Courtney Elizabeth Mauk
You told me together we’d discover the great unknown. I wasn’t sure what you had in mind, but I pictured distant galaxies of swirling stardust, supernovas, our bodies, hand in hand, getting sucked into the vortex of a black hole. In the Kmart parking lot, we lay in the bed of your pickup and watched the sky explode in red, white, and blue. You mouthed “boom” before each explosion, and I resisted the urge to put my finger on your lips. Wait, I wanted to tell you, that’s not how it’s supposed to go.
I thought what you’d pictured was solid, earthy. The tundra, blank white space stretching out around us. I’d get lost. My feet would go through the ice, and I would fall into a cavern, both legs broken, freezing to death. You wouldn’t retrace your steps to look for me.
Love depends on secrets—that’s what you said I had to learn.
You reached for your beer and drank lying down. I did the same, remembering my mom’s warning that drinking on your back will make you choke. I swung my leg across your hips. You rooted your fingers in my hair.
Your lips moved, little puckers and releases, as if kissing the sky.
Boom, boom, boom.
That afternoon I’d stood in your kitchen for the first time and tried not to look at the photographs pinned to your refrigerator. Instead I concentrated on the alphabet magnets in primary colors arranged into simple words, lonely consonants and vowels. I read the shopping list beneath the yellow P: milk, frozen peas, yogurt, toilet paper. I almost picked up a pen and added a smiley face, a heart, to let my presence be known, but if you caught me, everything would be over.
You didn’t seem to belong inside this space, yet you moved with ease. You knew where to find the cooler on the top shelf of the hall closet. You popped grapes in your mouth as you laid out bread and smeared the slices with mustard. You told me to get the Doritos out of the pantry. That was the word you used, pantry. I found them next to the butterscotch pudding cups for your kids’ daycare lunches and the boxes of herbal tea that had to be your wife’s. I pried my fingers into the box of lemon-ginger and slipped a teabag into the back pocket of my shorts. Later I’ll drink the tea while sitting on the couch with my mom, my bare feet gripping the edge of the coffee table, as we watch pedophiles on Dateline. “That smells good,” my mom will say, and I’ll offer her the mug. “Ooh.” She’ll hand the mug back. “Too spicy for me.” Meaning too healthy. She’ll go back to drinking her Yoo-hoo.
Here’s a secret: she spikes it with Kahlua. I used to sneak sips when she went to the bathroom.
But I like the taste of the tea, the lemon soothing, the ginger with just enough kick to keep me going back for more. The box was yellow, with a cartoon woman doing a headstand, another in downward facing dog. I guess your wife does these poses in the living room I glimpsed as we came through your front hall. Wearing tight capris and a tank top, hair pulled back in a perky ponytail, she spreads out her mat in front of the TV and contorts her body while your sons run around, shooting each other with plastic guns that zip and beep and buzz.
I brought you the Doritos. Your kitchen was twice the size of mine, with everything neat and color coordinated, like a picture in a magazine. The counter you’d just wiped with a blue sponge had a glossy sheen.
“Let’s go to Canada,” I said.
“We’ve got to be there tonight,” you said, putting the Doritos and sandwiches in a CVS bag, “for Kevin.”
“After,” I said.
“That’s a long drive.”
“Uh-uh. Not on the highway.”
“What?” I said. “You don’t think I can handle the highway?”
You leaned across the counter and kissed me; you tasted like mustard.
“We’ll practice in the parking lot,” you said.
I dropped back onto the soles of my feet. “That’s where Mom takes me.”
“She knows what’s she’s doing,” you said, but she didn’t. While I drove, she kept her eyes shut. I’d failed the test twice and was in danger of the ultimate embarrassment: entering my senior year without a license.
It was your fault. When I should have been studying stopping distances, I was thinking about the way your t-shirt smelled when I met you on your lunch break—that musky scent, like dirt, decay, that I should have found disgusting but which I wanted to fill my lungs, fill me up. Breathing you in was like being buried alive.
“Montreal’s like Paris,” I said, “only cheaper.”
“Bonjour,” you said.
