Introduction by Alyssa Songsiridej
When I encounter an unusual emotional world in a short story, one that is nuanced and strange, I’m reminded of what made me love fiction in the first place. The best stories create exactly the right circumstances and atmosphere for a specific reaction. Alexandra Chang’s writing is one of the finest examples of fiction’s unique capacity to build an immersive, affecting experience—from the fragmentary structure of her debut novel, Days of Distraction, to her new short story collection, Chang’s work creates the perfect containers for deep, particular feeling.
The story here, “Phenotype,” is one of my favorites in Chang’s forthcoming collection, Tomb Sweeping. Just looking at a plot summary, you might assume you already know everything about Judith’s relationship with her former TA, a Korean PhD student named KJ. A college freshman at “not the worst Ivy,” whose orthodontist parents have kept her at home and also in braces, you might guess that the only reason Judith is dating KJ is because of her naïveté. You would be tempted, as Judith’s labmates are, to talk about their relationship derisively. As Judith studies mutated yeast, they comment how her braces, a “chastity belt for the mouth,” haven’t kept KJ away, perhaps because he is into it, or is just into “any mediocre white girl.” But Judith isn’t deterred by her labmates’ judgements or their “heinous laughter.” After all, she’s definitely smarter than all of them because, last she checked, the graduate biology program they are in is “ranked eleventh” in the country.
Chang has taken the bones of a familiar story and used Judith’s voice to make it vivid, strange, and alive. While definitely inexperienced, Judith is also a little intense, studying and digesting her slowly widening world with the acute observations of a young woman eager to achieve. I’m in awe of the way Chang takes seriously all of Judith’s thoughts and feelings, sidestepping anything that might be expected or cliché. How she makes a first kiss in an Arby’s parking lot sparkle with the feeling of early love, even as Judith’s braces fill with mucked-up bread. How Judith’s observations of KJ’s body—stocky, brick-like—and his aggression on the soccer field become somehow tender and romantic. “It is like watching a nature show about my boyfriend,” she thinks. Only Judith’s mind could work in this way, and only a great writer could bring such a full consciousness to life. Lucky for us, Alexandra Chang is such a writer, and I’m excited for you to step inside the world of her fiction.
– Alyssa Songsiridej
Managing Editor, Recommended Reading
The Scientific Method Does Not Apply to First Love
Phenotype by Alexandra Chang
People say that we don’t really know each other and that’s why we’re still together, but what everyone doesn’t see is that we understand each other perfectly fine. It’s true he’s Korean and I’m not. It’s also true that I’m an undergrad in the same lab where he’s a grad student. Yes, he TA’d my cell bio class, but that was before, so I deserved my A. The age difference isn’t as much as it looks. My parents are orthodontists. I have a lot of jaw issues, so I’ve worn braces since freshman year of high school. He’s never had braces. He doesn’t believe in cosmetic alterations. He says he’s traditional in that way, not like most Koreans these days. His teeth are small, tinged yellow, and crooked.
“I bet her parents keep her in braces to keep the boys away,” a grad student says.
“Oh, God, like a chastity belt in her mouth,” says a post-doc.
“Didn’t work on KJ. Guess he’s into it. Or girls who look like they’re still in high school.”
“Or any mediocre white girl.”
The two of them burst into heinous laughter.
Another thing people don’t know is that I hear a lot in lab. They think because I’m quiet that means I’m also deaf. Here I am, taking photos of mutated yeast, having to listen to them talk about me.
“Oh. Hi, Judith,” says the grad student when she walks into the microscope room.
“How’s it going?” says the post-doc.
I look up at them and smile to show off all my braces, rubber-banded in gold.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that not everyone who gets a PhD is a genius. KJ is not a genius. He’s in his sixth year, and the mean time for completing a doctorate in this department is 5.4 years, which makes KJ about average among his peers. This isn’t even the best graduate biology program in the country. Last I checked, it was ranked eleventh. I’m as smart as, or smarter than, any of the grad students and post-docs in the lab, including KJ and maybe even my PI. I haven’t reached my full potential yet.
