AN INTRODUCTION BY LISA LOCASCIO
The other night I had a nightmare. I was somewhere with a family, one that I was part of, and we all had to sleep in the same bed. Nothing bad happened to me in the bed, not that I can remember, but I hated being so close to them. It was unnatural, inappropriate for dream-reasons I cannot explain, only recall. I lay in the family bed filled with loathing, dread, and a third horror: a sense of my own badness for wanting to be away from them.
Intimacy is the unavoidable outcome of familial relationships. The Deeper The Water The Uglier The Fish, Katya Apekina’s daring and brilliant debut novel, distills this intimacy in all its forms: whether they are distant or close, sad or happy, the bonds we form with those who raise us are windows into uncanny unseen universes. Inexplicable behaviors and tics, mysterious joy, irretrievable sorrow, are all enacted for a tiny audience. Edie, one of the star-wronged pair of sisters at the center of Apekina’s novel, both believes and questions the performance of her counterpart; “My sister would see things,” she says. “A snake slithering up a tree. A boy rowing a boat. Like if she were to make them up wouldn’t they be more dramatic? A man with a knife! That kind of thing. Why make up a boy in a boat?” As we incubate in the hot, close room of togetherness that is family, we develop a contemptuous terror of the known, and a wild, searing hunger for the other. For most of us, the promise of a completed separation from our parents is a lust that carries us through adolescence and into adulthood.
Whether they are distant or close, sad or happy, the bonds we form with those who raise us are windows into uncanny, unseen universes.
In this excerpt, Edie escapes the stultifying world of her estranged father’s New York City apartment for the open road, determined to rescue her mother from a mental hospital in New Orleans. Charlie, a near-stranger, has volunteered to be Edie’s Charon, and Apekina writes their mutual fascination with wise tenderness. We see Charlie as Edie does, a whole new person to discover and devour, an unexplored landscape that offers himself, plain and magical, for wonder and delight. Sprung from the hell of the family romance, the reader experiences with Edie the nascent ecstasy of possession. Getting to know Charlie changes her understanding, and ours, of who both of them are. The rate of revelation in Apekina’s propulsive writing forces the reader to the same question at which Edie finally arrives: “Why has nobody done this to me before?”
– Lisa Locascio
Author of Open Me
My Mother’s Mental Hospital
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
“My Mother’s Mental Hospital”
by Katya Apekina
The trees are thick on both sides of the highway. They pop out, illuminated by the headlights, then flatten, slip into darkness. For long stretches we are the only ones on the road.
Charlie is telling me about a woman he met in an abandoned subway tunnel.
“She had a whole apartment under there. A c-c-couch. A bed. A fridge. A bookshelf. She had more furniture than I do, and she was tapped into the p-p-power grid. It was basically an apartment underneath 7th Avenue.”
I turn away from the window and look at him.
“Was she beautiful?” I ask. An underground mermaid. Dirt in her long hair. My mother.
“The h-h-homeless woman?” He looks at me.
Was that a strange thing to ask?
“You just said she wasn’t homeless, that she had an apartment inside the tunnel.”
He nods. Then after a while he says: “No, she wasn’t b-b-beautiful.”
“I was just trying to picture her,” I say under my breath, and flip the radio on to cover my embarrassment. I turn the dial through the stations, backwards and forwards, but I don’t find anything. I leave it on static and turn it down until it’s very quiet, then lean back in the seat.
He smiles. “You like static?”
“I don’t know… It reminds me of being a little kid.” I look at his profile. “My mom would put Mae and me in front of the broken TV set.”
“White n-n-noise is very soothing. Sounds like the inside of a womb.”
“No. I mean, maybe it’s soothing, but that’s not why she did it.”
“Why then?” He yawns with his mouth closed. His nostrils flare.
“She’d make us watch the snow on the screen and tell her what we saw.”
“Like a g-game?”
