and scarf bundled around his hunched frame as he held his cell phone in the air, trying to get even the weakest signal to contact her. She could see the rig behind him, the hood propped up, oily rags hanging off the sides – evidence that he had tried to fix it himself, hoping desperately that someone would drive by, someone who could help. No, she thought, there couldn’t have been another woman. Not again. Her stomach groaned and she realized she hadn’t eaten anything today – hadn’t even had coffee, though she didn’t want anything anyway – as from the snowy banks of the darkened road, Maureen’s mind moved to memories more solid than the fleeting image she darkly hoped was true: the time after the second miscarriage, when Gerry had held her on the couch until she stopped crying and told her that he knew it hurt, but she had to keep fighting, that she always had to keep fighting, because that was the only way to make it to better times; the spring night when he planted an entire garden of daisies, wildflowers and geraniums while she slept, how when she woke up and looked outside, the blooms and hummingbirds in the golden morning light surprised her so much that she dropped her coffee mug onto the kitchen’s linoleum tile; and how when they were first dating – the firm strength of his hands and that bright laughter – Gerry would slip notes into her purse when she wasn’t around or paying attention, little treasures that smelled of his aftershave for her to find later on. “No,” she said firmly, surprised at the strength of her own voice in the empty living room, “not my Gerry.”

Maureen looked over at the little wooden table – shafts of sunlight gilded the legs, but the phone was wrapped in shadow – and exhaled sharply, her fingers now resting on the cross hanging around her neck. The inside of her chest had begun to burn slightly, as if a cold was coming on, the same way her lungs used to burn when she was a smoker and would cough too hard. She looked opposite the front window, toward the kitchen, past the sink that held her single dirty plate and cup from last night, and pictured the wilted wildflowers outside, the empty bird feeder lying prone on the ground. Before she could stop herself, she was imagining Gerry with another woman, some whore named Desiree or Kasandra, who looked young in that cheap way – frizzy dyed hair and skin too loose from sun exposure, chunks of slowly greening imitation silver nestled on her fingers – someone whose hands had run along the same spots on Gerry’s body that Maureen loved, those secret places that only she was supposed to know about: the strawberry birthmark at the top of his right bicep, a freckle just beneath his waistline, the scar that ran like a shooting star across his thigh. No, she thought as she felt the corners of the cross dig into the middle of her fist, drawing lines and angles into her palm, No, that can’t be it. Please, let it be anything but that, anything at all but that. She looked down at the cross and asked again, pleading with her distorted reflection to show her some sign, something to prove that Gerry would never, ever do that to her again.

As if to answer her, the cordless phone across the room lit up and chirped. Maureen jumped up and crossed the room at a quick clip, noticing that her vision seemed very sharp – more precise than it had been in years: she could see the dust motes moving around her, the tiny cracks in the porcelain teacups beyond the doors of the glass cabinet – and she thought to herself, This must be what miracles feel like. She felt her knee strain and try to slow her, but she fought against it, sure that the good Lord would sooth the pain later on, since it was – after all – her reaction to a sign from Him that made it hurt. When Maureen looked down at the caller ID and saw that the number was in fact her cousin Tina and not Gerry’s cell phone, she raised an eyebrow. Why would she call at a time like this? She probably just wants to talk about the latest thing that dirt bag Chip called her. As Maureen shook her head and turned from the phone, her knee suddenly felt swollen and her leg began to shake a little.

“Gerry, my Gerry,” she mumbled, once again scouring her memories of the past few months for any disruption in their routine, anything she’d done wrong by anyone that would make her deserve this, “Why haven’t you called?” About halfway back to her chair, she glanced at the bookcase by the door, pausing to focus on the glinting pattern on the top shelf that had caught her eye: Gerry’s family Bible. She stepped toward the wooden structure and reached out to run a finger down the fading gold letters on the leather spine, thinking back to their wedding day, when Gerry’s mother had given the book to Maureen, holding onto it even as Maureen stood with it in her hands. “It’s very old,” his mother, God rest her soul, had said. “Very old. Has the entire family line all the way back to my great-great-great-great grandfather.” His mother had pulled it from Maureen’s gloved hands and flipped open the cover to show her the hand-drawn family tree inside, the careful cursive of every first, middle and last name. “You can add your name in now,” his mother had said, closing the book slowly and handing it back to Maureen. “Just keep it nice. It’ll remind you to have faith.” His mother had leveled her hazel eyes with Maureen’s and poked the cover of the Bible, her index finger covering the “o” in holy. “Always have faith.”