My plan is to become a real doctor. Not like my parents and not like KJ will be eventually, when he graduates. I will be an MD, a doctor of medicine. My other plan is to get far away from this town, maybe even to another country, like Korea. I was born and grew up here, and because the university is one of the best in the country for undergrads, not the worst Ivy League, I stayed. I lived at home. I took the bus to classes. I took the bus back home. I ate dinners with my parents every night.
I joined the lab last year, my junior year. It is in the newest building on campus, a sterile white and metal structure that looks like it’s made of giant kitchen tile. At first I didn’t notice KJ. He sat in a distant bay. All the grad students seemed the same back then. Overworked and undernourished adults plodding around in sneakers and blue gloves. I work for one named Drew. After months of having me grow yeast cells and wash dishes, Drew let me do real experiments, and the PI invited me to attend lab meetings. I sat there at the first one with my mouth closed and back straight, trying very hard to look deserving as the grad student of the day stumbled over their PowerPoint slides. I don’t remember anything anybody said because I was so worried about my mouth opening and making me look dumb. It has a tendency to hang open when I’m not paying attention.
KJ approached me after that meeting and asked if I liked to eat Korean food. Those were his first words: “Do you like to eat Korean food?” I’d never had any, but I said yes. When he walked away, I noticed he waddled because of his thick, stocky legs. He is not a small person; he is shaped like a brick.
The next day he brought me a Tupperware of pork and rice, and we ate it together in the fourth-floor lunchroom. I didn’t know what to say as I sat across from him, so I didn’t say anything. KJ was quiet, too. We sat there eating in silence for a long time, and I remembered an article I once read that said silence between people indicates that the people are comfortable with each other. Most people like to talk a lot when they’re in front of you. I preferred the quiet. It was how I ate with my parents at home.
KJ had a deliberate way of putting each bite of food in his mouth and chewing, like he was thinking really hard about it. I was studying his forearms, hairless and bronze, when he said, “I’m a very good cook.”
He did not say it like a question. I took another bite to show that I agreed.
“You are very smart,” KJ said. “Top five percent in cell bio.”
I knew this, but it felt different, special, to hear it from somebody else.
“Did you grade my tests?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I enjoy your handwriting. It is crisp and excellent.”
We sat in silence for a moment, chewing the food he’d made.
Then he pointed at my mouth.
“Your hair,” he said. “You’re eating it.”
“Oh.” I yanked the strands out of my mouth, unsure how they’d gotten there.
“Has anyone ever told you that you have pretty hair?” said KJ.
Nobody had ever told me that. My hair is limp and dry and the color of wet sand. In fact, in elementary school, the kids used to call me Scarecrow. I always think of my hair as one of my worst features. That and my fingernails, which are short and stubby from when I bit them down in high school.
Hearing his compliments felt like stepping into the lab’s cold room on a humid summer day. It felt great.
That’s when we started dating. We didn’t tell anybody, and we limited our interactions in front of others. KJ said it should be kept a secret, at least for a while, and I agreed. We did not want people to think we were a stereotypical grad-undergrad couple. We also did not want the PI to know until we were sure he wouldn’t flip out and kick one of us out, most likely me. KJ said he cared about my future. Our PI is fairly unpredictable, which KJ attributes to his being from Argentina. I’d never met anybody from Argentina before joining this lab, and now I know seven Argentinians: the PI, his wife, his two daughters, the one graduate student who is an idiot, and the two post-docs, who are too depressed most of the time to notice anything around them. Before KJ, I did not know anybody from Korea, either.
It is difficult to have a secret relationship, especially when one person lives at home with their parents and the other lives with grad school classmates. The only times I could see KJ were during intramural soccer and in lab. Since both of those spaces were occupied by our labmates, we had to be careful, always watching ourselves, sneaking time for quick lunch walks (always leaving the lab staggered), and hanging around after soccer until everyone else had gone. He would send me texts that said, You are good at science and You are pretty today. I didn’t read into the syntax (am I pretty today but not yesterday or tomorrow?) because he’s ESL. I have met a lot more foreigners working in the lab and have gotten very good at understanding ESL people.