“Yes.” It was. Mae would say it wasn’t. I guess there were times when it hadn’t felt entirely playful. I haven’t told Charlie yet about the mental hospital. I’d just said hospital. If he knew would he still call it a game?
“So, what kind of things d-did you see?”
“I didn’t see anything. I saw snow. But I made things up, described scenes from shows I’d seen at other people’s houses.” I could tell Mom wanted something and I was trying to give it to her. Trying and failing. ithough.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Visions. Strange stuff.”
“How do you know she wasn’t m-m-m-making them up too?”
“I don’t. But she would go into a trance. You could pinch her and she wouldn’t even notice. Also, the kind of stuff she saw wasn’t anything exciting. A snake slithering up a tree. A boy rowing a boat. Like if she were to make them up wouldn’t they be more dramatic? A man with a knife! That kind of thing. Why make up a boy in a boat?”
“She would stare at the TV set and s-s-s-see those things?”
“Yeah. Does that sound crazy?” I’m not sure what I want him to say. Yes, but if he were to say “yes,” I wouldn’t like it. She’d certainly been acting crazy in New York, but not like externally, not in a way I could explain to anybody else. It was the kind of thing where if I tried I’d be the one who sounded crazy.
He shrugs. “It sounds c-creative. My parents never invented games. If our TV broke they would fix it. They wouldn’t see it as an opportunity to nurture my c-c-creativity. They had no sense of h-humor. They weren’t unhappy, just very practical.”
I guess that’s what she’d been doing, nurturing creativity. I yawn. The clock on the dashboard says 3:52 a.m. It’s been a very long day.
“It’s like those M-Magic Eye Books,” he continues.
“What?” I ball up a jacket and use it as a pillow.
“You know. Those p-p-p-picture books that look like abstract art, but if you stare at them and unfocus your eyes, or actually more like f-f-f-focus on some point in the distance, a 3-D picture emerges. A l-l-lion’s head, or a house, or w-w-whatever. You’ve never seen a Magic Eye book?”
I close my eyes. “No, I’ve never heard of them.”
“Yeah, I l-l-like that,” he says after a while, out loud but to himself.
I’m drifting off. My body is heavier but my brain is lighter.
“That s-seems like something your mom would do,” I hear him say through the haze of sleep.
I’m standing in the middle of the kitchen, water is overflowing from the sink. How would Charlie know what my mom would or would not do? I’m asleep. The whistle of the teakettle wakes me up. It’s dark out. I am alone. A train is going by outside the truck. We are parked on the edge of an empty field. Charlie is not in the driver’s side. He abandoned me here. The train is very close, maybe he jumped on one of the cars. Hadn’t that been one of the stories he told me? He rode the rails out to Ohio after his mom died? I roll down my window and squint through the darkness hanging over the field. The air feels very still and wet. I turn and look back and there he is: stretched out in the bed of the truck, asleep.
I wake up and we’re driving through the mountains. They’re beautiful. God, I feel good. I feel like yesterday was a cocoon and today I’ve emerged from it as my true self. I must have been asleep for a long time, because the light coming in through the windshield is yellow. Afternoon light. The best kind, according to Mom. Mom, I will be seeing you in a matter of hours.
I watch Charlie drive, his mouth hanging slightly open, hair falling over his forehead, eyelashes glowing in the sunlight like little halos. He looks so normal when he’s not stuttering, so handsome. I think about the way his lips and chin tremble when he talks. Mae’s right, it’s repulsive, but it’s also kind of fascinating. I picture his trembling mouth on top of mine. His tongue seizing up against my tongue.
“Good m-morning,” he says. He’s noticed me watching him.
I yawn and stretch. Yawn again. He’s squinting at the road, so I reach over and lower the sun visor on the driver’s side, and he looks at me like it’s the kindest thing anybody has ever done for him. I take a sip of lukewarm coffee from his paper cup. The clock on the dashboard reads 5:47 p.m.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“West Virginia. Are you h-h-hungry?”
