“A Lungful of Air”

Placed Fourth in Pithead Chapel‘s 2016 Larry Brown Short Story Award; published in the contest issue (January 2017).

A Lungful of Air

The soft crash of waves moves away from the dock, the square platform in the middle of Crater Lake that’s held in place by a heavy chain connected to the slick wooden bottom and rooted deep in the muck twenty feet below. Alex sits closer to the shore, his palms flat on the rocking planks, as I sit with my knees up, elbows perched on them. I glance behind me at powerboats humming across the water, the big brick houses across the lake from the state-owned stretch of sand, then turn my head to the beach, the girls sunning in their new bikinis, the clutter of guys drinking by the grill, Shana’s two kids in the water and her watching them from the little sandy crescent of the shore.

I watch Shana, one hand blocking the sun from her eyes, and remember leaning on my kitchen counter, finishing a Milky Way, as she promised over the phone that there would be enough people here that I wouldn’t even have to look at Alex, and that she’d be sure to keep an eye on him to make sure he wasn’t bothering me. That plan is certainly working out well. I hear laughter as the youngest kid, perched on a green inflatable crocodile, drifts to shore by the boat ramp and Shana pushes the float back out into the water. I wish it was shaped like something more docile—a duck or something.

“It’s weird, huh, Mark?” Alex turns to me, his tricep flexing like it would when he used to bend over me in the bed of his dad’s Chevy.

“What is?” I look at the land, at the tall pines that border the sand and then hold close to the uneven line of red-clay shore that curves out from the beach to make this tiny cove. I know the pattern the trunks make after coming here for years—in high school, Shana and I used to drink here when the moon was full because we could bring our boyfriends and there was plenty of space to sneak off, be alone with them. She brought Jason until they split up, then it was whoever she happened to be dating, a lacrosse player or a man too old to go to our school; I was always with Alex.

“That we’re all here together again.” He swings his hands around when he talks, like an orchestra conductor—we used to make fun of him for it, but he would just flick us off as one of his hands swooshed by. “It’s been, what, three years?”

“Four.” I gaze down and lower one of my hands to the wood beneath me to peel a large splinter from the dock. Fucking dangerous. “Since we were all together.”

“Damn, it’s been that long?” He turns his body toward mine now, spreading his legs across the dock so that his dripping feet sit on either side of me. “Doesn’t seem like it.”

I look up at him, the even-toned olive skin over his swimmer’s muscles, the dark blond hair that falls over his eyes, the bright red swimsuit. “No, it doesn’t.” I toss the splinter into the water where it floats like the inflatable crocodile by the shore; my mind, like I knew it would when I saw the float, shit, even when Shana first told me that we were coming to the lake, starts grasping for every image of a crocodile I’ve ever seen and places them all in the water beneath me. Sometimes it’s not crocodiles, but it’s always something. For years—beginning after Shana and I watched Jaws when we were eight—it was sharks, even in fresh water—

“So what’ve you been up to?” He looks straight into my eyes and leans back on his arms.

“Nothing.” It’s not worth mentioning that I’m still not over him and still haven’t left this podunk little town, that I work too much at the deli and drink whenever I’m not working. “You?”

“Well,” he says, turning to watch the birds in the line of trees to his right, “Darryl and I had a one-bedroom up in Richmond, but then he left a few months ago. I kept the apartment.” He pauses as the sparrows flit from branch to branch. “Got a job as a bank teller downtown.” Alex flicks his head back in my direction, moving the hair from his eyes. “You want to swim?”

I look down at my baggy t-shirt and loose jeans. “Nope.”

He blinks and pouts his lips. “Why not? You like swimming.”

“I used to like swimming. Now I just don’t enjoy it anymore.” The crocodiles beneath me swing just past my mind’s eye, stirring up sediment as they circle the thick chain beneath the water. “Besides, I didn’t bring a suit. That’s why I wanted to row out.”

Alex glances behind me at the paint-flaked rowboat I rowed to the dock. He had swum behind the boat, despite the fact that I had already told him to leave me alone. I give Shana a death-glance, but I know she’s too far away to catch it. I should’ve hit him with an oar.