What I loved was going to soccer and watching KJ get into fights. I still love it. He’s quiet and calm in lab, but on the field, he is frightening. He rams into people. They yell at him. He yells back and pushes. Other people on the team have to pull him away. Sometimes he runs off and pushes somebody again. It is fascinating. It is like watching a nature show about my boyfriend. I think it has to do with him having been ranked very high up in the South Korean military before he came to graduate school. He says everybody smoked cigarettes there, which is why his teeth are yellow. He went from two packs a day to quitting completely when he came to the United States.
“I have incredible willpower,” he said when he told me this thrilling detail of his life.
In those early months, when he wasn’t overwhelmed with work, we’d meet at the far end of the parking lot outside our building, and he’d drive us to a restaurant for dinner. He chose places far from campus, places we didn’t think anybody else would go, like the Arby’s on the outskirts of town. I had to tell my parents that I was busy running experiments in lab. Yes, I lied to them, too, at first. It was the biggest secret I’d ever kept.
Our first kiss—my first kiss ever—happened in the Arby’s parking lot, before one of our meals. KJ is very conscientious about his breath and hygiene in general, and that first time, he handed me a piece of gum when I got in the car. We both chewed and chewed. The minty scent filled the cold car. When we arrived in the parking lot, he leaned over and held out a napkin for my gum. I spat it out. Then he put his mouth on my mouth. His lips were softer than I’d expected. The whole time, I thought about my braces and my tongue. Was one of them poking him in a bad way? KJ pulled back.
“You’ll get better with practice,” he said.
He ordered two Arby’s roast beef sandwiches, and we ate them at a sticky linoleum table inside. The only other customer was a middle-aged man wearing a tank top with a graphic of a smiling cartoon hot dog wrapped in an American flag. I thought he looked like my uncle Robbie, who lives in Horseheads. The man stared at us the entire time he ate, sauce dripping down the corners of his mouth. I wiped my mouth furiously.
KJ stared back at the man. They went on like this for a few minutes. I waited for a fight, like KJ was on the soccer field. Instead, KJ eventually said, “Let’s go.”
“You have something in your teeth,” he said once we were back in the car.
I flipped open the passenger’s-side mirror and saw clumps of wet bread stuck behind my braces. Mortified, I dug the stuff out with my finger and tongue. “Don’t worry,” KJ said. His tone was matter-of-fact. He was not disgusted or ashamed. He rested his hand on my knee to let me know it was okay. That’s when I knew he accepted me as I was.
The parking-lot intimacy progressed. KJ was right. I did get better at kissing. I didn’t think about my braces the whole time. I thought about other stuff, like sex. He started to ask, “How much today?” meaning, how far did I want to go. He was very considerate. “Second base, okay? That’s what Americans say.” I said, “Yes.”
I wasn’t an expert. I didn’t know anything about baseball, and he was a huge fan. KJ said Koreans love baseball, which surprised me. I was always learning new things about his culture. I let him reach under my shirt and into my bra. I kept my hands in my lap. He seemed satisfied. When the occasional car drove in or out of the lot, we shot apart and stared out the front window, then laughed into our hands. Outside, small birds hopped around, pecking at crumbs and garbage. It was not a romantic setting from the movies, but it felt special to me.
After three months of this, KJ decided it was time to tell the people in our lives. He said he was very serious about me. Also, someone had figured out about us. Another Korean PhD student named Jun-ho always wanted to know about KJ’s love life. Question after question at our soccer games. KJ avoided answering until, finally, he conceded that he was dating me. KJ said that the Koreans in America find each other wherever they go, and they are obligated to spend time together. That’s why he and Jun- ho were friends, even though KJ said he hated Jun-ho’s nosiness.
These days KJ says he doesn’t want to associate with the Koreans on campus anymore. He wants to be more than just another Korean graduate student. He says he has me now.
Still, he invited Jun-ho to the announcement party. KJ said it was very important that we tell everyone at the same time and place. The message would be consistent and clear. He invited people over to his apartment complex for a barbecue, but somebody else suggested the park, and KJ complied. He confirmed everyone’s attendance. He told people six-thirty p.m. sharp. I didn’t care much about anybody, but I liked to see KJ in this meticulous mode. I overheard him talking to a grad student on the floor below ours.
