Our names started disappearing soon after the New Era of Hope people moved into our small town. We didn’t notice at first. Our existence is so much in relation to others that names didn’t crop up that often in our day-to-day conversation anyway. Big Sister. Daughter. My Little Piece of Gold. These are all me. Baba. Ma. Little Brother. These are all my family. Monkey, Little Devil—also me when I break things, clumsy as my fingers are. No one calls me —, not since school closed. Now no one ever will.
I only realized that my name was missing when I tried registering it for The Vote. I stood at the makeshift registration desk, flanked by golden silk tapestry to make it stand out in the crowded bazaar. The man at the desk, his hair oiled and combed to part in the middle, a thin moustache adorning his upper lip, looking important in the way small government officials take pains to, gave me the once-over. He asked me my family name first, to enter into his computer, and I was about to say —, but I couldn’t. I tried again, this time my first name, but there was nothing there. No, not a lost memory, but a feeling that it never was. Like never being born. A non-existence.
I stood there, blank and gaping, my mouth going gup-gup-gup like a fish trying to breathe out of water. I must’ve looked like a fool. The man smirked, said, If you don’t have a name you cannot register for The Vote. That much was obvious to me. I had heard rumors of something like this from the girl who lived two houses down the street. She had said her aunt’s friend’s family had all lost their names. I had dismissed it, thinking it to be a modern version of our old superstitions. Don’t play under the trees at night, or ghosts will possess you. Hang chilies and lemon in the doorway of your house, lest the evil spirits wander in. And now it was Don’t resist hope or you’ll lose your name.
There was great resistance against those of us who wanted the New Era of Hope people to leave. The townspeople from the upper hillside didn’t quite see what we were complaining about. They said, What’s in a name? They said, You are standing in the way of progress, besides it’s not been proven that the coming of the New Era of Hope people has anything to do with it anyway. The only people who thought names were not important were those whose names hadn’t been taken away from them. Those who never in a million years could imagine a scenario where their name could be in danger. We said, Our identities, our histories, our ancestral ghosts all lived in the spaces between the letters that formed our names. They said, Identities don’t matter, not in this modern world where everyone is equal, and laughed at our silly belief that we had histories to begin with. They said, If it bothers you so much, vote them out, that’s what The Vote is for. We said, We can’t register to vote without names, and they shrugged, and said without saying, That’s not our problem.
The young people of the valley decided that something needed to be done. We brainstormed about where we could find our lost names. We felt sad thinking of them, alone, untethered from their owners, lost in the wilderness. Maybe if we swam upstream a bit, we would reach the place where our ancestors had first settled, maybe we would find the roots there, shriveled but not quite dead. Maybe if we dug deep into the soil, we would unearth the milk teeth we had planted when we were younger, and inside them we would find a bit of our first selves. Someone said it still must be inside us, we just need to excavate ourselves, plunge a knife in, carve out our buried identities. This was met by general disapproval, mostly because some of us had tried it already and had barely survived. Eventually Little Brother said the only way to reclaim our names is to reverse whatever process had caused the loss in the first place. That we need to drive the New Era of Hope people away. We all murmured in agreement that it made sense, but we didn’t know how to go about it. What power do the nameless have? Did we even exist outside the knowledge of our own bodies?
Our mothers said we should let it go, that ultimately what matters is that we are together, that we did not need names to belong to each other. We told them—actually we didn’t say anything at all, too busy finding ourselves to pay attention. The plan was convoluted, but it’s the only one we could agree on: we would demand new identities from the Hope people, the dry numerics they used to refer to each other, every number unique, no chance of overlaps or homonyms or shared roots. No music to them. Then, once we had our new unique identifiers, we would vote them out. And when they were gone, we were sure our names would come back from the shadows where they hide.
The Hope people are happy we want to adapt to their ways of being. The Naming Ceremony is today. Hundreds are attending it. All the young from the valley who lost their names. I am given my number. I open my mouth. I say, I am ZP011876x. I roll it around with my tongue, let it sit at the base of my throat, warm. I feel it beat in my chest. After everyone is tagged with theirs, we all reconvene at our usual meeting place. Someone says, Hello, I am 3D908-A. I vaguely recognize the outlines of their face, the thickness of their whisper, a faint memory says, Little Brother, but I don’t really understand the words. We all look at each other, we all speak our new names, feel the sharp lines of our newly minted selves. We feel invigorated, we feel powerful, but we are not sure any more about what we are doing here, and what we are to any of the others.
Upasana writes fiction and poetry that blur the line between the real and the surreal. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and eats books and stories for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can find more of her work at upasanawrites.com.
The day before the Floyd verdict, Junior Dieujuste was confronting the terrifying fact that the collective fate of fifty states and hundreds of municipalities and millions of Black people like him was in the hands of twelve people he’d never met and had no reason to trust. He was thinking about situational ethics, binary outcomes, authoritarian tendencies in Middle America, and cops who testified against their own, who were simultaneously heroes and people Dieujuste would never want to be his friend.
As he wrestled with these grand thoughts, a little Black girl streaked barefoot across the sidewalk in front of him. Dieujuste had his own toddler, Jean-Baptiste, waiting for him at home, so while the girl’s proximity to busy Massachusetts Avenue alarmed him, he pretended he hadn’t seen her. At that particular moment, Dieujuste wanted just three simple things out of life: to timely relieve Jean-Baptiste’s babysitter so as not to have to pay extra, to see Floyd’s killers convicted, and not to get mixed up in strangers’ business. He had zero ambition to be a hero or a Good Samaritan, so when he found himself crouching at the girl’s side, every faculty in his admittedly limited brain cursed his weakness and sentimentality and assured him he was certainly going to regret it.
“What’s your name, chérie?”
“Malaika.” She said the name defiantly, as if she was telling Dieujuste she was Wonder Woman. “It means angel in Swahili.”
“That’s sweet. Is your mother around, Malaika?”
Dancing from foot to foot, Malaika hid the doll behind her back. She said she wasn’t with her mother.
“Who you with, baby?”
“And where’s your auntie?”
Malaika said they could ride the subway to the stop where her auntie lived. The game of twenty questions was getting old.
“And what stop’s that, Malaika?”
She couldn’t remember its name, she said, but she’d know it when she saw it.
No way, no how, was Dieujuste going to hop MBTA subway car toward oblivion. Not at this hour. Not in a city like Boston, where fifty-year-old memories of forced busing were as ripe in certain white neighborhoods as if it had happened yesterday. He fingered his phone as if it had a trigger. He was thinking about the testimony at the Floyd trial and the regrets of the store clerk who called the cops for the counterfeit twenty. His calculus was quick: Malaika was Black. Odds were, Auntie was therefore Black. By calling 911, Dieujuste—a Black American of Haitian descent with the remnants of an accent even after all these years—risked exposing Auntie to the potentially murderous whims of the BPD or seeing Malaika taken into the custody of the Department of Social Services.
He dialed. He prayed they’d send an officer sympathique, who was kind, reputable, and preferably Black, but Le Bon Dieu—if there was one—closed His ears. The cops arrived in minutes, and they were unmistakably, cartoonishly white. Straight out of BPD central casting, Irish and Italian by the looks of them.
His heart sank. Without much hope, he wondered if the cops were thinking about Floyd, too, and about situational ethics, binary outcomes, authoritarian tendencies in Middle America, and cops who testified against their own. He thought it more likely they were looking no further than their next Bavarian Kreme, which was a terrible thing to think about one’s fellow man.
