By A. L. Gamache
He was late. This wasn’t typical. I pulled the corrosion down my throat, pushed it out my nose, closed my eyes to the evidence.
The skyline was orange, followed by a stormy blue. College kids walked the streets with determination. My eyes followed a girl, just a girl, as she stumbled down the sidewalk. She was struggling in heels five inches too high. Her friends called to her, waved at her. Come on! Come on! Half price! They’re already there! Come on! Her gait lengthened. Her speed increased. She kept her fingers on the bottom of her skirt, pushing the fabric down, down, down, but too much thigh flashed, a bit of cheek snuck out with every other step. I took another drag, closed my eyes again.
“There you are,” Miles shouted. Where had I gone? I dropped the butt, smothered it with a toe.
“Here I am.”
He leaned down and kissed me lightly, “Let’s go. We’re late.” He was carrying a thirty-rack under one arm. He handed me a large brown paper bag with a bottle of whiskey in it.
“Where are we going?”
“Brant’s. He had a rough day. Going to cheer him up.” Miles motioned to the thirty-rack and the whiskey.
“Okay.” Brant was alright, good-hearted, a little dumb.
“It’s a small party thing. Mous is coming, some other people too.” Mous, Moustafa.
“Mmm.” Should have stayed home.
“You have cat fur on your t-shirt.”
“What? Oh. She must have been sleeping on my laundry again.” I brushed as much of the fur off my black tee as possible. “Better?”
Miles leaned over and squinted, “Yeah. You only look like half a hot mess now.”
“I’ll pretend you only said hot.”
We walked down the sidewalk on our way to Brant’s.
“That time of year, huh?” Miles raised his eyebrows. Long days. Warm weather. Thirsty Thursdays.
One girl walked past us, a pleather skirt, a sheer shirt. She spoke with such disdain. This pollen is fucking disgusting. Why did I wear black? It looks like I sneezed on myself. How dare nature fuck with her outfit. The men around us turned as she walked by. Their heads reeling, necks cracking, eyes straining to glimpse plastic covered flesh going up then down, up then down. One man pushed his buddies back, shoving them abruptly. Hey chicky. Where’re you and your girls at tonight?
Miles talked about his day. He was good at talking. He was tall with broad shoulders, bronzy skin, and a head of dark hair that curled loosely. He didn’t notice the girls we passed, but their eyes stayed on him just a touch too long. He hadn’t reached for my hand. I stretched it out between us, widened my fingers, felt the tendons tug my palm, felt the goodness of the stretch. Miles continued talking. I shifted the brown paper bag, put the whiskey between us, and tucked my other hand away.
The streets became quieter as we got closer to Brant’s. There were less kids pouring from apartment buildings, more kids sitting in drugstore plastic chairs on bits of sod drinking out of red cups. Their legs were spread, sleeves rolled, bodies leaning back. Their eyes followed us as we walked past.
“What? Yeah. Okay.”
“So you will? Awesome. He needs it. He had a rough day. Abby and Malorie are coming, and you know, Malorie should cheer him up.”
“He still likes her?”
“He’s fucking crazy about her and she’s stupid as hell.”
“One block to go.” Miles shifted the thirty-rack.
“What’s up fuckers?” Brant shouted from his front yard. His face was sunburnt, t-shirt ripped, hair greasy. “This is all for me? You guys didn’t have to. Come on back.”
His roommates were gone for the weekend, concert up in Boston. They were staying with friends just outside the city. The house was his for the night and he was going to take advantage. Such a bad day, good things had to happen tonight. He had it all set up for a good time. There was a beer pong table—plywood and some small tables pushed together, but who cares if it looks like shit? Functionality was all that mattered right? We were just going to spill beer on it anyways. He had even dug through his roommate’s room—which was nothing but piles of sticky shorts, empty cans, and used deodorant—to grab five camping chairs. They were stained, but just a little, and just a little torn, but hey, seating. The outdoor lights didn’t work either, he hadn’t changed the bulbs. Who could change a bulb after a day like that? Get a ladder, climb up, there was a hornet’s nest right next to it, fuck that. But the lights from the kitchen came through, so it worked.