“Oh, Cassandra’s barbecue thing? Yeah, I’ll be there,” the guy said.
“No. My barbecue,” said KJ. “Be on time, please.” “Uh, okay. Sure,” the guy replied.
We arrived at the park a half hour early and laid out everything we’d bought on one of the picnic tables by the lake. A tablecloth, chicken breasts, water, soda, napkins, plastic utensils, paper plates, coal, ice, and a cooler. KJ did not know how to start the grill, so we waited for somebody who did to arrive.
KJ took my hands in his. “We will surprise them with the announcement,” he whispered. I hated surprises, but I liked KJ, and this was for us. I wasn’t going to be the one surprised.
Many of our labmates had been invited but had texted KJ minutes before, saying they couldn’t make it. They had too much work. They were tired. They weren’t feeling well. KJ tried very hard not to look disappointed. Finally, Jun-ho arrived five minutes late. My supervisor, Drew, showed up with his girlfriend, Cassandra, who plays soccer with us. She’s also a grad student, except in a social science department. There were some others, but I knew them only in passing. These people meant nothing to me, and I wasn’t sure they meant much to KJ, either. But as I said, we do understand each other. And that evening, I understood that to KJ this was more symbolic than anything else. The we and the us would be more real after an announcement.
The picnic table became crowded with other people’s snacks, even though KJ had bought enough for everybody. People busied themselves with activities. I stayed put, sitting there picking a brownie bite into smaller pieces—pieces that wouldn’t get stuck in my braces.
“Judith, want to come hit a Wiffle ball?” Drew yelled, and waved his arms to indicate I should go over to a grassy area where people had gathered.
I had been watching them, happily remembering a fight KJ had on the soccer field the previous week, when he’d ripped an opponent’s shirt at the collar and gotten kicked out of the game. Wiffle ball, however, was a children’s game. I looked around for KJ, trying to see if I could get out of this. He wasn’t paying attention. He was still standing beside Jun-ho at the grill.
“Judith? Did you hear me?” Drew yelled.
“Well? Do you want to come hit the Wiffle ball? It’s not much harder than soccer!”
I shook my head.
Cassandra laughed loudly, and the sound hurt my ears. “She doesn’t want to,” she said. “Leave her alone!”
I hated Cassandra. She came into lab with Drew in the evenings and on weekends, even though she wasn’t part of the lab. She just sat there on her computer, “working,” she said, but it looked to me like she only watched videos and chatted with friends. I couldn’t even remember what department she was in, what she was researching, not that it mattered. Social scientists aren’t real scientists. The worst part was that she talked a lot and she sat at my bench, even when I was doing experiments in lab. I tried to leave my stuff on the desk to hint that she shouldn’t sit there, but every day she moved my things aside and sat there again. Now she was walking up to me at the table.
“I’m so hungry! We should tell them to grill faster,” she said.
“Heh heh, yeah,” I said.
“KJ! Jun-ho! Hurry up! We’re starving over here!”
KJ walked over and stood opposite me. “There is so much food here,” he said.
“We need protein!” said Cassandra. “So when is this girlfriend getting here? Is that why we’re still waiting to eat? Because she’s late?”
KJ made a small smile and looked at me. “She will be here,” he said. “The food is ready soon.”
“How rude to come late to your party, where all your friends are waiting to meet her,” Cassandra said.
KJ let out a little laugh, like a little bell, and walked back to the grill. I tried to give him a look to tell him not to leave me alone with Cassandra, but he had already turned around. Cassandra looked at me. My heartbeat picked up a little bit.
“What a weirdo,” she said. “I told him I could help with food, but he kept saying, No, it’s my event, it’s my event. It’s a barbecue!”
She cut me off and called out to everyone that the food was almost ready. Soon everybody was sitting at the table with a paper plate in front of them. KJ walked over with the chicken breasts.
“Interesting. Did you season or marinade this in anything?” asked the guy who worked downstairs.
“There is ketchup,” said KJ.
“So, where’s your girlfriend?” Cassandra asked again, in front of everybody.
“What girlfriend?” the guy downstairs asked.
