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Bear

In an effort to make contraception more effective, the government begins using bears. No one looks away from a bear, say officials. They’re right. No one can take their eyes off the bears; nothing is learned about contraception. Birth rates skyrocket. In an effort to curb procreation, the government tries to scare people out of sex. Sex Ed is taught by vultures. Cobras man the registers at pharmacies. A wolf is installed in every bedroom, still, glaring, howling at the moon at the start of the woman’s cycle. For years, everyone skitters beneath the prudent eyes of animals until becoming used to them and then, at once, embracing it. You don’t have to wear a wolf skin but you’re welcome to. You can bite, but only if you draw blood. .

Fourteen-Year-Old Me and a Woman I Don’t Know Drive Home From a Funeral

Tuesday night presses its back against the windows,
the car slides along the ridges of its slick spine.
She looks small in the driver’s seat.

She thinks she’s pregnant.
Last night I gave head in a field.
She tells me she’s cold.
She doesn’t turn the heat on.

Then there are deer parts everywhere: tendon,
hoof, glassy brown eye reflecting the left headlight.

She’s screaming.

I open the window to let the sound out.
We drive home.

Hunter, Scavenger

It was a strange thing to see a dead man. I remember the color most vividly. I cannot be sure even now if it was a shade of purple or maybe even something more vibrant. I tell myself nowadays that this doesn’t make sense. However, it stood out amongst the browns and greens of the marsh. The cattails and lapping water brushed over it and had wrapped their tangling arms in and out between the curves and edges. Between the twisting colors of his skin, the remnants of his khaki pants were torn and covered in natural excrement. He was missing a shoe. There was as a hole at the heel of his sock. I felt the mud and silt pooling around the edges of my toes and under my nails. I had left my shoes behind.

I walked home.

Mother was lying on the couch. She enjoyed watching the ceiling fan, even more so after a night with her friends. I used to pretend that she was a cat. A really big cat. Not like a lion or a tiger, but a big house cat that sometimes would purr and slide up next to you but would bite or scratch if you touched it at the wrong time. Mother used these moments for quiet. She would just shut down. I’m twice the age now she was then. I cannot do this. I need to keep moving.

“Hello,” I would say, as I always did. She didn’t respond. I walked upstairs.

I lay down on my quilted bed sheets, still undone and tossed about from the night before. My ceiling was sparse and crackled. Water damage spidered its way across the white exterior. I traced its drawn waterways with my eyes, watching the twists and turns. I glanced towards the marshland outside, but then I caught myself and looked away. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. I folded my arms across my chest and imagined myself floating on a ship like a deceased queen.

“Hello,” my mother said. I didn’t move.

“I know you’re awake,” she said. I smiled. I opened my eyes. She stood in the doorway. Her eyelids seemed to be weighed down by some sort of invisible hook, and her hair was tangled and messy. Mine was no better.

“Hello,” I said.

“Where were you?” she asked. She said it like an answering machine. “Your feet are all dirty. You’re ruining my mom’s blanket.”

“I went for a walk in the marsh,” I said. I closed my eyes again. Looking at her reminded me of watching the stray dog that would make its way through Main Street downtown. You could see its ribs between the knotted black fur. There was a man downtown that would feed him from time to time. I can’t remember what happened to him.

“I thought you were supposed to be sick,” mother said.

“I am,” I said. I rolled forward and rested myself on my arms. “I thought I would take a walk to feel better. To get some fresh air.” I tried to smile. “I saw a dead body.”

“Oh,” mother said. “Where?”

“Down in the marsh,” I said. “It may just be his legs. I didn’t see the rest of him.” It was just the legs. The torso was found by a fisherman and his brother floating somewhere off the coast. It was apparently crawling with fish and crab eggs or something. Teddy Borden on the schoolyard said that this didn’t count as a real dead body and that I wasn’t tough for seeing it like this. I didn’t like him.

“Did you tell anyone?” she asked.

“No, I just came home. I am sick,” I said. I tried to smile.

Mother left. I heard her descend the winding wooden stairs, and I rolled onto my back. I pretended to sleep again. I don’t know if I was ever sick that day. I used to play hooky once a month as a child. I would hold the thermometer up to the light bulb on my lighthouse nightstand or take a wrong turn into town.

“Put on your boots,” mother said. I felt them fall onto the quilt beside me.

