The Grouch Grocery Shops

July 12                                                      The Grouch Grocery Shops

 

Three entries and already I’m getting this blogging thing down. It’s not hard. I don’t have haters like some people. No one comments so no one gets on tangents so no one fights. It’s fine that nobody comments. Who cares about me? I’m nobody. Actually Mom calls me The Grouch when I get in these sour moods. So that’s who I am. But if you’re reading this, feel free to comment. I’ve got metrics for ten countries. I didn’t know people from Baluchistan could read English. I didn’t even know it was a place! Or how to say it. Just say “Hi!” I’ll wave back then feel stupid for waving at a computer.

 

Mom decided I was leaving too permanent an imprint on the couch so she made me go grocery shopping with her. My brother needed sunglasses because he sat on his. He told Mom to pick whatever—he didn’t care, but we all know he’s picky about style so she said he had to come with us. He grumbled but agreed. I don’t always like having him around but it’s better that he’s with us because he’s 24 so I don’t feel too old to be out with my mom if he’s there too. He also needed shampoo and toothpaste.

At a Huck’s gas station while Mom filled a gallon jug with Diet Coke, my brother picked up a pair of sunglasses and looked in the mirror and decided those. They were black with blue reflective lenses. They were UV400. It said so on a stick so that must be important. These took him ten seconds. But it was buy 1, get 1 free. He spent another half hour on the second pair.

Mom said, “If you can’t decide just let The Grouch get the other pair.”

“Is he going to wear them over his glasses?”

“He can wear them with contacts. Like today.”

I told them I didn’t need sunglasses. Contacts bothered my eyes and made them all red.

Mom ignored me. “Doesn’t he look so handsome in contacts? But it’d look better with his hair spiked or slicked back. It doesn’t always have to be a mess, you know.” She got out her shopping list on the back of an envelope to scrawl hair gel.

“He’s still got a whole bottle from Christmas. It’s not even opened.”

My brother gave me the second pair of sunglasses he picked out. They were too big, but I liked them anyway.

 

When we got to Dosey Does Grocers at 1, each aisles only had one or two people.

I’m not sure what guys are supposed to do with sunglasses indoors. I put them in a pocket. I walked around the store with my hand holding them. My mom slides hers into her hair but that looks like a headband. I don’t want to do something girly. There were similar sunglasses near the checkout.

I asked Mom for the receipt.

She had given up figuring me out, but my brother asked, “Why?”

I explained someone might think I stole them.

He scowled. “Can’t you just be normal?”

I put the receipt in the other pocket and held onto it too, getting it as crumpled as the Constitution, just in case I had to take it out and show anyone who thought I was shoplifting. No one thought that. Sometimes I’d pull out the sunglasses and look at the lights to see how well they worked. Pretty well!

There were some ladies in the store. Some were my age. And some my age were with their moms. I put on my sunglasses. Maybe I looked dumb wearing them inside but at least I could peek without seeming perverted. Though I guess I kind of was for doing it secretly.

“Take those off,” my brother muttered. He had left his in the car. I should’ve too.

“I like them,” I said. “I’ve never had sunglasses before.” I’d had glasses since second grade and I never wanted to wear those dopey clip-ons. Usually I just wore contacts for school photos.

“I hope everyone thinks you’re just blind instead of a freak.”

We went over to the freezer section that had pizzas and ice cream and meats. Mom is on a diet always but she needs “healthy cheats” like fudge bars and chocolates and daily batches of cookies. Those don’t count against her diets I guess. She’s not fat either. She jogs around the house in her socks. The dog chases her. It must burn off her healthy cheats because she only weighs about a hundred pounds which she says is ten pounds too heavy. She’s a very small woman, five flat on her license but it’s a lie.

We got everything at the back of the store and were headed toward the pharmacy to get the toothpaste. I saw a kid in a hoody buying condoms. Was he embarrassed to do that? I would be. It’s not like buying shampoo or vitamins or other adult items. They’re condoms. And they stock them in the same aisle as toothpaste. That’s how I saw the kid. When we came into the aisle to get my brother’s toothpaste, the kid in the hoody rushed away but I saw them in his stomach pouch. They were Trojan brand. The Maxi pads and tampons were on the back wall. Why not switch those with the toothpaste so that everyone in aisle 3 was embarrassed and less likely to judge each other? Like if you’re a girl getting stuff for your time-of-the-month (cringe!), you’re going to stare at the products you need and ignore anyone getting condomsunless he’s cute and just buying some to be responsible. Then if you’re a guy getting condoms, you’ll stare at the shelves with what you need, ignoring the girls behind you even if they’re cute because you can’t meet a girl while she’s picking out tampons. What would you tell your kids about that romantic meeting? Well, Jeffrey, your mom was choosing between Tampax Pearl and Playtex Sport and I was getting condoms and they didn’t work so nine months later, you were born. That’d be awful. But what’s embarrassing, the leading cause of teen pregnancy I’m sure, is that adults with their kids come in looking for Spongebob toothpaste and they see a teen getting condoms.

Mom left us in that aisle while she filled a prescription for something that a 50-year-old woman needs that 40-year-old women don’t. I asked if she was sick and that’s how she explained it. I didn’t know what it meant. It took a while for her but it took my brother ten seconds to choose his toothpaste so we just milled about. My brother sniffed a bottle of peach-scented shampoo and stuck it in the cart. Mom had left it with us.

I read the toothpaste label and ingredients and directions—they say only one minute, but my mom taught me to go for five and I still got cavities. Then I was kind of looking at the condoms. They were a mystery. So many colors and brands and features and none of it really meant anything to me. But I didn’t want to be caught looking at condoms. My brother wouldn’t care. He’d just groan and ignore me.

But this redhead came down the aisle. She was opening and closing her mouth like she’d just gotten rubber bands on her braces and they needed stretching. The ligatures were pink and green. She had freckles and her hair was always falling in her eyes and she was taller than me.

I put on my sunglasses and pretended to be looking at the toothpaste too. But she kept glancing over at me. I probably looked odd wearing sunglasses so I looked away, but I didn’t want to look at the condoms while she was there.

My brother was leaning against the cart. He always made everything look cool, relaxed, like he was meant to be there.

I tried leaning on the shelf, but the tiny boxes of condoms rattled behind me as they toppled and I got startled so I whirled around and elbowed blueberry-flavored condoms off the shelf. Why were they flavored? I rushed to pick up everything before my brother could snarl that I was a klutz. The redhead helped too. She handed me a box and it felt warm from her radiance. “Here.”

I stared, gaping, and I couldn’t say anything. I was still wearing the sunglasses. She had cleavage.

My brother grabbed me and the boxes from my hands and dragged me to Mom so we could hurry and go. First we had to get some Diet Mountain Thunder (ick!) that we’d forgotten then we went to pay. My mom was in line to check herself out at the 10 items or less register, though we probably had 20 or more.

The redhead was near, too, reading a Men’s Fitness magazine in the next line. Was she here alone? Was she old enough to drive?

My brother had snatched my sunglasses and stuck them in his pocket so I couldn’t even look at her. I faced the rack of Mentos and Skittles and tried to sense if she was looking my way. Apparently she was.

My brother said with no discretion, “She’s eye-fucking you.”

“Who?”

“Your little ginger friend. From when you knocked off all the condoms.”

“I don’t know her,” I said. 

“So go get to know her.”

“But Mom’s right there.”

“Who cares?”

“But I don’t know her. She’ll think I’m weird.”

“Girls like weird.”

“Can I have the sunglasses back? They make me more confident.”

“Then you’ll look crazy. Girls don’t like that.” My brother gave me a push toward her. “It’ll be fine. Just say hi.”

I almost did when Mom asked us, “Are these yours?” She was holding up the condoms. After I’d made a mess, my brother had tossed them into the cart with his toothpaste. Oh god! He must’ve not realized what they were! And now Mom had to touch condoms which weren’t even ours but she probably thought they were and so she probably thought one of us was having sex and it definitely wasn’t me because I spent most of my days at home and there’s no way I’m having sex while my mom’s downstairs jogging in her socks.

“They’re mine,” my brother said casually.

“Okay. The total for your stuff is twelve-something. You can just give me a ten and we’ll call it even.”

He gave her fifteen because he didn’t like owing anyone.

The redhead had paid and gone.

 

I think I make a bigger deal of things in my head, but I still can’t believe Mom just said “Okay.”

Anyway, remember to say “Hi!” if you read this. The “stats” thing says I have twenty-two views but I don’t know who they are other than my brother that one time. I know you’re out there. Please say “Hi?”

 

Thanks for reading,

-TheGrouch

Standing Too Close

I was out of water. The tap was full of parasites and no good. So was the GS25, where I got my bottled water. Normally I get a six-pack of two-liters and my workout for a week from the market about two blocks away, but a few friends kept me up playing Splatoon from lunch until the stores closed. I was in a great mood, writing weepy inscriptions for Eidolons, my first published novel, needing to rehydrate but happy, until I saw the cashier.

 

A woman.

 

In her 20s.

 

Pretty.

 

New to the GS25 family.

 

Being harassed by an old man in a nice suit, handsome in that way scumbag too often are. Drunk. Angry. Standing too close to intimidate. Buying condoms. A friend behind him, calm but complicit.

 

She was on the phone.

 

I walked past the counter, around the island stand of tampons on one side and Skittles on the other, because the angry old man was on the Skittle side tapping his condoms that came in this hard plastic casing on the counter talking in a way that sounded aggressive but to a nonspeaker also normal for Korea. Normal for an older man talking to a younger girl. That hierarchy thing. Normal, but never okay. I didn’t know how long he’d been there, but she was not talking into the phone, just holding it for comfort that this would be recorded.

 

In the back, by the refrigerator with the bottled water and 815 Cola and dollar soju, rice alcohol, there was a hospital nurse finishing his microwavable ramyeon, ramen, midnight dinner.

 

By the ice cream display, on this winter night below freezing, was an ajumma, middle-aged woman, staring at the frosted over display, not sliding open to peruse the treats, but occasionally peeking behind her when the man got exceptionally loud.

 

They were waiting to check out. For him to check out.

 

I wasn’t going to wait to approach the counter with the angry old man in a suit he should’ve retired when the last South Korean dictator died. I stood too close to that man.

 

The cashier, still on the phone, tried moving him along with words one more time so he wouldn’t be rude to me, a guest in the country. He wouldn’t go. He kept tapping those condoms. Kept talking, but scooted a bit to the side for me.

 

The cashier then tried ignoring him to tend to me.

 

I don’t know much Korean, but I know “Gen-chan-a.” It’s okay. Or as I tried to say, “Gen-chan-a?” Hopefully: is it okay?

 

She waved me forward. Holding the phone between her head and her shoulder, she used both hands to take the bottled water from me. She said, “Gen-chan-a.”

 

The man, completely pushed out of his position in front of the Skittles, close to the swinging glass doors with his friend now, taunted me in that tone you probably know from angry people who think you can do nothing about them. “Oooh, understaaand?” It was good English. He got close to me. “Sooorrrryyy.” Students don’t respond to anger or yelling. They know it’s sound and fury signifying nothing compared to their fathers. They respond to silence. It’s uncomfortable. The angry old man found it uncomfortable too.

 

I was just looking for exact change in my pockets.

 

“Gen-chan-aaaa?” he asked, that same stretched out stupid tone.

 

“Ani.” No. Impolite form.

 

Two police walked in wearing their lime reflector vests and gloves, looked around, looked at me, looked at the friend who was trying to get the angry old man to finally go because suddenly this harassment was not something he could let continue, and the woman said something into her phone, hung up, then to the police, and they let me walk out with my water and receipt that the wind took from me. 

TV-MA: Sexual Content

Chapter 3

 

The phone lay horizontally across three-fourths of the toaster slots, leaning against a spiral light bulb pack, aimed so the camera framed me from crotch to curls.

 

A royal tie limp about my neck. Leather belt looped but unbuckled. The sateen shirt, hemmed for last year's waistline, showed hints of the work I'd done this last week in the basement with barbells and a punching bag, but that was just a tease. The rest was in tonight's photos. I buttoned myself. Looped the tie. Did the cuffs. Tucked it all. Threw on the sport coat.

 

The final touch for our date, an olfactory tease to draw her in: cologne.

 

I spritzed a cloud.

 

Then dashed through before it settled too heavily.

 

It was four hours till our date.

 

#

 

A black loose-weaved cardigan cinched Priya’s lean curves with the camera angled strategically to cover where other clothes should’ve been. I saw her like never before.

 

Vulnerable. 

 

We hadn’t started the call. Video wouldn’t work. We always tried but it never did. Not Tanzania to US. Tanzania to South Korea. South Korea to Saudi Arabia. This would be the first attempt at Saudi to US, but it wouldn’t work. 

 

“Can we try?” I pleaded over IMs. “Are you ready?” 

 

Her previews were pixel-painted across the 72-inch flat-screen, cycling through the three she’d sent, every transition more tantalizing. Wireless keyboard across my lap, a bottle of KY in the crease of the recliner. Blinds closed. An abstinent week of build-up except in my dreams. My mouse hovered over the call button. I was ready.

 

“Can we wait?”

 

I zipped up my pants. “Is your family still there?”