Dieujuste told Malaika that these two nice policemen were going to help find her mommy and Auntie. And not, pray to God, murder them in front of you, he thought.
Malaika first eyed Irish Cop. Then she eyed Italian Cop. Then Irish Cop again. She shrank against Dieujuste. She smelled like candy. She shoved the little rag doll into his hands for safekeeping. “Are they the good police, or the bad police?”
The bottom dropped out of Dieujuste. The sidewalk became porous, and he dripped through. Very, very slowly, Dieujuste put a finger to his lips. He glanced at the cops, who had clearly overheard. God help us, he thought.
Irritated by Malaika’s question, or Dieujuste’s glance, or perhaps just his wife’s nagging him to take out the garbage that morning, Irish Cop looked up at the subway line toward Roxbury as if he at any time expected to see the vanguard of an approaching army. His tone was flat and stubborn and full of resentment.
“Good,” he said.
Hours opened between the next few seconds. Dieujuste felt drawn to the cracks. What if I stepped off this narrow sliver of time into the plunging in-between? Everyone knew that one’s body followed one’s gaze, which was why the tightrope walker kept his chin up and eyes ahead. When time’s forward progress at last resumed, it was the lurch of a subway car.
As if more sure of himself, Irish Cop repeated firmly, “Good.”
The word was a wan and faded handkerchief wadded up against the curb. Not knowing what else to say, Dieujuste snatched at it. Hoping the coin flip turned out okay, he assured Malaika the officers were the good police.
“How do you know?” Malaika asked.
Irrational irritation inflamed Dieujuste’s brain, as if all his anxiety about Floyd, bad cops, and his son’s future was condensed into this tiny, persistent human who was so full of questions. As angry at his own impotence as anything else, Dieujuste thought savagely, I don’t know, Malaika. Maybe because the cop just said so? Twice?
Dieujuste wanted nothing more than to get home to Jean-Baptiste and hold him in his arms and smell his scalp and bury his face in the boy’s neck until he squealed with delight. He silently repeated the mantra that had never served him particularly well: I am an American. I have a right to be here. I have a Master’s degree in Public Policy. The police are here to serve me, not the other way around.
Dieujuste took a deep breath. As politely and correctly as he could, doing all he could to minimize his accent, knowing it would delay (perhaps forever) being reunited with Jean-Baptiste, knowing he should not say it and mind his own business, Dieujuste asked the officers if they would mind if he waited around while they resolved the situation.
Another long beat. Longer even than between “good” and “good.” A subway train rumbled underfoot and raced away with something that belonged to Dieujuste and left him hollow. A passing motorist screamed fuck you and leaned on his horn. Dieujuste discovered he was sweating. Indeed, he was drenched, as if he’d gone for a jog, which he no longer chanced, because he was less likely to get shot at the gym. If the cops said no, Dieujuste consoled himself, there was still time to pick up Malaika and run like hell.
They located Auntie. She was indeed Black, and she was shaken. She had been on the phone, she said, and had no idea Malaika had escaped from her friend’s apartment. Irish Cop assailed her with a series of humiliating questions about whether she was high or crazy or abusive or simply a bad person. He spoke as if Auntie were a child who couldn’t be trusted to tie her own shoes.
Dieujuste found himself feeling appallingly insufficiently sympathetic toward Auntie. A voice in the ear—the Devil?—kept telling him that Auntie was a flawed representative of the race. He hoped against karma that someone someday—a better person than he was—would give Jean-Baptiste more benefit of the doubt.
Just as it seemed Auntie had finally satisfied the cops’ suspicion, Irish Cop demanded an ID. Auntie fumbled around in a handbag large enough to house a Kalashnikov. Out tumbled a cascade of tampons, car keys, lipstick, breath freshener, eye pencil, and a handful of coins, one of which rolled on its edge until Malaika slapped at it with her bare foot. It came up heads.
Scott Pomfret is author of Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir; Hot Sauce: A Novel; the Q Guide to Wine and Cocktails; and dozens of short stories published in, among other venues, Ecotone, The Short Story (UK), Post Road, New Orleans Review, Fiction International, and Fourteen Hills. Scott writes from the cramped confines of his tiny Provincetown beach shack, which he shares with his partner of twenty years. He is currently at work on a queer Know-Nothing novel set in antebellum New Orleans.
Nathan found his mouth separated from him one day, and he did not know what to do. It was alive, his mouth, the one that’d been on his face for thirty-eight long years. Where it should be in its rightful place, below his nose and above his stubbled chin, now gone. He did not notice it at first. The loss wasn’t dramatic—no strange hand had come to rip it off, no excruciating pain or blood, or any other sign of something unusual. Everything was placid. He was in his office. Behind the L-shaped cherry wood desk, metal cabinet at a corner and an abstract painting of a staircase above a cream-colored couch. Seeking an eraser he’d pulled the drawer of his desk. What should be there but his mouth. Who’d believe this, a pair of stranded lips, lying amidst the stationery like an eraser, dully pink and shaped after a blade of fallen leaf. On it, a coat of shea butter. “What’s this?,” he thought and picked it up by its corner, three fingers midair as though holding a teacup, shrugged and threw it into the trashcan. The assumption that his mouth was where it belonged was reasonable. That was when it puckered into a bud and whistled, like a warbler, then said, in Nathan’s voice, “I am your mouth.”
Ears confused he looked into the trashcan. It’d gone silent, soundless at the bottom, inert. Rarely, however, no matter how unhearing, would anyone mistake or ignore his own voice. It came uncommanded and loud with authority, too: “I am your mouth.”—an audacity for anyone to say. After all, a mouth was a private organ. Who’d claim to be another’s, but for a tyrant—why was he hearing it? What just betrayed me?, he thought. His life had been so rife with betrayals, as though daily bread, an exaggeration but frequent enough, that he’d now take as automatic that his lips had betrayed his face. He did not eat bread every day. Found that would make a dull man overly obedient to breakfast norms and flour. He liked entertainment on his food, often visited expensive places with dainty dim sum floating down in metal carts like dumpling clouds of dreams. Restaurants with waitresses in silky costumes, hugging tight to bodies like the skins of fish.
But this was not the time for food. This was an emergency where food was now a question for Nathan. A mouthless situation that paralyzed him—how could this happen, absurd as though it was raining milk, the sky a mother—debilitating and effeminizing him. A flutter of fear, a metallic sensation, soured his pelvis, as when one stood at the edge of a tall building, against height’s majesty; as he blinked and watched the abandoned pieces of lips, ownership now vague, seeming to turn white, blending in like a chameleon with the surrounding papers, trash, with every hard stare. Were they his? They seemed familiar, so that his eyes could not doubt while his mind refused the sight. This must be what was called jarring, he thought, unmoving. His body was fixed, nailed to the leather chair, his property since 2013, while his skin imagined ants scrambling and the organs of his face felt uncoordinated.