“But, I’m sick,” I think I lied. I opened my eyes. Mother wore the coat that father had given her three Christmases ago. Her eyelids still seemed heavier, but her pupils looked onwards past me, twitching through the window frame and across the marshland. She turned to leave. I waited for the sound of the front door opening before I followed.

We stood on the porch together for a moment. The coastal fog draped itself over the cattails and reeds, protecting them from our glances. I reached out to hold her hand but stopped myself. I let my fingers fall to the edges of my skirt and stay there.

“Where did you find it?” she asked. She didn’t move. She kept scanning the fog like some sort of spotlight, almost as if something were to emerge any second from it, growling and sniffling or offering a handshake.

“What—?” I started. Part of me thinks I enjoyed aggravating my mother—that I got some sort of thrill from seeing where the tightly pulled thread would break.

“You know,” she said. I did.

I grabbed her hand this time and led her out into the marsh. Mother did not normally come this way. She wasn’t the sort of person that did that. Father had taken us camping once, years before. Mother had hated it. Her feet caught themselves once or twice on the hidden vines and roots that slithered their way through the murk beneath us. She never said anything in protest.

It took me longer than I’d expected to find the body once again. At a certain point the marshlands stretch out around you, and the whole world appears flat and unchanging. Mother was patient with me.

I found it again caught beneath an arching log. It had drifted slightly since I had last seen it. One leg hung to the side limply, like it was asking for the water to make it dance. Mother made a noise. It sounded somewhere between a gasp and a sigh and lingered for longer than it should have. Some nights when I cannot sleep, I stand on my porch and try my best to recall the noise she made when she saw the torn khakis tossed about in the water and murk. It only ever comes to me after I have given up and laid in bed in the final moments of the waking day.

“How long do you think it has been here?” I asked. It seemed to be the only thing to say.

“I don’t know,” Mother said. She stepped closer to it and let the mud swallow up to the bottoms of her feet.

“Mother?” I asked. “Mom?” I stood still. Mother was now waist deep. The edges of her coat sparkled with flecks of dirt and silt. She stood across from it now and just seemed to watch. I wanted to follow, but it felt wrong. It was the man’s one remaining shoe that she watched most intently. It was missing a lace and seemed to be made from sort of faded leather. For a moment she seemed like she might touch or even hold it. Instead she lifted the log that held the trapped leg prisoner. We watched together as the water took hold of it. It floated outwards into the open marsh and towards the bay. From a distance, it appeared to be a turtle or some sort of animal returning to where it belonged. Mother watched it the whole way until the fog had swallowed it once more.

Lake Elkhorn

Lake Elkhorn was my childhood stomping ground.
The trail along the lake is seeping with invaluable memories with my mom.

It’s where my pathological fear of geese was born.
Even after I threw them every slice of bread I had to my name,
they continued to track me until they bit my bottom,
ripping off my diaper with their razor-sharp beaks in front of the whole damn park.
My mom consoled me with the implication that I threatened the mother goose,
and she was just trying to protect her babies,
but I couldn’t yet fathom that kind of tenaciously protective love.

It’s where I desperately tried to walk around the entire lake by myself;
to my stubby toddler legs, those two miles were a year-long expedition.
I was forced to make a martyr of my independence
in favor of the restful, but humiliating, drive back to the car in a pink stroller with a Hello Kitty safety belt.
For the first time, I relinquished my childish pride to my mom’s better judgement.

It’s where I saw a snake for the first time when I was three;
I thought it was an alien.
It was the single most fascinating thing I had ever seen.
Of course, I bolted after it.
The natural response to seeing a slithering, scaly cord with fangs is to pet it, right?
My mom snatched me up by my shirt before I could touch it.
Under her breath, she grumbled, “Who the hell is petrified of geese but cries over losing a damn snake?”

It’s where I adopted my first pet:
an insignificant earthworm that my mother told me to dig up for fishing bait;
I refused to sacrifice him to her fish gods.
I named him Fuzzy—
even as a child I was a sarcastic asshole.
Despite my promise to love him for the rest of my life,
he died tragically that day.
I walked around with him on my shoulder for so long
he fried crispy under the sun.
I cried for twenty minutes.
My first glimpse of loss; my mom dug up another worm for me.
She told me it was Fluffy’s brother,
and, despite the unlikelihood of their relation,
I bought it.
My grief subsided, and I loved Fluffy II just as much.
He suffered the same tragic end as Fluffy I,
leading to a cycle of Fluffies that lasted all day.
Before we left, she had pulled Fluffy’s fucking third cousin twice removed out of the ground.