“That’s why we’re here! Because KJ has a girlfriend and wants to show her off to everybody.”
Drew slapped KJ on the back. “Finally got one to go out with you, huh, buddy?”
As KJ was doling out the chicken to everyone, he said, “She’s here.”
“What did he say? Talk louder, KJ.”
“He said she’s here.”
I was staring at the chicken on my plate, determining how many pieces I’d have to cut it into so that it wouldn’t get stuck in my braces, when KJ said, “It’s Judith.”
“Ha. Ha. Good one,” said Drew. “Judith, can you pass me those brownies?”
“What did he say?”
“Speak up! Why do you talk so quietly? I can’t hear anything!”
“Judith is my girlfriend,” KJ said again, louder.
I looked up and was about to smile to everyone, the smile of a girlfriend. I was relieved and satisfied that this was finally over. But then Cassandra started ferociously slapping KJ’s arm while yelling, “No, she isn’t! Stop saying that! She’s an undergrad! It’s not funny!” On the third slap, the chicken on KJ’s plate flew onto the table and knocked a beer over into Jun-ho’s lap. People jumped from their seats. They all started handing napkins to Jun-ho.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said, dabbing at his shirt and pants.
“Look what you made me do,” said Cassandra.
KJ looked over at me. I felt my mouth opening a little and a heat rising up my neck into my face. I put a small piece of cut-up chicken in my mouth. I didn’t want to say anything anymore. I wanted everybody to understand what was happening, but nobody understood us. I wanted everyone to go away. They all stared at me with confused faces. KJ repeated what he’d already said.
“Are you serious? Judith. Are you really KJ’s girlfriend?” Cassandra said.
“I’m sure this is just a prank or something,” said Drew.
At this point, Jun-ho got up and said something about grilling more chicken. KJ gave me a thumbs-up before heading to monitor the grill as well. Everybody was silent for a while. We all ate our chicken peacefully. I thought that was the end of it, that everybody finally understood, but then one of them said, “So, I don’t really know KJ that well. What was that about?”
I’ve noticed that once one person starts talking, it’s as though their voice opens the doors for everyone else to start pushing words out, too, even if they’re useless.
“He just said he’s dating Judith,” said another person.
And another: “Okay, so, what does that mean?”
Drew: “Judith, this is a joke, right?”
I shook my head. I was starting to feel a heavy weight behind my eyes, like I was going to fall asleep from being so tired.
Someone else: “Stop bothering her.”
And another: “Of course it’s real, why would they joke about this?”
I was searching for words that might communicate everything more clearly but realized there weren’t any for me to use that would work. I worried KJ and I might have to kiss in front of them for them to believe. It was a terrifying thought. The publicness of our relationship now felt so wrong.
“So how long have you been dating?” Drew asked. “Like, a couple weeks?”
“A few months,” I managed to answer.
“Wow. Okay, wow. Congrats.” He started tapping his fingers incessantly on the table. “I need to use the bathroom. Cassandra, will you help me find it?”
The two of them got up and left. The others followed suit, getting up to go back to their pre-eating activities, leaving me alone. Finally.
I looked around for KJ, but he was nowhere in sight. I started to panic that he, too, had left, embarrassed by our relationship. Then I felt hands on my shoulders. It was KJ. I looked up to see him holding a single pink flower.
“I got you this,” he said. “To match your teeth.”
“Thank you,” I said. I had pink rubber bands on my brackets that week.
“Now everybody knows. We are official. I am so happy.”
Nobody really spoke to us after that. They hit the Wiffle ball around and talked to each other. As we packed up to leave, KJ told people how much they owed him for the food. They said, Congrats. Great barbecue. See you later. Cassandra looked me in the face and apologized for her earlier “explosion.”
“I’m happy for you,” she said.
“Yeah. Anyway, see you two in lab tomorrow,” said Drew.
Back in the car, KJ said, “That went very well. A great success.”
I agreed with KJ. Nothing else mattered.
For days, I overheard people whispering in the halls and in lab about the barbecue. They told people who had canceled last-minute what had happened. They told people who weren’t even invited. They went over the details with each other. They complained and rejoiced and wondered.