I sat in one of the chairs. Miles handed me a beer from the thirty-rack and kissed me on the head. He walked to the other side of the deck and leaned against the railing next to Brant. They took turns taking swallows from the whiskey bottle. My beer foamed, wet my hand and formed a puddle on my lap. Looks like I peed myself. I let the beer foam drip down over my hand and onto the deck. When it finally stopped, I drank the rest of the can. It was warm and cheap and tasted acrid.
“You should quit. Shit’s bad for you.” Brant was eyeing me over a freshly opened can. I took a long drag, eyed him the whole time. I held in the corrosion, let it touch every part of me, blew it at his face.
“When is everyone else showing up?” Miles was setting up the red cups for beer pong. Maybe they cancelled, then good things would have definitely happened.
Brant pulled out his phone and scrolled through his texts. I adjusted my bra. Miles went in the house for some water and to grab the ping pong balls. They were most definitely in the drawer next to the junk drawer next to the sink.
“They should be here in 30 minutes or so.”
“You want to play?” Miles raised his eyebrows and pointed at me. Come hither woman.
I stood up. Me against Miles. Great. That turned out well last time. I threw the butt into Brant’s yard. It matched his décor.
“What’s your team name?” Brant asked me. He stood at the center of the table, leaning back, elbows on the railing. He looked at me from under his brow.
“Is one person a team?”
“When it’s you.”
“Team Winning over here.” Miles smiled at Brant.
I sunk my first four shots. Miles sunk his next three. Mous walked around back.
“Hey oh!” Game over. I poured all my beer into one cup and resumed sitting in the camping chair. The spot on my pants had dried.
“Look what I brought you,” Mous held out a bottle of whiskey.
“You guys are awesome, the fucking best.” Brant opened the bottle and drank from it.
“What are we doing?”
Miles took Brant’s spot along the rail. Brant played Mous in a game of beer pong.
“It was just a fucking day, you know?” The men grunted. I sipped my beer. “The tractor breaks down, gotta fix it with fuckin’ shit tools, then by the pond there’s a bunch of baby snappers. Boss tells me to run them down. Chop ‘em to hell. He doesn’t want his club members getting bit. Of course I didn’t. They’re in the tub upstairs. I’ll bring them to a pond somewhere this weekend. Poor bastards never would’ve had a chance at that place. They bleach the ponds. I don’t know how they ended up there. I’d get fired if my boss finds out. I’m gonna to take a piss.” Brant walked out into the yard, to the back fence.
Miles walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder.
“You know why he’s really upset?”
I looked up.
“Because he was told to murder some turtles?” Mous ventured. He didn’t take his eyes away from the shots his was pouring.
“Nah. He told me after we got here, said he slept with Malorie last weekend.”
“Dream come true.” I smirked. Where the fuck was I for this conversation?
“Come on, she’s still dating that guy at her school. Mitch or whatever the fuck. They got into a fight last weekend. She slept with Brant. Now she’s alright with Mitch, been talking to Brant like nothing happened. Today she was texting him about how great Mitch is.”
“Why’s she coming here then?”
“Brant invited her. He wants her here. Maybe he thinks she’ll fall for him. I don’t know.”
“You guys need to get yourselves some Egyptian women,” Mous took a shot.
“What does that mean?” I felt my brow crease and my lips purse. Miles shot me a look. Be nice.
“They’re just better. You know? Straight, honest women. You can trust ‘em. Good women.”
I finished my beer and reached for a third. “So I’m not straight or honest?”
“Don’t feel bad about it.” Mous winked at me and Miles laughed.
“Ball buster over here!”
Brant came back, zipping up his fly.
“Don’t get it caught. I’m not helping you fix that mess.”
Brant smirked at me. “Yeah, yeah.”
“How’s that menstrual red truck doing? Still blowing coal? Or fire, rather?”
“Shut the fuck up. It’s a red interior.”
“Men-stra-tion. Say it with me, men-stra-tion.”
“Re-d. Re-d.” He sat down beside me. Mous and Miles were talking by the rail.
Brant looked over at me, eyes wet. “Will you see if she likes me? Tell me if she talks to you about me?”
“I know. I know.”
“Yes, fuck.” Brant looked down, bit his lower lip. His thumbs digging into his thighs.