It’s where my mom had to drag me away from infographic signs in front of the trees that display their name in Latin,
what kinds of different creatures lived all the way up there
brushing the sky with their tails and wings.
Who knew all trees weren’t the same to a squirrel or a bird?
They all looked the same to me
until my mom finally believed me when I told her I seriously needed glasses
in the seventh grade.

It’s where I learned to love nature and science.
I could see and touch everything I’d read about in books.
Well, I could touch everything except for that snake.
I had to accept the fact he was the one that got away.

It’s where I begged my mom to take me late at night when I was in the fifth grade
because we were learning about space and Earth science in school.
After relentless pleading, she drove me there
and I walked for hours with my face tilted straight up at the sky,
staring at the stars and the moon.
She laughed at me because I ran into a tree when I wasn’t paying attention.

It’s where we went with our dog to have picnics.
Every time we ended up just eating in the car;
I was so concerned with the risk of sitting in dog, goose, or god-knows-what-else shit.

It’s where I still go today when I want to unwind and feel safe—
despite the countless drug deals by park benches after dark.

It’s where I asked my boyfriend to take me on our first date
and where I still couldn’t stop staring at the sky.
I was trying to find a constellation to impress him with my vast knowledge of the universe.
Instead, I ran into a tree again.
Old habits die hard.

It’s where I had sex on the wooden bridge over the creek by the little waterfall.
It was three in the morning on a Tuesday,
we had to stop halfway because we saw two men leering behind a tree and watching us.
They shadowed us back to my car,
and I thought I was going to die.

But it was worth it.
I just wouldn’t surrender until I touched a snake at Lake Elkhorn—
that was close enough.

Voodoo Doll

The thief was really starting to rethink his life choices. It started when a flicker of light from the back of the room made his eyes flutter open, and an avalanche of pain pounded through his skull. He lifted his left hand and saw the bright green numbers of his digital watch read 1:57 AM. He cursed. He’d been unconscious for almost an hour.

He began to raise his hand to nurse the bump under his hair when a flash of scorching heat fired like a bullet from his wrist to his fingernails. He jerked his hand away as smoke rose from the back of his hand and the skin turned red. The thief quickly rolled on top of it, putting pressure against it with his torso and emitting ape-like hoots.

He looked up to where the light came from. A small flame from a metal cigarette lighter in a pale hand illuminated a white face and matching white pajamas.

The thief’s throat froze before he realized he was just looking at a little girl, maybe nine or ten years old. Her dark curls blended into the dim wall behind her, and the candlelight caught the green in her eyes, making them glow yellow. The thief couldn’t deny how the fire dancing in her pupils made him think of a furnace in hell.

The little girl grinned and whispered, “You’re a robber. This is perfect.”

She dangled something in her other hand above the cigarette lighter. The thief squinted to see it was bundle of straw tied into one short and four larger limbs, the tips of its left hand curling in smoking, black pieces.

Oh Christ! he thought. He attempted to scramble to his feet, but the pain throbbing in his head made him dizzy. He tripped over the lacy rug and fell back on his rear on the hardwood floor.

“I’ve always wanted someone to play voodoo with.”

The thief’s eyes widened. He squeezed his left hand under his armpit to put pressure on the spreading blisters and felt around inside his jacket pockets with his right hand for the switchblade. His heart nearly stopped when his fingers caught nothing but worn, fraying fabric.

He slowly stumbled to his feet, paying close attention to how the child held the Straw Doll of Doom.

“Are you supposed to be playing with voodoo dolls, little girl?” he asked as sweetly as he could between his crooked smile and gapped teeth.

The child had two responses. First, she dangled the straw doll’s right foot above the flame. The thief gasped and fell back to the floor. He scraped the smoking shoe off his foot.

The child then answered, “No, but my parents aren’t home, and I put a sleeping pill in the babysitter’s water because she yelled at me, so no one has to know.” She dangled the doll a little closer to the lighter and narrowed her eyes so the flame spread from her pupils to the rest of her eyes. “Do they?”

“No,” the thief drawled out, cringing at the sight of the child’s hand in the light. “They don’t need to know I was here either, right?”

“Only if you play with me,” the child said. “My parents say I’m not supposed to play at night, but I’m not tired. It’s not like they’re here to check.”

