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Authors: Kevin Sampsell

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BOOK: This Is Between Us
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Then we got the tweezers and fixed each other’s eyebrows. Then you’d plucked the hairs out of my nose.

Sometimes when we were out somewhere, you’d catch me looking at other women. I’d watch them walk by and my head would follow them for a few seconds, like a camera. Then I’d look back at you and you’d shake your head with a disapproving grimace. “What?” I’d say.

“I can always tell when you’re checking someone out because your leg starts to shake and you do this funny thing with your tongue,” you told me.

“You make me sound like some kind of dog,” I said.

Sometimes when men walked by, I watched them as well, for the same reason. Sometimes I liked the way they dressed or I wondered what they looked like naked. You didn’t say anything when I looked at men. They weren’t perceived as a threat to us.

I watched couples too. There were beautiful ones and there were mismatched ones. Ugly guys and cute girls. Dumpy-looking women and handsome men. I tried to figure out the tricky math between everyone, how we all equaled the same things.

There was a box of beignet mix from Café du Monde in my cupboard that had been there for over a year. We bought it while we were in New Orleans the year before but we never got around to making them. The box was gold and brown and had a classic illustration of the famous café on it. The instructions were in French and English and said that the beignets were best with their “delicious Creole coffee with chicory.” It was far beyond the expiration date. I took it out and put it on a shelf above the sink because I didn’t want to throw it out. I pretended it was like a decoration.

Vince was talking to his new friend Roberto on the cordless phone in his room. You and I were outside his door, trying to figure out what they were talking about. We caught little bits of Vince’s side of the conversation. “You should have paintball at your next birthday party . . . Yeah, I don’t really like birthday parties anymore either . . . I shot a
gun before . . . Have you ever had Hawaiian pizza before? . . . I always pick the Canadian bacon off . . . I can’t stand that crap . . .

We looked at each other, a little shocked at his harsh criticism of Canadian bacon. Then his voice got quieter and I thought I heard him say, “Fuck that guy” or maybe “Fuckin’ A” or maybe “Fuckin’ Dave,” and then he said, “Shit,” and laughed. Your eyes got big and you frantically motioned me to the kitchen.

“Did he say the words
fuckin’ gay
?” you asked me.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “But he definitely used the F-word.”

Your mouth was still shocked open. We hardly ever swore around the kids, but I knew there was a lot of that at school. Even when we walked by the Catholic school down the street, we would hear fourth graders spouting gangsta rap lyrics. Plus, we had watched a stand-up comedy show on

“Should we talk to him about this?” you asked.

“Maybe,” I said reluctantly. “I don’t think he talks like that all the time though. It sounds like he’s just trying it out.”

“Maybe we need to meet this Roberto and make sure he’s not a bad influence.”

We heard Vince laugh again. It sounded a little fake.

“Do you think Maxine talks like that?” you asked.

“I heard her say
before,” I answered.

You shrugged your shoulders, like that wasn’t a big deal.

We were house-sitting for a friend of a friend. We didn’t know this man personally. We were told that he was an artist of some kind and he was in another city preparing an art show for the next month. He had a garden we were supposed to tend and a bird to feed.

We even stayed there a few nights, because it was in a nicer neighborhood than ours. After about a week, we became curious and started snooping through his stuff.

From the clothes in his closet, we figured out that he was a small man. But there was one drawer in his dresser where we found several pairs of extra large boxer shorts and T-shirts.

In his medicine cabinet, we found the usual pills and Band-Aids but also bottles of medicine with strange names and long, complicated instructions. You sampled some of them.

We found the key to the basement and walked down the creaky steps. We discovered a makeshift stage with cameras and lights surrounding it. Over to the side was a tall black filing cabinet that we rifled through. In it, we found a series of photos that featured a statuesque lady in her fifties. She looked glamorous but very serious and powerfully broad-shouldered. For some reason, my first thought was that maybe she was a famous opera singer. As we looked through these photos, we found several where she was standing next to the man we were house-sitting for. We could see, even though she was nearly twice his size and probably ten years older, that they were lovers. They held hands, leaned against each other, and even smiled, mid laugh, as the shutter froze them for eternity.

The more we looked, though, the less they smiled. She began to look older and weaker but the man looked the same in every picture. Then there were photos of the woman holding the man’s cat, photos of her with other people we didn’t recognize, photos of her wearing masks and wigs, and photos of her naked and crouched. We finally realized that these cameras, this room, captured a woman gradually dying.

We put everything back the way we found it. We went upstairs and locked the door. Everything had the smell and feeling of death from then on. You considered every object a bit longer, as if it could somehow infect you. I didn’t even want to sleep in the bedroom.

For some reason, we forgot about the love we saw in the photos. The only thing that stuck with us was how easily life faded away in front of us.

In the middle of the night, you were slowly running your fingers down my stomach and woke me up. You couldn’t fall asleep and asked me for help. “Take an Ambien,” I said. Most of the time, I didn’t like it when you took pills, but I was too tired to argue about it sometimes.

“I can’t,” you said. “I’m on a diet, and it’ll make me eat.”

“You don’t need to diet. Don’t be crazy,” I said.

You kept touching me. I was getting hard, but I was too tired. Plus, I had masturbated earlier that night.

“But look at my stomach. I look pregnant,” you said. You stuck your belly out as far as it would go.

“I’m more pregnant than you,” I said, cupping my belly with both hands and rubbing it like a crystal ball.

Then you started talking about something that was going to take a long time to talk about. I can’t even remember what it was, but I was trying to avoid it like a dodgeball.

I turned away from you, hoping that you would get the hint. “I gotta sleep,” I said. “One of us has to be awake for the kids in the morning.”