 

“They’ve gone till 5:00. That’s when they said to start dinner anyway.” She was 8 hours ahead and it was 9:00 am her time. Plenty of time. “You’ll probably fall asleep before then. How’s Lady?”

 

“Snoring on my parents’ bed haha She’s been a lapdog since I got back, but she weighs almost as much as you except with claws that sink in when she hugs.”

 

“She’s missed her boy. Lucky girl.”

 

“You’re nervous.”

 

“A little,” she admitted.

 

“If you’re not ready, we can wait.”

 

“I already made you wait.” 

 

“And I’m fine waiting another year. Two. Ten. Forever if you’re never ready.”

 

“I suggested this.”

 

“We can have a normal call. A date without expectations. The furthest we’ll venture is that trembling, furtive moment as my hand slides towards yours for the first time.”

 

“I want to. For you,” she insisted. “Why me?”

 

“What?”

 

“That’s what I always come back to. You could have anyone.”

 

“We both know that’s not true. I’ve had one prior girlfriend. For two weeks. This is my longest, most stable relationship.”

 

“If you’d just talk to strangers. You’re very charming. And we like your golden curls. You know all these amazing people: a pro boxer, a pilot, other writers, people who have traveled and held jobs and can give you a normal life, but you’re stuck with a nobody.”

 

“You know how special Lady is to me? I locked her away for the night after 20 months apart while you and I have talked nearly every day. I’d still rather spend tonight with you. You’re everything to me.”

 

“Why? Why me?”

 

“I haven’t told you about the prophecy that old blind woman told me in Korea? You’re the chosen one. Destined to change the world.”

 

“No, you’ve never told me this blind Korean woman story.”

 

“She’s actually Dutch-Irish. I just met her in Korea.”

 

“Really. Why?”

“I don’t have a satisfying answer. The standard compliments. You’re smart, caring; you have the straightest face when teasing me so I’m about to have a heart attack before you let me in on the joke.

 

“It’s not just that you have a nice butt, either,” I continued. “You do, evident by the preview. But mostly you let me be me, even if I’m scared to. While I was playing photographer earlier, I saw myself puffing out the waistband of my athletic shorts, but it’s no more than last time and you seemed like you liked those. You asked for more. So I ignored my self-scrutiny to take 12 photos for you.”

 

“12? I don’t have 12. I had 7 and you’ve already seen 3!”

 

“Hey, it’s okay. Those 3 are better than all of mine. They’re each beautiful, distinct stories. Mine are just one story, slowly unfolding. It’s just a boy and his towel and while you’ll love the ending, they can’t compare to even your previews.”

 

“I want to do this.”

 

“We will. When you’re ready. Maybe a regular call will loosen you up, but if it doesn’t, we can just talk.”

 

I clicked the call button. It dialed. The video didn’t work, but even the audio was never secure. The connection often mechanized our voices or she’d hear me but I wouldn’t hear her or she’d be seconds behind or it’d connect for a greeting but drop before the pleasantries. That was why I always started with “I love you.”

 

“I love you too,” she said. There was a happy lilt to her accent. “I think this is the first time I’ve been this nervous with you.” When she got excited, her words rolled like in her Arabic. It was contagious excitement. “It’s always so simple. Never any pressure.”

 

“Not even now?”

 

“I’m only nervous because I want it to be perfect. It won’t be. I know that, but I want it anyway. I’m sorry.”

 

“Please don’t be.”

 

“It’s just that I tried with James for his sake. I never liked it so it wasn’t often and even those previews are more than he ever saw. You like them, right?”

 

“Love them,” I said as the next flicked across the screen. 

 

“You better. When it was over, I had given him all these personal moments that I wanted back. And I trust you, but I trusted him too.”

 

The connection buzzed during our silence. 

“What if I tell you something that has me shaking just thinking about admitting for the first time?” I asked, adjusting myself in the leather chair so it squeaked under me. “Maybe by trusting you with this, it’ll open you up too. 

 

“Please don’t say anything till the end.”

 

#

 

Thinking back, it happened during a few months between 2nd and 3rd grade, but it felt like years.

 

Derek had moved into the brick house catty-cornerfrom mine. I'd just gotten turtle rimmed glasses. Still had my platinum blonde bowl cut and Mom dressed me in sweater vests. I was making progress with Dr. Hannah, my speech therapist. We played this game where we rolled plastic pigs and got points if they landed on their feet or were touching another. If one was on top of each other from behind, I had to yell "Sooie!" I just realized why that was worth the most points.

 

Anyway, Evan and I were staying at Derek's. He was a year older but held back in kindergarten but a big kid regardless--his head was too big for our Little League helmets. But he was scared of spending the night away from home. He'd cry. So we stayed at his house. There were two water beds and a small TV with a built-in VCR sitting on a wooden stool.

 

In those days, everyone had cable or static. Satellite wasn’t really a thing yet. 45 was Cartoon Network: Johnny Bravo, Dexter's Lab, Cow & Chicken. 34 was Nickelodeon: Angry Beavers, Rugrats, AHH! Real Monsters.

 

For most families, 25 and 26 were ants. Snow, fuzz, whatever you called it. But Derek got them. HBO and Cinemax. They played movies with swears. One night, according to the TV Guide channel, Cinemax was finishing Terminator. We were obsessed because our parents didn't want us seeing parts and fast forwarded most. That night we caught the credits.

 

Then a warning came on: TV-MA.

Adult language.

Adult situations.

Nudity.

 

The girl was kissing the guy. Down there. On his thing. He liked it.

 

We knew we shouldn't watch and had the sound low. Evan put his ear to the speaker. “That's silly,” he said. “Why's he so happy?”

 

Derek and I just watched. We didn't understand, maybe we almost did, but we definitely wanted to.

 

We got naked like they did. Derek made me try it on him first as he watched. We'd been running all evening playing ghost in the graveyard till dark. It was salty. Then he made Evan.

 

“Evan's better,” he said like it was soccer and he was picking teams.

 

Then he made me do it to Evan then Evan to me. We didn't understand.

 

Next time Derek had chigger bites there. Red marks from grass bugs. His mom had seen when giving him a bath and that's how he knew what they were. He made me do it again anyway.

 

Sometimes we stood in a circle in the back yard with our pants down and everything touching.

 

Then he told an older boy, Blair, 6th grade. He didn't believe Derek so he made me show him. It was different with him. It was bigger and he made noises and moved his hips and it was wet and salty at the end and I didn't want to anymore. But I had to. They made me. Not forced, but coerced. Teased.

 

When my mom took me to register for 3rd grade. We saw Mrs. Wagner and Derek there. “You're with my Derek this year!” she said.

 

When we got to the car, I cried to my mom. “I don't like Derek anymore.”

 

Kids are like that. One day friends, one day not. Over little things. So she called the school and my test scores put me in the gifted program.

 

#

 

“Derek's parents found out and yelled and swore and threatened to tell Evan’s parents and I wondered if they did or if my parents knew or know now. I've never told anyone. I just buried it and cried after I saw him at school even in high school when he was a baseball and football star, still close with Evan, slinging ‘Fag’ around at any kid with a haircut he didn’t like. Even me. Think that moron even remembered?”

 

The poor connection’s static listened closely and I thought the call might’ve dropped and I’d have to say it again and I wondered if I could without throwing up.

 

“I love you,” she said.

 

 

“There's more but I don't want to burden you with too much."

 

"There's no such thing as too much between us. We can survive anything so please, when you're ready, you can tell me anything."

 

"It wasn't just my mouth.

 

"And this next part is really messed up in a way so please don't judge me, but when I was a teenager, angsty and hormonal, jerking off was the easiest way to cope and when it got really bad, when I was in bed crying that no one liked me despite having a lunch table-worth of friends that disproved that, I felt that old life creeping back like self-destructive pleasure. So that makes me a masochist or something. I was just so far gone, submissive which no man should be, right? And I thought I was secretly gay, which in high school, everyone used that as an insult so I felt shame when I did that and shame when they said it, especially Derek or Evan who were in my gym classes with gym lockers right by mine, and I still carry it with me but sometimes I'm feeling so low that I need that taboo pleasure."

 

Reclaiming an old trauma as a current fetish might seem fucked up but it was therapy, a release I'd never gotten. She was intuitive enough to know that. Kind enough not to judge. I hope you will be too.

 

"I love you," she said again because what else was there to say in this situation?

 

"It's dealt with. I don't cry over it much. Just shake. A little. But I don't want it buried from you.”

 

She said, “I’ve sent you four emails. You can’t open them until I tell you and you can’t touch till I tell you and you definitely can’t finish until I tell you. I’ll tease you like you like and make you beg until you’re mine.”

 

“Yes, my goddess.”

Loving a Mutt

My sister Jessie White was standing in the parking lot outside Hoffman Hall to avoid her husband’s friend, or aunt, or godmother’s son, or someone’s wedding. At first I thought she’d told me it was a baptism, but she informed me I had a terrible memory. Her excuse was that it was family weekend and she wanted to see me, but she was lying.

 “Let me in!” she squawked through the phone. She honked when I didn’t immediately appear at the window.

“Stop it!” I said grabbing my wallet and keys from the desk. I ran down the stairs, slipped on the last one and caught myself on the railing. I found her black Ford Focus parked in a handicapped spot.

“Mom baked these for you.” She held an eight by eight inch pan with a foil cover. “They’re brownies. They’re good too.” She strolled towards me with her suitcase rolling behind her. “There’s another bag in the trunk and my computer bag is up front. Be a darling and get them for me.” She had a drawl even when we lived in Illinois, but it grew worse since attending Ole Miss.

“What’s with all the bags?”

“I told you I’d be comin’ to visit. You didn’t really think I’d only stay for a few hours, did you?”

I lugged the two bags towards the curb where she stood when I heard a yelp. In the back window, a dog shoved its brown nose against the glass, then licked the snot marks. “Jessie?”

“That’s Bear. We’ll get him in a minute,” she replied and walked away leaving her other bag for me. “Now y’all gonna come and open the door?”

 “Hold on.” I jogged to her and opened the door, but she was filing her thumbnail so I pushed her through.

 “Hey!” she stumbled forward. “Where am I going now?” she asked.

I walked past her, bumping her with one of the bags. “Sorry.” I curled one bag on my shoulder, the laptop case bounced against my thigh as I dragged the third up the two flights of stairs. One of the clasps scraped the brick wall. Then I led her down the hall, past the bathroom, to room 210. I tossed the bags on the bed.

“Careful!” she yelled and unzipped one of the suitcases. She held up her perfume bottles to the light then set them on my desk. 

“Where do you expect to sleep?” I asked. “I live in a single so I’ve got eighty square feet for me. At least half of it is taken up by the furniture.”

“I’m taking the bed.” She rummaged through my closet for hangers and hung up her shirts then her pants and even a dress. She pulled out a pair of sandals, a pair of heels, and then some running shoes and set them on the closet shelf. “I’m sure your little girlfriend would let you crash with her.”

 “I’m not sleeping on the floor.”

“That’s up to you, honey, but I get the bed.” She zipped up her bag and set it on the floor. When she examined the room, she swung her purse around and knocked a cup of water off the desk.

I threw a towel over the wet spot then stepped on it. “Why are you here?”

“It’s family weekend.” She clasped her hands in front of her chest, a gesture of devotion to family.

“It’s parents’ weekend,” I said.

 “Oh shush. Where’s your bathroom?” she asked with her hand on the doorknob.

I peeled a dried callus. Over the past month, the ones below my fingers had swollen from lifting weights. “Why?”

She just looked at me with her skinny arms folded.

“This is an all guys’ dorm. There’s no women’s bathroom. You have to go—“

She held up a hand, “Grow up, Little Brother.”

I led her to the bathroom, dragging her by the wrist. I peeked inside, then said “Make it quick.” I stood with my arms crossed outside the door. No one walked by.

Five minutes later, she pushed through the door and the dry hinges popped as it swung shut. “It smells in there. And you’re out of soap.”

“What do you expect to do with the mutt?”

She headed back to my room and I followed. “Oh Bear? Isn’t he adorable? He’s a Chocolate Lab and Boxer mix. They say he has some Pit Bull in him too, but he’s just the sweetest thing. I can’t possibly believe that.”

“I asked what do you expect to do with him?”

“What do you mean? He’s sleeping with me.”

“Dogs aren’t allowed in the dorm!”

“Relax. He’ll be good, I promise. He’s not staying in the car.”

“He’s a seventy pound guard dog! People walk by here every hour. Drunk kids are going to be yelling outside tonight. He’ll bark his head off at all of them! If a squirrel or bird perches in that tree, he’ll lunge for it.”

“He’s not staying in the car,” she repeated.

I gave in and Bear leaped up the stairs two at a time, tugging the leash, then stopped to sniff a crumb or dried leaf. I had to drag him up the last flight because he was chasing a cricket down the stairs and I thought I heard someone coming. The dog hopped onto Jessie’s lap when we arrived at the room. She had the television on “Lifetime” and some man was beating his wife or daughter.

“I think he needs to poo. Do you need to make a doodoo, Bear? Bear Lee? Look at me. Do you need to make a poopy?” she asked in a baby voice. “Come on, you can show me the campus now.” She shoved the leash back in my hands.