This must be a lie, he thought. It had to be—when had history ever produced a mouthless man? Its weight was undeniable, the past cold as a stone its timelessness silent, that one puny man screaming, “You are wrong. I have no mouth, but I exist!” would not be heard, callous as history was. The best it’d do was to forget him. Even his grave. Truth was death, that if he were to give in to this reality and believe his lips were in the trashcan, that his office was a memory from a graveyard, and no longer could any delicious dim sum reach his mouth or water wet it…No. His body was the only sure existence where truths originate. His pair of lips was lying to him. If not, this was a dream, a fictive made up of pillows and cotton from where he’d soon wake, when his Casio radio alarm went off. Things would be back to normal. His fingers would hit the alarm, he’d snooze in the final throes of grays before tossing off the duvet. Bare-chested, a shiver traveling down his spine, he’d shake off with a glass of water from the sink. The coffeemaker gurgling and coughing like an old man, even though it was bought last year—a Hamilton Beach—he’d thought to throw it out soon. Machines were short-lived these days.
This morning he was sure his mouth was there, when he opened the fridge for the herbal cheese spread, his usual breakfast fare, and with a butter knife smeared the creamy white on a bagel. It’d gone flat—the part-time cleaning woman best know this, if he had to open his mouth to make it clear, “Why are the bagels not fresh,” it’d sting. Errors start tiny like weeds, she’d not want to spark a fire in Nathan, with his polite harshness for his rule to meet his will. She could not say, the date was valid, call the bread factory…freedom of speech didn’t apply to her, a valid passport wouldn’t help Nathan’s hearing. “Don’t explain, don’t try.” He ate the bagel halfway, in distaste threw the rest into the stainless-steel garbage, feet off the pedal. The way he would hours later for his missing lips. Once he’d been in dire straits, when his future was bleak, now he was well-off and had no sentiment for others’ hardship, his memory shallow as a puddle, Nana, the cleaning woman knew. She wanted to quit. A man like this did not deserve years of service. She’d get nothing but his disgust, loathing, passed on to her, intent to mess up her life. Dim as Nana was she was bright enough to know that each time an American woman did not want to do her job, she’d inherit it…
The bagel forgotten, he wiped his mouth with a napkin from a holder. From where he stood, by a narrow strip of lacquered counter table, he could see the chic clock hung above the panel tv, numberless and copper-rimmed, hands near seven. He went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. His mirror indicated nothing. Told the same story of his face, his mouth faithful and intact on his beloved face. No signs of an impending, absurd departure. The toothbrush was electric. It turned on with a buzz that, fixed as he was on the leather chair in his office now, he could still hear. The monotonous whirs like a cricket vibrating along his teeth, evidence of the morning’s existence of his mouth. Or was memory playing a prank? Someone had told him it was unreliable as rain. Nathan had asked, “Even your own?” and the man, sipping champagne, said, deliberately abstruse, “Mine’s like a castle’s.” He was the director. Maybe that made memories purer. Maybe memories chose who to favor, unfair as storms and bitter rains. Nathan knew it was there. It was the memory of his teeth’s morning’s rendezvous with the electric Samsung brush, the soft points of bristles and mint exploring the gaps between molars. Surrounding that foamy mouth was a face of handsomeness, proven by the flocks of women who gave themselves over to appearances.
Because his mouth was certainly gone. As inscrutable as magic, rare as lottery. He’d climbed the staircase of his loft after the wash, beside the bed a brick wall ended with a window opened to a bleached, gray morning, and changed. First an undershirt from a pine shelf, a shirt and pants hanging from the racks. At seven forty-five, in a pair of Italian oxfords, to him a measure of a man, for the solid steps he took in them, as though the ground was a woman flattened and ready to receive his gaits of dirt, comparison was how he derived confidence, he saw himself again in the full-length mirror. Mouth was in it. Balmed. Hair, peppery-gray and forelocks swept up, ready. Vanity, that pretty thing, tilted his chin. A proud man was a winner, a vain one might not be. Whatever the case, the route to his office downtown was the same. The office was empty yet. The security guard said hi. Soon he’d be off his shift and no one remembered his dark face, whether Nathan had a mouth or not, he didn’t care to know. On the sixth floor, the cubicle farm in his company was quiet as a graveyard and would come alive at nine, most not eager for unpaid hours. But for Jean, whom Nathan did not see, hidden behind the divider screen, and Chanon.
But now mouth was gone. Of all places it was in the drawer amidst pens, pencils, rules, post-its, stapler, highlighters, gluestick, paper clips, pins, keychains…When he entered his office mouth should still be there. At which point had he lost it, and like a man retracing his steps to find a lost item had shut the door with a name plate that said, “Nathan Y., Chief Innovation Officer,” which he’d hug like a wife if he could and crossed the pistachio carpeted space to his desk. Sat on the black leather chair which had retained the shape and weight of his bottom in a slight dent after five years. They’d wanted to give him a new chair but he’d rejected it, preferring the old. At the desk’s edge was a stack of folders. He was ready for the day’s agenda, to read the reports Chanon had brought in yesterday. They did not exchange words. Nathan had hardly lifted his head to look at him. It could be Edward, the other accountant boy. It didn’t matter who came in for a task such as setting down binder files. Nathan did not know anyone; he’d only expected everyone to know him.
He suspected mouth got lost some point after he took the top file, an orange one, and opened it. Briefly he’d looked at the cup from Amsterdam—he’d thought to get coffee later, for now he’d work. The report was sixty-eight pages in length and esoteric, of financial analysis in the market distribution for common equity, besides the pie charts and statistics that had to be checked for the right figures, or he’d have hell to bear from the director who’d sipped the Moët and might say, “Welcome to my castle.” Power obeyed gravity, and Nathan was passive. Vanity did not help him at this. A castle was a profound place and he didn’t know where the keys were. He had three hours, he thought, glancing at the wall clock, curiously like his home’s, but the rim silver.
He plunged into work and did not notice mouth. The clock’s hands were independent of the room, him, and half an hour passed when he noticed strange pencil scribbles in the margins. They did not look like alphabets, but musical notes, or a bird with a beak or a fish facing up with a circle for an eye. An e with the opening skyward, a g drawn in the reverse. Was it an axe or hammer…what were these cluttering the margins?!, he almost thundered. Who’d given him a dirty report! But he did not, he remembered, open his mouth. Exasperated and by instinct he tugged the drawer, when normally he’d have picked up the phone and dialed for his secretary: “Get me a clean report.” He must have known the office was empty. The clock read eight-fifty, though he did not look at it, and that was when his fingers held the corner of his lips and dropped it like a banana peel into the trashcan.
Once more, he thought, “This must be a dream.”
Beyond the office door he caught the signals of life filling into the company space like pigeons returning to roost. It was time Nathan checked his mouth. He put his hand to his oral zone. As check, corroboration, confirmation, have I really lost my mouth?, and it was sure as a delivered verdict. It was gone. Without explanation or saying goodbye, below his nose only a smoothness of a stone’s. Chin still stubbled, shaving was every three days, but there were no protrusions, philtrum, only a mysterious, sealed blank space with a slight concave.
My god. What had he become, a mouthless man, this mound of sordid block now in its place—what was in it, gum, bone, flesh, cement, plastic? Sealed like a perfect egg, when it was once open and free as a 口, a box, a character he knew as mouth in Chinese. This beloved box had been the instrument in all he said and ate, for nutrients, water, life, pleasures into another’s, a woman’s, the last time he kissed was in a club. He didn’t know who she was. Nowadays names were not required for a mouth to flare into urgent passion or pretend there was or by mistake, strangers deepthroated and tongued every July. Or March as it was now spring and the weather victorious with the scent of buttercups, and people would like to kiss. Kiss and part as though it’d never happened and when you meet a stranger she was as familiar as daffodil or vodka. As though springing awake suddenly he recalled, “Denmy.” She was the last person he kissed and she’d worn something like a diver’s suit. With a sparkling zipper lowered down to her cleavage.