The billboards along the side of the highway interrupt the view of the mountains. They are counting down to a diner that serves breakfast all day. The eggs glisten, the sausage glistens, the pancakes look like you could take a nap in them face down. We decide to go there. I feel giddy. Giddyup.
In the parking lot, the air is warm. It smells so nice. I grab Charlie by the sleeve of his plaid flannel.
“Do you feel that?” I ask him, lifting my face up to the sky, into the wind.
“W-w-what?” We left spring and entered summer.
“The air. It’s already Southern.”
He laughs. “You s-s-smell that you’re closer to home. Like that dog who always f-f-f-finds its way back.”
“Are you calling me a dog?” I ask, shaking him by the sleeve, laughing. “Are you calling me a fucking dog?”
Our laughter follows us into the diner, invades the hum of the fluorescent lights and the scraping silverware. I ask for the scenic booth facing the mountain, and let go of his sleeve only when we sit down.
“It smells like a swimming pool,” I say.
“They j-just mopped the floor.” Charlie points to a bucket and mop, left out and leaning, in the corner of the room.
The fat waitress brings us water. The skinny one argues with someone in the kitchen through the little window.
“What are you getting?” I ask, unsticking the laminated pages of the menu. There are photos of all the dishes.
Charlie points to a picture of a Jell-O salad and I laugh at this familiar game — find the grossest thing on the menu. “The l-l-l-local delicacy,” he reads.
I flip through to the entrees and point to a picture of a gray slab of meat on a bed of spaghetti. The washed-out colors of the print job make it look particularly gruesome. “I’m gonna go with the crime scene photo,” I say.
He cracks up. We laugh longer than we probably should because it’s not that funny. I look at the picture again and laugh harder. No, it’s pretty funny. Charlie pulls the menu off the table so we can’t look at it anymore. He catches his breath, takes a sip of water, chews on the ice, grins.
And then, we’re just staring across the table at each other smiling and not saying anything. Several minutes go by like this, or maybe much longer. I look away. Something in his face looks so open that it makes me embarrassed. A feeling drills through me, down my throat and between my legs. Our ice water in the plastic octagonal glasses casts long shadows on the tabletop. Little black-and-white oceans.
“W-w-what are you thinking about?” He breaks the silence first.
“I guess… that I’m happy,” I say, looking up at his face, but not his eyes.
He nods. “Happiness was like a bull and they were trying to hold on,” he whispers weirdly.
“It’s a l-l-line from your dad’s book,” he says. “S-sorry, I thought you knew it.”
“Oh, no,” I say. “I’ve never actually read him.”
Whose happiness had Dennis been writing about? His and Mom’s? The Happiness Rodeo. I’d say he and Mom did not manage to hold on very well. They both fell off and what? Happiness trampled them? C’est la vie! What a weird metaphor. I wonder how you say bull in French? Vache? No. That’s cow. Happiness is like a cow. The waitress is like a cow. Her belly, bisected by that apron, looks like an udder. She licks the tip of her pencil and takes our order. Neither of us get what we said we would.
When she leaves Charlie lights a cigarette. I gesture for him to pass it to me.
He hesitates. “I d-d-didn’t know you smoked.”
My hand brushes against his fingers as I take it.
“I don’t,” I say, and let the cigarette hang out of the corner of my mouth without breathing in.
I try to do a smoke ring. My mom taught me how once, but I start coughing.
“You al-l-l right?” he asks, taking the cigarette back, and pushing my water towards me.
I nod but can’t stop coughing. An old couple in a booth across the restaurant is watching us. The woman has tubes coming out of her nose connected to an oxygen tank. I wave and cough, wave and cough. Take a sip of the water, a deep breath.
“That was embarrassing,” I finally say after I’ve stopped coughing. He must think I’m a real idiot.
“It’s probably better not to start anyway,” he says with the cigarette in his mouth. The cigarette changes his face. It’s sexy. A little bit tough.
The waitress sets down a monster stack of pancakes in front of me. “Anything else?” she asks Charlie.