 

We returned half an hour later.

“That was it, huh? I’ve got to say, Little Brother, that your campus is tiny.”

I leaned against the door while Bear licked his crotch on my bed.

Jessie sat in the chair filing her orange nails. “So now what?” she asked.

“I have a lab report for Chemistry and sevety pages of Melville to read for American Lit.” The sun had set and headlights flashed through the window. I lowered the blinds.

“You’re a wild one, Little Brother.”

Someone a few rooms over yelled “Oh Jesus! I’ve gotta piss like a race horse!” Someone else shouted, “Shut the fuck up!”

“I also have to read a case-study on schizophrenics. I have a chapter on Eskimos and some Calc problems. It might be family weekend for you, but I’m swamped.”

“Let’s do math. I can help.”

“I don’t need your help.” I pushed the mutt off the bed, but he thought it was time to play and grabbed a sock from the floor. He shoved it towards my hand and when I took hold, he growled and shook his head to rip it away. “Bear!”

Jessie called him. “Hey mister. You play nice now, or Mommy’s going to spank you. You don’t want a spanking do you, Mr. Bear? No. No, you don’t.” He hopped on her lap. His tail streaked through the dust on the TV screen. “Kisses?” she asked and the dog licked her ear. “I’ll help with the math. I still remember a thing or two.”

“You know how all those inbred Southern states have such crappy roads? That’s because people like you are their engineers. Half of your graduating class can’t count higher than the fourteen teeth they have left.”

“Did my little brother just make a joke?” She clapped her hands once in minimal applause. “Now I am so very proud.”

I flipped through my math book until I found the right page. I wrote down  in my notebook.

 “I’m going to watch a movie.” She flipped through my book of CD’s, DVD’s, and video games and pulled out “Halloween.”

“I’m trying to work here.”

“I know. You don’t have to watch.” She stuck it in the DVD player. “Hey, remember that time you burnt down the house?”

I erased my work and began the problem again. “I only smoked up the kitchen.”

“You stuck a bagel in the microwave for twenty minutes.” She opened my microwave and slammed the door shut.

I closed my book and tossed it on the desk, but it bounced off the corner. “I was five.”

“The smoke alarm woke everyone up. Dad carried us outside where we heard the microwave beeping.”

I shook my head. “My breakfast looked like a cremated rat.” 

“Dad yelled at you for an hour.”

“He always found a reason to yell.”

“You guys fought a lot.” She lay on the bed and stretched her feet into my face. Bear jumped up with her and sat on her lap. He licked her face and she laughed and flailed and nearly kicked my nose.

I grabbed two Cokes from the mini-fridge and offered her one. Then I took the chair to avoid injury. I stuck my math book on the shelf between the Psych textbook and my Bible.

She held up her soda for a toast. “To Dad?”

 “Yeah.” I picked up my dumbbell and curled it once when she interrupted.

“If you’re going to work out you’d better take a shower after. I’m not sleeping in here with you smelling like an ox.”

I curled it a few more times, but Bear sniffed the weight and licked my hand. I wiped the spit off on a towel.

She grabbed a bag of pretzels and munched a few.

“Don’t get crumbs on my bed.”

She brushed the sheets twice. “There. Are you happy?”

“Now I’m going to have to sweep.”

She dropped the bag on the floor without rolling the top. The movie played a thirty-second loop of music on the menu screen. “I don’t even want to watch this now. I know! I just learned a new magic trick.”

When I was eight, she’d practice magic tricks and sometimes chained me to our minivan’s door handle for a miraculous escape, but she could never figure out the trick. Once she lost the key and rummaged through her room to find it. I stood outside for half an hour until I yanked so hard that I broke the handcuffs and slit an artery in my wrist. When she ran out and saw the blood spurting, she fainted and hit her head on the garage floor. A neighbor rushed us to the emergency room. I had to get three stitches and she had a concussion.

“No handcuffs.”

 “It’s just a card trick.” She combed through her purse and pulled out a deck. “Here. Pick one.” She held out ten cards and I drew the two of spades. I slid it between the other cards. She shuffled them then flipped up the ten of diamonds. “Is this your card?”

“No.”

“How about this?” She snapped her left hand and Bear’s ears perked up. The card in her right transformed into the two of spades. However the corner of the ten of diamonds stuck out from behind my card. “Crap. Let me try again.”

For the next three hours we watched “Halloween” through the credits, then we played the extra features, deleted scenes, and some of the commentary. At midnight, I dropped my pillow and my blanket on the floor.

Jessie said, “Hey now. What am I supposed to use?”

“You didn’t bring a pillow or cover or anything?” Bear curled up on a pile of dirty clothes and sneezed.

“I forgot.”

I grabbed my spare blanket from the closet and unfolded it for her. “Here. I don’t have another pillow though.”

“Then you can use a sweatshirt or something.”  She hugged the pillow. “Put another movie in.”

“We’re going to bed.”

“It’ll help me fall asleep.” She insisted until “Halloween 2” played. I lay awake for half an hour until she slept, then turned off the TV.

 

Six hours later, there was a faint grey of dawn from the window and I pulled a rolled-up sweatshirt over my head. “What the hell are you doing?”

“What’d you say?” she asked and turned off the hair dryer.

 “I’m trying to sleep here. What time is it?” I glanced at the clock. “6:37?! I hate you.” I tossed the sweatshirt at her.  “I really do.”

She flicked the dryer on and shouted “You’re wasting your life sleeping so much, Little Brother.”

I grabbed my soap, shampoo and towel—it was already wet—and headed to the bathroom. It smelled of her Hugo Boss perfume and strawberries, kiwis, and melons from her Garnier Fructis shampoo. I splashed my face with cold water. Pink lips had smudged the mirror with a kiss. I walked to the showers and stepped over the puddle in front. 

Ten minutes later when I cracked open the door to my room, Bear growled.

I hung up my towel on the corner of the mini-fridge. “Were you bathing the dog in there?” I asked.

Her phone lit up and played “Barbie Girl” by Aqua. She rocked back and forth on the bed.

“Are you going to answer that?”

The number wasn’t programmed in her phone so it didn’t have a name with it. I handed it to her.

She took it and pressed the “End” button. “What’s for breakfast?” Bear ran circles around my legs and whimpered with his ears perked up.

“Who was that?”

“We should run to McDonald’s and get Bear something. He likes Egg McMuffins.” The phone rang again.

“In a minute. Who is that?”

“Wrong number.”

“So tell them. Give me the phone and I’ll do it.”

I reached for it and she exclaimed “No!”

Bear growled at me. “Calm down, boy. Just tell them already.”

“Let’s go get something for this little doody head. You like McDonald’s, don’t you, Bear? You know what McDonald’s is, don’t you, boy?” Bear licked his lips. He sat in front of the door. “Aw, good boy.” She grabbed a cup and cleaned it out with her shirt. “I need to shave my legs. You got any coffee around here?” She rummaged through the bread, Easy Mac, and Saltines on my shelves.

“You’re not doing that here.”

She opened and closed the desk drawers. “I need some coffee.”

“I don’t have any. Did anyone see you in the bathroom?”

“Is anyone up at six around here?” She grabbed a Coke from the fridge and knocked the towel onto the floor. Her fingernail couldn’t slide beneath the tab and she scratched at the top until she handed it to me.

I slid a paper clip under the tab and pried it open. “I wouldn’t know,” I hung up the towel. Bear barked at the door. “Keep him quiet.”

“He’s a dog, honey. I can’t make him do much of anything. But I promised him food so now he’s expecting some. Let’s go.”

“I have some ham in the fridge. He can have that.”

She ransacked my wallet, checking the cash, the credit cards and even the pictures. “Why don’t we just go get some McDonald’s? It’s not expensive.”

I snatched it from her. “Just give him the ham.”

She fed it to him in pieces until he scooted her out of the way and ate from the Tupperware. He licked it clean of all juices and looked to Jessie for more.

“When’d you get the mutt anyway?”

“I was headed to Mom’s and I saw him at a rest stop. His fur was matted and he didn’t have a collar. He was begging people for food but no one would give him any. This one woman even swatted him with her purse so that he’d go away. He wasn’t even being mean! He just needed someone to love him and feed him. So I got some chips from the vending machine and you wouldn’t believe how many tricks he already knew. He could shake and sit and even stand on his back legs and dance a little. And I haven’t had a dog since Lucky died when we were kids so I adopted him.”

“Isn’t Zach allergic?”

The phone rang again.

“At least turn it on silent if you’re not going to answer.”

“Good idea. So how’s life?”

I gargled some mouthwash then swallowed it. “Why?”

“We’re family. We’re supposed to care about each other and ask how life is and if anything’s wrong.” She grabbed a bar of chocolate from her purse and nibbled a piece.

“Uh-huh,” I said. “It’s good I guess.”

She asked “And school’s okay? I guess you were always a good student, so I don’t need to ask about that. How are things with your friends? Maybe your girlfriend? Are things good with her?”

“I don’t have one. Why are you asking?” I turned on the TV and sat on the bed.

The phone lit up again but didn’t play the ring tone. She laid it on the bed with the screen down. “I told you. We’re family.” She scooted next to me so that our elbows touched.

I shifted away. “That’s a crap answer. Just like why you’re here at all.”

She stared at the TV screen after I clicked it off.

“Why are you here?”

She reached for the remote but I held it above our heads. She patted her knee, but Bear lay down licking the floor. “Stop it!” She snapped her fingers and pointed. Her head rocked back against the wall. “Mom wouldn’t tell you. She told me I had to.”

“Tell me what?”

“I’m getting to it. So I called you up but instead of telling you, I lied and said I was coming up.”

“You called me a week ago. Why were you with Mom a week ago?” I asked.

“Stop interrupting me, will you?” She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees and her forehead on her palms. “I went home about two weeks ago. Zach and I had a fight.”

“I know.”

“How would you know that?”

“Why else would you be avoiding him?”

“We’ve fought before, but this time he stormed off and bought a motorcycle. Can you believe that? 13,000 dollars for a stupid bike. That’s part of what we argued about before. He wanted to buy one and I said it was too dangerous. But then we fought and he did it anyway and revved the engine in the driveway. So I ran out. I grabbed my clothes and called in work for some vacation time and I just drove away. That’s when I found Bear. At first I wasn’t sure where I’d go, but I ended up heading to Illinois. I practically cried the whole eight hours to Mom’s. I hadn’t called her or anything so when I got there, I circled the block a few times. You know the Wombles have their house for sale? Jenny walked in on Frank and another woman a few months ago. She kicked him out and that house is too big for just her.” She stood facing the wall. She picked up her soda but didn’t drink out. She just held it to her lips, biting the rim. “I just get so mad at him! He’s still a child. He does what he wants when he wants and—well you don’t really care.” Bear hopped on the bed and chewed on the pillow case. She smacked his butt and he yelped then went back to mumbling the pillow. She scratched behind his ears then chugged her soda. She broke off a piece of chocolate for him. “Aww! Mommy’s sorry, boy. She didn’t mean to hurt you. He never learns.”

“Zach or the dog?”

“Zach! I don’t want to do it anymore!”

“Do what?”

“Play housewife to him. No, play bread-winner and housewife.”

“You do it for the dog.”

“Bear doesn’t buy motorcycles. And he’ll keep doing it.”

“Zach’s not going to keep buying motorcycles. And when he’s done with school—“

“I’ll still have to clean and cook. And I don’t want to take care of him when he’s healthy or even when he’s sick. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“You still are. You’re doing it for Bear. You walk him and buy him toys.”

“He’s a dog, honey. I have to.”

“You let him sleep with you.”

“He likes to snuggle.”

“You even buy him McDonald’s. I don’t think Bear asked for an Egg McMuffin. You ordered it because that’s what Zach usually gets. Bear is just a stray you picked up when you were lonely.”

Bear licked the Tupperware, but it was empty so he licked the chocolate on Jessie’s fingers.

“That’s weird.” She sprayed my cologne on her wrist and sniffed it then smelled my Gillette shampoo and body wash.

“What about Zach?”

 She slammed her soda on the desk and it spilled onto her hand. “Dammit!” She wiped her hand on the bed then used a towel to clean the desk. She sipped the soda until it was gone and tossed the can in the waste basket. “You think Zach would like a dog?”

“He’s allergic.”

“You’re thinking of his brother.”

Bear jumped onto the bed and sat next to me. He sniffed my hands and licked them.

Jessie rubbed under his chin. “I love you, Bear.” Bear gnawed on her fingertips. “You’re probably pretty lost right now. First we stayed at my mommy’s place. Now we’re here. And who knows where you were before all of that.”

He rolled onto his side and laid his head on my thigh.

 “Well you’ve got one more move ahead of you. If your daddy is okay with it, it should be your last. Would you like to meet your daddy?” She scratched his stomach and his back leg kicked.

Typos

She was dead because of a typo.