What was he going to do with a sealed mouth, as his fingers traced. It was a weapon for pain, each time he shouted instructions at Nana or Chanon. He didn’t mean it. When the rumble erupted from the base of his throat and the thunder of sentences exploded. When he cursed in breath that stank of anger and the power it loved. Layers of balm, L’Occitane, and cruel words that gave no respite because he was the master of his loft and office. Mouth had been his edge, pitch, marriage, wife, chair, linen pants, oxfords, the bagel he’d thrown away this morning. Without it he was as good as gone. The unspeaking could live, somewhere in the countryside where silence was less salient and one didn’t need to talk anymore, like a rabbit, nuzzling lettuces and wild grasses, and let talk die. But that wasn’t what he wanted.
He wanted talk, his mouth back. To the state of nature, human mouth belonged on faces. So that he could order Jean, “Go get this.” Not this terror of blank space now. Suddenly, he shivered. Was death coming? That definite destination like a Ferris wheel that kept spinning, round and round, carrying whoever rode it into eternity. Stopping only when one got lucky and was kicked out, or loading for more revolutions. Death was the only explanation he could think of, death was quiet indeed, and now it’d deprive him of his final words. Or that sip of water he was craving, his throat parched, a dense swath of thirst wrapped around his neck like a scarf. He remembered a story about a boy punished by chocolates. Everything he ate, drank, turned into that, for days feeling sweet thick brown, encumbered by the density circling his throat, like hungry snakes. He felt nauseous.
In Amsterdam a ferry was going under a stone arched bridge. The ferry was blue and white, so were the canal houses along the bridge. The ferry, houses, bridge were framed by an oval and did not move. The oval was imprinted on a porcelain cup, which Nathan picked up with shaky fingers. He did not bring it to his lips, which were in the trashcan, but midair. He looked at the ferry, houses, bridge. It was ’08 when he bought the cup in a shop that looked out at a similar scenery. That pleasant day he’d walked around after a conference, wishing he could stay, but had to leave for Brussels. The cup traveled with him and crossed the seas to America, it’d known the texture of his lips. There was no coffee in it, no drip of water to wet his finger. He checked the chic clock. It was ten, March 5th a Wednesday, right after lunch he’d have a meeting. He’d made a mental note yesterday that whoever scheduled it would be reprimanded. Whoever wanted a meeting right after lunch? That was his preference, as he thought, “Time was a quick learner and she’d better called it a teacher.”
He’d not be able to bark his authority anymore. Was he the only one afflicted? Could there be more like him milling about, puzzled by this sudden loss which might be a new trend set by an invisible and upper-handed alien god, sick and tired of peoples’ mouths? Eat, spit, speak, talk, mock, rot, sarcasm, like free sweets passed out. These days anything could happen. It was possible nature reversed its mighty pact and took back mouths: “You don’t deserve it.” Waving a grand wand or hand the alien said, “Let’s do an experiment.” Since losses were lamented, since cherishing came this way. Since a killer loved to cry victim, the dead resenting the kill. Set this as the latest living rule: From now on mouths would be extinct, obsolete. All eating, drinking, speaking, kissing, would use a different organ. Maybe the armpit. His were drenched. The deodorant wasn’t working. The label had said foresty scent, he wondered if his mouth would breathe eucalyptus when it came back. He was growing quickly unmoored, he thought.
He insisted, “This is just a dream.”
He shut his coffee brown eyes. When he opened them, mouth would be back, fresh and moisturized, teeth intact, smiling and ready for the meeting where speed talking would ensue. A wrestling of mouths between views and opinions and intelligences, underlaid with preferences and whims and grudges. Once a colleague had called him a betrayer and coolly, as though giving a handshake, tore up his handout. The director, the man who’d sipped champagne, wanted them to fight. That was why Nathan went to Jean’s cubicle and tore up her work. She did not say, “That was uncalled for.” She was smarter than Chanon, who did, for having a weak heart and the slamming every Monday, Wednesday, was injurious. Edward, who had a way about him like water, left unscathed, blending into the background. It helped that he was pale. Once in a while, when the office shades were drawn and the sun, tiny as a gold button, pierced through the windows, it was as though he was swimming underwater, skin translucent.
A pair of runaway lips did not return easily. Not by mere shutting of eyes. He opened them and fluorescence overhead was blinking rivulets of bright white. Shining into the trashcan where mouth still lay. There was nothing to indicate this was wholly a dream. If for the third time Nathan thought, “I am dreaming,” reality might open a hole or 口 and laugh. “Hahaha, I am a cruel thing. Inhuman and your best friend.” Laughter was seasonless and a wonder cure, laughter was the gentleman of all. “Don’t fret. It’s just a mouth.” “How do you expect me to be fed, pay rent?” “Don’t ask me, I’m not your wife.” The office was still. Same as always, couch at the corner. Pushy people from the news bureau had sat there, demanding honesty. What’d they do, if they saw him, cameras flashing and headlines loud—“Spotted: Man With No Mouth!” He might be sent to an asylum or lab, under the mercy of a bevy of doctors, picking up scalpels to slit his face. For social, political, scientific reasons. “This isn’t just a matter of rent, my wife,” Nathan thought. Above, fluorescence shone on, real and brittle. Reality wasn’t compassionate to turn it into frost, set him back in bed underneath sand brown duvet, seashells on his pillow cover. In the painting the staircase did not extend from its frame to lead up and down, the woman at its top back facing the office room, her nape exposed. She might turn around, if this was a dream. If she did he might marry her, keep her hidden in this office that was his second home. Nathan had always wanted to know her looks.
But he’d rather she have no face. This way he could choose her brows and lids, segments of cheeks, angles of chin. Familiarity wasn’t fun, no. On the desk, the orange binder was open. At page twenty-three, in the margins was a spiral mark printed in pencil. He closed the file, pushed it away. To the side with a tray organizer and thick stacks of paperwork fastened with clips.
Bending, he picked up the trashcan, set it between his thighs. This was ridiculous, watching his fallen mouth nested with balls of tissues next to a silver wrapper of spearmint gum. He could use one now. The dryness strangling his throat had not gone away. As though static was attacking it, scratching. A stick of juicy gum would be nice. In the trashcan, mouth was smiling a whitish pink crescent. He’d not sent any signal to it. If he did it’d be a shocked O, but it was smiling without his consent. Tilting his head and rotating the can, mouth was upside down, frowning. Never before had he stared at his mouth so intently. It laid still yet alive as a garden slug, breathing and slimy, top and bottom lip slightly parted. Peeking through was a line of darkness that made him wonder what happened to his precious teeth, as much as it seemed to withhold secrets: Why was I torn from face, why did face abandoned me, why this aberration of separation, desertion, like the homeless of the streets? Has life betrayed them, or have they betrayed life? The voice he’d heard earlier, the declaration, “I am your mouth.,” was gone. There were no answers.
