A Story About the Volatility of a Codependent Friendship

“Kimberle” by Achy Obejas

AN INTRODUCTION BY POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR

The stories of Achy Obejas are already that proverbial something else, but perhaps there is none more Obejian, in that way, than her masterpiece, “Kimberle.”

Sexuality, nationality, gender, ethnicity and race all come together here in those everyday ways that they do in our lives, and then some. The then some is the way this is love story and thriller and horror and folktale and parable all at once, not in some foggy watercolor liminality but in the most stark sunlight and lighting and blood and bruise you can imagine. Obejas is the sort of writer whose gifts are so far beyond mine that the more I study her — I’ve been her reader for more than two decades, now — the more confused I am at how she builds it all. I don’t even get to ask my how does she do it? that the writer in me usually can’t let go of when I read. I lose myself too quickly in her dreams.

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Obejas, if you don’t know, is a Cuban-American poet, translator, journalist, novelist, and short story writer, and “Kimberle” is a highlight of her new collection, The Tower of the Antilles, translated from Spanish by herself. On one level, it’s a portrait: Kimberle is that friend you have who comes and never leaves. She’s up for anything and everything. She’s the one who will take you on joyrides, get you involved in threesomes, makes you fall in love with her. She’ll also steal your books and drop racist comments at times, so subtle that you think you might be crazy but when it comes time take her to task she’s onto the next antic. She’s the friend you need to keep alive but you know you might die trying. Kimberle is too flesh and blood to be entirely mythic, but she has that mystique of the disturbing lost girls of Eighties and Nineties pop: She’s just 16 years old, leave her alone they say. Or Janie’s got a gun, her whole world’s come undone. Or girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know, it’s really serious. Kimberle is the one who makes it though, just maybe.

There is not much innocence in the violence of “Kimberle” but there is somehow considerable beauty.

And like all the stories of The Tower of Antilles, Obejas’s striking terrain of syntax and diction produces a resplendent landscape for all sorts of plots to twist and turn upon. In the first paragraph alone you know the body is on a different kind of trial here: “Her words slid one into the other, like buttery babies bumping, accumulating at the mouth of a slide in the playground.” There is not much innocence in the violence of “Kimberle” but there is somehow considerable beauty. And it’s hard not to be reminded of Borges’s iconic lyricism in “The Aleph” when Obejas catalogues what appears in the cinema of the mind during a first near-death experience with our Kimberle:

“My life did not pass in front of my eyes how I might have expected; instead, I saw images of desperate people on a bounding sea; multitudes wandering Fifth Avenue or the Thames, the shores of the Bosporus or the sands outside the pyramids; mirrors and mirrors, mercury and water; a family portrait in Havana from years before; my mother with her tangled hair, my father tilting his hat in New Orleans or Galveston; the shadows of birds of paradise against a stucco wall; a shallow and watery grave, and another longer passage, a trail of bones.”

By the end we realize we have an allegory of exile along with the portrait of sisterhood and womanhood, delivered through spare and searing lyricism: “My life such as it was — my widowed mother, my useless Cuban passport, the smoke in my lungs, the ache in my chest that seemed impossible to contain — burned through me.”

I’ve felt this way about Obejas’s work before but never more strongly than with delicious, delirious, terrifying, stunning “Kimberle”: I don’t think it’s possible to be the same after reading it. And I don’t think you’ll want to be, which just maybe is where the real story lies.

Porochista Khakpour
Author of the novels Sons and Other Flammable Objects, The Last Illusion and the forthcoming memoir Sick: A Life of Lyme, Love, Illness, and Addiction

A Story About the Volatility of a Codependent Friendship

“Kimberle”

by Achy Obejas

“I have to be stopped,” Kimberle said. Her breath blurred her words, transmitting a whooshing sound that made me push the phone away. “Well, okay, maybe not have to — I’d say should — but that begs the question of why. I mean, who cares? So maybe what I really mean is I need to be stopped.” Her words slid one into the other, like buttery babies bumping, accumulating at the mouth of a slide in the playground. “Are you listening to me?”