I was teaching a hagwon in Korea and she was from Tanzania, where she’d gone to medical school and only needed another year of rotations to graduate, but she was living with extended family in Saudi Arabia, four months and still awaiting citizenship and now she was in the hospital for some reason or another. I only got some of the story through her Indian friend, Meghana, who had stiff, awkward English, not many contractions, and she was suspicious because she had never heard of me—no one had. But when my fiancé woke up in what she described as The Ritz with straps on the beds, she gave her friend my email and a message for me, “Have a nice break.” This was during the Lunar New Year, a big deal in Korea, and the hagwon gave us a four-day vacation, with the weekend. And so a few days later, a few days of telling Meghana Priya’s facts to prove I was legit, like how she loved playing with the gardener’s dog at her international school which was a big no-no, did you know Muslims aren’t supposed to touch dogs and pigs? They’re dirty. She also kept kittens under her porch but three days later she got a whooping and they got tossed out—anyway, my sleep schedule was hectic. I was either catatonic with worry—I don’t know what catatonic’s actually like, but it’s as close as I’ve ever come—drooling and starving or I was napping because I never felt okay sleeping more than an hour because I had to check my email and I just wasn’t expending any energy, I wasn’t doing anything. I didn’t need sleep.

I woke up from a nap and Priya was dead. I got that email. “Priya is dead” It was just like that. Meghana sent a follow-up, something about how her sister said no one’s allowed to visit so she’s getting her phone back and with my groggy head, frantic emotional state, and the dangling participles, that follow-up was gibberish. I called my mom. It was like 3 AM back in Illinois and so of course she didn’t pick up so I sent Meghana an email, “thank you fro tellingme,” just like that when my mom called. But it was a new phone, and I never used it, not really, not in Korea, who’d call? And answering it was weird because you slid your finger to the left to hang up and the right to answer or maybe it was the other way around and—now, this issue wasn’t mentioned in any of the reviews, not even the one-star rants—but the touch screen wasn’t responsive when wet. Anyway, I called back and Mom picked up finally and said “Sorry, honey, did I wake you?” because time zone math was hard at any hour. “I thought you had called so I was calling back. This thing’s just always chirping about old alerts and—”

“I called.”

I was real quiet though so she didn’t hear. I was being quiet because I had to explain everything first, how I was engaged and to a Muslim girl, to a girl I’d met online two years ago but we’d only been engaged four months and—

“SHE’S DEAD!”

But I was all snot around my nose and mouth and it gurgled as I wailed. I had to repeat myself. I screamed it a lot. So she could hear.

“She’s dead! She’s dead! She’s dead!”

“Honey, what? Who is?”

“I’ve been engaged for four months and—she’s dead!”

Every parent wants to hear their honey found love and got ready to stop traveling so they could settle and marry, hopefully near enough to the parents so Christmas visits wouldn’t take a toll on budget or butt, but not like this, not when it’s all sobs and snot bubbles and they can’t understand it. Oh! The sounds I made, like before graduation with that tipped cow. Its sounds. I made its sounds, his or hers, I think hers, I think there were udders. The wails and blubbering and how I moved the receiver away when all that could come out were goddams and fuckings because dear old Mom had never heard me say those except when I was with friends in my room for LAN parties—this was back in high school—and our teenage foul mouths got too excited for discretion, but now, in my agony, I moved the receiver away and even yelled quietly, if not for my mom then for the old lady living next door—I think the landlady—who might not know the words, she hardly knew hello, but she’d know the tone. The other wall’s neighbor was another teacher, in Tokyo this vacation.

“And I called the UN Women and UNHCR and Amnesty International and…”

When I went quiet, suffocating on snot that I wiped on a pink blanket, washed only a few days ago and drying on the rack till my last nap, my mom asked, “Are you still there?” I was. “You can take the day off.” This must’ve been Friday morning and her time zone math hadn’t processed yet, mine just did, and, oh god, it was 3 AM after a work day and tomorrow was another at 7, and here I was screaming, “She’s dead!” at her when she should be sleeping. “Is there anyone there you can be with?”

“We’ve got this vacation for the new year. They’re all gone.”

After I was dehydrated and had gone for my post-sleep piss, still on the phone with my mother but I had aimed for the bowl, missing the water so she wouldn’t hear and—god forbid—get uncomfortable, I asked about our family dog. I got this story about Lady and the squirrels in our willow tree and then she asked if I’d be okay and she told me to go to a doctor for something to tide me over and that Dad would start finding deals on plane tickets first thing in the morning, and oh yeah, what was your credit card number again?

So I went back to my email; if I was this distraught, Meghana must be too. She had sent another email. “they’re sending her family home I think it is good to be alone now. I am feeling a lot of relief like a big weight lifted off,” just like that and I couldn’t process it. In the last day or two getting to know this Indian girl from Tanzania, there were all these unfathomable cultural mindsets, how she supported forced arranged marriage, how marriage to an American was ludicrous, how a normal life where she could go outside and work and see the sun occasionally was a dream and that was making her sad, the hope was, because it couldn’t possibly be the beatings and being made to feel worthless making her sad; it was the hope. But to hear this was a relief—“how is this a relief she’s dead,” like that, but I wanted to send “She’s dead! Dead! SHE’S DEAD! How is that a relief to anyone but her?” That.

I nearly broke my mug against the window hoping for both shatterings but I worried too much about the neighbor lady and about the kids who hung out in the alley below to smoke. And I was weak. The tears and snot drained me.

“Who told you?” Meghana sent.

“You. You sent a message that said ‘Priya is dead!’ Like that.”

“Noooooooo! She is not* dead! Oh goodness I’m a screw up today. She didnot want me to tell you, I think. not more than have a good break but I never stop talking. And her family is so secretive, always like a secret society, and I get the feeling they were covering up things so I thought maybe you knew more. But I’m sorry. I missed one word and changed it completely. I’m really really sorry!”

So I called back my mom and while waiting for her to answer, I replied to Meghana “You could have said ALIVE!” It’d been about 15 minutes since my last phone call so she was probably just sleeping again when I told her the good news. “Please don’t say anything else,” I begged.

“You’ll both have to come to terms with this now.”

“I know.”

“I love you.”

“I know.”

It wasn’t long before Priya had her phone and she couldn’t talk because the doctors and nurses would hear and her parents or uncle were probably paying them to report back and to put on the charts that this was just an infection, but she could email. “Hey you…how is your break? x" and that had me crying for a second time that night, first from sorrow, now joy. We always argued which were hugs and which were kisses. That was a kiss but Xs look like arms crossing for a hug.

What do you say to a person? “I don’t do well when we don’t talk, but I’m amazing now. How are you doing? I mean, really?”

“I’m peachy. That always makes me laugh. Peaches are terrible. Do you like peaches? I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch. Just busy and stuff. Lots of stuff to get done and my internet was limited and so I asked Meghana to tell you I’d be busy because you’re such a worrier,” she sent that.

“Peaches suck. And Priya, you can always talk to me. I’ll always understand. Like how I agree peaches suck. Nectarines too. They’re peaches in need of Rogaine. We’ll get you to date-quality or strawberry. What’s your favorite fruit? I’ll get you feeling close to that.” I was feeling well enough to flip on the lights and my eyes no longer ached from staring at a bright screen in otherwise darkness.  

“I have lots of favorite fruit. I knew I shouldn’t have gotten her to talk to you.”

“Do you like strawberries? I like them dipped in sugar especially when they’re sour.”

“How am I doing? Maybe I’m wondering why and how the fuck I’m still breathing now it’s commotion and blame.”

“I don’t blame you. I would never.”

“I don't really care if you blame me or not. I don't care if anyone blames me or not. I don't care what anyone thinks or is thinking. I really diidn't want to be alive when this shit was happening. But somehow, all the shit’s in my system but I'm exactly where I was a few days ago. Only now there's people breathing down my throat and I've screwed up my chance at this. I'm just fucked really. I did it right and it's almost like this fucked up universe can't even let me go because I'm supposed to still suffer more. I can't even fucking do that without my family interfering.”

“I love you,” I sent.

“Yeah.”

M&M & M&Ms


Originally printed in the Bangor Uni newspaper in 2011, after being written for a class, Showing & Telling with Professor Lisa Blower. This was later edited by myself and Professor Arthur Johnson till it turned into "A Welsh Affair."

-----------------------------

 

Angie and I, both being Americans studying in Wales, needed a Mexican and Movie night. We shortened it to “M&M night,” to which we brought M&Ms. It was a monthly event with countdowns on Facebook and she’d text me the day of, asking “U pumpd 4 2nite?!!!”

I’d reply, “Of course.”

She cooked tacos and quesadillas, and I ate a bag of nachos while waiting. We complained that nothing tasted right. I told her, “It’s the ingredients, not your cooking.” We ate sitting on her quilt. It was white with colored circles and I’d always sit on the orange one at the foot of the bed. She didn’t have any plates so we ate from paper towels on our laps. She warned me if I spilled I’d better only stain my pants and not her quilt. It was a present from her boyfriend’s nana.

She set the laptop on a purple circle and tilted the screen and asked, “Can ya see alright?” She wriggled closer so our knees touched. I could smell the salsa on her breath.

During The Strangers, a horror flick, she’d squeeze her plush bear Jimothy. She’d hold him up when the eerie music signaled a killer or kitten to spring from the bushes. She’d flinch and bang her head on post cards of castles and cathedrals in Dublin and Cardiff that were taped to the wall. Sometimes Jimothy wasn’t enough so she’d clutch my shoulder. Her fingernails would dig in.

I’d snicker at the cheesy effects or clichés or at the truly scary moments when I didn’t want her to know how desperate my lungs were to breathe again.

The movies were online and we could only watch seventy-two minutes before the website made us wait half an hour. But she found that after closing the browser then reopening it the wait time was only ten minutes.

“Why they gotta do that?” she asked.

“Probably bandwidth restrictions.”

“What’s bandwidth?”

“Something technical,” I said. “Hard to explain.”

During the break she gave me a tour of her room. Seated next to me she’d wave her arm like Vana White and present each spectacle. “The litter bin’s under the desk. That’s also where I study. Over there’s the toilet. Gotta potty? Do it now. And you’re sitting on my bed.”

“Awful tour. Give me some history.”

She said into my ear, “Okay, you’re sitting on my bed and I haven’t had sex in it yet.”

I got up and looked at the photos on her desk. The frames sat on wrinkled and grease-stained syllabi for classes. When I picked a frame up, a diet coke can rolled down the desk and clattered on the crumbed carpet. “Your boyfriend?” I asked.

“That’s my dog.” She snatched the picture from me. Our hands touched. “That’s my boo. And that’s Mommy. She looks like me, doesn’t she?” She held up the photo by her ear so I could see them side-by-side.

“She’s very pretty.”

“Aww, so that means you think I am, too.”

I stuffed a cold taco in my mouth and sputtered that she was gorgeous (“Yo go-gwith”) but she just asked, “What?”

“So, have any photos of your dad?”

“We’re not close,” she said, staring at the photo of her mom. She wiped at a water stain but her thumb just smudged the glass. “He was kind of abusive, ‘til we kicked him out.”

“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t know.”

Through the walls we heard her flatmates stumble into the kitchen and slam the fridge. One yelled to the other, “Wer muh crisp-pat?” And the other shouted, “Dunno!”

The heater was on and broken so it wouldn’t turn off. The needle pointed at thirty Celsius—it was boiling. She stripped off her fleece and I got a peek at her bellybutton. It was an innie. I sweated in my hoodie until she noticed my flushed cheeks.

“Why don’t you take it off? Put on a little show for me.” She winked and laughed and I said I was fine. I scrunched up my sleeves though.

“How much do I owe you for the tacos and stuff?” I asked and tossed my napkin in her litter bin. She lobbed her wadded-up napkin at it, too, but missed. I threw it back at her and she chucked it at my face. It went back and forth until I tipped a stray throw and she hopped up to spike it like a volleyball player. Instead we collided and the napkin ended up in the bin.

“About eleven quid,” she said.

I patted my pockets for my coin purse but had left it in my flat. “All I have is a ten,” I said with my wallet open.

“I don’t got any change and that’s too much for the tacos but not enough for the night.”

I insisted she take the ten and when she had change, a couple of two-pound coins or a handful of one pounds or even four hundred pence pieces, then she could pay me back.

“Naw, I’ll forget. Just pay me on our way to Clan-whatever this weekend.”

“Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch?” I had been practicing that word since I first saw it, and I was happy for the chance to show off my hard work.

“Yeah, over on Anglesey,” she said. “The movie’s probably ready by now.”

“I need the toilet before we start.” I had been holding it all night but too many sodas had ruined my plan to wait until I got back to my flat.

There was hair in the sink and the tile floor was still wet from her last shower. Her room was small, and with the toilet separated only by a plastic door, well, I was kind of shy. I let out my stream slowly, careful not to aim at the water. I drained my bladder as silently as possible and five minutes later I was done. I washed my hands using her raspberry soap that scented the bathroom. I walked out taking a big whiff of my hands.

“I could hear you, ya know.”

A Welsh Affair

Originally published as "M&Ms and M&M Night" in the Bangor Uni newspaper. Later edited and published in the 2012 Knickerbocker. Also won the 2012 Central College short fiction contest. 

----------------------------------

 

Angie and I, Americans studying at Bangor Uni in Wales, were having an M&M (Mexican and movie) night. It was every Monday after our Witchcraft and Wizardry class. While Professor Radulescu ranted about Christian propaganda against pagans as baby-murderers, she texted me “U pumpd 4 2nite?!!!”