In your pickup I slipped off my sandals and pressed my toes against your thigh. As we drove, the sunlight streamed in, melting us together. You had the 90s station on: Nirvana, Hootie & The Blowfish, Alanis Morissette. The songs of your youth, which had become the songs of mine.
On his mother’s porch Kevin could have been a kid waiting for the school bus, his book bag at his side, his hands dangling between his knees. Only his army fatigues gave him away. You pulled into the driveway and hung out the window waving your arm as if he wouldn’t notice the big red truck. He didn’t seem to. He blinked a few times then picked up his bag and did his shuffle step down the drive. You slid over, pushing me against the door. Kevin always drove. You never explained why, just said he was more comfortable that way.
He turned the music up. When I put my hand on your knee, you took me by the wrist and dropped my hand back into my lap. Kevin hated when I touched you, but I pretended to forget.
You changed the radio station to what you listened to when you and Kevin were together. The heavy beat pounded through my chest, the angry words lost inside the jolting sensation, like being beaten and not being able to block the blows. At the traffic light, Kevin started head banging. You laughed at him, but then you joined in.
You two looked like idiots.
PTSD, you said. When we went swimming at the reservoir, I saw the scar on Kevin’s chest, but you said that was from before, way back in high school when he cut himself with a beer bottle.
“Self-harm,” I said, thinking about the posters in the guidance counselor’s office, more recommendation than warning.
“He was piss-ass drunk,” you said.
I should have asked why you didn’t try to stop him. Now you treated him like a baby. You treated him better than your own kids.
I had a hard time picturing what you’d described: the drunken car races down Route 70; the acid trips on the banks of the reservoir; the nights after football games when you and he would choose a couple of girls to take behind the bleachers. How one of those girls became your wife. Beth.
In the Kmart lot, families surrounded us, parents slumped in lawn chairs, kids sprawled on car hoods, babies howling. Your wife had taken the boys to Columbus to visit her parents. She was due back the next day, but we didn’t talk about that. We almost never talked about her.
Kevin stayed in the truck cab, facing the store, away from the fireworks. I wondered what the point was. We could have been halfway to Canada.
“Boom,” you said, and I rolled on top of you, your eyes blurry with beer. I liked what alcohol did to you, how it made you tender, pliable. Your hands slid underneath my tank top, and I bunched it up, pulled it off.
“Nympho,” you said, wiggling in anticipation as I unzipped your jeans.
We rocked back and forth as the fireworks formed a fast staccato overhead. The crowd cheered. I looked up, through the back window of the truck, and there were Kevin’s eyes in the rearview mirror, meeting mine.
At Denny’s I watched Kevin pour syrup over his pancakes and you stuff French fries in your mouth. “That was some show,” you said, and Kevin grunted, his usual response. He ate with concentration, elbows planted on either side of his plate. You mentioned a new construction job, trying to lure him out of his mother’s basement, away from the video games that had become his occupation and were quickly replacing you as his best friend. He nodded, grunted again, and got syrup on his shirt.
Underneath my fingers, I swear I could feel her heartbeat, a phantom flicker of the future. Like insect wings in the night, disrupting the current half a world away.
Your mouth worked up and down, your eyes never leaving Kevin. His head was lowered, so you were looking right at his bald spot. You told me that every day he served in Iraq, you got down on your knees and prayed. You’d never done that before in your life. Please God, you said, don’t take him away from me. Please God, bring him home safe. Your wife—Beth—would find you in the bedroom, your forehead pressed to the carpet. She would kneel down next to you, and the two of you would pray together.
Below the table, out of sight, I slipped my hand onto your thigh. I gripped the fabric of your jeans, my fingertips pressing into the inside of your leg. I hoped to bruise. You shifted, but I held on.
You knocked your elbow into my arm.
“Cut it out,” you probably said to your kids with that same set to your jaw. “That’s inappropriate behavior.”
You stopped answering my calls. I imagined you checking your cell phone, seeing my name on the screen, shutting off the ringer.
At the construction site, you worked straight through morning without a break. I stayed at the edge, straddling my bike. There were a dozen guys on the crew, but none looked at me. My skin grew pink beneath the midday sun.
Finally you came up to me, told me to get in the truck.