I was, I really was. She was asking me to keep her from killing herself. There was no method chosen yet — it could have been slashing her wrists, or lying down on the train tracks outside of town (later she confessed that would never work, that she’d get up at the first tremor on the rail and run for her life, terrified her feet would get tangled on the slats and her death would be classified as a mere accident — as if she were that careless and common), or just blowing her brains out with a polymer pistol — say, a Glock 19 — available at Walmart or at half price from the same cretin who sold her cocaine.

“Hellooooo?”

“I hear you, I hear you,” I finally said. “Where are you?”

I left my VW Golf at home and took a cab to pick her up from some squalid blues bar, the only pale face in the place. The guy at the door — a black man old enough to have been an adolescent during the civil rights era, but raised with the polite deference of the previous generation — didn’t hide his relief when I grabbed my tattooed friend, threw her in her car, and took her home with me.

It was all I could think to do, and it made sense for both of us. Kimberle had been homeless, living out of her car — an antique Toyota Corolla that had had its lights punched out on too many occasions and now traveled unsteadily with huge swathes of duct tape holding up its fender. In all honesty, I was a bit unsteady myself, afflicted with the kind of loneliness that’s felt in the gut like a chronic and never fully realized nausea.

Also, it was fall — a particularly gorgeous time in Indiana, with its spray of colors on every tree, but, in our town, one with a peculiar seasonal peril for college-aged girls. It seemed that about this time every year, there would be a disappearance — someone would fail to show at her dorm or study hall. This would be followed by a flowering of flyers on posts and bulletin boards (never trees) featuring a girl with a simple smile and a reward. Because the girl was always white and pointedly ordinary, there would be a strange familiarity about her: everyone was sure they’d seen her at the Commons or the bookstore, waiting for the campus bus or at the Bluebird the previous weekend.

It may seem perverse to say this, but every year we waited for that disappearance, not in shock or horror, or to look for new clues to apprehend the culprit: we waited in anticipation of relief. Once the psycho got his girl, he seemed pacified, so we listened with a little less urgency to the footsteps behind us in the parking lot, worried less when out running at dawn. Spared, we would look guiltily at those flyers, which would be faded and torn by spring, when a farmer readying his cornfield for planting would discover the girl among the papery remains of the previous year’s harvest.

When Kimberle moved in with me that November, the annual kill had not yet occurred and I was worried for both of us, her in her car and me in my first-floor one-bedroom, the window open for my cat, Brian Eno, to come and go as she pleased. I had trapped it so it couldn’t be opened more than a few inches, but that meant it was never closed all the way, even in the worst of winter.

In my mind, Kimberle and I reeked of prey. We were both boyish girls, pink and sad. She wore straight blond hair and had features angled to throw artful shadows; mine, by contrast, were soft and vaguely tropical, overwhelmed by a carnival of curls. We both seemed to be in weakened states. Her girlfriend had caught her in flagrante delicto and walked out; depression had swallowed her in the aftermath. She couldn’t concentrate at her restaurant job, mixing up simple orders, barking at the customers, so that it wasn’t long before she found herself at the unemployment office (where her insistence on stepping out to smoke cost her her place in line so many times she finally gave up).

It quickly followed that she went home one rosy dawn and discovered her landlord, aware he had no right to do so but convinced Kimberle (now four months late on her rent) would never get it together to legally contest it, had stacked all her belongings on the sidewalk, where they had been picked over by the students at International House, headquarters for all the third world kids on scholarships that barely covered textbooks. All that was left were a few T-shirts from various political marches (mostly black), books from her old and useless major in Marxist theory (one with a note in red tucked between its pages which read, COMUNISM IS DEAD! which we marveled at for its misspelling), and, to our surprise, her battered iBook (the screen was cracked though it worked fine).

Me, I’d just broken up with my boyfriend — it was my doing, it just felt like we were going nowhere — but I was past the point of righteousness and heavily into doubt. Not about my decision — that, I never questioned — but about whether I’d ever care enough to understand another human being, whether I’d ever figure out how to stay after the initial flush, whether I’d ever get over my absurd sense of self-sufficiency.

When I brought Kimberle to live with me she hadn’t replaced much of anything and we emptied the Toyota in one trip. I gave her my futon to sleep on in the living room, surrendered a drawer in the dresser, pushed my clothes to one side of the closet, and explained my alphabetized CDs, my work hours at a smokehouse one town over (and that we’d never starve for meat), and my books.