I watch him pour hot sauce over his eggs and dip the wheat toast in the yolk. We chew for a while in silence, staring out at the mountain. Unlike the ranges in the distance that look blue or even purple, this mountain is covered in light green grass. It looks like a very difficult golf course.
“So,” I say after I swallow several mouthfuls of pancake. “What about you? What are you thinking about?”
That you’re also happy? That you think I’m wonderful despite my making an ass of myself with the cigarette?
He finishes chewing, swallows, then carefully puts the cigarette in his mouth before answering. “Mountain top removal,” he says.
He keeps the cigarette in his mouth as he talks. “See the grass up there?” He points with his fork, the tines gluey with yolk. “It’s not supposed to look like that. A coal company, probably Massey, blew the top off that mountain to get to the coal, turned the surface of it into a fucking moonscape, polluted the water and air with chemicals. There’s a big toxic lake in there with the runoff, called a slurry pond. People around here, children, are 30 times as likely to get cancer, asthma, all kinds of nasty stuff. Then the coal company ‘beautified’ the whole mess by planting that bullshit grass…”
That’s what it is! He hasn’t stuttered. It must be having a cigarette in his mouth. Maybe that’s why he smokes. Or, maybe it’s because he’s ranting about the mountain. Like if he talks about something he cares about he overcomes it or something.
“What?” he asks.
“You’re l-l-looking at me funny.” The stutter is back. He puts the cigarette out and reaches for my hand across the table. “So, do you want to go?”
“To a s-s-slurry pond. A little adventure.”
His hand is warm and callused. I want him to touch my face and body with his big, strange hands and kiss my mouth. He’ll taste like hot sauce, cigarettes and coffee. He’s so much more substantial than Markus ever was. The whole thing with Markus was ridiculous. I can’t believe that I was at all broken up over it.
Charlie lets go of my hand and reaches for his wallet when the waitress sets the check down. I offer to pay but he doesn’t let me.
And then he stands as if nothing has just passed between us. He walks ahead not noticing that I am hesitating, that I hadn’t wanted the moment to end quite yet.
I stop next to a table of church ladies. Will he look back and notice I have fallen behind? Turn around and look at me, Charlie. Am I testing him? Maybe. He keeps walking. Am I being immature? Probably.
One of the church ladies, wearing a teal straw hat, puts down the salt shaker emphatically and says to the other: “Nancy Douglas is a bitch.” When Charlie gets to the door he turns around and waits for me to catch up. I run across the restaurant and almost into his arms. Into his truck, anyway.
Charlie gets out a map and traces something with his finger before he starts the engine. I listen to my breath as I watch him concentrating, like he’s full of electric sparks.
“There’s a path to a slurry p-p-pond,” he says, “not too far from here. A b-b-buddy took me once.”
I picture a sludgy swamp, the kind we have back home, hidden somewhere inside that grassy golf course mountaintop. I picture Charlie and me holding hands and sinking into it, slowly, slowly. Warm toxic mud rising up our legs. That’s how fossils are made.
We drive for a while up a narrow road under big industrial metal shoots. They look like broken amusement park rides, metal slides or deconstructed roller coasters. The road has gone from paved to gravel to dirt. By the time we drive off the road and park between two pine trees, the air outside is shadowy and blue. A sound like maracas. Crickets or tree frogs?
“Won’t it be too dark to see anything?” I ask.
Charlie shakes his head and passes me a flashlight. “It’s better in the d-dark.”
I click it on, but he covers the light with his hand. “Not yet,” he says.
We climb over a chain link fence and walk along a dirt path. We walk in silence in the thin gray light, with him several steps ahead of me. At one point the path curves and the trees thin out and we have a view of the highway below, the last bits of sunset reflected off the windshields of the passing pickup trucks.