From nowhere floated memories of women he’d forced to smile. No, he had not forced, they just would, naturally like a switch or spark meeting fuse. His handsomeness was like a homemade dinner. Smiling was like a law—anytime there’d be policing, smile or quit, smile or get fired, get lost. Jean did not comply once and work jammed. Confusion followed. It was a price to pay. It was why she came in earlier. Why he slammed files on her desk and said, “Don’t you know the basic facts of life?” “What was that?” “Even the air smiles.” She no longer did. But whatever her deficiency none was severe as Nathan’s, an entire mouth lost. Was that it? he wondered. Women had come to collect from him a debt? So he could no more lie, kiss, suck, spit…he was relieved if so. If it was about women, he did not fear. Even if they were ghosts, or his mouth never came back, he did not fear, unless they screamed.
Gingerly his fingers reached into the trashcan. Hand apprehensive, his nerves taut strings of a violin—this was absurd, picking one’s mouth from a garbage can. Mouth was a crescent, a bracket smiling (or frowning), like fruit jelly lips, passive as a brown leaf. Not what he expected, for the pair to jump up and bite, an oyster clamping, Nathan pulling out like a crab’s pincers had caught him. He was surprised at its placidness, once again picking it by its corners, as though holding the tail of an anchovy.
He set it on the desk. He wasn’t sure what to do. He fingered his stump while contemplating. When on his face it’d seemed so easy, to spread balm or lipstick, now it was a conundrum, puzzle—what should anyone do with a pair of loose lips? Tickle, prod, glue it back? He stared at independent mouth. It seemed happy, corners upturned. Or it could be a figment of his imagination. A smile was really related to the Philippines, Jean knew, where her mother was born. Nathan’s was ambiguous on the cherry wood desk. It should be smiling, Nathan thought. After all this was a holiday, a bargain, a prisoner’s breakout from the cage of a face, if he were the pair of lips he’d enjoy. Who knew when the magic would leave, flutter away like a butterfly, and it’d have to be back on Nathan’s boring face. Owned and fixed like an arranged marriage, not given a chance to choose its parental face or favorite shape, which could have been better. Always better. Nathan remembered the good old days when teenage years caused a strange discontent and he wanted the perfect face, the pout of a star and a nose like Discobolus. He’d gone to the museum to pine after it. Alas, free from face’s control, after so many years of manipulation and molded smiles, it was a well-deserved separation, holiday. A gain in autonomy and power, like an irresistible snack.
Nathan prodded mouth with a pencil. It did not reply, “What do you want?” or “Please stop, I’m not a specimen.” It only laid rubbery and tadpole-like, dumbly parted as though Nathan was in daze or asleep, making him wonder again if he was in a dysfunctional dream, so tangible the fluorescence and pencil, so close and far away. If he did not wake soon, the meeting would start. He had no more time to spare for the report. He should have left the room to check reality, but he was transfixed and he had no mouth. He grew impatient and frustrated. He dropped the pencil and pried the pair with his clumsy fingers. They shrank at his touch, like anemones, the tentacles greasy and soft. He fingered the boundaries, the lower vermillion then upper, the cupid’s bow. He squeezed it, weighing it in his palm. It was feather light. He stretched it into a ring like a rubber band. He tried to fit it on his face. It dropped, lifeless.
The situation was an agony. If it were not his mouth he’d have hit it with a hammer. It reminded him of when he went to symphonies, the misery of the music trembling in his eardrums. Each time with a different woman he’d doze, but he could not shout at mouth now, “Tell me what you want!” Listless, he watched. There seemed no solution and he did not feel ill, or death’s sudden visit to end this all. For all he knew this might be a passage to hell. He might have died an hour ago, when he saw the pencil mark of the spiral in the margins. Perfectionist and foul-tempered as ever, he had pulled the drawer hard. He might be unconscious now, his old swivel chair finally broke and he’d knocked on the sharp edges of the drawer. Even though this was unlikely, he weighed 132 pounds, but death was mysterious and didn’t like to explain. Except to give him a final clue with his sundered lips, before knocking on his office’s door. He’d miss his loft. The fine suits, the wineglasses from Brussels. The panel tv he adored, the French movies with exotic women. The coffee table, glass-topped, cleaned of fingerprints by Nana, whom he once groped to content himself on the sofa. There was nothing she could do about it.
At that thought, mouth came alive. It stretched, opened into a black hole, and laughed. At first in Nathan’s voice, his usual guffaw, then it went out of tune, became female. A cawing, a choking, a horse whinnying, tire screeching; a bitch barking, glass shattering, “Hahaha,” it went, “I am your mouth.” It flipped on the desk like a dying anchovy; it screamed for the futility it was a rotting mouth; it laughed at Nathan’s guile and selfishness, dirt and cruelty; it screamed in laughter at the people who loved watching others’ misfortunes, as proof of their innocence. The men and women who told her she deserved it, the woman in the abstract painting turned to hear laughter, but Nathan didn’t get to see her face. He got up and bolted for the door. He couldn’t care if he had a stump on his face, he had to save his eardrums. Still, he did not know it was Nana’s last laugh.
Meiko Ko’s works have been published by the Blue Lyra Review, the Hayden’s Ferry Review, the AAWW, The Margins, The Literary Review, the Columbia Journal, Epiphany, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Litro Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, Five:2:One Magazine, Breadcrumbs Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Scoundrel Time (Pushcart Prize nomination), failbetter, Juked, and elsewhere. Some of her reviews can be found at Tupelo Quarterly and Entropy. She is a finalist for the 2020 Puerto del Sol Contest for prose, and have been long listed for the Home is Elsewhere Anthology 2017 Berlin Writing Prize. She is currently attending Bennington College for her MFA.
Last week little melons of ice came down hard for fifteen minutes. The worst hail you’ve seen in all the fifteen years that you’ve lived in Virginia. It put holes in your roof that was already overdue to be replaced. Jeff lost his job in February and y’all are tight on money. It’s not just about the job but he’s been having a hard time finishing lately. Your sex has become like a deer you see in the park. You approach it quietly with your hand outstretched. You tell it with your eyes that it can trust you. You are getting closer and you wonder if it’ll really let you near and then it runs off. Jeff is embarrassed all the time. Every time you try to encourage him it makes things terrible. He moves rapidly in you for a few minutes and then pulls out completely soft. You scratch his back lightly while he sits on the edge of the bed and you say something about it being fine. He says he’s just so tired all the time.
On the night it hails you both watch with the door open. You hear it damaging the roof. Watermarks form on the ceiling. The kids run around announcing new leaks as you run out of dishes big enough to hold the water if it lasts through the night. You hear Jeff slam the door to your bedroom and yell, “Fuck!” When it stops, the kids go outside and they keep shouting that they found an even bigger one while they hold the hail in their hands like crystal balls. There’s excitement in their voices. You wish for once they could shut up and understand how unexciting weather is and how horrible and boring the world feels to grown-ups like you.
The roof costs you a few thousand you don’t have, and you and Jeff get in a fight about the grocery bill for this week. It’s your daughter’s birthday next week and you go onto Facebook Marketplace to see if you can find a single thing that would be nice for her. It’s your family computer that you’re on and it’s Jeff’s Facebook page that is still logged in. He has a new message from a name you don’t know. You open the message. It’s from someone that refers to Jeff as “daddy” in every comment. Your stomach fills with concrete. You go to the top of the messages. They go back for months. The beginning and really all throughout are Jeff confirming that this person is only eleven years old and how hard that makes him. He’s promised her money for pictures a few times. They aren’t on here. They’ve worked out a more private way of exchanging those files. You scream Jeff’s name. He isn’t home. You start to shiver the way you do when you’re upset. You hear the window break. A little ice melon sits on your floor like a wad of heaven’s dip spit. All this time you didn’t even hear that it had started raining. The children run inside. They yell that the hail is even bigger this time. You hear it making holes in the new roof.