You got quietly sullen for a while. I could always tell your sullen quiet from your normal quiet—your sullen quiet had a buzz to it, like a television showing a tornado tearing houses apart, but with the volume turned down. Then I heard your voice start whispering. It was like that for a while, soft and unthreatening, like you were just talking to yourself. But then you swerved into a field of questions. I didn’t understand what they were—I was half asleep already—but I could hear how you whispered them, like a subliminal spy digging for subconscious thoughts. You tried to make the inflection of the question marks sound sweet, undetectable. Your hands stayed away from me. I simply slurred, over and over, “It’s okay. It’ll be okay.” I figured that could be the answer to any of your questions.

Vince told me he was meeting a friend to see a movie. I asked if it was Roberto and he said yes, but also two other friends named Serena and Elise. I wondered if this was a double date.

He needed a ride, so I told him I’d take him. I really hoped to meet the other kids, but it was at a theater in the mall, so I just dropped him off outside with a twenty-dollar bill and told him I’d meet him at the arcade next to the theater at 7:00

I fought off the urge to come back to the movie and sit in the back row to spy on them. I wasn’t sure if I could sit through the movie version of
The A-Team

When I got to the arcade later, I met Serena. She was nervous and had dark goth hair and sad eyes. She wore clip-on earrings and a fake leather jacket that looked like it would be too warm for the weather. I gave Vince a five-dollar bill to change into quarters, and they played a fighting game with various buttons and two joysticks. Their hands flew everywhere, sweaty and suddenly competitive. I played the lonely Pac-Man and pinball machines.

Serena’s dad showed up about twenty minutes later, and I spoke to him for a moment, but he also seemed nervous. He was at least ten years older than me and looked Italian, unlike Serena. It almost seemed like he didn’t speak English, or maybe the noise was too loud around us.

When we all walked out to the parking garage, the fresh air cleared my head. Serena’s dad was still silent, so I asked Vince if Roberto and Elise were also at the movie. “No,” Vince said quickly.

“Who?” asked Serena.

“Nothing,” said Vince.

“What about Elise?” Serena asked.

“I’ll tell you later,” said Vince. I saw his face go white, like he was caught in a lie, or something else sticky and sensitive.

“How was the movie?” I finally thought to ask.

“It was awesome,” said Vince. “It was all right,” said Serena at the same time. It sounded like:
It was awesright

I wondered if they would go on another date, but I didn’t want to pester Vince about it. I stood in his doorway a few days later and told Vince he could talk to me about girls if he ever wanted to. I felt like an actor in a
show when I said that.

Vince was eating his pancakes plain. I offered him some maple syrup but he shook his head.

“What’s wrong?” I said. “Are you depressed about something?”

“No,” he said.

“Only depressed people eat their pancakes plain,” I told him.

He picked up the syrup and poured a tiny bit on.

“Well, I’m glad you’re not
depressed,” I said.

I took the day off work and made the kids’ lunches and sent them off to school. After they left, we talked about what there was to do. There were piles of
s from the library, but we were bored of all those recommendations from your coworkers. We didn’t have any money to spend, and our bank accounts were dangerously close to zero. Our cable had been turned off, so we took turns giving each other massages and looking for the strangest porn we could find on the Internet (we had worried about our Internet being turned off just the previous day but couldn’t stand the thought of that, so we borrowed sixty dollars from your dad to pay the bill). We had sex twice. And then a third time that didn’t seem to satisfy you.

You said that I was tuned out and that I wasn’t looking at you like a person. I told you I wasn’t objectifying you, but in a way I was. I had started in that third time to see if I could still do it. I remembered a time when we could have sex three or four times in one day. That was before we lived together.

You asked me why I’d wanted to do it a third time anyway. I told you that I got excited when you put your hair up and started making lunch. You were naked, but you put a red apron on while you stirred some meatballs into a pan of sauce. There was a large pot with spaghetti boiling, and the steam surrounded you like a magic trick. The truth was that you simply looked different. In fact, you looked kind of like the new girl at work. The one I haven’t worked up the nerve to talk to. The one with the expensive-looking wedding ring. The lesbian girl at work said that she also had pierced nipples. She had seen her at her health club, in the showers.

I started imagining that I was the lesbian and you were the nipple-pierced woman. I had you pressed against the wall, steam floating by. I was a butch, with a rubber cock that never gave up and never got soft. I stared at your nipples and pierced them in my mind. You said, “Hey. Don’t fuck me like I’m just some

The meat and sauce burned in the pan. You started scraping it all out when we were done. I told you that it was just the bottom that was burned. Everything else was fine. Everything else was actually great. I ate a whole plateful, trying to prove myself to you.

Sometimes I would start to say something and you’d cut me off, or we’d be with a bunch of friends and they would all be talking over me. I’m very soft-spoken, so this happens a lot. I say a couple of words, and then my voice is buried. I wonder if anyone ever hears me. Sometimes, even when we were somewhere quiet, I would say half of a sentence and stop, just to see if you were paying attention. “What were you saying?” I hoped you’d ask.

But maybe you thought muttering half sentences was how I spoke—my own personal pattern of speech. Or maybe you didn’t need many clues to what I was thinking.

Sometimes, when these thoughts were running through my brain, you’d be saying something to me but I wouldn’t be listening.

If we were arguing about something and I was wrong, I would eventually admit it. And if you were wrong, you would usually surrender too. But if we were both wrong, it would go on forever, because neither of us wanted to be the first to give in. I couldn’t think of any sentences for my mouth, just small, failing statements that squatted between parentheses in my brain. They’d never stand up straight and move forward. We gave each other the silent treatment until something indefinable cracked between us. Something larger than language.

BOOK: This Is Between Us
6.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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