I noticed, the thief thought as his brow furrowed, and his eyes roved from the closed door to the toy chest next to the dresser. With its yellow and white lid open, he could see plastic toys with missing parts and baby-dolls with scuff marks on their faces and hair missing from their heads. He glanced back at the child, and the words bubbled hesitantly from his lips.

“I can play maybe for a little bit.”

The little girl nodded authoritatively. “Good. My name is Esther. What’s yours?”

The thief had a feeling he didn’t want to give Esther his real name. If she could perform voodoo just from having him in the room, God only knew what she could do with his name.

“Gerald.”

“Okay, Gerald,” Esther said. “I caught you, so you need to go to prison.”

Gerald forced a lump of phlegm down his throat. Was she going to call the cops? Instead she walked to the bed and slapped the mattress. She ordered him to get under the bed. Gerald’s chest tightened.

“I may not fit,” he admitted.

Esther pouted her lips and flicked the straw doll’s head. A blunt-ended blackness threatened to knock Gerald out, and tears popped into his dizzy eyes. Esther flicked the doll again and again all the way to the bed where Gerald had to army-crawl in to avoid getting lodged and tucked away for the parents or police to find amongst Esther’s collection of cobwebs and forgotten toy parts.

For the next thirty minutes, they played Gerald-in-Prison where he ate invisible food that made hospital fare look like Olive Garden, and he had to talk about life as a robber (though for him it was really just a part-time thing). A couple of times, Esther flicked the doll to get him back into character or tweaked his arm when he attempted a jail break.

“Take it easy,” he finally said. “Just because that’s a doll, it doesn’t make hurting me okay.”

Esther snorted. “Then what’s the point of playing voodoo dolls?”

Gerald sighed. Jesus. “What do I have to do so you won’t do that again?”

Esther gazed down at the doll in mournful thought. She looked as though she was giving up her favorite toy to Goodwill against her own will.

She sucked her bottom lip and finally answered, “We can play something else.”

Gerald spread his right hand across the floor, still cradling the left, and asked what she wanted to play. Esther pouted her lips in thought and asked if he’d like to play a game about traveling orphans. Gerald glanced longingly at the door, but Esther held up the voodoo doll and relit the lighter.

“Just for a little bit?” she cried.

“Okay, okay,” Gerald gave in. He army-crawled his way out of “prison” while Esther spilled her other worn and abused dolls out in front of him. He knelt on the rug and watched her pace around the room with a baby-doll in one hand and the straw doll in the other. She explained this poor, scuffed baby-doll was also an orphan. Gerald soon learned that all of the dolls were orphans who lived and explored together in Esther’s world. He frowned and watched anyway as Esther played with the dolls, tossing some in the air or across the room and diving to save them from falling off a cliff or drowning in an ocean far outside the realms of reality.

Gerald chimed in only when he felt a flick from the voodoo doll. Otherwise, he constantly glanced toward the door, praying to God Esther’s parents wouldn’t come home… and yet praying to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph that they would!

What are they even doing leaving a kid at night, he thought. Someone could just break in and… the hell am I thinking?

Gerald’s watch read 3:08 AM when Esther finally sat on her unmade bed. She tucked the straw doll under her arm and cradled another orphan with a missing arm and a bald spot close to her.

“I’m kind of tired,” she admitted.

Gerald stood up and looked around the now-cluttered room; plastic orphans lay strewn everywhere.

“Hey,” he asked hesitantly. “Where exactly are your parents?”

Esther tucked herself in and said, “Back at the hospital with my brother.”

Gerald’s expression suddenly sank. He opened his mouth to say words he just couldn’t think of, so he closed it.

Esther shrugged into her quilted bedcover and admitted, “I tried to use voodoo on my brother to make him better, but it doesn’t seem to work on him. My parents weren’t too happy with me for trying, but I just need to practice more.”

“You use voodoo to try and make your brother better,” Gerald cried out, “but you use it to smack me around?”

“You broke into my house,” Esther said. “Besides, I like my brother. He’s weird like me.” She nodded to Gerald and rolled onto her side. “You can go home now. I’m going to sleep.”

Gerald didn’t leave right away. He wanted to say something, but then he noticed the straw doll tucked into bed next to Esther, her fingers securely wrapped around its left limb. Esther glanced at the doll and asked, “Will you come back and play with me again?”