“Oh.” He just looks at me for a minute, then stands, his calves and forearms suddenly solid and lined as he stretches. “Well, I’m going to swim.”

“Have a great time.” He does a perfect swan dive into the water by the boat, rocking the dock. I lean my head back and shut my eyes, the warmth from the sun creeping along my face and neck. I can just see the hungry crocs below, waiting in the shade while he dives before zooming up from the silt to catch his leg, his arm, his mouth opening to scream, bubbles floating to the top as the water turns red like in the movies. God, what an easy solution.

I hear Alex surface and blow water from his lips before going back under. May as well try to get a tan. I pull my t-shirt up, the soft cotton rubbing the point of my nose and along my arms; I try to ignore the skin that folds over the waist of my jeans—the weight that’s crept back ever since he left and I started volunteering for more shifts—lay the t-shirt on the dock behind me and lie back. I don’t know why he’s so stupid. I barely swam the last time we were here, just after graduation—it was sharks that time. I remember when we’d just arrived, I swam all the way out here with him, and shit, all I could think about was getting on this dock and lying in the sun together. We stole touches and stopped to kiss under the water until we reached the dock—remembering it makes my chest ache, even after three fucking years apart. The dock was new then, the boards freshly lacquered, the metal not yet rusted. I jumped in with a snorkel mask to try and follow the chain down to the bottom, and when I looked around in the murky brown, I could just picture rows of big, white teeth charging out of the depths faster than I could hope to swim. I knew they weren’t there, and I do now, but I still told Alex I was tired and made him stay close as we swam back. It’s always what I can’t see that scares me, the places where I know shit lurks but I can’t sense it. It’s why I shut my bedroom door when I’m alone in the apartment at night; you never know what’s creeping up behind you when you stop payin—

“Come on, just get in the water, Mark,” Alex calls as I sit up, water splashing onto my feet, speckling my jeans.

“No,” I say to his head, bobbing a few feet out in the blue-brown water. “I’m not wearing trunks.”

“So what? You have boxers. Come on, it’s fun.” He splashes more water onto the dock. I roll my eyes and lie back down as my stomach churns. Why is he being like this? He was the one who made me leave, told me he had grown past me, why the fuck—

“Come on, babe.” Alex’s voice is low and a little raspy, the same tone it would always fall to when he whispered to me. I turn my head to see his hands wrapped around the gray metal poles of the foot ladder, his eyes trained on me. Why the fuck did he just call me babe?

I cough lightly to clear my throat and sit up, folding my forearms over my lap. “You’re not allowed to call me that, Alex.” I look down at the near-white wood of the bleached dock, the twisting dark lines that show the color of the wood at its core. The dock rocks as Alex climbs the ladder and I exhale hard, the muscles in my hands flexing tight.

“Why not, Mark? I used to call you babe all the time.” He stands over me, smiling down, his abs flexed in the sun, drops of water shining on his skin. He may be a prick, but he’s a beautiful prick. Alex kneels, softly placing his hip, then his elbow on the wood beside me as my shoulders and neck tense. His wet fingers graze my bicep and the muscle jumps, the skin tight with goose-pimples. “Remember?”

The water and the crocodiles, the dock and the shore wash away as I look at the bright sky and the slowly moving clouds and think about that word, babe, that single fucking word. When he would squeeze my hand at home football games in the back of the bleachers and wink as he said it; the times when his jock friends would sneer as I waited for him at the pool and he would say it into my hair when they were out of sight; the e-mails he would start with it; the hand-written notes on Christmas presents and at my birthday; breathing it in my ear because I told him to be quiet while my parents slept in the next room or while we had his dad’s truck for the weekend; when he actually told me, “Babe, we had a good run, but I think Darryl won this one.”

I sit up and push his hand away. “Shut the fuck up, Alex.”

“What?” His stomach flexes as he speaks and I fold my arms over my belly.

“I said shut the fuck up.” I turn and grab my t-shirt, pull it over my head and stand, taking a step toward the boat as he scrambles up.