We went to our spot, sat in the empty parking lot of the Methodist church without talking. My hands made fists in my lap. I watched them open and shut as if they belonged to someone else.
You pressed your palms against your cheeks. When you spoke, the words came out smooshed. “Why?” you said, and again and again. Why, why, why.
A car pulled into the lot. We watched as it drove up to the church door, braked, and circled around the other side. When it turned toward us, you pushed me down, below the dashboard. I crouched there with your hand on top of my head.
Slowly, you began stroking my hair. You were crying.
“We’ll go out to Lorain,” you said. “We’ll get it taken care of.”
I shook my head. Your hand caught the movement, stilled me.
“Montreal,” I said, because I thought, why not? What did we have to lose?
“I love her,” you said.
You removed your hand, and I sat up. We both looked around. We were alone. Above the field, a flock of geese swooped low, and I thought about school starting soon, the implausibility of moving through the hallways with my belly growing, the impossibility of my belly empty, as if this summer had never happened.
“Bonjour,” I said.
You closed your eyes. I scooted into your lap, my back against the steering wheel, and threw my arms around your neck. I kissed you deeply, and you kissed me back, your fingertips curling against my knees.
The horn went off. You pushed me, and I landed with my butt hanging off the seat. I sat up, pulled down my shirt, tried to look dignified.
“Sorry,” you said, running your hand over your face, glancing at the wetness on your fingers. “Tomorrow morning,” you said. “Go to Kevin’s.”
“All right,” I said. “Tomorrow.”
There was nothing left to say after that, but we sat there a while longer. I was remembering all the lunches we had had together, every one like every other, the upholstery hot, the metal of the truck bed searing, our mouths running dry. But more than that: the way the hour would lengthen, floating us away.
Your pickup wasn’t in the driveway. It wasn’t parked along the street.
I left my bike leaning against Kevin’s mother’s porch. The door was unlocked, and the house smelled reassuringly like morning, coffee and burnt toast.
“Hello,” I called.
The door to Kevin’s mother’s bedroom opened, and she shuffled into the kitchen in a pink terrycloth bathrobe and bunny slippers, the ear of one missing.
“You’re Kevin’s friend?” she said.
I started to say my name but stopped. Her bloodshot eyes didn’t care.
“I’m disabled,” she said, setting a plate and mug on the counter. “He tell you that? Pain all over my body. Not just up here.” She tapped her forehead. “You’d think a fit young man could find a job. Help out a little.”
Her eyes drifted over me, her mouth pulling down.
“You tell him that, okay?”
I said that I would.
She poured coffee into the mug and shuffled away. The bedroom door slammed shut and a moment later music began, the same oldies station my mom listened to.
In the dark basement Kevin sat cross-legged on the floor in front of his video game. He glanced at me but didn’t say a word. I lay down on the smelly sofa and waited. Hours seemed to pass. I closed my eyes.
“He’s not coming,” Kevin said. “I’m supposed to take you.”
On the screen a man exploded, arms and legs shooting off in different directions.
Kevin paused the game and scooted around to face me. You were the one with the body of a solider: tall and broad and strong. Kevin was short, pudgy. He’d never lost his baby fat despite the push-ups and sit-ups and running the army must have made him do. Right then he looked even younger than me.
“They’re good together,” Kevin said. “They’re just going through some stuff.”
“That’s not my fault.”
“It takes two to tango,” I said.
He looked down. If the lights were on, I bet I would have seen him blush.
On the screen blood, more purple than red, and stray body parts hung in the air.
“So,” I said.
“Go on upstairs. I’ll be five minutes.”
I couldn’t bear the thought of running into his mom again, so I sat on the porch. Kevin came out dressed in his fatigues, wincing at the morning.
Inside his beat-up old Volvo, he handed me an envelope. Inside were two rubber-banded stacks of hundred dollar bills.
“He said that should be enough.”
I tucked the envelope into my purse. Immediately the purse strap strained, the weight making my shoulder ache. You might as well have filled the envelope with moon rocks.
Kevin turned on the radio, the angry music the two of you liked. I thought about those harsh sounds leaking through my skin, into her ears.
“Can we listen to something else?” I said.