I waited until the professor turned his back then replied, “Yes ma’am, ROFL!”

 

She cooked tacos and quesadillas, and I ate a bag of nachos sitting on the counter beside the cutting board. “Anything I can help with?” I asked for the tenth time.

She pointed at me a butcher knife that dripped cow’s blood. “I got it, okay? I bought way too much so if you want to help, finish those chips or they’ll go stale before our next night together.”

“When will that be?”

“I don’t got anything going on tomorrow,” she said in her country Iowa dialect.

When the beef was brown we made our tacos over the litter bin. We topped the beef with mounds of lettuce and cheese and whatever fell off tumbled into the bin. Salsa dribbled down her thumb and she sucked it clean.  

After the first bite she said, “This doesn’t taste right.”

“It’s the salsa, not your cooking. It’s like eating catsup. The Welsh just don’t have the right spices.”

We ate sitting on her quilt. It was white with colored circles and I’d occupy the orange blob at the foot of the bed. She didn’t have any plates so we ate from paper towels on our laps. She warned me, “If you spill you’d better only stain your pants. This quilt was a present from my boyfriend’s nana. She loves me more than Jeremy. But c’mon, who wouldn’t?” She brushed her crumbs to the carpet. Then she set the laptop on a purple circle and tilted the screen. “Can ya see all right?” She wriggled closer so our knees touched. I could smell the salsa on her breath.

During a horror flick called The Strangers, country music played while Liv Tyler crept through the cabin looking for her cell phone but it was melting in the fireplace.

Angie grabbed her plush bear Jimothy and peered between his ears. She was so focused on Liv Tyler lighting up a cigarette that she didn’t notice the man with a potato-sack mask in the background. When she did, she flinched and banged her head on the wall where she’d taped postcards of castles and cathedrals in Dublin and Cardiff.

Someone pounded at Liv Tyler’s door and she went to answer it with a steak knife in hand. She stopped when she saw the smoke alarm on a chair—she hadn’t put it there.

Jimothy wasn’t enough to quell Angie’s fear so she clutched my shoulder. Her fingernails dug in.

I snickered at old Liv as she fell to her knees and hyperventilated.

“You’d wet yourself if that happened to you,” Angie said.  

“I’d invite the guy in for tea and we’d have a chat while waiting for the water to boil. I’d ask him how he got into this business and he’d tell me how his mother used to scrub him with steel wool in the tub. And when the teapot whistled, I’d take it from the stove and bash in his head.”

“He’d gut you and I’d help,” she said. Her hands were still clutching my shoulder.

Old Liv heard metal clanging outside the cabin, as if someone had whacked the wind chime with a stick. She grabbed the curtains, ready to throw them open when—a grey box blurred the movie and a message popped up saying “You have watch 72 minutes online. Please wait another ten before you continue your viewing.”

“Why they gotta do that?” Angie asked.

“Probably bandwidth restrictions.”

“What’s bandwidth?”

“Something technical,” I said.

She shut the laptop and gave me a tour of her room. Seated next to me she waved her arms like Vanna White. “The litter bin’s under the desk. The desk is where I study. Over there’s the toilet. Gotta potty? Do it now.”

“Awful tour. Give me some history.”

“Okay, you’re sitting on my bed and I haven’t had sex in it yet.”

I got up and looked at the photos on her desk. A frame sat on the wrinkled and grease-spotted syllabus for PSYC 2024: Children in Crisis. I picked up the frame and a Diet Coke can rolled onto the crumbed carpet. I looked at the photo of a chubby pug in a bee costume and asked, “Is this Jeremy?” On its head were springs for antennae with yellow balls at the tips.

“That’s my dog.” She snatched the picture from me. Our hands touched. She handed me a photo of a guy in a sinking kayak. “That’s my boo.” The water was to his waist and he had the paddle over his head but still he grinned for the picture.

I set it on the top shelf of her bookcase where she couldn’t reach.

“Did I ever tell you how we got together? It’s a terrible story so don’t go judging me—I was young,” she said. “I dated this guy Perry through high school and I thought I loved him. I realize now that I just didn’t want to be alone. Perry and I went to different colleges so we were doing this long-distance nonsense. It never works. One night at a party I was lonely and there was Jeremy, getting destroyed at beer pong. After the game I promised his friends that I’d get him home safe. Instead I took him to my room. Even smashed out of his mind, he was respectful and didn’t want to have a fling. He said he couldn’t jeopardize my relationship with Perry, but I won him over. But no judging! I was young and stupid then. And flings are fun sometimes. They’re even better if they turn into something meaningful. You know what I’m talking about.”

“I’ve never had a fling before.”

“You oughta try it. Find yourself chippie while you’re here,” she said.

I looked at her other photos.

“That one’s my mommy. She looks like me, doesn’t she?” She held the photo by her ear so I could see them side-by-side.

“She’s very pretty.”

“Aww, so that means you think I am too.”

I stuffed a cold taco in my mouth and sputtered that she was gorgeous but she just asked, “What?”

“Have any photos of your dad?”

“We’re not close,” she said, staring at the photo of her mom. She wiped at a stain on the glass but her thumb just smudged it. “He was always yelling. I’d wake up at midnight and hide under the bed with Jimothy and my little sis. Once he threw Mom against the wall so hard it knocked over the TV and broke it. That’s why we kicked him out.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know.”

Through the walls we heard the neighbor girls stumble into the kitchen and slam the fridge. One yelled, “Wer muh crisp at?” And the other shouted, “Dunno!”

The baseboard heater popped and hissed and wouldn’t turn off. The thermometer read thirty Celsius—it was boiling. Angie stripped off her fleece and I got a peek at her bellybutton—it was an innie. I sweated in my hoodie until she noticed my flushed cheeks.

“Why don’t you take it off? You could put on a little show for me.” She sashayed and laughed and grabbed my hood drawstrings.

“No thanks. I’m fine.” I shoved up my sleeves though.

“You just have to ruin my fun,” she muttered.

“How much do I owe you for the tacos and stuff?” I asked and tossed my napkin in her litter bin. She had lined it with a plastic ALDI’s bag. She lobbed her napkin at it too, but missed. I threw it back at her and she chucked it at my face. It went back and forth until she hopped up to spike it like a volleyball player. We collided and the napkin ended up in her suitcase with folded clothes. To balance myself, I gripped her by the waist then jerked my hands away.

“The whole thing cost about eleven quid. I tried haggling but they wouldn’t budge,” she said.

I patted my pockets for my coin purse but had left it in my flat. “All I have is a ten,” I said with my wallet open.

“I don’t got any change. That’s too much for the tacos but not enough for the night.”

I insisted she take the ten and pay me back when she had change.

“Naw, I’ll forget. Just pay me on our way to Clan-whatever this weekend.”

“Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogo-gogoch?” I had been practicing that word since I first saw it on a road sign, and I was happy for the chance to show off.

“Yeah, over on Anglesey,” she said. “You better have another three tacos or we’re never going to finish everything. I don’t want it rotting in my litter bin.”

“I can’t eat any more,” I said. I had a half-eaten quesadilla in my lap.

“You’re the man. It’s your responsibility to eat whatever I fix.” She shoved her taco towards my mouth. The salsa ran down cheek.

I shoved the taco away but she kept pushing so I grabbed her wrist. I aimed the taco at her mouth but hit her nose. She leaned back and yanked me with her. She squirmed under me and shook loose the beef from her taco which landed on her quilt. “Lemme go!” she squealed.

I did, thinking she was serious. And I rolled off her and her bed and snatched up the fallen beef. There was no stain.

She ran her fingers through her hair and sat against the wall. Her head banged the taped-up postcards. “It’s probably better you leave,” she snapped.

When turned on, the overhead light buzzed. I always thought it might’ve been the Uni’s way of annoying students into using natural light. But at this late hour there was no natural light and the nearest street lamp was half a block away, by the laundrette.

“Sorry,” I said.

She got up to throw away her taco. “Get out already!”

“I need the toilet first.” I had been holding it all night but too many sodas had ruined my plan to wait until I got back to my flat.

“Use it and get out.” She undid the bow around Jimothy’s neck then retied it until it choked the bear.

There was hair in her sink and the tile floor was still wet from her last shower. Her room was small and the toilet was separated only by a plastic door. I did my business, careful not to aim at the water so it’d be quiet. I washed my hands with her raspberry soap that scented the bathroom. I walked out taking a whiff of my hands.

“I could hear you, ya know.”

 

Two weeks later Angie allowed me to join her in the trampoline club and afterwards we went to a pub where she found a broken needle that some druggie had left on her stool. That was where we planned a three-day getaway to Edinburgh. It was reading week so we wouldn’t miss classes.

“We could get a bed and breakfast,” I said

“Let’s just go to a hostel. They’re cheaper.”

We stayed at a hostel called Globetrotters. It was clean but our other roommates were a Pakastani kid with B.O. who chattered in Spanish on his phone, a Chinese couple who whispered in English but yelled in Mandarin, a cute Polish girl Lechsinska who slept in the bunk above me and an old man who made Angie uncomfortable. One morning she woke up and swore he’d been staring at her, with his hands under the covers doing God-knows-what! I asked if she wanted to exchange rooms but she said she’d be fine. She insisted on being out of the hostel until three in the morning. Usually I carried her back after she had lost a drinking contest.

So today we were hiking in the Pentland Hills, just south of Edinburgh. After an hour we were high in the heather, and the clouds looked like we could hit them with a rock. We took a break for photos. I already had three hundred good ones and she had more.

I had a pebble in my shoe and I leaned on her while I yanked off my shoe.

She caught me staring at her chest. “Hand me my water bottle, will ya?”

I pulled it out of my rucksack.

She squirted some in her mouth then across her forehead. It sprinkled her glasses so she had to wipe them on her shirt. Usually she wore contacts. She bit the nipple of the bottle and let it dangle in her mouth while she yanked her hair into a bun. That hair-do was her lazy look. “Sorry if I’m gross but I’m not showering at that hostel. They ought to have separate bathrooms, one for delicate ladies like me and the Queen and another for creepy geezers.”

“That Pakistani kid hasn’t showered since birth. And this morning I ran into Lechsinska in the bathroom but she was just tweezing her eyebrows. I haven’t seen anyone else in there.”

The nipple popped off the bottle and fell in the dirt. She rubbed the bottle clean against my sleeve. “If I went in there that geezer would follow. I know it. Stick this back in your sack, will ya?” She thrust the bottle at me.

I plotted our course on the map. The trail split and one path went around the peak then down while the other went up without a single switchback. I hiked ahead but she hooked my waistband and yanked me back.

She sniffed and said, “If it weren’t for this head cold I’d run up the mountain.”

I spread out my map that had folds like an accordion. The breeze rustled it in my hands. “We want to go up,” I said.

She groaned. “You picked the harder trail, didn’t ya? I’ll shove you in the reservoir if you did.” After I stuck the map in my rucksack she asked, “What peak is that anyway?”

I waved my hand over the southwestern corner of the map which covered six peaks and the inn we started from. “I think that’s Scald Law.”

Wrong. These mountains need names like The Diaper or The Devil’s Erection.” She snapped a photo of the hills with the Walter Scott Monument in Edinburgh just a pin on the horizon, then she took a close-up of me. “Did I tell you my dad wants to pick me up from the airport in December? I guess Mom let it slip when I’d be arriving home. He wants to ‘make amends’ or some crap.”

“So just tell him no.”

“I told him Jeremy’s picking me up, which isn’t a lie exactly. Jeremy wants to. But the first family I want to see is my mommy! I miss her most, except maybe my dog,” she said. “He’ll show up anyway, whether I give him permission or not.”

“Jeremy or the dog?”

No, my dad,” she grumbled.

I hiked on with our water bottles knocking together in my rucksack, but she didn’t follow. She fell back and snapped a few pictures of the trees below to show how far we had hiked. She looked at them on the digital camera’s LCD screen and said, “They don’t capture how steep this mountain is. Everyone’s going to say ‘What lovely scenery.’” Angie slipped on a wet patch of grass and landed on her stomach. She clawed at some heather as she slid and when she stopped three or four feet downhill, she was still clutching it. “Why didn’t you save me?”

Two hundred feet below a soldier trudged uphill with a backpack and a beret. Whenever we stopped, he’d trek ahead, bent at the hips, with his thumbs hooked in the shoulder straps, closing the distance between us until I could see his camouflage pants tucked into his black boots. He was the only other person out there.

Angie sneaked behind me and wrapped her arms around my neck. She dragged me to the grass. “Carry me!” she demanded while she lay on me.

I tried to do a push up but I couldn’t lift both of us. Grass poked up my nose. “I’d be okay spending the rest of the trip like this,” I said.

The army guy passed us while we were on the ground and Angie said, “Hello! Great day, isn’t it?”

He nodded and trudged on.

Her phone vibrated and I could feel it on my thigh. She slid her hand into my butt pocket as if she thought it was hers. “Oops,” she said with a laugh. Finally, she got out the buzzing phone. “You all right?” she asked to the caller. “No, Jeremy. I’ve already told ya—it’s a British greeting. It’s like asking ‘How you doing?’. . . . Philly dragged me up the hardest trail of these awful mountains. . . . I’m pretty sure we’re lost too.”