“God, it was painfully awkward. Most awkward thing I’ve ever had to go to.”
“I can’t believe he made us pay him ten dollars for that shitty-ass chicken.”
“Why did they do that? Why did they want to make an announcement that they were dating, like it’s an engagement party or something?”
“Definitely a top-five grad school experience right there. Remembering that forever.”
“Is this even allowed? What is she, eighteen? Isn’t this against school policy?”
“Have you ever seen them talk? I’ve never seen them interact.”
“They just stand real close and whisper at each other in lab, like they don’t want anybody to hear what they’re saying.”
“KJ should know better than to date an undergrad. I mean, she’s so naive. I feel bad for her.”
Nobody needed to feel bad for me. I felt bad for them. I appreciated what KJ had done. They didn’t understand that I’d fallen in love with KJ that day. I didn’t care about anybody else.
Having KJ changed my worldview. It was as if a tiny but incredibly important piece of my genetics had been changed, and the phenotypic result was a shiny new me. I told my parents I wanted to move to the dorms. I wanted to have independence. I had a boyfriend after all. I wasn’t a kid anymore. They invited KJ over for dinner, and afterward, my dad said he was happy I’d found somebody polite and mature. And surprisingly handsome, my mom added. I’m not sure what was surprising about how KJ looked, if it was that a Korean man could be handsome or if it was that somebody as handsome as KJ would date somebody like me. It didn’t matter either way, because KJ is handsome, and he is with me.
My parents gave me a card the next evening. There was a freckled little girl who looked like me on the front cover. She was smiling with all her teeth. I opened the card and saw one of the familiar office stamps. It read, Hooray! Time to take off your braces! in the shape of a circumzenithal arc. My parents said my jaw was finally fixed.
“You’re a woman now,” my mom said, her voice shaky.
“I’ve been a woman for a while now,” I said, feeling confident.
“Yes. Now you’ll look the part, too.”
“How about we keep the bottom braces on, just in case you need another round of headgear?” my dad said when I sat in the patient’s chair the next day. My dad never got emotional, so I was surprised to see his eyes watering. He cleared his throat. “It’s up to you now, of course.”
I told him to take them off. I was a new person, and I could make decisions of my own. After nine years, all the braces would go. When they came off, my teeth felt slick and slimy, like wet rocks along the lake.
I moved into the dorms soon after. I got a single room a third of the size of my room at home, furnished with a skinny bed, a short dresser, a small desk with a weird rocking desk chair upholstered in scratchy green fabric, all made of the same pine. Short gray carpet speckled with white covered the floor. It was perfect. On the first day, I lay down on the floor and imagined all the geniuses who had come through, people who had become doctors, like I would. I wanted whatever leftover particles of these people to seep up into me and make me brilliant.
Now I am totally free. KJ lives alone, too, and even though my parents said living with a man is only for marriage, I started to spend every night at his apartment. We stopped going to the Arby’s parking lot after the barbecue event. We go to nicer restaurants in the center of town and close to the university, places where we can sit at tables with cloth napkins and a flower or candle between us, places where people can see us, though we have yet to run into anyone we know. When we sit in booths, KJ sits beside me because he says he saw it in a movie, where the man put his arm around his girlfriend as they ate. Sometimes people look at us strangely, but neither of us cares. We care only about each other.
Back at his apartment, we kiss and touch, and every night he asks if we can go to home base. To be honest, I would have had sex with him a long time ago. It’s mostly what I think about when around him. What his thick, stocky legs will feel like rubbing up against mine. The problem is, I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know how much I will bleed, and the unpredictability makes me tense. What if I bleed all over his mattress and he needs to replace it? But he doesn’t have the money for another nice mattress on his grad student stipend and has to sleep on a futon? What if blood gets all over him and he throws me out? What would I do afterward? Run away, leaving a bloody trail behind me? I don’t know how to tell him, so I shake my head each time he asks. I wait for him to understand. He stares at me with his small eyes, looking like a hungry cat. Then he pats me on the cheek, turns away, and falls asleep. I stare at his ceiling, trying to figure out a way to have sex that will not be embarrassing.