“What are you doing?” He steps in front of me, between me and the boat, the layer of fine hair on his chest catching and reflecting the sun’s light. Beneath me, a crocodile’s black eye gleams.

“I’m leaving, dumbass. I don’t want to be trapped out on this dock with you.” I stare at him, trying my best to keep a “don’t fuck with me” face on as a shiver runs through my knees.

He reaches out for my shoulder. “It’s just been awhile since I’ve seen you—”

I step back, over the shallow puddles he left on the planks, the dock and boat mashing together, our movement driving them into each other, forcing waves out toward the shore. “I know it has, Alex. And hopefully it’s going to be even longer the next time.” I turn back to the shore and step to the edge of the seesawing dock, my toes clutching the worn rubber bumper that goes along the rim. The crocodiles are swimming closer in my mind, lingering where my shadow cuts through the sunlit water—I need to get to that fucking rowboat—and my heartbeat doubles, my neck goes slick with sweat. The muscles of my legs feel like they’re going to explode as the sound of a speedboat swings nearer behind me.

“Mark. Come on. I just want to be close to you.” The dark green and brown ridges of the crocs split the water before me, their jaws opening as they twist and swim around the chain, as they wait in the shade of the dock, ready to flick their tails and break the surface with rows of jagged teeth and scales. “Like I used to be.” When I feel his fingertips on my back, I suck in a breath—filling my lungs despite the pressure in my chest—and leap clumsily away, kicking wildly at the claws and teeth waiting to slash and swallow me whole; the water moves coldly up my skin as the shore disappears from sight and Alex’s voice fades behind me into the din of rushing water.

“Continental Drift”

Published in The Vignette Review (December 2016).

Continental Drift

Greg is gone—the bright-eyed young man who in her mind is still skinning his knees and getting vexed when other kids don’t get along, the one who has decided in his second year of college to specialize in veteran medical care and who wants to explore other sides of the world, do things like climb Kilimanjaro and scuba the Galapagos—but he’s really only away for the summer and it is for school credit after all, a trip to Spain to fulfill his foreign language requirement, though as his mother sits in California drinking lukewarm white wine, watching heat roll of the asphalt—the only human among three cats in the condo she kept when her second husband left—these facts do not really seem like any consolation. When she knows Greg is at the university just halfway up the state, in his dorm room or at the dining hall, she can tell herself that she could see him in less than a day if either of them really had the time or inclination—but now her son’s absence is felt the way she notices hunger or that her foot has fallen asleep: aggressively and as she simultaneously recognizes a multitude of other feelings.

More often now, she imagines the 6000 miles—roughly 9000 kilometers—of vast country and ocean between them, but sees the distance in terms of tectonics: a path along the hard exterior of the lithosphere from the Pacific plate to the North American, then all the way across, a little skim along the edge of the African and then securely onto the Eurasian plate—but those images always evolve from where he is to what he’s doing: tasting an actual Valencia orange or taking a selfie in front of Moorish architecture, or maybe, really, more likely sleeping at the exact times when she thinks of him. Regardless of what she pictures him doing, at the end of the process she cannot help but go to her bedside table, to the drawer where she quietly keeps small luminous stones Greg used to bring her way back when he wanted to be a geologist too—of course she’d never have enough room to keep all the rocks he had given her, but the ones he’d thought were really special or that she might have never seen before tumble about now as she gently tugs the soft wooden handle. She used to buy Greg books about minerals and the Earth’s core, about magma and fossils and tectonics, fill his shelves with discarded specimens from the lab where she worked, anticipate his excitement on the rare days when he got to go to work with her—she had never thought even once before giving birth to Greg that he might like the same things she did, especially something everyone else found so dull.