Since Kimberle had never visited me after I’d moved out of my parents’ house — in truth, we were more acquaintances than friends — I was especially emphatic about the books, prized possessions I’d been collecting since I had first earned a paycheck. I pointed out the shelf of first editions, among them Richard Wright’s Native Son, Sapphire’s American Dreams, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a rare copy of The Cook and the Carpenter, and Langston Hughes and Ben Carruthers’s limited-edition translation of Nicolas Guillén’s Cuba Libre, all encased in Saran Wrap. There were also a handful of nineteenth-century travel books on Cuba, fascinating for their racist assumptions, and a few autographed volumes, including novels by Dennis Cooper, Ana María Shua, and Monique Wittig.

“These never leave the shelf, they never get unwrapped,” I said. “If you wanna read one of them, tell me and I’ll get you a copy.”

“Cool,” she said in a disinterested whisper, pulling off her boots, long, sleek things that suggested she should be carrying a riding crop.

She leaned back on the futon in exhaustion and put her hands behind her head. There was an elegant and casual muscularity to her tattooed limbs, a pliability I would later come to know under entirely different circumstances.

Kimberle had not been installed in my apartment more than a day or two (crying and sniffling, refusing to eat with the usual determination of the newly heartbroken) when I noticed Native Son was gone, leaving a gaping hole on my shelf. I assumed she’d taken it down to read when I had turned my back. I trotted over to the futon and peeked around and under the pillow. The sheets were neatly folded, the blanket too. Had anyone else been in the apartment except us two? No, not a soul, not even Brian Eno, who’d been out hunting. I contemplated my dilemma: how to ask a potential suicide if they’re ripping you off.

Sometime the next day — after a restless night of weeping and pillow punching which I could hear in the bedroom, even with the door closed — Kimberle managed to shower and put on a fresh black T, then lumbered into the kitchen. She barely nodded. It seemed that if she’d actually completed the gesture, her head might have been in danger of rolling off.

I suppose I should have been worried, given the threat of suicide so boldly announced, about Kimberle’s whereabouts when she wasn’t home, or what she was up to when I wasn’t at my apartment. But I wasn’t, I wasn’t worried at all. I didn’t throw out my razors, I didn’t hide the belts, I didn’t turn off the pilot in the oven. It’s not that I didn’t think she was at risk, because I did, I absolutely did. It’s just that when she told me she needed to be stopped, I took it to mean she needed me to shelter her until she recovered, which I assumed would be soon. I thought, in fact, I’d pretty much done my duty as a friend by bringing her home and feeding her a cherry-smoked ham sandwich.

Truth is, I was much more focused on the maniac whose quarry was still bounding out there in the wilderness. I would pull out the local print-only paper every day when I got to the smokehouse and make for the police blotter. I knew, of course, that once the villain committed to the deed, it’d be front-page news, but I held out hope for clues from anticipatory crimes.

Once, there was an incident on a hiking trail — two girls were approached by a white man in his fifties, sallow and scurvied, who tried to grab one of them. The other girl turned out to be a member of the campus tae kwon do team and rapid-kicked his face before he somehow managed to get away. For several days after that, I was on the lookout for any man in his fifties who might come in to the smokehouse looking like tenderized meat. And I avoided all trails, even the carefully landscaped routes between campus buildings.

Because the smokehouse was isolated in order to realize its function, and its clientele fairly specialized — we sold gourmet meat (including bison, ostrich, and alligator) mostly by phone and online, though our best seller was summer sausage, as common in central Indiana as Oscar Mayer — there wasn’t much foot traffic in and out of the store and I actually spent a great deal of time alone. After I’d processed the orders, packed the UPS boxes, replenished and rearranged the display cases, made coffee, and added some chips to the smoker, there wasn’t much for me to do but sit there, trying to study while avoiding giving too much importance to the noises outside that suggested furtive steps in the yard, or shadows that looked like bodies bent to hide below the windowsill, just waiting for me to lift the frame and expose my neck for strangulation.