We keep walking. There is another fence, this one has barbed wire at the top. Maybe we should turn back if someone doesn’t want us here this much. Charlie doesn’t hesitate, though, and I don’t say anything. He climbs the fence in a couple quick movements, drapes his Carhartt coat over the barbed wire and holds it there so I don’t cut myself. Once I’m over, he carefully pulls the coat free without even ripping it. His movements are so swift, precise and controlled — why doesn’t this extend to his mouth?
It’s dark already when we get to a small clearing with the parked cranes and tractors. In the dark they look like dinosaurs. We zigzag between them, then continue on the dirt road into the woods. We see the headlights of a car in the distance, coming downhill and Charlie pulls me in behind a big rock.
“What are they going — ” I start to ask him, but he shakes his head quickly and puts his hand over my mouth for good measure. What are they going to do to us? Is he scared at all?
He breathes against my cheek, and I think he is going to kiss me but he doesn’t. As soon as the car passes, he gets up and we keep going. Even though it’s dark now, he still doesn’t want to use the flashlights. We almost trip when we get to the third fence. It’s waist-high and wooden. The wood is old and mossy, rotten. It must have been put up a long time ago and forgotten.
Charlie and I crawl across the grassy knoll until we reach the drop-off. From here we can see the tarry black lake glistening in the dark below us. On its oily sheen, a yellow smudge — the reflection of the moon. Charlie pulls his shirt over his nose and mouth and gestures for me to do the same. The smell makes me dizzy, permanent markers and dead animals, the guts and bowels of the earth. My mouth tastes metallic.
Charlie grabs my hand and squeezes it. I can’t see much of his face in the dark, just his profile as he looks down below. He whispers through his shirt: “Eight hundred and fifty million gallons of carcinogenic runoff.”
He lists more facts, but they don’t matter to me. The lake is beautiful. It’s something from a fairytale nightmare. It’s the embodiment of everything mean and awful and wrong, contained and glittering.
We don’t stay long because the fumes are so toxic. On our walk back to the truck I keep thinking of Mom, of the pond inside her, of the broken dam and the sludge contaminating her, pouring out into her veins. If Mae were here, what would she think of all this?
I know what she would say. She would say that I don’t understand anything, that it was she who’d been Mom’s slurry pond.
“Are you okay?” Charlie’s voice comes from many steps ahead. “We need to keep walking.”
The night air is warm and wet. I roll my window down all the way and let the breeze blow through my matted hair. I’m home. I’m finally home. This air is enough to make my bones feel like they’ve turned to cartilage.
“Turn off at the next exit,” I say, patting Charlie’s shoulder. He clicks on the blinker. It’s been a long day on the road. Every once in a while he bulges out his eyes as if he’s being strangled, a technique, I think, for keeping himself awake. He’s been doing all the driving because I don’t know how to drive stick. He tried to show me in a dark parking lot after we stopped for gas but it didn’t go well.
“Are w-w-we going to your house?” His question turns into a yawn.
“To the hospital.”
I know it’s late and that the hospital will probably be closed to visitors but I want to feel like I’m near her for a moment. It seems cold to drive all the way down here and not go straight there.
I watch Charlie’s face as we pull up to the building past the sign: St. Vincent’s. There’s no flicker of recognition or judgment. I haven’t told him that it’s a mental hospital, so maybe he doesn’t know. Nothing about the building gives it away as such. Southern Louisiana has a lot of old haunted-looking places, but this isn’t one of them. It’s a newer construction, nondescript, seven stories tall with a fenced-in garden. I’d driven by it a million times and assumed it was an office park or a community college.
The parking lot is mostly empty except for a few cars in a gated section that must belong to the doctors and nurses.
“The lights are on,” I say hopefully, as Charlie pulls up to the front entrance.
“Hospitals always l-l-leave the lights on,” he says.
I get out while Charlie waits in the car. The front doors are locked. There is an empty room, a waiting room maybe, couches, tables, a front desk where a nurse or somebody usually sits. At the end of the room is an open door leading to a long, well-lit corridor. A security guard sits halfway down the hall, reading a newspaper. I knock and wave, but the glass is so thick it barely makes a sound. The guard doesn’t look up.