I could see the bus stop from here, past the Flotterstone Inn at the base.

“. . . . I told you about Philly. . . . Yes I did. I swear! We’re still in Scotland!” she said. “I told you last week we were going. . . . You gotta listen more. Look, I need to hang up because the sky is about to drop a flood on us. It’s been threatening all day and I just heard thunder and I felt a drop in my hair,” she lied. “. . . . I don’t want this phone shorting out while you tell me about Attila the foreman at work. I’d love to hear it but later, okay? I’ll give you a call tonight after our pub crawl.” She clicked the button and stuffed her phone in my butt pocket. “Crap. I forgot to get him a souvenir. Do you think he’d wear a kilt?” She rolled over so she was sitting on my back while a bee hovered around my nose.

“I don’t know the guy. Anyone who wouldn’t is just insecure,” I said. I blew on the bee which zipped back and forth. “Get him a purple kilt.”

She probed in my butt pocket for her phone and dialed. There was a long silence. “. . . . Jeremy? I just had to ask, if I got you a kilt, would ya wear it? Without undies or anything? That’s the traditional way. And I don’t mean just once. I’m not blowing twenty quid on something you’ll wear once. . . . C’mon! It’d show off your calves. . . . You do not have knock-knees. . . . Maybe a little. . . . Philly would wear a kilt—he’s secure in his masculinity. . . . All right, how about I just get you a shot glass with your family crest on it? Your mom’s Scottish, right? McIlhenny or MacSomething, right? . . . . Mallard? I don’t think that’s Scottish. I’ll check but I might just get you Farquharson. . . . It’s a funny name—that’s why! Okay, now I really have to go. I’m getting soaked. . . . Yeah, talk to you later. . . . I’ll be sure and call. . . . Right, love you too. . . .Okay, I gotta go!” She ended the call. “Sheesh,” she groaned.

“How about you get off my back?” I said.

“You’re not comfy?” she asked. “Maybe if I got you on your back.”

The soldier disappeared over the peak and seemed to continue down the other side, so we were alone.

 

In the two-weeks that followed our Scottish excursion, Angie called me up a few nights to help her study Welsh or to keep her company during Bloody Valentines or whatever scary movie she chose. We always ended as we had in the Pentland Hills. Once after I walked her home from the pub she told me she was a concerned for her safety since there was no rifle in the house.

“My mom keeps one in her closet and another in the truck,” she said.

“Has she ever needed them?” I asked.

“No.”  

High Street in Bangor was wide enough for cars but blocked off so pedestrians could tour the clothing boutiques. Angie and I hurried past the shoppers in the drizzle. She wore a full rain suit that swished with every step. I carried two pizza boxes over my head as a makeshift umbrella but they didn’t block much of the rain and I was drenched.

“I told you it’d rain today,” Angie said.

“I didn’t think it’d start until after we got back with the pizzas.”

She wore her hair down past her shoulders instead of her usual bun. She smelled like strawberry and vanilla and she wore blue eye shadow. I thought this show was for me. We didn’t have anything special planned but the past few days she’d been extra affectionate. She even held my hand now in the street and we were a nuisance to the other shoppers who weren’t interested in playing Red Rover.

I stared at the brick pavement to keep the rain out of my eyes and I bumped into a woman near the clock tower. She and others crowded around a bum who was playing “Sweet Home Alabama” on his Pan flute with his wet collie panting in time.  Whenever someone dropped change in the bowl, the dog tried to lick the charitable hand.

“You think he’ll let me feed his dog?” I asked Angie. “I could donate a slice of pizza for the pup.”

She squeezed through the crowd and I had to jog to keep up. The pizzas bounced in their boxes. “We gotta hurry to the train station.”

Rain trickled down my neck and I shivered. “Are we picking someone up?”

We passed Cadwalader’s and I peered through the window at the buckets of ice cream, but Angie didn’t stop and her hand slipped from my grasp.

“I was chatting with Lechsinska on Facebook and she said she might visit. I suggested you had room on the floor or she could stay at my flat while I bunked with you. Is that who’s coming?”

But Angie didn’t answer or slow down. A baby carriage blocked her path so I caught and grabbed her wrist. “Why are we going to the station?” I asked.

She pulled a pizza box from my head and took out a slice. She plucked off a bit of sausage and ate it but it tasted like SPAM so she spat it out. “Jeremy’s coming,” she said, flicking sausage off the rest of the pizza.

“Doesn’t he know?”

I had to wait for her to chew before I got an answer. “I still gotta tell him. We were fighting over how often I went to the pubs and I reminded him he was always getting drunk with his buddies! It seemed like the perfect chance to end this long-distance crap but he said he’d bought tickets to fly here. I didn’t want him wasting his money!”

“So when he gets back to JFK or wherever, you can send him the text ‘Thanks for visiting. That was real sweet of you. Also we’re over.’ That’s awful.”

“Don’t pretend you’re looking out for him.” She covered her mouth when she spoke so I wouldn’t see her chew but it muffled her words. “I don’t know what else to do! He’s been planning this surprise visit and it’s too sweet not to let him do it, ya know?”

“I’m going to tell him about Scotland.”

“You can’t!” she yelled. “I’m going to tell him eventually. For now I’ll just be distant. Maybe he’ll realize we’re too different now that I’m a world traveler and he’ll break up with me.”

I ducked into the Peacocks’s entrance so the overhang shielded me from the rain but the doors were already locked for the evening. It was only six. The rain blew under there.

“I’ll tell him I’m on my period.” She walked towards the train station but I stayed under the overhang—I wasn’t getting any wetter for that guy.

“He’s not flying the Atlantic to hear ‘No.’”

When she passed Redskin Tattoo and kept going I chased after her and got in front. She circled around me and hurried toward the end of High Street where cars splashed the murky puddles.

“I’m not meeting this jackass,” I said.

“You don’t gotta. But if you’re there he won’t try to snog me.”

“He also can’t do that if you don’t show up.”

She trudged to the street called Allt Glanrafon, nicknamed Bitch Hill. It had a twenty-grade incline.

“Let him visit Caernarfon Castle on his own. He’ll meet a British chippie and she’ll cheer him up.”

She stopped. “What do you mean he’ll meet someone?”

“What’s it matter?”

“He’s dating me though!”

“And you’re dating me,” I said.

We had hung out most days but it was always at her suggestion. When she was in the mood for a scone we’d head to the pier. She’d drag me to The Academy when she wanted to dance or to the Tap and Spile when she wanted an authentic Welsh Pub. But if I was ever lonely, she was busy.

“I can’t leave him at the train station,” she said.

She walked up Bitch Hill with one of the pizzas and I walked back to my flat in the rain to eat the other.

 

The study abroad program required the Americans to travel to important Welsh sites like Cardiff or Chester in England which still had a law that a Welshman seen on the Rows after dark could be shot with an arrow. This weekend we were only three miles from Bangor Uni at Penrhyn Castle, a folly built in the 1820s in the style of the 12th century Normans. It had ramparts to guard the pie room and confectionary, and slits for archers to fire from if the Uni students rioted and attacked.

Jeremy joined us on the bus. He was easily six foot six but his athletic days on the high school lacrosse team were over and he was flabby from too much beer, potato chips and loafing. He had a thick mustache and he hadn’t shaved for a week, probably to give him a tough look. He wore a yellow Lakers jersey so his arms showed—they were big but had the definition of marshmallows.

His home town was Tipton in Iowa and he preferred to go by his last name Soltys. Only Angie called him Jeremy. He had graduated from a mechanics school but after a month at an auto shop, he quit because he liked cars as a hobby but not as a greasy profession. Now he worked at Nudo drywall factory, feeding slabs into a machine that chopped them into panels. He was friends with a supervisor and sure he’d get promoted to forklift jockey.

The Americans scattered to the garden to admire the giant stalks that looked like rhubarb, leaving Soltys, Angie and me in the great hall. There was no electric light except the lamp for the pianist who played one of Chopin’s nocturnes. The floor was slate mined by the slaves of Richard Pennant, the first Baron Penrhyn in 1820. He made his fortune flogging slaves in Jamaica but when that became immoral, he paid the workers enough to afford porridge each morning. The slate floor was covered in fake Indian rugs from China—anything from the East in those days passed as ‘Indian.’

Soltys didn’t have any British pounds so Angie paid his entry. He said, “Let me pay you back. What is it—ten dollars?”

Quid,” I muttered. “We’re not in the States. They don’t use dollars here.”

Angie shoved me into a rope that kept us from tramping across a rug. Soltys caught me before I tipped over. “Don’t worry about paying me back,” she said. “Philly, you got that fiver you owe me for the tacos?”

I didn’t check my wallet. “Not on me.”

Soltys used his camera phone to snap a picture of the pianist at her grand piano until a tour guide told him, ‘No pictures.’ But Soltys pretended he was texting while he photographed the stained glass.

He strolled through the great hall, admiring the end table with brochures. Angie grabbed him by his sagging jeans. “I gotta use the loo. Be nice to him,” she barked at me.

He pointed his camera phone at the timber ceiling that arched into an X with a carving at the center. “Why’d they put in this stained glass? Isn’t England rainy like ninety percent of the year?” He tapped one of the red panes of the window.

“This is Wales,” I said.

“When did we get in another country? Was I supposed to show someone my passport?” He peered at the top of a marble column so his head bent back and his Adam’s apple jutted out. 

“England conquered Wales under Julius Caesar, around Arthur’s time,” I explained. “Llywelyn the First was the last prince of Wales and he died in the Battle of Hastings against King Arthur.”

“I bet it was a bloody one,” he said.

“Knights in their armor shining with God’s protection clashed with the pagan Welshmen. It pitted Sir Percival against the vile Peredur son of Efrawg. A lot of Arthurian literature is based on the battle. Even Shakespeare wrote about Llywelyn in Doctor Faustus.”

“What about that Prince Henry or William? The one that just got married. Isn’t that dude the Prince of Wales?”

“After Arty conquered the heathen Welsh, he held up his crying babe and said, ‘This boy was born in Wales and knows not a word of English. He shall rule you as the Prince of Wales.’ It was all done tongue-in-cheek, of course.”

While Soltys soaked up my B.S, he sat on a floral-print sofa that didn’t sink even under his weight. Then he hopped up in a panic. “Oh shit! Is this couch like from the 1600s or something? I didn’t mean to sit on an antique.”

“It was a gift from Simon de Montfort to Anne Boleyn.”

He rubbed the fabric. “It isn’t even faded. How do you know so much about the place?”

“Angie and I came a few weeks ago. She made me promise to build her a castle like this. I told her, ‘Yours will be bigger.’”

Soltys lumbered up the stairs and wandered down a hall. Somehow he wound up at the stairs again where he waited for me. I led him to the Upper India room which was once Lord Penrhyn’s bedroom. The wallpaper was red. The bed had a red wooden frame with a red “duvet” and red pillows. The plaque near the entrance said “A notable feature about the room is the crimson theme.”

“Maybe on your ride from the airport, you noticed all the sheep. Wales has eleven million of them but only three million people. Have you heard the English slander that the Irish and Welsh have sex with sheep?” I asked.

He stopped examining the room and turned to me.

“In the fourteenth century, serfs would steal sheep from their lords. If a guard saw them, the thief dropped his pants and pretended he was giving it to the sheep because the fine was less for bestiality than for stealing from a nobleman.”

“Glad I’m part Scottish and Croatian. I don’t want any sheep-fuckers in my family.” Soltys leaned over the rope to get a better look at the room. On the bureau was a teddy bear beside a vase with daffodils.

“In 1502 Pope Pius V and Mary Queen of Scots had a lovers’ spat and the British outlawed Catholic priests. It also said absolution was considered treason and they’d draw and quarter clergymen for it. The situation was so tense that the pope was afraid to sail to Britain. But Penrhyn Castle actually housed some of the Catholic priests since the lord of the castle was a devout Catholic like Welshmen.”

He said, “Makes me like the guy even more. I’m a Catholic myself.”

A door next to us opened to a closet-sized bathroom. Its toilet used running water, the first of its kind in Wales. Soltys stepped over the rope barricading the room, but he had trouble turning without bumping his elbows on the sink or wall.

“The Welsh have always had a rebellious nature. Scholars say it stems from their language. When the Treachery of the Blue Books was published in 1437, it stated that ‘The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to overestimate its evil effects.’”

“Angie said she was taking a Welsh class. I ought to warn her.” He pulled out his phone to send her a text but he had no signal, so he took a picture of the tiny toilet instead.

We walked down the stairs and into one of the kitchens which had plastic lobsters on the table. He picked up two and bopped them together like they were fighting.

“This castle was once taken over by the Welsh, around 1090. The castle was only fifty years old but the roof was leaking. So some rebel scum knocked at the gates and said they were there to fix the roof. Once they were in, they slaughtered everyone, even the royal hound. I think it was a corgi.”

“People are dumb.” Soltys grabbed the steel pestle but needed two hands to heft it then he let it drop and it clanged in the mortar. “The castle looks new. Shouldn’t it be crumbling?”