“How about I help you with the turtles tomorrow.”
“Maybe she’ll stay here and she can help me with the turtles.”
“Fuck this I need a shot.”
“Hey losers.” Abby and Malorie walked around the corner. They were both smaller girls packing that freshman, sophomore, and junior fifteen. Malorie was wearing a white tank top, red bra. My eyes followed the spirals in the lace, watched the buds come to bloom. I could see the contour of her abdomen, her belly button, the muffin top, the red bumps, the stretch marks, the confidence.
“Oh my God, I didn’t know you were coming.” Abby stepped towards me, opened her arms. I was a head and a half taller than her, an embrace would put her made-up face in my cleavage. Get distracted by the shots. Get distracted by the shots.
“I’m here.” I hugged each one, putting their faces in my armpits. Miles watched me closely. Be fucking nice. They moved from me to Miles, to Brant, to Mous. Malorie lingered a little too long with Mous, pressed herself against him just a little too much. Brant was talking to Abby.
“Whiskey? Great.” Malorie took the bottle from Brant and began to drink.
I got up to take a shot, leaned into Miles. “They were fucking moist.”
“Take your shot.”
I dumped it over the railing.
“Let’s play. Women against men. Me and Malorie verse you,” Abby pointed to Brant, “and Moo.” Everyone filled their cups, washed off the balls.
“Don’t miss! Don’t miss!” Malorie shimmied above the red cups. Abby slapped her on the ass. Mous sunk the ball in the corner cup. He winked at Malorie, “that’s not where I was aiming.”
Brant looked at Mous, bit the inside of his cheek, shook his head, made his shot.
“Roll ‘em back, roll ‘em back.”
Mous made his cup. Brant missed.
“That’s the coordination of a man. He knows how to sink his ball in the hole.” Mous laughed.
“Looks like there’s only one pro on that team.” Malorie smiled at Mous.
“Where’s Mitch? Why didn’t he come with you to the party?”
Malorie sucked the beer off one of her fingers and looked over at me. “He went home for the weekend. Family party or something.”
“Why didn’t you go?”
“I need to study.”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
“Why do you even care?”
“Mitch was being an asshole about this family party. I didn’t want to go so I’m here. Happy?” Malorie muttered the word bitch loud enough for me to hear.
“Who gives a shit about Mitch. Let’s play.” Brant shot. It circled the rim of a red cup, but Abby was able to blow it out.
“No one blows better.” Abby and Malorie shimmied at one another.
Brant and Mous missed shot after shot. They drank their beer and drank from the bottle of whiskey behind them. Twenty minutes later the game was over, the men shamed, ladies proud. Miles and I stood up to take our turn. I was filling our cups. Mous was leaning against the rail behind Abby and Malorie.
“Oh my god Moo, I hadn’t even noticed, but are you going to the gym? You look ripped.” Malorie put her hand on Mous’ arm. Her hand looked more pale and freckled than normal against Mous’ almond colored skin.
“Jesus Christ,” I stood closely to Miles. “What the fuck is wrong with her? What’s wrong with him?”
“Brant is right there, and she’s with Mitch.”
“It’s fine. She’s just drunk. That’s how she is when she’s drunk.”
“What’s Mous’ excuse?”
“He’s just showing off.”
“He’s disgusting.” Be fucking nice.
“Yeah, well, you know in Egypt when you turn eighteen you go into the army. Got to be fit. No fucking crying pussies allowed.”
“I guess he’d never get into the army then.” Be fucking nice.
“Oh yeah? Why aren’t you in the army then?” Because he was born in New Haven.
“My parents want me to stay here. Protect the family and all that. I still train, know how to fight hand to hand. It’s good for a man to fight. Takes the bitch right out of him. Makes him tough. Makes him a man.”
“I’ve got to piss.” Brant walked back to the spot at the fence. After a few minutes we heard him retching.
“Pussy can’t hold his liquor. I know what he needs,” Mous leaned over the railing, “Man up Brant. Hold that shit.”
After a few minutes Brant walked back, face red, eyes tearing. “Sorry. Should’ve eaten more. Bad day. Bad week this week.”
“Babe,” I motioned to Miles, “get him some water.”
“No, no, just give me the whiskey. I’m fine.”