One evening, I came home to find Kimberle with my Santoku knife in hand, little pyramids of chopped onions, green pepper, and slimy octopus arms with their puckering cups arranged on the counter. Brian Eno reached up from the floor, her calico belly and paws extended toward the heaven promised above.

“Dinner,” Kimberle announced as soon as I stepped in, lighting a flame under the wok.

I kicked off my boots, stripped my scarf from around my neck, and let my coat slide from my body, all along yakking about the psychopath and his apparent disinterest this year.

“Maybe he finally died,” offered Kimberle.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought when we were about fifteen, ’cause it took until January that year, remember? But then I realized it’s gotta be more than one guy.”

“You think he’s got accomplices?” Kimberle asked, a tendril of smoke rising from the wok.

“Or copycats,” I said. “I’m into the copycat theory.”

That’s about when I noticed Sapphire angling in an unfamiliar fashion on the bookshelf. Woolf’s Orlando was no longer beside it. Had I considered what my reaction would have been any other time, I might have said rage. But seeing the jaunty leaning that suddenly gave the shelves a deliberately decorated look, I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach. I was still catching my breath when I turned around. The Santoku had left Kimberle’s right hand, embedding its blade upright on the knuckles of her left. Blood seeped sparingly from between her fingers but collected quickly around the octopus pile, which now looked wounded and alive.

I took Kimberle to the county hospital, where they stitched the flaps of skin back together. Her hand, now bright and swollen like an aposematic amphibian, rested on the dashboard all the way home. We drove back in silence, her eyes closed, head inclined and threatening to hit the windshield.

In the kitchen, the onion and green pepper pyramids were intact on the counter but the octopus had vanished. Smudged paw tracks led out Brian Eno’s usual route through the living room window. Kimberle stood unsteadily under the light, her face shadowed. I sat down on the futon.

“What happened to Native Son and Orlando?” I asked.

She shrugged.

“Did you take them?”

She spun slowly on the heel of her boot, dragging her other foot around in a circle.

“Kimberle . . .”

“I hurt,” she said, “I really hurt.” Her skin was a bluish red as she threw herself on my lap and bawled.

A week later, Native Son and Orlando were still missing but Kimberle and I hadn’t been able to talk about it. Our schedules failed to coincide and my mother, widowed and alone on the other side of town (confused but tolerant of my decision to live away from her), had gone to visit relatives in Miami, leaving me to deal with her cat, Brian Eno’s brother, a daring aerialist she’d named Alfredo Codona, after the Mexican trapeze artist who’d killed himself and his ex-wife. This complicated my life a bit more than usual, and I found myself drained after dealing with the temporarily housebound Alfredo, whose pent-up frustrations tended to result in toppled chairs, broken picture frames, and a scattering of magazines and knickknacks. It felt like I had to piece my mother’s place back together every single night she was gone.

One time, I was so tired when I got home I headed straight for the tub and finished undressing as the hot water nipped at my knees. I adjusted the temperature, then I let myself go under, blowing my breath out in fat, noisy bubbles. I came back up and didn’t bother to lift my lids. I used my toes to turn off the faucet, then went into a semisomnambulist state in which neither my mother nor Alfredo Codona could engage me, Native Son and Orlando were back where they belonged, and Kimberle . . . Kimberle was . . . laughing.

“What . . . ?”

I sat up, water splashing on the floor and on my clothes. I heard the refrigerator pop open, then tenebrous voices. I pulled the plug and gathered a towel around me, but when I opened the door, I was startled by the blurry blackness of the living room. I heard rustling from the futon, conspiratorial giggling, and Brian Eno’s anxious meowing outside the unexpectedly closed window. To my amazement, Kimberle had brought somebody home. I didn’t especially like the idea of her having sex in my living room, but we hadn’t talked about it — I’d assumed, since she was supposedly suicidal, that there wasn’t a need for that talk. Now I was trapped, naked and wet, watching Kimberle hovering above her lover, as agile as the real Alfredo Codona on the high wire.

