by Elwin Cotman
Halfway through breakfast at the Mexican restaurant, Kalonji was delighted to find the restroom could talk. A husky female voice coming from somewhere around the air vents said, “Lávase las manos. Wash your hands. La cuenta, por favor. Check, please.” A robot Spanish teacher.
Especially impressive considering Kim had taken them to a normal restaurant, nothing gentrified, a fifteen-minute walk from her Bushwick apartment. A normal restroom made of grimy surfaces and soggy toilet paper rolls. In the stall he listened carefully to the words, testing his dormant Spanish, at the same time peeling the Band-Aid on the back of his right calf. Last night he’d injured himself hauling his suitcase around Penn Station. The wound was cherry-red and ringed with black scabbing.
He washed his hands. “Me ama Nueva York,” said the bathroom. “I love New York.”
When he’d left Kim, they were in the middle of a conversation about a popular TV show filmed in the city. She often saw one of the cast members, a British artist, walking her children around Bushwick. “People say the show’s too white,” she’d said. “I guess I can see that. But I like Broad City,” she added quickly. Another show about Brooklyn hipsters. “The black guy on it? Hannibal? He’s hilarious.”
Anything about race Kim said with a mix of apology and defensiveness, wanting to balance being a “good” white person with her veneer of Noo Yawk tough.
It was November 2014, a time in which whiteness was attacking Kalonji from all sides. Over the year:
- Police murdered a chubby black teenager for crossing the street, then left him dead for hours on the cement, as if he were a vampire they intended to stake should he rise. When black people fought against this, whites sent in the National Guard. They made his murderer a millionaire. They ejaculated the darkness of their souls online, rejoicing in Mike Brown’s death like they did Trayvon’s. The internet became a Nuremberg Rally of hatred.
- They failed to cover up a scandal in The New York literary establishment involving underage girls and rape. Kalonji had never heard of Alt-Lit, but felt a familiar, blunted anger when he read how the main rapist admitted his crimes via self-pitying tweets. None of these men went to prison. None were shot dead in their own neighborhood.
- A white woman informed him she was pregnant with his child, a fact he took with philosophical calm and secret excitement. Thirty years old and unemployed, he welcomed the sense of purpose this could bring. Then, to be cruel, she stopped returning his calls, torturing him for ten days with her silence. A piece of him was floating unchaperoned in the great wide universe. The baby consumed his thoughts and he got little sleep.
- Another white woman (younger, saner, one he’d never slept with) agreed to do a reading with him in Bushwick. All five readers were poet friends of his who’d found their way to the city. It would be a reunion. Before leaving Oakland, he built anticipation by Googling beer-filled photos from hipster literary salons, or listening ad infinitum to a Rick James song about New York that was short and groovy and always left him wanting more. Every visit he got to play the artist—that strange breed of half child, half adult. Then Julie sent him a Facebook message saying she couldn’t do the reading. A friend from her MFA committed suicide and the depression had her in bed all day. Don’t worry, she told him, the other readers agreed to reschedule. Kalonji was livid. Her myopic narcissism felt comparable to killing a child because of his melanin, sense of perspective be damned. He wrote her back to tell her in clear—but restrained—terms how flying across the country to not do a reading would inconvenience him. She apologized, uncancelled, and asked a friend to take her place.
Kalonji paused in the restroom to think over his next conversation starter. All last night he’d complained to Kim about point #3: his regret over an angry message he’d left on his ex’s machine, his fear of having a child with a crazy person. All of which she listened to with a cool he found troubling. Boring her didn’t bother him. It was the risk of reducing her to a vessel into which he poured his thoughts. Twelve years of friendship deserved more, he told himself.
He considered combining points 2 and 4. In a way, the Alt-Lit scandal was karmic. Every novel that came out of NYC was about some fresh-faced girl’s love life. Or the drugs she did, followed by narrations of the miserable sex she had while on those drugs. The reasons were obvious: white men ran publishing. White men took a personal interest in when white girls would start breeding. As student loans and the job market pushed back their immaculate baby boom, the leaders of the master race grew impatient and took what they wanted.