“That’s it. Be a man. Drink.” Mous handed him the bottle of whiskey. Brant took a sip, threw it up, took another sip.
“Miles, get him a cup of water.” I sat next to Brant on the stairs. He put his head on his knees and muttered to himself. I love her. Fucking turtles. I’m going to get fired. I love her. God why do I love her. His face was wet and red. I put my hand on his shoulder.
He sipped the water, hand shaking.
“I think we should take him upstairs. Let him rest.” I looked at Miles, “he’ll get alcohol poisoning if he keeps on.”
“No. I’m fine. I’m fucking fine, just need to sit.”
“Way to ruin your own party,” Malorie muttered to Abby.
“Come on Brant, I’ll help you out, man style. None of this shit is working, so I’ll show you how real men work out a bad day. Come on.” Mous ripped his shirt over his head, tossed it to Malorie. His tiny pecs and abs-that-don’t-count-because-you’re-fucking-skinny were out. He put his hands on his hips. Brant stood up, sat down, stood up and walked over to Mous.
“Wh-what is it Mous?” Brant was swaying.
Mous jumped up and down, small jumps, up-down, up-down, up-down. He shook out his arms. He cracked his neck. He cracked his knees, his elbows. He balled his right hand into a fist, swung and made contact. We heard a harsh crack and watched as Brant hit the ground. His left cheek reddening and swelling.
“What the fuck are you—” I stood up.
“Woo!” Abby yelled. “What a hit. Time for a show.” The girls giggled, grabbed two camping chairs and brought them out to the yard. They were whispering to each other. I couldn’t hear them. I grabbed hold of a camping chair. Hit them in the fucking throats. Kick them in the cunts. Fucking cunts.
Miles stepped in front of me, “Mous…”
“It’s fine. I’m fine.” Brant stood up.
“That’s right soldier. Be a man. Fight me. Get all your shit out. Work it all out. Fight me.”
Brant fumbled, took a swing. Mous easily bounced out of the way.
“Come on dick breath, come on. Be the man your mother is.” Mous balled both fists, hit Brant in the chest. Brant fell flat back. I saw his elbow start to bleed.
“Come on Brant. Get up. Fight.” Abby grabbed the bottle of whiskey off the deck and drank.
Brant stood up. Stay down.
“Take off your shirt. Shirts are for fags.”
Brant staggered and fell again as he ripped the t-shirt over his head. Brant was square with broad shoulders, broad hips, and long arms. He wasn’t thin. He drank too much beer to be thin. His stomach swayed a little when he got up.
“Is that a man’s body?” Mous beat his chest. “Come on bitch tits. I’m going to teach you to be a man.”
“Miles, he’s going to hurt him. He’s going to break him.”
“Go Moo! Fight Brant! Get the fuck up and fight.” Abby jumped up and down.
“He’s going to hurt him. He could kill him.”
“Get the fuck up and fight!” Malorie’s tone was coarse, cruel.
Mous and Brant began to fight again. Swings, misses, side steps, flesh on flesh. Brant charged, grabbed Mous around the middle but was too drunk to knock him down. Mous pushed back, kneed Brant in the stomach, dropped him to the ground. Brant crawled to the bushes and retched.
“That was better. That was better. I like that initiative, that aggression. I like it. Come back at me. Come on.”
“Take him down Brant!”
“Show ‘em Moo!”
“Miles. Miles, you need to do something. Miles you need to do something.”
“Come on buddy, get that shit out of you and come back here. Fight me.” Mous slapped his own thighs.
“Get up Brant. Get the fuck up.” Malorie yelled.
“Miles. Miles. He’s drunk. Miles. Help him.”
“I can’t get in the middle.”
“Fuck him up.”
“They’re both my friends.”
“Hit ‘em, there, right there.”
“Mous will hit me.”
“I don’t want to hit him. I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want to fight them.”
“Right there, right there, punch him, get him. Ho!”
“I will hurt him. He’ll make me hurt him.” Miles’ face was long, eyes focused and alert, knuckles white.
“I can’t watch this.”
“I don’t want to hurt him.”
“I’m going to stop it.” I grabbed the top of the camping chair. I was going to swing it. I was going to swing it hard and fast.