He turned the music down. “Better?”
I guessed I could deal with a compromise.
We drove out of town, past the Methodist church, into the fields. The sky opened up, too blue and so cloudless it seemed like a trick.
I felt the sides of the envelope, the fat contents.
“If you could go anywhere,” I said, “where would you go?”
“Back to Iraq,” Kevin said.
You would have argued with him. You would have said, “Dude, is that some sort of joke?” You would have said, “Have you lost your goddamn mind?” You might even have told him about the rug burns you got on your knees from praying so hard, for so long.
“That’s really something,” I said.
Kevin opened his mouth like he wanted to say more. I would have listened; I was in a listening mood. But he just grunted and pressed his lips back together. He didn’t look at me, didn’t say another word, the whole way to Lorain.
The place was in a strip mall, as nondescript as you could get. Kevin waited in the car. An old man in a baggy security uniform made me give him my purse, which he glanced into before waving me through a wobbly metal detector and into the waiting room. It was like any other, mauve armchairs and potted plants, outdated magazines on low tables and the air conditioning turned up too high.
I tucked myself into the corner by the door. I didn’t know how long it was supposed to take, so I killed two hours flipping through Cosmo and Good Housekeeping. No one bothered me. Maybe they could tell I was just a girl who needed some time to herself.
Kevin didn’t ask any questions. Slumped in the passenger seat, my forehead pressed against the window, I guess I fit the part.
In his mother’s driveway, I looked at my bike leaning against the porch and all the thinking in the waiting room hardened, forming into the shape of a future.
I decided to lead with a joke. You always said that was the best way to open.
“I’ll make you a trade,” I said. “This car for that bike.”
Kevin turned off the engine, humorless as ever. “It’s a girl’s bike,” he said.
“No, it’s not.”
“The thing’s purple.”
“Come on,” I said. “It’s not like I’ve got a basket with ribbons.”
He popped open his door. I grabbed his arm; his body tensed. I’d never touched him before.
“How much do you want?” I said and opened the envelope.
His eyes grew wide. “Shit.”
He twisted, and my grasp slipped, or maybe I opened my fingers.
“Come on,” I said. “Sell me the car, and I’m out of here.”
He got out and walked toward the house, turned around and came back, leaned inside the open door. He looked close to tears.
“Fuck.” He turned his head, spat onto the driveway.
“It falls on me,” I said. “Not you.”
“What are you playing at?”
“It’s not about him, okay? He doesn’t even have to know. I’m just out of here. I’m gone.”
“How do I know you mean it?”
“I’m giving you my word.”
Kevin looked at me for a long time. I tried not to blink.
“Just like that?” he said.
“Yeah. Why not?”
“I want half.”
It was more than I’d been planning. I took out one of the bundles, held it out to him.
He weighed the car keys in his hand. “What’ll I tell people?”
“I don’t know. I stole it. Whatever you want.”
“If you ever come back—”
“License to kill,” I said.
He stood in the yard and watched as I backed out of the driveway. I hit the curb, but by the time I’d reached the Methodist church, the wheels were gliding over the road like I’d never not known what I was doing.
You won’t be surprised: I headed north.
Sometimes I wake in the night and see you standing in the bathroom doorway with her in your arms. I call your name, but you are looking down at her and don’t seem to hear me. I pull back the sheets to make the bed more inviting. My body, I know, has changed. My stomach is soft, my breasts full and tender. She has left her mark in the lines around my hips, like the rings inside a tree, our secret.
Only after I have gotten up, halfway across the room, do I realize that I’ve been dreaming. The bathroom doorway is empty.
Other nights I don’t sleep at all. I go outside and lie down in the parking lot, my arms and legs spread wide. I look up at the sky and pretend that I’m floating. It’s easy to do. The stars—up here the air is cool and clear, and there are so many. You would not believe your eyes.
Courtney Elizabeth Mauk is the author of the novels Orion’s Daughters and Spark. Her short work has appeared in The Literary Review, PANK, Necessary Fiction, Five Chapters, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and teaches with the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. Born in Missouri and raised in Ohio, she now lives in New York City with her husband and son. More information can be found at www.courtneymauk.com.