Gerald kept his eyes on the straw doll and sighed, “Do I have a choice?”

“Not really,” Esther replied. Gerald shrugged and agreed to come back so long as it wasn’t at one in the morning next time. Esther nodded and snuggled into her plethora of pillows to go to sleep.

Gerald tip-toed over Esther’s toys and out of the room, leaving behind his sack of loot and missing switchblade. When exactly he’d come back, he wasn’t sure, but he had a funny feeling he’d know when Esther wanted to play voodoo dolls again.

The Indelible Color of Red

“Look, if you’re going to bother sucking cock, you might as well suck it like you mean it.”

“Damn it, Leona.” I squeeze my eyes shut, hanging my head and exhaling, before I open them again and look down at her. She’s grinning at me, deep brown eyes crinkled at the corners, glistening with a bit of water that’s gathered there without her noticing.

“What?” she asks.

I reach up, balancing on my knees, and flick her in the ear with my free left hand.

“I’ve got three fingers inside you, you think you can wait to talk about dick for a few minutes?”

She laughs, throwing her head back, and her whole body arches with her. I watch, ignoring the hot buzz behind my ears in favor of admiring the way her mass of dark curls spreads out underneath her, a few strays clinging to her sweat-stippled collarbones. They don’t want to let her go. She reaches up and pets my cheek, stroking a fingertip down the bridge of my nose.

“I’m looking out for you, Keegan,” she tells me idly, the finger continuing down across my mouth and chin. “See? You get with this guy later today, you get into it, he gets hot, you get heavy, he pulls off his—what do guys wear right now? Cargo shorts?—and it’s right there, staring at you.” She lowers her voice to a dramatic whisper, gripping my shoulder tightly. “Male genitalia.”

I start to smile and gnaw at the inside of my cheek to stop it. Instead, I jerk my right hand up suddenly and she yelps, flailing a little helplessly, before collapsing into laughter again, holding her bare stomach with one hand, polish-chipped-nail scratching lightly at her belly-button.

I lean back, stroking her hipbone with my left thumb as an apology.

“I think I’ll manage,” I tell her. “It’s not the first time, and he’s just some guy, it’s not a big deal—”

“I know, I know,” she says, waving a hand. “You’re a pro, a real penis-pundit.”

“There’s no need for nicknames—”

“A vagina-virtuoso.”

“Jesus, Leo, I’m gonna sprain my god damn wrist down here, could we get back to the sex and discuss slogans later?”

Leona pauses, before shrugging her strong shoulders and relaxing back against my sheets, her grin fading out into a soft smile. I lower my chest to hers, nose pressing against the prominent vein in her neck. My hair falls down and hides my face, and I watch it as I inhale deeply, making mock Van-Goghs out of the way my limp, white-blonde tresses form swirls in her infinite black ringlets. I can feel her hands slide up my back, smart fingers playing Beethoven on the bumps of my spine. I curl my fingers, and she hums quietly.

“Good?”

“No.” She stops. “I mean, yes, but I was just thinking. You’ve got a nice ceiling.”

I shake my head. “It’s just a ceiling. Fuck like a normal person. Talk dirty or something.”

“You’ve got a slutty ceiling,” she quips.

Without looking at her face I can tell she’s still observing the ceiling above us. Just chipped paint and faded stick-on stars from when I first moved in. I’d been meaning to paint over it for a while now.

I drag my teeth down her throat, settling at the base of her neck, in the dip at the center of it. Parting my lips, tongue pressed to dark skin, I go to bite down just a hint. I try to quell the hesitance, the fear of being rebuked, try to focus on the maybe this time. Maybe this time. Maybe…

“No hickies. Come on, Keegan, it’s like, my only rule.”

I freeze, swallowing wetly, tongue still glued to neck. Then the quick wave of annoyance washes over me, and I dig my teeth in a little harder.

“Keegan! Are you shitting me?” She sits up, and pushes me away, but not off of her completely. Her face is pinched with irritation, but the fondness is still there. She’s looking at me like I’m a child who doesn’t understand I can’t play with mother’s jewelry.

“It’s winter, Leona, you wear scarves every day,” I say to her, and I’m trying, really trying to not act like an asshole about this, promised myself it didn’t matter that much, and yet…

“That’s not the point, and you know it.”