So, now, when it’s a little too much that Greg is absent—and enjoying himself no doubt, nowhere near miserable and perhaps even ignorant of her anguish—she pictures the globe and divides the distance in her mind: she watches the Earth’s crust fracture along tectonic faults, the mantle giving way and the magma roiling beneath the hard exterior as the lip of the Pacific plate rises to overtake the North American, sliding its hot belly all the way across the U.S. and then into the Atlantic Ocean, nudging the African toward India—reconnecting Madagascar in the process, surely—and up the underwater shelf toward the Eurasian plate, allowing her to indulge in a new proximity, California touching Spain’s coast like a kiss on the forehead, like a soft hand on her shoulder, like a steady voice in a dark room when she thought she was all alone.

 

“Who You’ve Come to Be”

Published in Strangers Volume 1 (October 2016).

Who You’ve Come to Be

How It Starts

You, another woman at Palms, the martini bar—or do they call it a lounge?—mingling, twenty-six, with a tight skirt, big earrings; he was at the same bar, handed you a cosmo before asking your name and wore a ribbed sweater that hid his belly and showed off his chest, maybe a year older; you were the woman who admitted your secrets—how you would drive him crazy, what to do in bed, the way you prefer your eggs—and he was the man who listened—came up with routines to avoid freak-outs, let you be in control the first time, prepared them scrambled with no yolks and a pinch of pepper the next morning; you were the one who wanted to date, he was the one who asked to be exclusive; he always wore the cologne you said smelled like men should; you dyed your hair blonde because he liked dark eyes and light hair; he brought the pomegranate cherry juice you love on random dates; you kept a change of his clothes in your compact car for dinners.


What to Do If His Phone Rings While He’s in the Bathroom

If at home, call for him softly, if in public, simply watch the caller ID until the last ring; in the final second, answer—your voice slow and thick like honey from the refrigerator—and make it apparent the two of you are together, but without ever saying so; place his phone just as it was before he left, sure to remove your hand before he enters the room; tell him who called and that you answered, that she seems like a lovely girl and you just wish he’d introduce you to more of his friends; if he smiles, fall back into what you were doing before he left and place a hand on his strong thigh at the soonest opportunity; but if he lifts his phone to scroll through the call log or says he didn’t know she had his number, stay up after he falls asleep and sit in the dark of the bedroom—on the mattress you bought for yourself after college, between the sheets you washed just before you left for dinner—to record and double-check every phone number you don’t recognize.


When to Be Sure Your Time With Him is Up

When he stops answering his phone, which is always on, or texting back with a wink at the end of his messages; when he is late for dinner more than three times in a row and his only excuse is traffic; when he decides he dislikes his favorite restaurant, or yours, and would prefer to order take out, eat on the couch, and watch “Lars and the Real Girl” for the fiftieth time; when he no longer throws an arm over you while he’s snoring; when he begins panting too soon during sex and then strolls to the kitchen before you’ve had a chance to finish, or tells you that James was in the break room discussing the advantages of a “permanent third”; then the time has come to collect your things from his bedroom before he gets up for work the next morning, quietly shut the front door and pause on the steps to tie the laces of your shoes as you think of him—inside, shirtless, still asleep—the key to his apartment on the kitchen counter.


Why to Go Shopping After He’s Gone

New pajamas and sheets to make sure the bed doesn’t smell like him tonight; backless blouse for clubbing this weekend; Marlboro Lights, carton; necklace to replace the one he picked out; new day planner without anniversary reminders; a box of hair dye, ash brown to forget the bottle blonde; smooth metal trashcan to fill with still-framed pictures and e-mails printed to show friends; twenty-four pack of Yuengling; gasoline, at least a gallon, in case metal picture frames refuse to melt quickly; sweater to wear while building the fire; and, just in case, a flavor-locked single serving bag of the only Colombian roast he’d agree to drink.


Where to Go When You Miss Him

The Applebee’s on Main for lunch, despite the fact that he never bartends on Tuesday afternoons; a quiet café on Landon Street—isn’t it just called Café?—that he frequents after work for a chai latte with extra milk, which is better than it sounds; the loud, smoky pool hall by the Civic Center where the two of you would play poker—in the back on Thursdays—and skee-ball; the Food Lion by Waterfront Road that’s only three blocks from his apartment and has beer for a dollar cheaper than any other grocery in town; the Lowe’s you went to—the one on Corrine Boulevard—to get him a new drill and wrench set for Christmas last year; the voodoo shop on the boardwalk, owned by a woman who really is Creole and will build a doll out of a sock and three stray hairs for thirty dollars; before home, to bed, where the sheets smell faintly of beer and sand, and there’s nothing to remind you of how recently he was there.