“Most castles aren’t furnished so they look old, but this one got handed down from father to son. Someone was always living here to maintain it. When I came with Angie last time, we actually saw Frank, the latest Lord Penrhyn sleeping in the Slate Bedroom. How about we check that out next?”

Angie was just coming from there and met us outside the door. “You guys getting along?” she said, rubbing Soltys’s back. She was shorter than his shoulders so she had to reach up to scratch the skin around the neckline of his jersey.

“He’s been teaching me stuff about history.” He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. “I see why you hang around this little genius.”

 

               The next day I took my morning run. I had joined the Uni’s boxing club and the coach told me to run this three-mile route through the hills every morning. I was halfway done, stomping across Garth Pier that stretched into the Menai Strait, with wooden floorboards rattling under each step. I sprinted until I reached the shack that rented fishing rods and lobster cages. The keeper poked his head out and yelled, “Don’t be knocking over the postcard rack!”

I leaned over the rail and dry-heaved. Any more of that and I’d have abs of steel that could handle any Welshmen’s body-shot.

The air was ten degrees Celsius and I was comfortable in my fleece. In September when I got off the plane in Manchester, it had been ten degrees and now the first of November it was still ten degrees. I bet December would be the same. At least the sun was shining.

The Seaside Tearoom was at the end of the pier, a round building with a point at the top, maybe inspired by the Kremlin. Behind it was a silver Ascari sedan. 

“You’re here?” Angie said from a table outside.

“Just out for a run.” I stood near the rail and watched a guy cast his line into the water. “Where’s Soltys?”

Her plate was covered with crumbs and empty jelly packets. “Jeremy’s sleeping. He’s still got jetlag.” Under the plate was a postcard with some scribbles on it.

“I never felt that.”

Her teacup was full. She had never gotten used to tea but ordered it anyway because it seemed sophisticated. She always scoffed whenever I got cocoa, like it was too childish for Britain.

A white hotel across the strait stood out in the midst of the dark forest on Anglesey.

“Usually you call me when you want a scone,” I said.

A bee landed in her jelly—it seemed stuck. “Jeremy told me about your little history lesson. You told him the Welsh pretended to have sex with sheep to get out of paying a fine?”

“That one’s true.”

She jabbed at the bee with her knife and lopped off its stinger. “I should text him and tell him you’re here. He wants to rip out your lungs.”

“Go ahead. This is an easy place to find, but he’d wind up in London before admitting he was lost.”

Wind from the Irish Sea blew through the strait and took Angie’s postcard from under her saucer and toward my foot. I stepped on it and left a footprint on the text. I picked it up and skimmed what she had written. “Jeremy flew here after giving me a day’s warning. Yeah, it was sweet but I deserve some space! He’s too big for my bed so I told him he had to sleep on the floor but the next day he whined about his bad back. He’s just like Dad sometimes.”

She snatched it from me before I could read the rest. “Do you think if you embarrass him enough I’ll dump him? I love him, okay?”

A pair of kayaks paddled under the pier but the girl in the second one couldn’t stroke the water without spinning.

“You were about to end things with him.”

Angie leaned over the railing with me and stared at the ebbing strait. “You were a mistake.”

“My older sister tells me the same thing,” I muttered. “You know, I haven’t really missed home until this week.”

The fisherman next to us struggled with his arching rod but when he reeled in the line, the fish had escaped. He cast it again.

“Don’t tell him,” Angie said. “Even if you do and he breaks up with me, I’m not getting back with you.”

The coast of Bangor was hilly and green. I couldn’t see the sheep but I bet there were some. It all faded into the distance. “I don’t want you back.”

She bumped her shoulder against mine and I could smell her jasmine perfume and the tea on her breath.

“ I’m not stupid enough to hang on.” I had been up all night sweating, because my heater sputtered to life at three. I twisted the knob to off but it still chattered, grinded its gears and spewed heat.

A seagull landed on the street lamp. The panes of glass were covered in soot. The gull swooped down to Angie’s table and pecked at the crumbs on her plate. “Shoo!” The bird hopped off the table and took a hundred tiny steps. When Angie came back to the railing, the gull fluttered up to her table. She ran back but he just hid under the chair, twisting his head to look at his tail feathers.

“Remember our first week here?” she asked. “None of us knew each other so everyone clung to the nearest person or whoever smelled nicest or looked the friendliest. I got stuck with Kep and Betty and those girly-girls who wanted to jet off to Belgium for beer and chocolate. British piss and waffles are fine by me and I didn’t have the cash for that excursion. While they were gone I was bummed by myself and you hid in your flat and walked down High Street by yourself in the rain. I noticed you for the first time on this pier. You were picking at a scone and dipping the bits in hot chocolate. It was just too cute and I wanted to come over and say something, but I didn’t remember your name. So I asked what you were sipping on. I introduced myself again, saying ‘I don’t know if you remember me but I’m Angela. You can call me Angie.’ I figured you’d re-introduce yourself, you know? But you were too awkward for that. Instead you spat crumbs while saying ‘Hey.’” She leaned against me so her hips were against mine. She laid her head on my shoulder and smiled.

I stepped away and she stumbled. “I’m still not interested,” I said and left before I did something stupid. The floorboards rattled under my steps.

She yelled after me, “Don’t tell Jeremy.”  

Raw Material

Originally accepted for publication in the 2012 Knickerbocker, but there was too little room and the same issue was already printing "A Welsh Affair." 

----------------------------------

I grabbed an orange and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling and hopped the fence in the back yard into Southwind Park. There was a white oak with a bench under it to lie on and I used Tom Jones as a pillow. I rolled on my side but the wood was hard on my hip. I tried my back but the sun beamed through the branches and I covered my eyes with my forearm. The orange fell from my pocket and rolled in the dirt, and I left it there.

Something hopped on my stomach and I opened my eyes. The dog was a ball of fluff with black goop around its eyes, wagging its tail. It licked a pizza stain on my shirt and yapped at me as it retreated between my legs where it peered over my crotch.

Around the dog’s neck was a pink collar with a purple leash held by my roommate Dodge. “I thought we’d find you here,” he said. His left arm had tattoos of Heaven with trees growing on clouds and angels swinging from their roots, playing heavy metal, and his right arm showed businessmen standing in line as his image of Hell. I don’t know what they were waiting for because it was only to his elbow—he ran out of money after paying for the Celtic cross on his back and the rubber duck in a sailor’s cap on his chest.

The dog barked and I grabbed its snout, but it hid under my knee. I pinned it there but it wriggled free and hopped on my chest and kept yapping.

Dodge cradled it. “Isn’t she cute? She’s mine.” He’d recently removed his piercings so there were two holes under his lips that bubbled when he spoke. He wiped his lips. “I named her Ruby.”

“Sounds like a stripper.”

“She’s a pure-bred Maltese. She could be a show dog!” Ruby leaped from his arms and Dodge stepped on her leash so she couldn’t run off. “Did I tell you Levke’s wandering around the park? We had a bet on who could find you first.”

“This is my first time here all year.” I rolled over so I faced the back of the bench. Behind it was the oak and in a crotch was snow that hadn’t melted yet. “She’s looking for me?” I opened Tom Jones and cracked the spine but peeked over at Dodge.

“I don’t know why. I didn’t come with her or anything.” He sat on my toes.

“What’d she say? How’d she say it? Did she say she was looking for me or did she need something from me? Maybe I ought to call her.” I got up and Ruby growled until she saw my orange and pounced on it, as if it was a ball. She tried biting it but her mouth was too small. I snatched it from her and she pawed at my shins, barking for me to give it back.

“Don’t call. She’ll find you.” Dodge playfully socked me in the shoulder and Ruby barked at me.

“I didn’t do anything!” I yelled at the dog and she ran under the bench.

He popped out the black taper in his ear and tugged at the stretched lobe—a quarter could fit in it. “I can’t remember if I told you my big plan yet, but I was thinking when we get out of here, we can hike across Japan. We’ll bring a change of clothes, toothpaste and my bass. We’ll be in bars every night and you’ll get free drinks since I’ll be headlining. I’ll get a following and you can see the world. You really need to before you settle down. Think of all the cute Asian girls.”

“I’m $120,000 in debt. I can’t afford that,” I said.

Dodge cradled the pup and she licked his face. “You got over a year to save and your parents’ll help fund it. But my mom’s not paying for any more international excursions,” he said. His mom owned a law firm and made a pile of money defending corporations but Dodge had gotten kicked out of the France study abroad program for a fight. “But I’ve got twelve thousand bucks of my own. That’ll keep me while I write my songs. Listen to this one.” He warbled to the dog and spun her around, “‘You ripped open my chest, tore out my heart, and replaced it with a ticking bomb, a terrorist’s love!’ What do you think?”

“A little bloody.”

“Maybe it’s emotional, but that’s what art is! Everyone’s had that happen to them at one point.” Ruby wriggled in his arms so he set her down. Then she pawed at his shins to be picked up again. “It’s still a rough draft anyway. I wrote five songs last night because I had the itch to play my bass.” He strummed Ruby’s leash. “The RA came over around three in the morning to ask me to shut up, but when inspiration hits you just go with it. We might be getting fined though.” Though we roomed together, I was almost never in the dorm. I usually stayed with my parents in town so I could sleep at 3 a.m.

Levke walked up and shoved Dodge. “Why didn’t you tell me you found him? You know I had something to talk to him about.” Ruby lay on Levke’s shoes.

“Sorry. I couldn’t send up a rocket,” he muttered.

“You were looking for me?” I asked but she was talking to Dodge.

“You could’ve called.” Levke was born in Germany but her family moved here when she was five. Her mom used to teach German to our fifth grade class. All I remembered was that “der Po” meant “butt” and Levke had a nice one. “You still have my number, right?” she asked him.

“Naw. I left my phone at bar last Friday. I think it was the Pitt in Pittsfield.”

She cupped her hand over his mouth. “I don’t want to hear excuses. When’re you going to start dressing for the real world? You can’t always be wearing rock band T-shirts.” She pulled out the hem of one he was wearing. “Who’s ‘Bullet for My Valentine?’ They sound like the most whiny—”

Dodge licked her hand and she jerked it back like she was about to slap him. “Hey, tell T.K. he should travel the globe with me,” he said.

“I won’t do anything of the sort. He needs to decide on a career before he starts a vacation.” She stripped off her peacoat and folded it over her arms. She was wearing a pants suit.  

“He has sixty years before he dies. Plenty of time for a job.” Dodge took off his stocking cap. His hair was blonde and became almost white in the summer, but he had dyed it black with red tips. When he put on the cap, the tips stuck out. “Besides, you got lucky finding a job right out of college.”

“It’s not luck,” she said. “I chose actuarial science because it’s one of the top professions.”

Dodge snatched my orange and pretended to throw it. Ruby was fooled and darted towards my house.

“Why weren’t you holding her?” Levke snapped.

Dodge dropped my orange and chased the dog.

She yelled, “Don’t chase her! She thinks you’re playing. You’ll run her into the street!”

“C’mere, Ruby-booby! Here, Rubes! Rube-a-dube-dube!” He patted his thighs and crouched but she just took off again. “Bad! Bad girl! Fine, get hit, get lost. I don’t care.” The dog snapped at a bug and hopped after it into Mrs. Scannura’s Russian Sage. Dodge sprinted after Ruby while she was cornered by the fences but she ran between his legs towards the street. “Ruby!” he pleaded then jogged towards her. He grabbed her leash when a bread truck swerved. I thought it had flattened both of them. But when it passed, she was wallowing in a puddle.

 

Levke was tall with blonde hair that was straight one week and curly the next, and I didn’t know which was natural—it was curly today. In high school she had modeled for Galaxy Fashion & Accessories, a local boutique. A picture of her twirling in a skirt still hung in the back corner, above the sun dresses. Since then she’d put on a little fat around the cheeks and hips. She was always complaining about it, even after I assured her she was still gorgeous. “Why did Dodge get a dog anyway?” she asked. “He can hardly take care of himself. His parents probably feed it and I bet all he does is walk it, play with it and tell his parents when it pooped in the living room.” She pulled out her compact and stretched her cheek until she could see her pores.

I picked up my orange and wiped it with my shirt.

“Why don’t you eat that?”

“It has seeds,” I said. I turned it over in my hands and the orange leaked. The juice smelled nice but tasted sour. “Did you know out of a hundred seeds, only one will grow into a tree? I learned that in a botany class last year.”

“You’re an English major. Why are you taking botany?” She hung her peacoat over the bench while she rummaged through her purse for a tissue.

“It was interesting.”

We walked through the park. She stayed on the pavement because the grass was swampy and I walked alongside, occasionally bumping into her. She grumbled at a text message on her cell phone. It was her boss asking if she could come in this weekend.

“So you were looking for me?” I nudged her with my elbow.

“Watch where you’re going.” She shoved the phone in her pocket. “What are you doing after graduation?” she asked.

“Dodge says I should travel with him.”

“Why does he never invite me to travel? I can afford it. Not that I’d want to or anything, but that boy doesn’t make any sense! If your parents had a fortune like his, it’d make sense to invite you. He just doesn’t understand that your parents work sixty hours a week and are still broke.” The wind tossed her hair around. She brushed it with her fingers while looking in her mirror. “But what are you really doing?”