“Julie’s young,” he told his mirror reflection, “pretty, award-winning poet. Then this guy kills himself so it’s like, that’s what she has to look forward to? Or getting raped by some motherfucker who wears pink shorts? She’s having an existential crisis and I don’t blame her.”
Yes, that’s what he’d tell Kim. He didn’t blame Julie at all. Part of him felt silly for talking to himself but, as a writer, he was prone to mental tangents. Verbalizing them helped wring some sense from it all. He was headed to the door when the smoky voice said, “Hay mierda en el inodoro. You left shit in the toilet.”
He looked to the ceiling for security cameras. None. Must be its programming. “So what?” he said to the recording.
He gave the handle a tug. The door wouldn’t open. This time the voice came from the walls. “You think it’s okay to shit inside someone and leave it there?” Algae-green water poured from the caulk between the tiles. Kalonji shuddered. The bathroom was salivating.
“You have terrible breeding.” She kept that same lungless, android delivery. Hint of a Brooklyn accent. “You’re tacky and weak.”
The light tubes in the ceiling flickered. Pipes groaned. This was a bathroom that had seen too many horror flicks. Panicking, Kalonji remembered Jonah in the whale. He remembered he had no god to pray to. The XLerator hand dryer whooshed to life with a spear of hot air directly onto his Converse sneaker and the foot inside. He yelped. Purple pain swelled his toes and, like a pigeon who’d lost digits to hot asphalt, he hopped to the toilet and pressed the lever. The shit vanished. He tugged the door handle once, twice. At the third try it swung back and he was running like a cartoon character down the tiny hall decorated in paintings of Marilyn Monroe wearing bandoliers and a sombrero.
Shame was pumping as hard as his heartbeat. Should have stood up to it, he thought. Asshole bathroom . . . let it bully me. On the other hand—and this made him giddy—he had a new story for Kim.
She was picking at her rice and beans, drawing stick figures in the sauce with her fork as she considered what to talk about next. That time in college they threw a Weezer dance party in her friend’s bedroom? The day they’d spent in Montreal last summer? Kalonji slipped into the plastic seat on his side of their booth, boyishly exuberant, as if rejuvenated by the burrito shit he took. He was massaging his left toes. “Kim,” he said, “the craziest thing just ha . . .”
“So you know,” she interrupted, “I believe in Black Lives Matter. You know I do. But the next time you want to talk about that kind of stuff, don’t post it on my Facebook wall.”
It took him a moment to remember. “You mean that article about the Staten Island teachers wearing the NYPD shir…”
“Exactly. I hardly ever post on Facebook because I like my privacy. And you put that on there for everybody to see. Next time send me a private message.”
“I just wanted to know what you thought about it.”
“Again, send me a private message.”
“I’m sorry.” He didn’t see what she was complaining about, but his apology seemed to satisfy her. He recognized her condescension as Kim acting out the small cruelties she didn’t often get to indulge. It felt sweet that, instead of hiding her insecurities, she used him as an excuse to wallow in them. He watched her brush chemically auburn hair off her cheek. Within seconds the strands magnetized once more across her nose.
She was pretty but not beautiful, with jowly, florid cheeks and tired eyes. She looked better than she had in college, slimmed down from her former alcoholic puffiness. She had an overbite, and her bottom teeth crowded together like tall and short members of an overpopulated family all trying to get in a photo. The hairs on her upper lip were soft and white like a butterfly’s belly. Her arms and legs were long, outright gangly, and she kept her ankles crossed to give him space. Elbows on the table, she slouched forward, parenthetical fingers cupped under the coffee mug she’d occasionally lift to her lips.
He said, “Well, what did you think about it?”
Industrial stoves hissed in the kitchen. She sipped coffee, held it in her mouth until it grew painful, and swallowed. “I think it’s horrible those kids have to go to school with those racist teachers. And that’s one reason why education is broken. For what it’s worth, every teacher I’m friends with marched for Ferguson.”