Who You’ve Come to Be

He only likes comedies; you watch horror and romance; he loves to hike and play horseshoes; you want to swim and read; he smokes a Marlboro every morning before breakfast; you scrub and disinfect ashtrays at bedtime; he takes walks when angry, sings in the shower when aroused; you dole out silent treatment, wink when you get a glance; he never hugs strangers, leaves when someone tells him to go; you kiss everyone good bye, lock your knees when challenged; and in the early morning din of an empty apartment—sipping Colombian roast, half-watching the news—you suddenly wonder if these things are anyone’s fault at all.

“Stand Your Ground”

Published in Knack Magazine Issue 34 (March 2016).

Stand Your Ground

I creep down my apartment’s dark hallway, beckoned toward the living room—beside the front door standing ajar, lock hanging loose—to investigate soft, persistent noises. I use both hands to grip the handle of the revolver I bought after Jeffery left for college—my fingers are numb and I can feel the heavy thing trembling in time with my arms. ‘I need a fucking dog,’ I think.

I peek into the doorway, at the shadowed back of the figure crouched by the DVD cabinet; I step into the room—he rises as he turns.

My finger contracts, the chamber releases—his head cracks backward before he drops, crumples on the rug. I turn on the light, head swimming—he looks young, Jeffery’s age, a child playing a game, blood like drops of melted ice cream coming from his open mouth.

My stomach turns to ice as I realize he’s still moving.

“Token”

Published in Knack Magazine Issue 34 (March 2016).

Token

An air of mischievous glee always accompanies me to parties and gatherings—especially those held in lavish whitewashed households, with pedicured lawns, oh, and a circular brick driveway, perhaps a fountain resting in the center—when I get to experience a new place for the very first time. I wait until the sturdy red door has been answered by a gracious woman in a teal dress—her hair styled like Veronica Lake or perhaps Linda Darnell—and I have entered the house, but from there I begin to plan out the rest of their abode—down to the very color of the trim—before I have seen even another doorway.

Led by my hostess on the “official tour,” I walk through the rooms just before we arrive in them and try to see which statues she wrongly arranged, which walls seem to have been erected in an incorrect place, which pictures do not suit the colors in my head. The dining room is always simple and just right, though they should have chosen lilies rather than roses and used a burgundy rug; the kitchen immaculate, silver all polished and gleaming—but a permanent island counter would be more appropriate than a wheeled bar; the living room such a gauche, crowded display of bright color and mahogany that it’s hardly worth mentioning the list of corrections; and the master bedroom would do well with finer drapes and a different—perhaps hand carved?—headboard.

A certain delight finds its way into my fingers as we pass from room to room and I begin to lightly touch the trinkets I like, labeling them mine—by the rule of finders-keepers—even if I allow the objects to stay with their now-former owners. When I finally see an article I truly desire—they are always small and shiny, like a polished elephant of jade or a gilded sand dollar on a grey marble nightstand—I ask my hostess as politely as I know if I may pick it up, feel it, inspect it. She always agrees, beaming, and then continues to tell me a story about where she found such an artifact—at a quaint beach shop in Peru—or how difficult it is for such things to be made. She will then turn, one hand gesturing around the room as she laughs, not unlike the tinkling of glass, and steps into the next room to continue our tour.

The only problem with such actions is that I—every time, it seems—forget to place the object back where I found it—unless, of course, they mention the item, in which case I gasp at the forgetfulness that seizes me when I am amongst such sumptuous surroundings and pointedly situate the article just as it was.