“Nobody’s even going to see them—”

“Not the point, Keegan. No biting, hitting, or hickies. Get with it.” She’s staring at me hard now, the look in her eye telling me to drop it. I’m a minute away from snapping again, and I can feel it in my throat, half hysterical with how my fingers are still inside her. I don’t think either of us turned off our phones, and her hair is matting to her cheeks; it’s not fun anymore. Grinding my jaw down just a bit, I try to focus my attention back on what I’m doing. How quickly had I said yes this morning, when she invited herself over again? How many outfits did I go through, trying to look as nice as she always does, knowing the clothes would come off soon enough anyway? Hadn’t I laid out lunch so nicely, the wine and cheese, bread and grapes, displayed on my writing desk four feet away? Now I’ve got Leona, gorgeous hair and teeth and eyes and ass and all I want is for this moment to pass. Just pass and move into a new scene where I’m not stuck in this fight again.

She’s smiling once more, though it looks a little forced now, breath coming out in soft huffs with the rhythm of my wrist. She reaches up to stroke my cheek again, but this time I can’t bring myself to let her do it. I turn my to head to the side, muster up a laugh.

“You’re going to be late for your meeting, Leo, can’t you just come already?”

She rolls her eyes. “You sound like the guys you always complain about.”

My hand twitches, and with that last sentence, and the way she talks about men and sex more than any lesbian I’ve ever met, I’m done. I sit back on my knees, pulling away from her body, ignoring her small grunt of discomfort as I get off the bed. I move to the bathroom, the door still wide open, Leona still reclining, staring at me.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, and that’s just the problem. What’s wrong. A clinical question making sure I’m physically fine and nothing else. I’ve been with Leona long enough by now to know she doesn’t care about the actual emotion of it, she just wants to avoid conflict. Today is surely not her day.

Turning on the sink, I begin to wash my hands, refusing to glance up at the mirror and see my flushed reflection, so I resolutely stare at the bubbles foaming up between my fingers.

“You’re not seriously pissed about the hickey thing, are you?” she asks, and I can hear her getting up too. She doesn’t come over, but maybe she’s hovering, watching me, hoping I’ll come down from whatever stroke she must think I’m having right now.

“It’s just a kind of ridiculous rule,” I say, and I realize I’ve been washing this hand for a minute now so I switch to the left one.

“I just don’t like them on me. What if people at work see, huh? Or my family or someone?”

I shake my head, trying not to make this personal. Trying to just let this be a Leona thing. It’s not like she ever has hickies from other people when we’re together. Don’t make this personal.

“You work as a phone operator at a company with two hundred other phone operators,” I tell her. “The boss doesn’t give a shit about your neck, and you know it. As long as we wear the uniform, who cares?” It’s true. In all the four years I’ve worked at Tru-Del, fielding phone calls from middle-aged women who can’t figure out how to work their house’s alarm system, I’ve never once seen anyone get ribbed by our superiors for anything other than missing a shift, or the one time some guy in row thirty-eight came in hammered the day after Halloween. Maybe Leona can say she doesn’t know that. She could argue she’s only been working there for seven months, and she’s still getting used to it. She could say all of this, but as I turn the sink off and grab a hand towel, I know what she’s going to say instead.

“Nothing permanent.”

And that’s all she ever says on the matter. “Hickies aren’t permanent.”

“Permanent enough.”

“I don’t care about it though, why should you care if I get one from you?”

The smile is gone now. The mood is ruined. She’s pulling on a jean skirt and trying to wrangle her hair into a bun on top of her head.

“Nothing permanent,” she says, and she zips the skirt up behind her back, finding her sweater thrown over the chair in the corner. “I don’t know why it matters so much to you.”

“Me? I’m trying to know why you care so damn much about the issue.”

She looks at my face, opens her mouth to speak, and pauses. Shirt half buttoned, she grabs her purse off the dresser and pulls a makeup wipe out of it. She tosses it to me.

“You’ve got makeup on your cheek.”

I reach my fingers up to my left cheekbone, drag them down the skin for a second, and inspect them. Sure enough, her dark brown foundation has rubbed onto me from our two faces pressed together. I don’t go to clean it off yet, holding the wipe in a clenched fist, trying not to feel too satisfied that, despite her effort, it’s visible we were together today, if only from the smear of her color on my skin. She’s talking again.

“If you want a hickey so much, for some reason, just get it from Eric or Ethan, or whoever he is.”