I finally come up with an idea and feel light-headed about not having thought of it earlier. My dorm room. It is not romantic, but it is functional. I don’t care about the university’s mattress. If it gets stained, we can flip it and nobody will know for a year or more, hopefully after another person moves in and can be blamed. The amount my parents are paying for the room should cover these kinds of damages.
Hours on Google looking up articles on how much girls bleed their first time turns up many answers. It seems too huge a range, from no blood (hymen broken at an early age on a bike or in some sport) to streams of blood. One girl commented on an article, Im bleeding alot! Im freaking out and don’t know that to do! Im worried im dying! What was she thinking, seeking medical help in the comments section? She might have gone crazy from blood loss, then died. I did not want to be that girl.
Soon KJ calls and asks to be let in.
“This room is sad,” he says when he walks in. “It has no life.”
He hands me a bouquet of flowers. There is nowhere to put them, so I empty out the pencil holder on my desk and stick them in there.
We sit at the edge of the bed and start kissing. Then we lie down and he gets on top of me. For a moment I think his face looks like a giant saucer looking down at me from an alien world. I push the thought away and we undress. He sits up briefly to take his socks off, roll them into each other, and places the sock ball gently at the foot of the bed.
“My favorite socks,” he explains.
I consider grabbing a towel to put beneath us, which I read about online. Then I realize a towel would do nothing good. Blood would only ruin the towel. KJ returns to crouch above me. From the long distance between my eyes and my vagina, I look at his hanging penis, nearly touching me, the sprout of black hair surrounding it, and this time I see it as a branch wanting to reach into and grow inside me, but my body is on a different track than my mind, because KJ looks up at me and smiles. He’s stuck a finger inside me and pulled it back out, slick. I try not to think about my teeth.
“Good,” he says. “You’re ready?” I nod and brace myself.
It hurts only a little, then it feels good for a little. I think it lasts around a minute. I don’t feel any differently afterward. KJ apologizes. “It has been a long time,” he says, then gets up, takes the condom off, brings it to eye level to examine its contents, ties the top off, then places it gently into the small trash bin beneath my desk, in the same loving motion as he had with his socks. I hope he is thinking, My favorite condom. I take the time to glance at my bed and am relieved to see no blood at all. KJ catches me looking around, then looks around as well.
“Hmm,” he says, frowning.
I realize I now have a different problem, remembering another comment from an article online. A girl hadn’t bled, then her boyfriend had accused her of lying, then he’d started crying. KJ stops looking on the bed and stares straight at me. Are those tears forming in his eyes?
“It must have been a bike or something,” I say after thinking for a moment.
I wonder how to put it. KJ’s face is vibrating. He looks like he did in the photo he once showed me, him in his green military uniform, no glasses, black serious eyes pointed straight at me.
“I must have ridden my bike very roughly one day, and that’s why there’s no blood now,” I say. This is what a commentor had told the girl to say. It is a valid and believable reason. Most bike seats are not engineered for women and are very painful to ride.
KJ looks at the ground. He is processing. His face vibrates some more, and I can almost see the gears turning behind his eyebrows.
“Okay,” he says. He does not cry. He lies down on the bed, then motions for me to lie next to him. He wraps his arm around my naked body. We are both slightly sticky, but he doesn’t let go. I don’t want him to let go, either. “I was worried I would hurt you,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to hurt you. I love you.”
I am so relieved, I start giggling. He asks what’s so funny. I think about telling him all of my fears, my dreams, my ambitions for my—no, our—future, seeing what will happen if I let all of the words pour out of me, and how much they will make us understand more or less about each other. But then I don’t. There is nothing to say, except one thing: “I love you, too.”
We don’t talk, and soon his breath deepens into the sound of sleep. When I’m certain he is not going to wake up, I slowly lift myself up to a sitting position. He doesn’t stir. I look over at his crotch, where his penis lies soft and shriveled in its nest, unassuming and harmless, a tiny baby animal. I bend over so that my face is an inch away from the thing, then I sniff. It smells of sweat and dust and like the yeast we use in lab. This is what we smell like mixed together, two foreign elements in one, and it is not an unpleasant smell at all.