You are ugly. Your eyes are small and your nose is like a witch’s. You don’t have lips really. Your mouth looks like it was cut into your face last minute before they sent you down the chute. Your hair is thick at the root and thin on the ends. It is always oily. Your penis is incredibly small. You get your first boner in math class and it doesn’t raise the tent on your denim crotch at all. Worst of all is your acne. Which is cystic and blooms over your face leaving no place untouched by volcanoes both dormant and erupting every day.
You’re so ugly that the children don’t tease you. They are unkind to their friends and you are no one’s friend. When everyone gathers in the auditorium and the woman in the long skirt talks about how her son killed himself after being bullied, everyone in your grade promises themselves to stop talking about how ugly you are at their own parties and saying, “What! It’s the truth!” Instead they’ll be the person who says, “Guys, stop. That’s mean.” Some of the girls will resolve to let you join them when the teacher says the class has earned choosing their own reading discovery groups this week. They will say, “You can be in our group if you don’t have one yet.”
Each interaction with the children at your school feels like it will make you explode. They all feel like interviews for if you can go to the next level of being alive. The girls in your reading discovery group ask you first what role you want to be first and you say you’ll be the note-catcher. Kiera, the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen in the sixth grade, huffs and folds her arms. Emilia explains that usually Kiera likes to be note-catcher because she has good handwriting. You got this interview question wrong. You’ll stay at this level of living forever. You say of course Kiera can be whatever she wants. But you stutter as you say it. You are so bad at charm. No one ever talks to you and you can never practice these little banters and impressions and exchanges that the other children are so good at. You are the group’s page-finder. It’s an impossible job. You doubt Ms. Lions could even do this well. When the girls say parts that they remember as using imagery from chapters two through six of The Giver you’re supposed to leaf through those fifty-four pages and somehow land on what they’re talking about. You find an example on page forty-six and ask Emilia if it’s the quote she wanted to use. She says, “No, I meant another part.” You feel so sweaty. You touch your cheek and your fingers come away with a little spot of blood. One of your pimples is bleeding which is regular but still terrible. You wipe your hand on your pants and look up to see the girls watching you like an animal in a cage. An animal they feel bad for but also an animal they hate.
Lorenzo comes in late to class. He was at the dentist this morning. Ms. Lions says to join a reading discovery group. He approaches your group and all the girls start to smile and smirk and roll their eyes. Lorenzo starts to take off his backpack but Ms. Lions tells him that your group already has four people and to join a three-person group. The girls have neutral faces. They know if they pout you will know they’re upset with you. Their faces are stone but their eyes glaze over and focus on corners of the floor. They are wondering why being a good person inevitably makes your life worse. They could have been a three-person group. Your blood would not be on the group’s copy of The Giver. They could have finished early and talked to Lorenzo about the new color of his braces. This could have been fun but because of you it’s not. You will learn to evaluate every human interaction this way. You will always think about how people are thinking about you. One day someone will really need your help. You’ll realize you have no capabilities to think about what they need, only what they think about you. All this time your ugliness has been making its way to your core.
It’s your twenty-fifth birthday and you spend it alone. Loneliness is the zeitgeist of your generation so you feel a little comforted about how sad you feel. This is what birthdays are like for adults. Lots of young, successful, medium-beautiful, medium-interesting women spend birthdays alone. It’s really okay, you think. You go to bed.
Tonight you have a sex dream about Gary Cole. He is the actor who plays Kent Davidson on HBO’s hit show VEEP. In the dream you’re in an attic with Gary Cole. He’s inside you and on top of you and holding your head. There is light from a lantern in the attic and there’s some kind of storm outside. Like a tornado. There’s lots of other people in the attic and Gary Cole is shouting directions to them for what to do about the storm. While he’s yelling at them he’s stroking the hair behind your ear. Everyone else leaves and Gary Cole starts thrusting inside of you. He kisses your mouth deeply with one hand still cradling your head and the other grabbing the side of your hip with his thumb on your hip bone and his other fingers pressing into your love handle. It feels really good but it’s a dream and you won’t actually have an orgasm. Every so often someone comes in with a question about the storm and Gary answers them and sends them away while not stopping the motion of his hips. He moves his hands to your boobs when these little gofers leave and kisses you again.
You wake up in love with Gary Cole. You look at pictures of him on Google Images and look at his IMDb. He’s in so many things! You had forgotten that he played the army sergeant stepfather in the Hilary Duff Disney Channel Original Movie, Cadet Kelly. When you had watched that movie at thirteen years old, you had rooted for Hilary to get with the young boy that was teaching her saber drills. You didn’t know then what a forceful yet tender lover Gary Cole was. If you did know then, you would have wanted Hilary to complete her time at military boarding school, grow up and go off to college, come home her senior year when her mom suddenly dies after getting hit by a car, go into Gary Cole’s office where he sits alone in his military uniform drinking whiskey and say, “I’m sorry, stepdad,” and then he’d say, “I’m sorry too that your mom is dead, Cadet Kelly.” He’d reach for the back of her head and say, “Is there anything I can do?” and then Hilary would touch his cheek and say, “Yes.” She would lean in close and kiss him. He’d keep his eyes open at first, unsure if he should let the moment happen. But then he would give into it and hoist her by her waist onto his military desk. He would reach down her pants and stick his middle finger in her. He would pull it out slowly and use the wetness on his finger to rub her clit. Then he’d reenter her with two fingers this time and Hilary would moan loudly. You start to wonder how you can get in touch with Gary Cole.
You’ve never felt this way before. You always thought it was so silly when people fell in love with celebrities. Even as a teenager when your friends fell in love with the Jonas Brothers, you didn’t understand how they could be so illogical. Of course they’d never meet them. When one of their dads pulled all his strings at Verizon headquarters to get her backstage passes to a Jonas Brothers concert, and she flaunted them for a whole week, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Didn’t she know that even a face-to-face interaction didn’t guarantee anything? You and your friends were not the kind of girls people fell in love with in a moment. The Jonas Brothers would take a picture with her and never talk to her again. You had wondered why your friend was being so pathetic to love someone who would never love her back in this lifetime. But here you are experiencing love for the first time in your life and it’s with Gary Cole, an actor, a person very far away. What will you do? Move to California? Get a new job? Stalk his home? Even if you could orchestrate a seemingly random encounter, he would not fall in love with you. You will never meet Gary Cole. You will never have anywhere to put this love and no one will ever hold your head.
You and your boyfriend go to a park to do some kissing. Someone murders the both of you. It makes the park safe for everyone forever. They will snuggle up to their friends in tents and say, “Guys, I think I hear something. It’s that murderer who killed those people who came here to do some kissing.” But they’ll know they are safe. How many times can an odd thing happen in the same place, really? You were the ones who got murdered so it won’t be them and their friends. When the murderer is stabbing your boyfriend and you are screaming, this thought runs across your mind. You think, “Oh no, I’m the person this is happening to.”