“Including your boyfriend?” he asked.
“We went to the march together.”
“Isn’t it? He’s not a real political guy. He’s kind of a bro. But he wanted to go with me. That was one of the first things we did together. A year, two years ago.”
“It couldn’t have been a year ago if it was Ferguson,” Kalonji reminded her. He pictured a slideshow of black faces, the carousel clicking as they flashed by. Mike Brown. Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant. A travesty how he only saw the “thug” photos the media used to make them America’s nightmare.
Kim bowed her head and rubbed her brow in circles, a séance for her thoughts, until she slapped her palm on her cheek. “Trayvon Martin. It was a Trayvon protest.” She remembered that day. They’d gone for Chinese food after the march, then a stroll through Washington Square. “I really don’t get them mixed up. That’s bad. That’s so bad. That’s really bad, isn’t it?”
“You’re so racist.”
“Okay, fuck you.”
“No. Don’t let me off the hook for that. I really don’t get them mixed up.” Kalonji noticed her jaw muscles clench. “I’m sorry. I interrupted you. What were you going to say?”
“The crazy thing that happened.”
“I forgot.” Something strange in the restroom, but the memory was gone. Besides, that sounded disgusting, talking about the shitter. “How long have you guys been together? You and Jake?”
“A year,” she said.
His eyebrows rose, contracting the space between his deer-colored eyes and inch of mossy ‘fro. He looked good, she thought, a soft-featured man with a flirty smile and a nose like Off the Wall Michael Jackson. Maple skin. Ears that stuck out. Slender fingers.
“I can’t imagine that,” he said. “A year.”
“I’ll bet you can’t,” she spoke into her coffee, which was a mistake. The steam stung her eyes.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kalonji asked.
“You break up with a lot of girls,” said Kim. “You date a lot of girls.”
“Well, what the hell else am I supposed to do with them?”
She’d taken a wrong turn, she knew, turning the subject to his love life. No topic pleased him more. Ever since women started liking him as much as he liked them, he’d grown an effeminate, showy confidence, along with the annoying vulnerability pretty boys had. His emotional softness stuck out like a deformity, like a gunshot wound in the middle of his face. In college he’d been endearingly unaware of his beauty, only interested in protests and parties.
Except when it came to her—he was in love with her. The night of Bush’s reelection he showed up at her apartment and they drank whiskey sours and said Fuck America until three in the morning. One time he called her a slut when she arrived late to a party. I don’t care who you’re fucking, he slurred, beer-breathed. Showing up on time is simple fucking manners. Thinking about it made her smile behind the ceramic muzzle.
“I don’t date that many girls,” he continued with a self-assured smile.
“Yeah, you do.” Breaking from her nostalgia took unexpected effort. “Last time you came here, you were engaged. Which, by the way, I knew it wasn’t gonna work out.”
“You didn’t like Caitlyn,” he stated.
“I liked her! She was nice. But she just kind of seemed eager to please. Like, ‘Oh, I’m just along for the ride.’ A little flaky, y’know?”
It amused and intrigued him that Kim was thinking this during the pleasant conversation she’d had with his ex, last year when he’d read at Molasses Books. That underneath her chirpy anecdotes about the subway system and the horrors of “teaching to the test,” she was brimming with contempt, thinking, This woman is a fucking child.
She watched him scoop a rubbery forkful of burrito off the plate, then leave the fork lying there in the sauce. A slow eater. Kim wondered if she’d gone too far. The hurt might still be fresh. At last he said, “When we broke up, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. We’d been building to it awhile. A bathroom fan here, a lock there . . . “
“What the hell are you talking about? Bathroom fans? Locks? What?”
“She would yell at me for not, for forgetting to lock the top lock. ‘Cause somebody tried to break in her apartment once. That’s not a deal breaker.”
“It kind of is. That’s a matter of security.”
“You’re being white right now.”
She threw her hands in the air. “Oh, what . . .”