If they do not happen to notice, I will only realize the treasure is still in my hand after we have descended the grand staircase again—which curves too widely into the foyer and could be carpeted with something a bit softer—or as I stand before the shallow black marble sink in the bathroom just at the top of the stairs—which calls for a different shade of mauve in the floor tile and someone to please polish the mirror’s gold frame. As soon as my mistake is realized, of course, I slip the Brazilian quartz prism or silver snuff box into my pant pocket for safekeeping, until I can work up the courage to again brave the lilac walls of the guest bedroom or the game room’s chartreuse curtains and promptly replace the relic. I will then rejoin my hosts in the parlor—swaying dully to music or sipping vermouth and gin from crystal glasses—to converse and mingle with the other guests, possibly try a taste of the brie—which was aged perhaps a week too long—or a sip of the cabernet—which was uncorked a season early—and fraternize generally with the other attendants of the party—who are, despite their best efforts, quite charming indeed.

Just before the front door is again opened and closed for me, I will turn in the foyer to picture the house and imagine my things—both those that are theirs, the souvenirs and artifacts of these glamorous travelers, and those that are mine, the everyday belongings which sit plainly on the other side of town in a two-room apartment situated above a butcher’s shop—filling tall rooms, brightening wide walls, clearing the hardwood floors.

I always leave the congregation of polite sophisticates smiling, the edges of my vision crisp, at having found a new place for my mind’s restless legs to roam; and at the weight in my pocket—perhaps a silver skeleton key or a tiny owl statuette—to arrange on a simple wooden shelf when I arrive home.

“Nightcap”

Published in Knack Magazine Issue 34 (March 2016).

Nightcap

(In the style of Dave Eggers’ “She Waits, Seething, Blooming”)

He is sitting at the wooden kitchen table, the white layers of remaining coconut cake resting just in front of him; his name and the numbers of “Happy 40th” already eaten by guests, now gone. After work, his husband John phoned, telling him he was sorry, but he’d be home in an hour, at 7:30. It is now 12:13 and the driveway is empty except for a blue Nissan, which he imagines getting into to track John down, still wearing his bow tie and vest; he will storm through the streets like a riot, his cries leading him through tangled avenues and dimly lit alleyways. He thinks of John’s face when he pulls up to the restaurant where John sits with his lover, their legs rubbing together, laughing and winking; he imagines throwing his patent leather shoes from the car—the ecstatic thump on the thick glass, the pause in their conversation—before fuming inside, showing everyone what kind of man his husband is and how badly John has treated him after so many years! A wicked dryness rises in his throat as he moves from the table to the cabinets, searching for the leftover vodka and a tall glass; he knows, however—and realizes as he is on tip-toes, fingertips grazing the bottle—that there is no other man, that John often has to stay late for work, though usually not this late. He fills the clear water glass to the top with vodka and stands over the sink, taking slow sips. This is still inexcusable, he thinks, to do this tonight, of all nights, and of that—no matter the excuse—John must be made aware; he looks through the small window over the sink to the house next door, now dark—they came to the party, saw John not here. The half-empty cup meets the countertop with a thud as he turns back to the clock; 12:26. His pink tongue slides across his dry lips and he closes his eyes, focusing the pressure building in his chest, shaking through his arms and fingers. What will he say when John walks in the door? Should he even let John speak? Perhaps he should sit there, silent, until John’s rambling excuses are done, before letting go of the supernova burning in his lungs; but what will he say then? He can’t possibly concentrate on only the follies of this night; there are so many other things this could lead to, so many other places this one night could take them!; like just last year when he waited for hours at the airport; the time John said he should start going to the gym, no matter his honesty; the hotel bumping their reservations on their last vacation.… A buzzing begins in his ears and he grins, thinking of when he was a teen and would turn Metallica and Def Leppard up loud enough so that he could scream without his parents hearing; that overload of noise would shut out the rest of the world, and he had never found anything else quite like it. He turns back to the sink as the low rumble of John’s engine slides up next to the house, the low headlights bleaching the pines in the backyard. This will be delicious, he thinks, swallowing; it feels absolutely like my birthday, my surprise party about to begin. This will be loud, volatile. We will scream and scream until I explode. He sets the empty glass in the porcelain sink and turns, resting his back against the counter, arms folded in front; the clock says 12:32; this will be delicious.