Your dog wakes you up by licking your hand. You pull back a curtain and step around your dad’s bed to get to the door. You step on a half-used ketchup packet while putting on Mitsi’s leash. You whisper, “Damnit.” Your dad wakes up and sees you wiping it off with a plastic bag you found on the floor. He says his sorry. You say it’s fine, you slip on your snow boots and jacket and you take Mitsi outside.
Mitsi loves the snow. She keeps staring at it and jumping out of it suddenly like it’s surprising her. You unlock her leash from its short setting and let her run around you like a tether ball. You check your phone while she plays. You have three hours until the interview. You check your email and your Instagram and every few seconds you look back up to the top of your phone to see the time. You have to make sure it doesn’t suddenly become the hour of the interview without you knowing it. Mitsi tugs at her leash and you inch forward a little to let her explore. She’s sniffing around the gutter of the street and picks something up in her mouth. You tell her to drop it but she runs back to you with a bird in her mouth. You have to run away from her because the legs and the feathers scare you so much. She thinks it’s a game. You run away from her while also taking her with you because she’s on a leash. You dodge her and drag her for five minutes before she drops the bird. There is snow on her little wiry beard and her fur is pushed up a little so she looks like she’s smiling. It’s clear to you she’s the best thing about your life. In a few hours she’ll be dead.
You sign into the virtual interview and set up your screen so there aren’t any meds or trash bags in it. You have a blazer on and your notecards in your lap. You listen to the instructions for the interview—two-minute recorded responses to each question, no do-overs—when Mitsi starts to bark. The video instructions tell you that you’ll have ten seconds to consider your response before the timer starts. There are four questions total. Mitsi is still barking when the first question flashes on the screen. You use your ten seconds to beg your dad to take her outside. He says okay. His tremor makes it difficult for him to pick up the leash that you, thank heavens, left attached to the collar. You’re forty-five seconds into your first response before they’re out the door. Mitsi was barking the whole time. You feel as though you’ve already lost the interview. It’s a wide applicant pool and so many others won’t have a dog barking through the whole response, won’t have darting eyes to the door to see if their dad is managing alright. You get through the second and third response fine. Maybe better than fine. You referenced an article you’d read about research in the second one which felt like an intelligent thing to say. Maybe something other applicants wouldn’t do.
In the ten-second contemplation time before the last response, you see your dad’s tremor get severe. Mitsi sees something, maybe the dead bird from earlier, and darts at it. Your dad drops the leash and falls over. Mitsi runs fast into the busy street. A car hits her immediately and her body flies into the middle of the street. The car doesn’t stop. Another car hits her again. This car does stop. There are two of you in this moment. There is your body that stays behind to answer the question. Your mouth keeps saying sentences about how you’d react in a hypothetical situation with a prospective client. The other you floats like a ghost over your dad who still hasn’t gotten up and over the stranger holding your dog’s body. Mitsi is clearly dead. You’re surprised the stranger would even pick her up. There is so much blood. Her head looks to be crushed in. Still you wonder if she’s a little bit alive, just alive enough to see your face one more time. Maybe she has one eyeball still intact to see you smile at her or something. She’s not. She’s super dead. The stranger brings Mitsi past the guardrail into the apartment building’s parking lot but quickly puts her down to help your dad. They call 911. Your interview is over. You watched someone else hold your dog as she died so you could answer a question for a job you won’t get.
There is a betrayal on the spaceship. Your best friend, your co-pilot, cuts you loose while you do maintenance work outside. You start drifting away and you don’t have control over your body. You become disoriented. In your final moments you feel a great panic that dying in space means you don’t even have the comfort of direction. Your body will move eternally in some way that no one knows. You could forever be going what was once to you, down.
You take a vow of silence but you can’t get this one song out of your head.
You are a ghost but not one ever moves into the house you haunt.
Things Go Well
The note from your aunt’s will and testament says, “Cupcake, the house is yours. Sell it if you want. If you keep it, don’t try to sell the tea in the sink. No one wants it, I tried. Maybe ask your sister to come stay with you. What do I know? I’m dead.” You move in the next week. The house has a garden out back with flowers and fruits. Each room is painted a different color but it doesn’t overwhelm you. It’s like your aunt sat in each room and meditated for many days about how light came in and chose the right color accordingly. There’s a wonderful library with a large chair that has an afghan thrown over the back and a little stool for your feet. There’s a fireplace in both bedrooms and a window that you can see a little bit of the bay from. The kitchen has basil and rosemary set up on the windowsill and copper pots and sharp knives.
Down in the basement where the laundry machine is, there’s a porcelain sink under a single spigot coming out from the stone wall. You put your delicates in the sink to wash and when you turn the knob a dark liquid comes out. Luckily it only splashed on your black lace thongs. You think for a moment it must be rust but it fills the room with a sweet smell. You realize this is the tea in the sink from your aunt’s note. It always comes out hot.
After a few weeks of living there, you find a job. It doesn’t have the prestige of the one you were fired from before you moved but you feel completely happy in that you know what to do each day. You know when to go in, what to do while you’re there, and when to leave. You realize that you are living the good life. But you are alone. You call your sister. You say, “Let’s stop being mad at each other.” She agrees to come for a visit. She’s bitter your aunt left the house to you. You tell her you’d share it with her. You tell her both bedrooms have fireplaces. Only one has a view of the bay but the other gets the best light in the house. You tell her she can pick. You tell her about the endless tea available to you in the basement. You ask her, wouldn’t it be nice to come home from work each day and have a small tea party? You say, “Please?” She says okay.
A year passes and you and your sister settle into routines. She vacuums and you dust. You make breakfast and she makes dinner. You work at different places but each evening you come home and put on a lounge dress and sunglasses and a little lipstick and go to the back patio facing the garden and have your tea party. You fill up the pot in the basement and set out the cups and saucers while your sister prepares a plate of Petit Ecoliers, water crackers, and pimento cheese. You tell each other of the gossip at work. About who you suspect to be flirting with you. You argue over whether or not you should get a T.V. for the house.
A year passes and a woman and her two children move into a neighboring house. You and your sister love this woman. She is just a hoot. She starts joining you for your tea parties while her children are at their clubs. She loves to bring these cranberry and fennel wafers that you and your sister can’t stand. You laugh about how you managed to avoid them when she leaves.
Another year passes and another woman moves close by and she has such a gentle spirit that she’s completely undeniable. She brings orange slices to your tea parties. The next year, almost at the top of it, your gentle friend receives a ride home from her boss. She runs in to ask if she can invite her boss to your little gathering. You and your sister say of course. The boss is a nervous woman who walks around with her hands clasped at her chest and when you ask her how she takes her tea she says, “Well, hmm. I think that. Well, what do you recommend?” How could you and your friends not fall in love with someone so perfectly anxious? She starts to always give rides to your neighbor and stay for tea. You and your sister talk about how lucky it is just how much you enjoy all these women. You talk about how dear they are to you, about their odd fashions and the silly things they say.
Each year a new friend joins the tea party and after fifty years of living in your aunt’s house, the tea parties each night are a complete rager. So many new snacks have been added and you and your sister have hung lights in the garden. People bring their own cups now and clean-up is a breeze. Different pots are constantly in rotation and women are always running up and down the basement stairs to refill. Not everyone can always come but there is always at least one or two nights a month that work out where all fifty-two women lounge about drinking tea and sharing themselves with each other.