“You are!” he said. “Black people can’t walk down the street without wondering if a cop’s gonna kill us. No, that they want to kill us and will get away with it. If somebody’s like, ‘Woe is me, you didn’t lock a lock,’ I don’t speak that language.”
She chose her next words carefully, resisting the urge to argue. He could say vulnerable and honest things in ways that made her want to dismiss them, either being hyperbolic to the point of silliness, or simply arrogant.
“I guess I see that,” she said. “But it’s not a race thing. It’s about being a woman and feeling, you know, safe. You should be sensitive. Like what you were saying about your friend. The one who can’t do the reading . . .”
“It sucks that guy killed himself. But she screwed me over. This sounds bad, but at the end of the day, ain’t no flags at half-mast over her friend.”
She had no reply. The hole of silence quickly deepened into a trough. Like a moon-eyed girl, he squeezed a knee against his chest with both arms and stared at his food. His inability to finish his plate seemed emblematic of his ineptitude, which over the years had yielded dead-end administrative jobs and toxic love affairs. She was aware her exhaustion with him had gratitude at its bedrock—his foolishness was a reliable thing, after all. Or perhaps she was overthinking it, and she was simply a pig who ate too fast. His expression told her he was thinking about the baby. She regretted bringing up his ex, any of them, and sought to bury her mistake under words.
“How’s your cut?” she asked.
“Good.” He stuck out his leg to show her. He peeled at the Band-Aid in hopes of getting a girly reaction. He was successful.
“Ew!” She cringed back in her seat, palms held out. “Man, don’t show it to me!”
“I really don’t like blood!”
He felt happy to give her a fraction of his pain from last night. Maybe this was a sex fetish he wasn’t aware of. The metal hand truck on which he dragged his suitcase with the missing wheel broke apart five minutes after he’d touched down in LaGuardia. In a prime example of New York bullshit, the busses didn’t take cash. He had to haul fifteen pounds of clothes and chapbooks to the next terminal, buy a ticket from Hudson News, then back to the first terminal to wait in the cold for the bus.
As he watched its lights weave through the snowfall, a shriek from above pummeled his ears. He hid with two other commuters behind a trashcan. Preluding its descent with a deluge of snow, a pterodactyl sailed earthward from the parking garage to grip its claws like can openers in the bus’s roof. One beat of its leathery wings hit Kalonji with a windy battering ram that sent him tumbling into the nearest wall. Lying in a heap, he watched the dinosaur carry the bus to its lair like a thirteen-ton trout.
Though dazed and terrified, he forgot the incident in the bone-chilling wait for the next bus—in his mind the first one never showed—then the ordeal of carrying his suitcase and reconfigured cart down subway steps. The cart lashed out and sliced through his jeans to the shin. Around one in the morning, he finally saw the name ROCKAWAY in white mosaic outside the subway car, and arrived sodden, shivering, wounded, possibly tetanus-infected to Kim’s apartment, where she greeted him with a Styrofoam carton of Chinese leftovers. She insisted he put cream and a Band-Aid on his cut.
He looked at the wound again. A red rose grew from it. Grateful for the unexpected gift, he pinched it under the thorns and uprooted it from his skin. Only hurt a little. Kim thanked him for the flower, embarrassed and charmed by the affection. She took a long sniff and put it in her glass of water.
Kalonji heard the Mexican family in the next booth having a lively conversation. A cowlick-headed boy asked the mom why she’d bought two gallons of milk. “Because our household goes through milk like,” Kalonji waited for the simile, “like it was nothing.” Disappointing.
“Didn’t you cheat on Caitlyn?” Kim asked him.
“We were poly,” he said pithily.
“Oh god.” What California nonsense.
“She said it was fine sleeping with somebody else as long as I told her after. Which, by the way, she had other men.” He knew she found him tedious. Such a man was probably repeating in her thoughts. All he could do was double down on the narcissism. If that’s what she saw, why not make it a joke? “You think about it, I’m not responsible for anything.”