I walk along the side of the building until I get to a hedge growing around a tall wrought iron fence. I think about all the fences we climbed in West Virginia, but I don’t try to climb this one.
The fence goes around the residential wing of the hospital. The windows are square, ten on each floor. They’re the kind office towers have, the kind that don’t open. Of course they don’t open. Duh. It’s a mental hospital. In the rooms where the blinds are up there’s nothing to see — ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights.
Which of these rooms is Mom’s? Is she even on this side of the building? I try to concentrate on each window. Do any of them give me a “Mom” feeling?
This is stupid. Something Mae would do. If she were here she’d point to a window and be like, “That one! I just know!” like she has some kind of homing device in her brain that I don’t. But really Mae, and obviously I never said this to her, but if you’re so “in tune” and always know everything then why the fuck were you upstairs while Mom was in the kitchen, tying our old jump rope around her neck?
A hand on my shoulder. Jesus. It’s Charlie. I hadn’t heard him get out of the car.
“Are you all right?” he says. “I d-d-didn’t mean to scare you.”
Have I been here long?
“An orderly told me that they start taking visitors at 10 a.m. tomorrow. I caught him on his s-s-s-smoke break.”
I don’t want to leave yet. Charlie stands there and looks at me. I smile. I smile so that he’ll stop looking so closely.
A thump. The sound of a bird flying into glass. And then again. The sound is coming from the top floor. A woman’s face slams into the window, over and over. I feel the smile quivering on my mouth as Charlie pulls me away from the hedge. Two nurses inside rush to the woman, lower the blinds.
For a second, I thought that woman was Mom. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t Mom at all. Just some crazy person. Charlie is guiding me back to the truck, but I’m walking sideways because I can’t stop looking at the wall of windows.
On the fifth floor, I think I see the blinds shift, a shadow move. I stop.
Charlie lets go of my elbow.
“W-w-what?” he says, turns around and squints at where I’m looking.
It’s her. I’m sure of it somehow.
“Nothing,” I say, and get into the truck.
“We’ll c-c-come back in the morning,” he says and starts the engine.
I take Charlie on a night tour of my empty town.
“It’s all on the way,” I lie as I direct him to Old Metairie Rd. I make him slow down as we pass my high school. I point out the adjacent field where people go to dry hump, watch his face as I say the words dry hump, but he just yawns. I make him drive past my favorite record store, which is closed, of course, the metal grate down, covering the windows. I make him drive to the abandoned house by Lake Pontchartrain, where you can jump right off the splintery dock into the water.
“Want to go for a dip?” I ask. We can swim naked in the cold lake, have our first kiss in the moonlight while treading water.
“No, Edie. I’m t-t-t-tired. Let’s go home.” He holds my hand as he shifts the truck into gear. It’s sweet the way he said “home,” not “your house.” He hasn’t realized yet that this is it. This is really our last night together. There’ll be no place for us out here. He won’t fit in with my life, with caring for Mom, and once he sees how I am with my friends he’ll realize that I’ve only been pretending to be someone interesting and grown up.
He drives down Crescent Blvd. We’re getting closer and closer to the end of all this, whatever “this” is. We turn onto my street. It looks the same. The Lewises are watching TV in their upstairs bedroom. I can tell by the flickering blue light. The other houses are dark. This isn’t New Orleans. People turn into pumpkins at midnight.
I don’t point my house out to him, let him drive past it. I can’t go back yet. I just can’t. I’m not ready. Dennis had been in such a hurry to get us out that who knows what kind of mess we left in there. A bowl of rotting fruit on the kitchen table, the bread knife on the floor where I dropped it next to a puddle of piss. No. I want to have one last night that’s my own. Is that horrible? Tomorrow, I’ll come home and deal with everything. But tonight I’m not going to be weighed down by that stuff.
I make a production of looking for my key. “I’m sorry, I guess I forgot it,” I say and give him directions to a motel by the hospital.