Maureen stepped back from the bookshelf, her left hand tugging at the cross around her neck. She pictured Jerry rifling through the rig’s cab for his cellphone charger, an “Out of Service” sign hanging across the row of pay phones at the only truck stop for fifty miles, snow drifts and closed roads and broken brake lines, even as the phone behind her sat quiet, the little wooden table and sun-faded wallpaper the only witnesses to her curled fist and trembling leg.

“Gleaming like a Bluebottle Among the Waves”

Published by The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society (August 2014).

Gleaming like a Bluebottle Among the Waves

When Kevin thinks of Jason – of his curly brown hair and burning blue eyes, of the cute upturn in his voice and the way he would reach over and squeeze Kevin’s hand or thigh no matter who was watching – he also thinks of those goddamn leggings that Jason wore basically all summer the last year they were together, the ones that almost glowed from the purple and hot pink crests of the man-o-wars printed on them – and then of the marine biology professor Kevin had for “Principles of Hydrozoan Adaptation” the year he and Jason met, who taught an entire lesson about the “jellyfish that isn’t a jellyfish,” the Portuguese man-o-war, which is “actually a siphonophore,” he could hear Dr. Casings saying, “a collection of four different entities so evolutionarily tied together that they can’t live on their own: they are adapted specifically and solely to a life of companionship.”

Kevin figured he really only remembered this specific lecture because of the time he saw his tio stung by a man-o-war in Brazil while visiting his mother’s family – during an excited trip to the beach on a bright-hot day in December that was cut through by sudden shrieks as his tio lunged for shore, kicking like mad. “The stings hurt much worse than a jellyfish’s,” Dr. Casings had told the class, “and if the victim – be it fish or human – thrashes, the tentacles move about and the man-o-war’s nematocysts envenom the victim further.” Before being pulled away and cocooned in a towel by his tias, Kevin had seen fat tears rush down his tio‘s face as he cursed in three languages, his legs laced with red welts. “They float on the surface, after all, though they can deflate to drop below,” the memory of Dr. Casings chimes, face awash in light from a projector, “and the pneumatophore, or the sail, is perhaps their most recognizable feature.”

In Brazil, the delicate tentacles beaded with sand as they tugged along the bright blue air bladder like a deflated balloon already drying in the sun, the Atlantic leaving behind a thin layer of opaque minerals. As muscular twenty-somethings in little red shorts and large black sunglasses cleared everyone from the water, the slender woman who brought over thick gloves from the lifeguard hut to help treat his wailing tio‘s leg said that it was probably dead, that sometimes they float for a while after they die, but dying doesn’t make their poison any less painful. Now, Kevin imagines that: wind and sun battering the gas bladder that crowns the colonial being; the luminous colors of the man-o-war painted along the delicate bubble of the sail; the twenty, thirty, fifty foot long tendrils spiraling down to where the water gets cooler, the man-o-war’s venom still potent though all the life connected to it is gone.

The vision of those coiled tentacles always gives Kevin a sensation of cold water down his back as his mind submerges to the cooler depths he loved to secretly visit on those family vacations – out further than his tias told him he was allowed to go, past the lagoon’s sandy peninsulas, where the bright green turned to blue and darkened as you looked toward the horizon, and then under, where the bottom turned to rough coral and the current pulled at his thin limbs like a spirit, a lemanjá beckoning him onward, deeper, onward – except now he sees Jason floating there in those fucking leggings, gleaming eerie blues and purples like colored glass in the gloom as he reaches out for Kevin, tentacles drifting forward. “And inside their venomous arms are muscles that contract after a sting, pulling paralyzed fishes up to the man-o-war’s gastrozooids to be digested,” Dr. Casings reminds him.

Each time, despite everything, Jason looks somehow ethereal and inviting and familiar, even as Kevin struggles toward the wavering circle of the sun shining through the watery haze, his eyes burning and lungs shuddering as he beats his limp arms against the current, feels Jason stinging along his legs, searing across his skin as the muscles underneath tremble and seize, as he looks down through the pitch at stingers anchoring, tying themselves into knots around his ankles and thighs, binding Kevin as close to another living thing as he can be, then the scorching yanks and jolts of tentacles contracting like needles tearing his skin, pulling him further from the dimming spot of sun and into the gaping cold of green-black water below, dragging him deeper, closer, onward.