Outside, Brian Eno wailed, tapping her paws on the glass. I shrugged, as if she could understand, but all she did was unleash a high-pitched scream. It was raining outside. I held tight to the towel and started across the room as quietly as I could. But as I tried to open the window, I felt a hand on my ankle. Its warmth rose up my leg, infused my gut, and became a knot in my throat. I looked down and saw Kimberle’s arm, its jagged tattoos pulsing. Rather than jerk away, I bent to undo her fingers, only to find myself face to face with her. Her lips were glistening, and below her chin was a milky slope with a puckered nipple . . . She moved to make room for me as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I don’t know how or why but my mouth opened to the stranger’s breast, tasting her and the vague tobacco of Kimberle’s spit.

Afterward, as Kimberle and I sprawled on either side of the girl, I recognized her as a clerk from a bookstore in town. She seemed dazed and pleased, her shoulder up against Kimberle as she stroked my belly. I realized that for the last hour or so, as engaged as we’d been in this most intimate of maneuvers, Kimberle and I had not kissed or otherwise touched. We had worked side by side — structureless and free.

“Here, banana boat queen,” Kimberle said with a sly grin as she passed me a joint. Banana boat queen? And I thought: Where the fuck did she get that? How the hell did she think she’d earned dispensation for that?

The girl between us bristled.

Then Kimberle laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said to our guest, “I can do that; she and I go way back.”

In all honesty, I don’t know when I met Kimberle. It seemed she had always been there, from the very day we arrived from Cuba. Hers was a mysterious and solitary world. I realized that one winter day in my junior year in high school as I was walking home from school just as dusk was settling in. Kimberle pulled up in her Toyota next to me and asked if I wanted a ride. As soon as I got in, she offered me a cigarette. I said no.

“A disgusting habit anyway. You wanna see something?”

“What?”

Without another word, Kimberle aimed the Toyota out of town, past the last deadbeat bar, the strip malls, and the trailer parks, past the ramp to the interstate, until she entered a narrow gravel road with dry cornstalks blossoming on either side. There was a brackish smell, the tang of wet dirt and nicotine. The Toyota danced on the gravel but Kimberle, bent over the wheel, maintained a determined expression.

“Are you ready?”

“Ready . . . ? For what?” I asked, my fingers clutching the shoulder belt.

“This,” she whispered. Then she turned off the headlights.

Before I had a chance to adjust to the tracers, she gunned the car, hurling it down the black tunnel, the tires spitting rocks as she skidded this way and that, following the eerie spotlight provided by the moon . . . For a moment, we were suspended in air and time. My life did not pass in front of my eyes how I might have expected; instead, I saw images of desperate people on a bounding sea; multitudes wandering Fifth Avenue or the Thames, the shores of the Bosporus or the sands outside the pyramids; mirrors and mirrors, mercury and water; a family portrait in Havana from years before; my mother with her tangled hair, my father tilting his hat in New Orleans or Galveston; the shadows of birds of paradise against a stucco wall; a shallow and watery grave, and another longer passage, a trail of bones. Just then the silver etched the sharp edges of the cornstalks, teasing them to life as specters in black coats . . .

“We’re going to die!” I screamed.

Moments later, the Toyota came to a shaky stop as we both gasped for breath. A cloud of smoke surrounded us, reeking of fermentation and gasoline. I popped open the door and crawled outside, where I promptly threw up.

Kimberle scrambled over the seat and out, practically on top of me. Her arms held me steady. “You okay?” she asked, panting.

“That was amazing,” I said, my heart still racing, “just amazing.”

Not even a week had gone by when Kimberle brought another girl home, this time an Eastern European professor who’d been implicated with a Cuban during a semester abroad in Bucharest. Rather than wait for me to stumble onto them, they had marched right into my bedroom, naked as newborns. I was going to protest but was too unnerved by their boldness, and then, in my weakness, I was seduced by the silky warmth of skin on either side of me. Seconds later, I felt something hard and cold against my belly and looked down to see Kimberle wearing a harness with a summer sausage dangling from it. The professor sighed as I guided the meat. While she licked and bit at my chin, Kimberle pushed inch by inch into her. At one point, Kimberle was balanced above me, her mouth grazing mine, but we just stared past each other.