“Who?” I ask, before remembering myself, and quickly saying, “Aaron. Yeah, Aaron.”

“Aaron, sure. You’re seeing him in like, an hour, right? Go present yourself to him, or whatever.” She’s grabbing one thin heel, trying to squeeze her foot into it. I want to ask her why she’s wearing shoes that are too small for her, but I know it’s not my place. I know we don’t talk like that; we don’t have that with each other. Her shoe choices aren’t any business of that one woman from work who she takes lunch breaks with and who sleeps with her sometimes. So I don’t ask her.

“I knew you would be upset about Aaron.”

“I’m not upset. Go screw Aaron. Get your bisexuality on. If you don’t think it’s weird you’re fucking two people in the same afternoon…” She waves her hands as if to say, none of my business. Her first shoe is on, and the other one is doing its best to remain a size too little.

“You’re the one who cancelled on me, Leona. You can’t be mad that you called today off and I made plans with someone else. And as for Aaron—” I stop, walking to the wall to grab my robe and wrap it around me. I look at her. “Aaron’s not important.”

She’s looking at me like she doesn’t believe me, but it’s true. Aaron’s not important. Aaron’s nonexistent. I’ve got no plans tonight; I’ve got no second date. I just had no plan for when she called and bailed on me.

“I’m so sorry to cancel like this, Keegan, but I’ve got a meeting with my doctor I thought was next weekend, and it’s today. Rain check?”

What could I have said? When it was eleven p.m. on a Friday night and I had already bought the wine?

“Not a problem. I’ve actually got a friend in town I was hoping to get together with…just some guy. Aaron. Old friend with cute calves. I’ll see you Monday.”

It was going to be fine. Of course, being herself, she had to call back yesterday, her excited voice bubbling through the receiver, cheerily telling me that the appointment was delayed and we could get together in the morning instead of the evening, if I was still interested.

I was still interested.

Now I’m thinking I should have cancelled. Cancelled this time, and the last time, and the one before. Should have never tried hooking up with a woman who introduced herself on the first day on the job as, “I’m just blowing through, not really looking for a career, or anything too…”

“Permanent?”

“Yeah. Nothing too legit. Just some cash until the real deal comes along.”

“I’m not mad, Keegan, it’s just stupid you’ve got to push this one thing, like it matters so much.” Her voice is getting clipped, as she leans her elbow against my writing desk for balance, shoving the shoe at her foot. “So whenever this—this—conniption is over with, let me know. Otherwise, I’m headed out, and I’ll just—shit!”

Her hand slipped past her foot, and she lurched forward, her elbow flying back and knocking against the tray of barely touched food. I watch in a state of slow motion as the bottle of wine tips, her hands flying out to catch it, but I know she won’t. It happens too fast, and before she can even make a real grab for it, it hits the floor, red wine spilling out onto the cream colored carpet.

There’s a silence in the room for a moment, what feels like the first silence in hours.

“Shit, Keegan. I’m sorry.”

I let some woman from work get so close to me, I didn’t even realize we were in separate hemispheres.

“I’ll pay to get it cleaned—I’ll clean it myself, if you want.”

The makeup wipe in my hand is warm now, damp with the chemicals and the sweat from my palm. The robe isn’t tied tightly and there’s a draft coming through, chilling against my ribs. I’ve got no plans for the evening and now I’m out of wine, and I know she’s having this doctor’s meeting because she needs a physical for whatever job she’s leaving Tru-Del for.

“Keegan, can we…can we just get lunch on Monday? I really have to go.”

I guess I nod. Or maybe I don’t. It probably doesn’t make a difference to her. I hear the door of my room opening and then closing, and then I hear the door to the apartment do the same. I’m still staring at the carpet and my legs are still sort of shaky from kneeling on the bed for so long, so I just sit down, curl my ankles under me and watch the wine. I wonder if she ever got her other shoe on—if she did, I didn’t notice. She might have walked barefoot outside to her car. She would do that.

My knees ache and my fingers are stiff and the red wine smells strong, as it trudges through the pills of pale white. Finally, uncurling my hand from around the wipe, I run my thumb over it, think of bringing it to my face to clear off Leona’s makeup. I think about it, but I don’t. Instead I leave it, draped lightly over my knee.

The red marring the carpet feels validating. Feels like it’s inevitable, and it’s something I should probably want to get rid of, but I won’t. I let it continue to spill, and swirl, and stain. I let it be permanent.