I plucked some horsetail—as a kid I called it puzzle weed because you could rearrange the sections. They pulled apart with a pop! “I’m already in bankrupt. I guess I’ll just work for the highway department again. Last year they had me cleaning up road kill—deer and stray dogs and raccoons. But there’d only be one or two corpses a week so the rest of the time we just cruised through the country. Eleven bucks an hour wasn’t bad for a summer job.” I made the horsetail into a circle and handed it to Levke.

She chucked it like a Frisbee at some goldenrod. “I’m making double that with benefits and vacation time.” With her fingers she brushed her bangs, though she called it her “fringe” because that sounded more sophisticated. “Do you really want to pick up road kill the rest of your life?”

“This year they might let me hold that sign with ‘Slow’ on one side and ‘Stop’ on the other.” I pumped my fist in mock enthusiasm. “I’m just working there until I figure out my life. Dodge will be a troubadour and you’re a rate analyst—whatever that is. Everyone seems to know what they want but me.”

“Dodge thinks he’s a rock star. He might be decent if he ever practiced but he spends more time posing in the mirror and designing his next tattoo. He can’t rely on his smile to make it as a musician. He could be a lawyer like his mom or maybe teach music to kids. He’d be good at that. That way his passion would do somebody some good.” Levke closed her compact. “Did you know he got another tattoo? It’s a rubber ducky on his chest—it sounds so stupid. And he won’t show me until it’s healed. I should slap it.”

“Forget about Dodge.” On the hill was a patch of Dutchman’s breeches and I plucked one for Levke. “I’m looking for my future.”

She held the flower in her palm, unsure what to do with my gift and the wind took it. “Lying in the park all day is hardly ‘looking.’”

“It’s my first time here since autumn. It’s been too cold.” I plunged my thumb in the orange and juice squirted my eye. “Why does every marketable skill bore me?”

“Some drudges have to teach,” she said.

“I’d hate a classroom full of kids. And I hate talking in front of people. And standing. And wearing polo shirts or suits or anything but T-shirts. Why won’t anyone pay me to lie on a bench and read?” I flipped open Tom Jones—the spine was cracked so it always opened to the last page I read.

“I figured growing up broke would make you less spoiled,” she said. There was mud on the pavement and she stepped in some of it. She dug in her purse for a tissue.

Ruby charged towards Levke. The dog was still wet from wallowing in the puddle. Levke stuck out her foot so the dog rammed it.

“Don’t kick my dog!” Dodge said.

“Then hold the damn leash!”

Dodge bent over to rub Ruby’s ears but she circled Levke, sniffing her perfume. “Let’s go to the Pitt tonight and get trashed. Are you in?”

“It’s Monday. I’ve got big girl things to do tomorrow, like a job.” She picked up Ruby by the scruff and let her dangle. Her fur dripped.

 

Every Monday, a quartet of college kids called Indecision played at the Pitt in Pittsfield. Their repertoire was made-up of Metallica, ACDC and Bon Jovi. The customers flailed and writhed on the dance floor, bumping into tables and spilling drinks, as they squawked the lyrics.

Dodge and I sat at a round table with a two-foot diameter but I had to lean in to hear what he yelled to me. “This bass player is shit! The others are good, but god, that guy is dragging them down!” Dodge yelled.

“Maybe he just learned it.”

“Naw. He’s too busy thinking which chord comes next. He should just feel the music. I ought to show him how.”

“Why don’t you?”

Dodge chugged his strawberry daiquiri.  

At a table next to ours, another of Levke’s guys was whispering in her ear. He had his hand on her back and she shook her head and shouted something that got carried away with the music. The guy chucked his napkin and left.

“I’ve always found bar conversation creepy,” Dodge yelled to me. After drinking, he always got philosophical about his observations. But he got generous when drunk and bought me drinks. I had paid for the first beer and he bought the other rest. “Either you have to yell at the girl you’re talking to or you have to whisper in their ear.” He turned to Levke and asked, “How many of those guys licked your ear?”

She stuck a pinky in it. “None!”

“And how many have you licked?”

“Just one—it was an accident. One guy didn’t get it that I didn’t want to dance. I had to yell in his ear before he left.”

“If you’re not good at miming, no one’s going to understand you.”  Dodge got up from the table and drank from an invisible glass, then pointed at Levke to ask if she wanted a drink.

She shook her head and only her bangs moved. The rest of her hair was pinned in a fancy contraption and sprayed. “Buy yourself another drink—I’ve got work in the morning! I thought you wanted to get shitfaced. You’re not even tipsy yet.”

He shouted, “C’mon. What can I get you?”

“Appletini.”

Dodge left to get it.

She’d only had one drink so far. She said she came along to babysit us, but she wore a black dress that clung to her hips and hardly covered her thighs. They were smooth like she had just shaved them. “Why aren’t you drinking more?” she asked me.

“I’ve got Shakespeare in the morning. It seems childish to get drunk on a school night. I’m not a freshman anymore. And I don’t really have the cash.”

“Dodge has already spent like thirty-five bucks. Soon he’ll be too drunk to remember the tip. What does his mom think he’s spending her money on?”

“Once he tipped the guy fifty bucks.”

“He’s an idiot.” She leaned on the table and her dress drooped enough to provide a peek at her cleavage. “He should be spending that on books. Or on a haircut. He’d look better with short hair.”

Dodge came back, carrying four pitchers of sangria and biting a cup by its rim. The orange slices floated to the top of the pitchers.

“Dodge! What are you doing? I said an appletini!” Levke shouted as he handed her the cup.

He sat between me and Levke. “They had five dollar pitchers! And have you ever had sangria? When I visited Spain two summers ago, this family made me the most amazing sangria—I haven’t had it since. You like wine, right?” He set the pitchers on the table and drained his beer mug. Then he poured a glass for each of us and he didn’t notice that I had half my Guinness left so the two drinks mixed.

“I’m only having a glass,” Levke said and took a sip.

“I can’t drink four pitchers myself!” Dodge held up the end of her glass, forcing her to keep drinking until the sangria spilled down her dress. He wiped at her chest with a napkin and she lost her balance and fell backwards. He laughed like crazy about it but she punched him in the shoulder then shook her hand as if it hurt.

I couldn’t drink my Guinness and sangria cocktail so I watched Dodge and Levke worked on the pitchers. She felt like dancing after she began to feel the drink and dragged Dodge to the dance floor while “Hell’s Bells” blared—that’s not a song people normally dance to, but there were quite a few drunks trying.  I stared at Levke wiggling her booty until a slower song came on. She held Dodge close then spun him around and slipped, then got angry because he hadn’t caught her.

She stomped back to the table to chug some sangria. “Dance with me,” she demanded and grabbed my wrist. It was a fast tune called “Can’t Stop” originally by the Red Hot Chili Peppers but she held me close and laid her head on my shoulder like it was a slow song. Her perfume smelled nice and even her burps smelled like oranges.

“Dodge is an idiot,” she yelled into my ear. When drunk she lost all sense of volume. “I ask him to dance and he’s holding me close and I tell him, ‘This is nice.’ But all he can talk about is how the bass player’s no good. That idiot. He spent fifty bucks on drinks and I’m drunker than he is!”

“Just don’t throw up on me.” I rubbed her back as if to soothe the nausea. 

“Is that supposed to be funny? I even told him I have to work in the morning and still he gets me drunk. I’ve got to be there at seven and he bought four pitchers of something I don’t even like and he’s just like ‘Drink, drink, drink.’” She swayed too far to the left and stumbled. I held her up.

“I’ll get you both home soon.” My hand slid down her back until I could feel the outline of her thong. Then I slid a little farther and she didn’t complain. Her butt was firm.

“You know, in high school he was a real catch. If he had listened to me and never gotten that fleur de lis tattoo on his calf, he’d’ve been fine! He wouldn’t’ve gotten addicted to the ink. He wouldn’t’ve scarred his body with something he’ll regret in ten years. Half of those drawings don’t even have any meaning to him! He’s so much better looking when they’re all covered. He’s smart too! When he’s not being an idiot.”

“He failed Intro to Business twice.”

Her chest pressed against me. “So he’s not a business guy. He was always good at physics! He helped me with my homework once. Maybe he could’ve been a physicist and disproven gravity or something!” She yawned and when she closed her mouth, she bit my shirt and chewed before spitting it out.

“You’re drunk. I better get you home.”

She nuzzled her head against my shoulder. “Just one more dance. Hold me for one more song.”

And I did—I held her close and listened to her rant about Dodge.

 

I drove them in Dodge’s Lexus to our dorm because Levke lived with her parents and I didn’t want her mom seeing her drunk like this. I laid her on my bed and tucked her in. I set the trash can next to the bed. 

Dodge slept in his own bed, sprawled across his dirty laundry, snuggling his bass.

I set three alarms for 6:00, 6:10 and 6:15 a.m. so Levke wouldn’t be late for work. Then I left to sleep at home.

 

The next morning in Shakespeare, we were supposed to discuss Measure for Measure Act V but the professor spent the hour encouraging us to study abroad in London. Half of us hadn’t read the play and the other half didn’t understand it.

I carried The Complete Works of Shakespeare under my arm as it didn’t fit in my pack. Back in my dorm I slammed the book on the desk to wake Dodge. If I didn’t, he’d sleep in until noon and miss his Calculus class at 11. The covers on my bed stirred. Dodge must’ve gotten up to pee and forgotten which bed was his. He had my pillow over his head.

I kicked his boxers under his bed and tossed his pants into the corner. “Get out of my bed. And please don’t be naked under there.” I threw off the covers and ripped the pillow from his face and got ready to slam it back down but Levke was holding Dodge’s head to her cleavage. She was just wearing her bra and thong. It was the first time I’d ever seen her bare ass. It was a bittersweet moment.

She pressed her hands to her face, rubbing her eyes. She spread her fingers and opened her eyes and saw me. She smacked Dodge’s head until he rolled off her.

I left, still carrying the pillow.

“T.K!” she yelled, following me into the hall.

I looked back but kept walking and ran into a door. I was lost in my own building.

“Would you come back here?” She had wrapped my towel around her waist and she held a hand to her chest, trying to cover her breasts that bounced as she jogged towards me. “Are you mad? Don’t be mad!”

I went through a swinging door into the bathroom. She followed me in. I went into a stall and locked the door. She went into the adjacent one and ripped some toilet paper to cover the seat then stood on the toilet and peered down at me.

“Are you done running?” she asked. Under the stall wall, I saw her towel fall to the grimy tile.

“I just saw my roommate’s junk for the first time!”

“You guys have roomed together for years and that was the first time you saw him naked? What about when he changes?”

“I look away!” I paced in the stall by taking one step then turning then taking another step and turning—it made me dizzy. “I just saw your ass for the first time. I’ve known you for years; why haven’t I seen it more often? Dodge got to see it—he got to grab it! Bite it probably!”

“What kind of weird sex are you into?”

“So you did have sex?” I sat on the toilet and put the pillow to my face. I could smell her perfume from last night on it, and Dodge’s BO.

“Yes.” She was always complaining about the guy. She had him in her phone as ‘Idiot.’ She never called me an idiot. I was the one who always helped with homework and she called me to cry after a break-up. “But it was an accident.”

“How do you accidentally have sex?” I yelled into my pillow.

“I mean I didn’t want it.”

“So it was rape?”

“No!” She leaned over and grabbed the pillow. “It wasn’t planned. An hour after you dropped us off, he got up to puke—”

“So you let him smooch you even after he puked?”  I left the stall and rinsed my face in the sink. I could see her in the mirror. People say seeing a girl in her panties is like seeing her in her bathing suit, but no way. And her bra was frilly and pink.

“I asked if he wanted to sleep in your bed. His was so messy—he couldn’t have been comfortable.”

“So he should’ve cleaned it off!” I pressed the soap dispenser twenty times until the puddle of soap spilled over my hands. I washed my face and it stung my eyes. “Why aren’t you at work? I set three alarms for you.”

“I called in sick. I know it was stupid. But why are you upset about this?” She stood next to me and stared into the mirror. She made eye contact with my reflection.

The bra strap slid down her shoulder and the cups drooped lower. “I’m not.”

She caught me staring and fixed the strap and covered her cleavage with my pillow.

“You’re always complaining about Dodge. You know he’s an idiot, that he’s never going to change but you chase him anyway.”

“I know he was a mistake. But he’s got so much potential.”

“He’s not even interested! He doesn’t want to stay up late watching a movie and eating cold pizza. He doesn’t even want to grab that firm butt of yours. Why do you have to chase him?”

“Because I don’t see anyone else worthwhile.” She ran the sink and the water pooled in her hands. She dumped it on the edge of the sink to rinse facial hairs down the drain. “Just friends and strangers.”

 

I went back to my dorm room with my pillow. I promised to get Levke’s dress for her.

Dodge was awake and dressed in his clothes from yesterday. He hefted my Shakespeare book. “Hey, you mind if I borrow this? I think I could use some of this ‘Where forth art thou?’ nonsense in my next song.”

“I’ve got an essay to write.” I grabbed the book and Levke’s dress and left for the Southwind Park, where I slept using them as pillows.