Afterward — the professor between us — we luxuriated, the room redolent of garlic, pepper, and sweat. “Quite the little Cuban sandwich we’ve got here,” Kimberle said, passing me what now seemed like the obligatory after-sex joint followed by a vaguely racist comment. The professor stiffened. Like the bookstore girl, she’d turned her back to Kimberle. Instead of rubbing my belly, this one settled her head on my shoulder, then fell happily asleep.

“Kimberle, you’ve gotta stop,” I said, then hesitated. “I’ve gotta get my books back. Do you understand me?”

Her head was buried under the pillow on the futon, the early-morning light shiny on her exposed shoulder blade. With the white sheet crumpled halfway up her back, she looked like a headless angel.

“Kimberle, are you listening to me?” There was some imperceptible movement, a twitch. “Would you please . . . I’m talking to you.”

She emerged, curtain of yellow hair, eyes smoky. “What makes you think I took them?”

“What? Are you kidding me?”

“Coulda been the bookstore girl, or the professor.”

Since the ménage, the bookstore girl had called to invite me to dinner but I had declined. And the professor had stopped by twice, once with a first edition of Upton Sinclair’s Mental Radio. Tempting — achingly tempting — as that 1930 oddity was, I had refused it.

“I’ll let Kimberle know you stopped by,” I’d added, biting my lip.

“I didn’t come to see Kimberle,” the professor had said, her fingers pulling on my curls, which I’d found disconcerting.

Kimberle was looking at me now, waiting for an answer. “My books were missing before the bookstore girl and the professor,” I replied.

“Oh.”

“We’ve got to talk about that too.”

Down went her head. “Now?” she asked, her voice distant and flimsy like a final communication from a sinking ship.

“Now.”

She hopped up, her hip bones pure cartilage. She shivered. “I’ll be right back,” she said, heading for the bathroom. I dropped back onto the futon, heard her pee into the bowl, then the water running. I scanned the shelf, imagining where Mental Radio might have fit. Silence.

Then: “Kimberle? . . . Kimberle, you all right?” I scrambled to the bathroom, struggled with the knob. “Kimberle, please, let me in.” I imagined her hanging from the light fixture, her veins cascading red into the tub, that polymer pistol bought just for this moment, when she’d stick its tip in her mouth and . . . “Kimberle, goddamnit . . .” Then I kicked, kicked, and kicked again, until the lock bent and the door gave. “Kimberle . . .” But there was nothing, just my breath misting as I stared at the open window, the screen leaning against the tub.

I ran out and around our building but there was no sign of her, no imprint I could find in the snow, nothing. When I tried to start my car to look for her, the engine sputtered and died. I grabbed the keys to Kimberle’s Toyota, which came to life mockingly, and put it into reverse, only to have to brake immediately to avoid a passing station wagon. The Toyota jerked, the duct-taped fender shifted, practically falling, while I white-knuckled the wheel and felt my heart like a reciprocating engine in my chest.

After that, I made sure we spent as much time together as possible: reading, running, cooking venison I brought from the smokehouse, stuffing it with currants, pecans, and pears, or making smoked bison burgers with Vidalia onions and thyme. On any given night, she’d bring home a different girl to whom we’d minister with increasing aerial expertise. At some point I noticed American Dreams was missing from the shelf but I no longer cared.

One night in late January — our local psychopath still loose, still victimless — I came home from the smokehouse emanating a mesquite and found a naked Kimberle eagerly waiting for me.

“A surprise, a surprise tonight,” she said, helping me with my coat. “Oh my god, you smell . . . sooooo good.”

She led me to my room, where a clearly anxious, very pregnant woman was sitting up in my bed.

“Whoa, Kimberle, I — ”

“Hi,” the woman said hoarsely; she was obviously terrified. She was holding the sheet to her ample breasts. I could see giant areolas through the threads, the giant slope of her belly.

“This’ll be great, I promise,” Kimberle whispered, pushing me toward the bed as she tugged on my sweater.

“I dunno . . . I . . .”

Before long Kimberle was driving my hand inside the woman, who barely moved as she begged us to kiss, to please kiss for her.

“I need, I need to see that . . .”