After year fifty, the number of friends starts to drop off. Ladies start dying and new friends aren’t added. Thirty years pass and just you and your sister are left at the party. You are one-hundred-and-ten and one-hundred-and-twelve years old. You talk often of your sweet dead friends. You say to your sister that sometimes you miss those large parties. Your sister says, “Yeah.” Your sister spreads a little pimento cheese on her water cracker and says, “You know, though, it’s nice too when it’s just us.”
A meditation walk each day has started to help with your anger. You’ve been reading your Bible in the morning and as you walk you think about gentleness moving as a strong wind through your life. You picture yourself as a house and when you walk, your windows and doors are wide open to let this wind come and sweep away feelings of anger, of pride, of conceit. At first it feels a little phony but then the things that used to make you so mad start to wear on you a little less. When your neighbor weed whacks his yard at six A.M. on a Saturday, you don’t try to sleep through it, rather you begin your walk early and comfort yourself with the thought that if you’d like, you have time to nap that day. You start to really believe that people’s interest in television you don’t like is a positive thing about them. It’s a positive thing that people are different than me, you write in your journal. My life will be marked by compassion, not contempt, you write in your journal. You sneak into your neighbor’s garage at night and return his rake that you’d stolen as payback for the weed whacking. It is no longer you who lives but Christ who lives through you.
But the next morning your neighbor is found with a knife through his eye in the garage. It happened in the morning. His wife has an alibi and your boot prints and hair are all over. They find your fingerprints on the rake. You had been on your walk through town but no one steps forward to say they saw you. It comes out that you had been having ongoing disputes with your neighbor. No one seems to think your newfound “lightness” is worth mentioning. You are taken into custody. A few weeks go by and then you are released. One of those trashy television shows your coworkers like was shooting on top of a penthouse the morning your neighbor died and whilst doing a scan of the block below, they caught you on tape. You have an alibi. They never catch the killer and you hear of a few more murders in parks and alleys but you are free.
The story gets attention in the news. You and one of the stars of the trashy television show are interviewed on a talk show to share your experience. The star of the show is what you would describe as a knockout. She has long wavy hair and big eyes. Her lips are big too and they seem to be real. Her skin looks like it has the sun inside of it and she wears these outfits. She talks to you before and after your interview and invites you to go swimming in her pool.
Her pool is heated and the water feels sort of thick and velvety. You ask the star if she likes to go on walks. She says she doesn’t really have time to walk these days. You ask her to go with you the next morning. You’re a little afraid this thing that is happening is just about tonight and you don’t want it to ever end. When you leave her house, you ask her to meet you outside the penthouse in the morning to walk where you and a sparrow that flew by were caught on camera as not guilty. In the morning she is there.
A million dollars is deposited into your bank account accidentally by Wells Fargo. You immediately buy a house and a car and pay off your student loans. By the time they sue, you’ve gotten a good lawyer and the lawyer wins and you get to keep what you’ve got.
You have fun, real fun, every birthday and every New Year’s Eve.
You are born with a disease and will only live for one hundred days. Your mother does not want you and they can’t convince the father. He says he wouldn’t do it right and you are left in hospice care. You are adopted into foster care almost immediately by a woman named Anne. She brings you home and keeps you warm. She sings you songs and kisses your cheeks. She takes off her shirt and lets you rest against her chest and it feels good. She puts this little cap on your head that she knitted for you and says, “Now who’s the most handsome man in the world?” It is so soft. When she takes you back and forth from the hospital she calls it your special date and always takes the Belt that goes by the ocean.
With twenty-five days left to go in your life, you can only stay in the hospital. Anne still comes in every day. She hangs a mobile above your bed and sings you to sleep. She wears bright colored outfits and even when she can’t pick you all the way up she holds your little head in her hands. On your ninety-eighth day of being alive they let Anne take you back home. You are in a lot of pain but you’re glad to smell this place again. On your last day Anne cries and sings to you. She tells you how much she loves you and how wonderful it is that you were a part of the world. She says she is so happy to know you. She tells you all her favorite memories of your one-hundred-day life. She shows you a picture of the two of you together and shows you where she’ll keep it in her house. She holds your hand when you die. Of your one hundred days on earth, really only the first few were not great. For the rest of your life you were totally in love.
Jonny TwoxFour is from Virginia. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the winner of the James Knudsen Fiction Contest and has work in Electric Literature Magazine.
The house you’ve been renting, on the outskirts of the small town you grew up in, is being sold. Do you:
a) Just find another place in town, maybe walking distance?
b) Strike out on an adventure, sending your resume to staffing agencies in the three closest large cities and move to whichever one calls first?
a. One day you will die as you lived, wondering if there is anything more.
b. The city ends up being New York. It could have been any city, towering spires of metal and glass. Do you date:
1) Temu, the security guard with huge diamond studs in both ears who dreams of owning a recording studio?
2) Bret, the junior investment banker from Connecticut who went to the same Ivy League school as his father and dreams of opening a school for impoverished children in Africa even though he’s never been to Africa?
3) Owen, the poet with stars in his eyes who moved into his grandmother’s rent-controlled apartment on the UWS when she got sick and has been dutifully sending the rent check in ever since, even though she would be 96 by now and has been dead for 9 years?1) You share a pocket-sized bottle of Hennessy on the Staten Island Ferry while the city lights twinkle behind you. When he texts you the next week, you’re busy, and he slides into the archives of time.
1) You share a pocket-sized bottle of Hennessy on the Staten Island Ferry while the city lights twinkle behind you. When he texts you the next week, you’re busy, and he slides into the archives of time.
2) LOL no you don’t.
3) Your first date is only coffee and you’re hyper-aware that you’re supposed to demand he take you to Nobu to show he’s serious but you don’t care, you’re new in town and don’t like sushi all that much, but then your second date is baguette-and-brie on a picnic blanket in Central Park and the afternoon date keeps going until dusk, when you find yourself on top of a rock outcropping and he’s such a good kisser and the rock is hard against your back as he leans down to your neck, your collarbone, and you wish you’d worn more revealing clothing so there would be more exposed skin for him to put his lips on.
After a couple of years, your boss offers you a promotion and transfer to the Princeton office. Do you:
a) Take it. The suburbs aren’t SO bad.
b) Drink so much in celebration at the office happy hour that evening that you embarrass yourself and the offer is rescinded.
c) Tell Owen that you’re thinking about it and then send an email from your phone at 2 a.m. to decline, after Owen has spent the evening convincing you to stay, for about an hour with talking and the rest with his body.
As you sit up in the dark, hovering over your 3-year-old who begged you not to leave, feeling his feverish forehead and praying for a negative COVID test result when you can call in the morning, do you:
1. Wish you’d moved into a bigger apartment years ago.
2. Feel a flutter in your tummy that tells you to take a pregnancy test after you kept screwing up your birth control pills when the days melted into each other, so you didn’t know if you’d taken it that day.
3. Sigh with relief when Owen gets up at 5 a.m. to write and comes in to relieve you so you can get some sleep instead.
4. Thank the heavens that you’re alive to do any of this at all.
5. All of the above.
Stephanie King is a past winner of the Quarterly West Novella Prize and the Lilith Short Fiction Prize, with stories also appearing in CutBank, Entropy, and Hobart. She received her MFA from Bennington and serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. You can find her online at stephanieking.net or on Twitter @stephstephking.