“He will hurt you.” Miles grabbed my shoulders hard, pulling me back.
Brant was up again. They came at each other, embraced, fell to the ground. We watched, Abby and Malorie cheering as they wrestled, veins popping up, blood dripping, a leg wrapping around a throat, an arm around a head. When Brant was pinned, Mous jumped up.
“Yeah Moo! Yeah! Fuck yeah!”
Brant sat up, cradled his head as he muttered words that didn’t sound like words.
“Don’t fucking cry. Try being a man for once.” Malorie was standing over him. She drank more whiskey, pointed at Brant, “fight him you stupid twat. Fight him, you ugly fat bastard.”
“Miles.” Ten fingers squeezed, bruised my shoulders.
Brant took the whiskey bottle from Malorie and edged himself closer to the bushes. Mous howled. He called out to the sky and the moon. He ripped at his chest and his thighs. Malorie and Abby stared at him, eyes dilated, lips parted. I felt my shoulders begin to ache. My face was numb, mouth dry. The air smelled musky, like dampness mixed with sweat and beer. The butt I had thrown over the railing was deep red. Blood watering the weeds.
“I’m leaving.” I said it loud enough for everyone to hear. They didn’t turn to look at me. Miles’ grip faltered. I walked around the house and out onto the sidewalk. Things were less red, the air cleaner here. I took short breaths, quick short breaths. Breathe, in and out, yes, in and out.
“I’ll walk you home.” Miles jogged after me.
“I’ll walk you home.”
“No.” My voice cracked. It was shrill, “take care of your fucking friend.” Miles started. I walked away.
My apartment was too hot. I opened the windows and hoped for a breeze. I turned on the TV. A sitcom was on, men sitting at a bar, ladies walking around seductively, heads reeled, necks cracking, eyes staring, whiskey drunk, skirts short, cleavage out, makeup done, heels five inches too high. What are you doing? I’m taking her to the movie. Laughter, laughter. Damn honey you look fine tonight. Can I buy you a drink? Laughter, laughter. See she said yes. I get the women, because I know how to be a real man. Laughter, laughter.
I peeled off my loose jeans, my t-shirt, my bra. I threw them to the floor. I put on my ugliest cotton shorts and a ripped tee. I rubbed my head, scrubbed it. I pushed my fingers through my hair, tied it uncomfortably in a bun. I filled a glass with water, added the last ice cube I had. I drank the whole thing. I sat on the kitchen floor, felt the coolness of the linoleum on my thighs, on my stretch marks, on the little hairs poking out from the follicles. I watched as my curtains swung, back and forth, up and down, up and down. I put my fist in my mouth. I tasted beer and whiskey on my skin. I tasted the corrosion. I tasted Miles. Why didn’t I do anything? Why didn’t he do anything? They were awful. They were terrible. Why didn’t I do anything? Why didn’t I do anything?
I never wanted to see any of them again. Being alone was better. It had to be better.
I let myself slide onto my side. I cried. My face burned. I couldn’t breathe. I’d swallowed too many toxins. I’d let them seep into my brain. I’d let them eat away too much. Why did I let them in? I rolled on my back and stared up at the ceiling. Why did they cheer?
My cat walked in. She yawned, her canines and pink tongue sticking out. Alone had to be better. They weren’t good. Cruelty for the sake of cruelty. It was infectious. It was everywhere. Alone had to be better. She stretched, ass and tail up in the air, front legs pushed straight out. Her claws extended, retracted, extended. They scraped the linoleum. Nothing was kind.
She walked over, slowly outstretched a leg, put a paw on my chest. She left it there a moment, tested the ground, then hopped up. She stood on me, walked on me, circled twice, then lied down. Her face was inches from mine. I looked into her round black pupils. I saw my red face reflected. I saw my bloodshot eyes and bleeding, bitten lips. I saw swelling and bruising and brokenness. Physically I felt nothing. I was numb to it all. But my head, my head ached, my mind swirled, the ceiling swung slightly. I’d let them seep into my mind. I’d let them in. They squatted in my mind, their memories toxic. I had to be better off alone.
The cat closed her eyes, lied her head down, and began to purr. I rubbed her side lightly, then closed my eyes as well.
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