Kim blew a derisive syllable of air from her nose. “Right. You just tripped and fell on top of that lady.” The waitress came with a pitcher, and Kim thanked her for the refill, before noticing there was a rose in her water. Strange. The bemused waitress left to get her a new glass. Kim chewed the tip of her straw, an old habit. “So Cait kicked you out and now you’re back in Oakland.”
“Not a bad place to land,” he said.
“That’s why I could never do poly. I admit it, I get jealous. And I’m not perfect. The first time I got with Jake, it was cheating.”
“I don’t remember,” he lied.
“I was dating somebody else. Another coworker. From my previous school.”
He laughed. “I was about to say . . .”
“I know what you were about to say. I’d never date two guys at the same place. I told myself not to get involved with guys at work at all. It was a drunk hookup. The next day I cried about it. I felt really bad.”
“How are things with Jake?”
“He’s . . . I don’t know.”
“Wow. That’s how you describe your boyfriend?”
“You know. He’s a photographer. And before me he slept with a lot of girls. His whole thing was sort of like . . . you know . . . how artsy guys are. Sort of a Peter Pan complex. Like, ‘I’m just flying through the world without a care.’”
“What . . .”
“And one time he was like, ‘Kim, sometimes I just want to murder you!’ Isn’t that crazy? Why would you say something like that?”
“What changed? You’ve been together a year.”
“He’s very even keel and that works for me. ‘Cause I’m more intense. Especially with my manic episodes.”
“He . . .”
“He keeps me grounde . . . What?”
“He said he was going to murder you. How’s that even keel?”
“He said he wanted to murder me. That’s different. Right?” It shocked her how easily she could talk about this with him. Like a therapy session, the productive kind, and when he said nothing she kept going. “I guess that sounds bad. I was being mean to him at the time. I got drunk and thought he was trying to leave me and I got really paranoid. He’s put up with a lot of shit from me.”
“You told me you didn’t date white men.”
“I didn’t.” He was getting smirky, trying to rile her. She could play along. He finally put the piece of burrito in his mouth. “I mean, I didn’t date them, not I didn’t say that.”
“You said they were cocky. They think they own the world.”
“Jake’s the first white guy I’ve dated in years.”
“I can’t relate. I don’t know why anybody dates white men. They’re not even attractive.”
“How many white guys have you dated, Kalonji?”
“None that I recall.”
“So there you . . .”
“But unlike you, I never swore them off.”
“Black guys got a little . . . there’s a thing with black guys.”
He lifted his eyebrows. “Yes?”
The waitress returned with her new glass. Having gnawed the straw to plastic paste, Kim tossed it aside. “Do all black guys feel the need to act . . . how do I put it . . . act theatrical . . . during sex? Like, they get pumped up and . . . say things.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?”
“I don’t know. It’s just, every black guy I was with, they liked to get real into it. Like, say they’re my daddy and . . . I don’t know.”
“As the representative of all black men . . .”
“Porn language! They talk like porn people!”
“. . . it’s because we invented fucking.”
There were kids in the other booths. She checked to make sure they didn’t hear. She lowered her voice. “Forget I brought it up.”
He didn’t lower his voice. “It’s the Mandingo fantasy. We’re all about that dumb stereotype. And I’ll bet you that any black guy who did that thought he was giving you what you wanted. If you didn’t like it, maybe that’s something you didn’t communicate.”
“I never said I didn’t like it,” she said. “Sometimes.”
“My people are naturally empathetic. That’s why—I’m told—sex with white men is weird and gross. Self-entitled pukes just want to get themselves off.”
“Look,” said Kim, “I’m pretty vanilla. And don’t think I forgot that time you called me a slut in college. That was really hurtful.”
Kalonji almost said he’d never called her that. She got wasted and thought he did. It would serve no purpose to correct her, so he let it go.
“And I’m not saying you were like that all the time,” she continued so as to not sound judgmental. “Just when you were drunk. Most of the time you were quiet and gentle.”
The comment stunned him. He searched for words. He wanted to turn back time to when she admired him so. He resented that she never said anything then. For her part, Kim was looking at the table as if thinking of the younger him.