I turned to Kimberle but she was intent on the task at hand. Inside the pregnant woman, my fingers took the measure of what felt like a fetal skull, baby teeth, a rope of blood. Suddenly, the pregnant woman began to sob and I pulled out, flustered and confused. I grabbed my clothes off the floor and started out of the room when I felt something soft and squishy under my bare foot. I bent down to discover a half-eaten field mouse, a bloody offering from Brian Eno who batted it at me, her fangs exposed and feral.

I left the dead mouse and apartment behind and climbed into my VW. After cranking it awhile, I managed to get it started. I steered out of town, past the strip malls, the cornfields, and the interstate where, years before, Kimberle had made me feel so fucking alive. When I got to the smokehouse, I scaled up a backroom bunk my boss used when he stayed to smoke delicate meats overnight — it was infused with a smell of acrid flesh and maleness. Outside, I could hear branches breaking, footsteps, an owl. I refused to consider the shadows on the curtainless window. The blanket scratched my skin, the walls whined. Trembling there in the dark, I realized I wanted to kiss Kimberle — not for anyone else’s pleasure but for my own.

The next morning, there was an ice storm and my car once more refused to start. I called Kimberle and asked her to pick me up at the smokehouse. When the Toyota pulled up, I jumped in before Kimberle had the chance to park. I leaned toward her but she turned away.

“I’m sorry about last night, I really am,” she said, all skittish, avoiding eye contact.

“Me too.” The Toyota’s tires spun on the ice for an instant then got traction and heaved onto the road. “What was going on with your friend?”

“I dunno. She went home. I said I’d take her but she just refused.”

“Can you blame her?”

“Can I . . . ? Look, it was just fun . . . I dunno why everything got so screwed up.”

I put my head against the frosty passenger window. “What would make you think that would be fun?”

“I just thought we could, you know, do something . . . different. Don’t you wanna just do something different now and again? I mean . . . if there’s something you wanted to do, I’d consider it.”

As soon as she said it, I knew. “I wanna do a threesome with a guy.”

“With . . . with a guy?”

“Why not?”

Kimberle was so taken back, she momentarily lost control. The car slid on the shoulder then skidded back onto the road.

“But . . . wha . . . I mean, what would I do?”

“What do you think?”

“Look, I’m not gonna . . . and he’d want us to . . .” She kept looking from me to the road, each curve back to town now a little slicker, less certain.

I nodded at her, exasperated, as if she were some dumb puppy. “Well, exactly.”

“Exactly? But . . .”

“Kimberle, don’t you ever think about what we’re doing — about us?”

“Us? There is no us.”

She fell on the brake just as we hurled beyond the asphalt but the resistance was catalytic: the car fishtailed as the rear tires hit the road again. My life such as it was — my widowed mother, my useless Cuban passport, the smoke in my lungs, the ache in my chest that seemed impossible to contain — burned through me. We flipped twice and landed in a labyrinth of pointy cornstalks peppered by a sooty snow. There was a moment of silence, a stillness, then the tape ripped and the Toyota’s front end collapsed, shaking us one more time.

“Are you . . . are you okay . . . ?” I asked breathlessly. I was hanging upside down.

The car was on its back, and suddenly Native Son, Orlando, and American Dreams slipped from under the seats, which were now above our heads, and tumbled to the ceiling below us. They were in Saran Wrap, encased like monarch chrysalides.

“Oh god . . . Kimberle . . .” I started to weep.

She shook her head, sprinkling a bloody constellation on the windshield. I reached over and undid her seat belt, which caused her body to drop with a thud. She tried to help me with mine but it was stuck.

“Let me crawl out and come around,” she said, her mouth a mess of red. Her fingers felt around for teeth, for pieces of tongue.

I watched as she kicked out the glass on her window, picked each shard from the frame, and slowly pulled herself through. My head throbbed and I closed my eyes. I could hear the crunch of Kimberle’s steps on the snow, the exertion in her breathing. I heard her gasp and choke and then a rustling by my window.

“Don’t look,” she said, her voice cracking as she reached in to cover my eyes with her ensanguined hands. “Don’t look.”

But it was too late: there, above her shoulder, was this year’s seasonal kill, waxy and white but for the purple areolas and the meat of her sex. She was ordinary, familiar, and the glass of her eyes captured a portrait of Kimberle and me.

About the Author

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