“Really? You d-don’t have a spare h-hidden?” He seems a little put out by these drives, these loops, but that’s all he says. I pretend I didn’t hear him, stick my head out the window and close my eyes, let the warm wind hit my face.
The motel I take Charlie to is called The Aquarius. Markus and I once saw our Physics teacher drive up here with the school secretary. We’d joked about getting a room for ourselves, but of course we didn’t. I didn’t have a fake ID, and Markus is a coward.
The room Charlie gets us is on the second floor. It looks just like in the movies — a dark green bedspread, wicker furniture, a glass ashtray on top of the television set. I get undressed and climb under the covers. Charlie pretends he isn’t looking at me. He slowly unlaces his boots and stares at the painting hanging over the bed.
“How’s the b-b-bed,” he asks me only once I’m fully under the sheet.
“Fine.” I stretch out like a starfish. “Comfortable.” I bounce a little and the springs creek.
“You tired?” I say.
“Mhhm,” Charlie says. He angles his body away from me as he gets undressed down to his boxer shorts. His back is pale and muscular. I want to tell him that he looks like a marble statue. He does — so white and hairless — but I’m too shy to say it out loud.
He clicks the light off with the switch on his bedside table. The room goes dark, but then my eyes adjust to the greenish light coming in from the parking lot — from the streetlamps and the motel’s neon sign. Charlie is lying on his back as far away from me as possible.
He turns to face me, hand under his cheek.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t get separate beds,” he whispers.
I shrug. I’m not.
“Are you all right?” he whispers. He doesn’t stutter when he whispers.
I shrug again. He reaches his hand out to me but then puts it back down. “Goodnight,” he says.
I’m not ready for “goodnight.” I watch him shift and close his eyes and my heart starts racing. This can’t be it. I stand up on the bed, take a couple wobbly steps in his direction so my legs are towering over his head. I inspect the painting he’d been looking at earlier, run my fingers over the bumpy surface of the canvas. Even in the dark I can tell that it’s a sailboat on an ocean. At home, in Mom’s room, we have a big oceanscape that my grandfather painted. It’s funny to think that I hadn’t seen the real ocean until I visited Dennis.
I glance down at Charlie’s face. Is he asleep? No, but his eyes are closed. I poke his shoulder with my big toe.
“What?” he whispers. I poke him again. “What?” He smiles, but keeps his eyes closed, wraps his hand around my foot.
“Uh…Have you ever been sailing?” I ask. I can’t think of anything else, and I don’t want him to go to sleep. He doesn’t let go of my foot. He’s stroking the bottom of it with his thumb. I hold my breath and hope that he won’t stop.
“Mmhm,” he finally says, “I have.” And then when I can’t think of anything else to say, he says: “We should get some sleep.”
Disappointment swells in my throat. Does he really mean it? I keep standing there in the dark. I won’t move until he touches me again. 1…2…3…4…5…6. He shifts and looks up. The whites of his eyes glint like a knife. I put my foot on his neck, feel his pulse against my arch. Is it fast? Will he touch me? I feel him swallow. We’re both very still, the feeling between us that has been building over the long car ride… Or am I just imagining this? No. He wraps his hand around my ankle and slides it up my leg.
A weird croak comes out of me, not mine exactly. Maybe I should be embarrassed but I’m not. His hand stops mid-thigh, I step harder onto his throat. He licks his lips. Reach your hand farther, I want to say, but he stays very still, then suddenly he arches his back and grabs my hips, pulling me down onto his face. He kisses me through my underwear. He kisses hard, with his teeth, and sucks through the fabric. He slips his hand under the elastic, puts a finger inside of me. I lean my forehead against the wicker headboard. It feels so good what he’s doing, hot breath between my legs, a finger swirling in a circle, wider and wider. Nobody’s ever gone down on me before, not for real, not like this.
Charlie pushes me onto the bed and gets on top. His mouth, a minty ashtray and also something else. Me? It makes me feel like a cannibal knowing what I taste like.
“Are you sure — ” Charlie starts to say.
“Yes,” I interrupt and jam my tongue in his mouth before he has a chance to change his mind. I reach down and wrap my hand around his dick. It surprises me. From the way it felt against my leg I hadn’t expected it to be so big. Thick and heavy. Markus was always kind of half-mast wobbly. This thing is a cudgel. I squeeze it and watch his face. He closes his eyes, but not all the way, there’s a flutter of white eyeball. It feels powerful, holding him there, like he’s on a leash. So this is what it’s like with a man. I remember that part in Dennis’s book, the part Mae read to me.
His eyes go wide. “Not so hard,” he says. No trace of the stutter. His face looks different in the dark. I don’t know him at all. It’s a stranger who’s pulling off my soggy underwear. Charlie is locked in the bathroom and this is his double, nudging the tip of his dick against me, pushing it in. He gasps, transformed again, another unfamiliar mask, eyes rolled back, jaw clenched. I feel myself stretching and his dick creeping deeper into me, inch by inch. It’s impaling me, I think, as it finally hits against something. A lung? This is how I’d like to die, death by dick, mind totally blank. He puts his hands over my breasts. His hands are rough, like gloves. I don’t like this at all, but as I try to move them, he pinches my nipples harder than I thought would feel good. The pain shoots through me and transforms into something else. Why has nobody done this to me before? I hear a moan. He pulls out a little.
“No, don’t take it away,” I try to say but my mouth trembles in a silent stutter. Is this an orgasm? Pinpricks in my face, like it’s fallen asleep. I try to catch my breath but he stuffs his fingers in my mouth, pushes them towards my throat, and thrusts. Our bones slam. And again. I’m choking and contracting. Nothing exists.
He takes his hand out of my mouth, wipes the strands of saliva on his chest, wipes my stomach with the corner of the sheet. I can’t move. I’m limp, but he’s efficient, like he’s clearing the table. Feeling comes back to my face slowly. He gets up to get the ashtray and his cigarettes from the pocket of his pants, lies back next to me and pulls me into his chest. My cheek is resting against my own spit. I hear the click of the lighter, the inhale.
“Happiness is like a bull,” he says as he exhales.
I look up at him, and he blows the smoke out the side of his mouth.
“You’re happy?” I ask.
“Yes.” He kisses the top of my head.
I want to ask him if that’s why he’s not stuttering, but I don’t really want to bring it up. Maybe I’ve cured him. Or maybe he’s been faking the whole time. This bunny on crutches is actually a wolf.
“You were smiling.”
I nod. I feel light, like if not for his arm, I could float up, up, up.
He stubs the cigarette out and sets the ashtray on the bedside table. I look at his hand, the same hand that had just been in my mouth and the muscles inside of me tremble. The aftershock.
“Goodnight,” he says. He closes his eyes and slides down into his pillow.
I might as well tell him now about my mother, while he’s too tired to ask me questions.
“St. Vincent’s is a mental hospital,” I say quietly, in case he’s already asleep.
He doesn’t respond. A light whistle in his breath.
There are 127 ceiling tiles. Seven of them are stained. I count again, 129. I start to count a third time but lose interest. I’m not going to be able to fall asleep.
I get up and put on his flannel shirt, stand by the window. The street is empty and the air is wet. The fog is making a halo of green light over the neon sign. I think if I squint, I can see the street the hospital is on. What if Mom is different when I see her tomorrow? What if she has become a stranger? That’s stupid. She will never be a stranger. She will be so happy to see me. So relieved. There are cigarette holes in the hem of the curtain. Someone before must have been standing here, just like me, looking out this window.
“I know,” I hear Charlie say. It takes me a moment to realize he is saying that he knows about St. Vincent’s. I don’t know if he is awake or asleep, but he sits up and reaches for me and so I get back into bed and lie for a long time in the pocket of warmth he created under the sheet. I finally fall asleep as it’s starting to get light out.