“You know,” he finally said, “I like to sing opera when I’m doing it. Theatricality.”
“Stop!” she moaned. “C’mon, I’m a schoolteacher. Okay, there was one time.” She let it trail off, to be dramatic.
He could feel his dick press against the back of his zipper. “And?”
“Me and Jake had sex in the same room with some cousin of mine when we were at a wedding. But I’m glad we did. He was this Republican asshole. It felt good, like I was disrespecting him. The whole time he was just being racist and sexist and it’s like, well, here’s something carnal in your face. He was probably asleep the whole time. I don’t know. And there was one time I hooked up with a Turkish guy I met on the subway.”
“Right after you met him?”
“It wasn’t my safest moment. He was a construction guy. He came over the next day and fixed my door.” She felt nostalgic for meaningless hookups, the temporality of sleeping with a near-stranger. How it made her feel unanchored. Then the mischievous, whorish walk from his apartment, feeling his eyes linger on her back, same as the morning sun on her face.
Kalonji pictured her having conventional, competent sex. Pictured her back muscles pinching in and out like wings as she rode her faceless boyfriend. For some perverse reason, his mind fixed on imperfections. The lines around her mouth would deepen as she screamed. Her naked breasts would look huge and saggy between her stick-like arms.
He was disappointed in himself.
“Are Turkish guys theatrical?” he thought to ask.
“You were never wholesome! You were the party girl in college.”
“That’s still there. I’m a teacher now. Or I was. I’m gonna teach again. Sometimes I want to party like Rihanna. Just rent out a floor on a club and pick random people on my way there. If I could do that once a year, I’d be good.”
They both laughed. The laughter seemed to float in the air between them after it was done. She wanted to ask him: why me? Even in college she’d been broken, after a manic episode had her wandering I-76 at night in her underwear. A year in hospitals, then back to school, a twenty-three-year-old undergrad. She’d found little to love about herself, but he saw something.
“You want to be Rihanna?” said Kalonji. “That’s good. I’m like Kanye in every way.”
“Oh my god.”
“Why does everybody like Yeezus so much?”
“It’s a good album!”
“You, too? The only songs I heard off that album was the one from that video where he’s on the motorcycle . . .”
“That was terrible.”
“And that ‘I Am a God’ shit. I am a god. / So hurry up with my damn massage!” Laughing, he brought his right hand down, accidentally flipping the dish spoon to upend the cup of creamer. When his wrist hit the table’s edge his hand came off. It dropped to the linoleum and bounced three times on the fingertips like a little man running away. Kalonji held his wrist more out of embarrassment than pain, because there was little blood, and it didn’t hurt. A dairyfall was pouring off the Formica. His hand lay there like a brown starfish. He reached for it and, in his haste, nudged it with his toe so it went spinning halfway across the room and under another table. The family of six screamed and lifted their feet like it was a five-pound subway rat.
Feeling the waitress’ stare on the back of her neck, Kim flashed the woman her most schoolmarmerly smile. Kalonji started wadding napkins. “Forget about the milk,” said Kim, harsher than she meant to. “We have to get your hand.”
While the waitress cleaned their mess, Kalonji and Kim got on all fours by the other table. The family twisted so they could get through. Propped on his elbow, he kept losing his balance trying to reach with one hand. They butted shoulders like two lovestruck and tragic cows who knew the end had come, trying to walk side-by-side into the slaughterhouse. She reached for his hand in the cobwebs. “Oh no,” she said. “It’s getting dirty.” Kalonji’s stomach twisted to see the bloodcrumb trail he’d left across the floor, everyone glaring at him for ruining their meals.
Kim stretched her fingers, clamped his thumb between her middle and ring, dragged it out, wiped it on her jeans and, still crouching, jammed it back on his wrist. Turned it three times until it stuck like a new lightbulb.
“Flex it,” she said. “See if it works.” It did. The family resumed their amiable crunching, a pack of short-necked giraffes.
Back at their booth, his hand was a ball and chain of humiliation. He would have preferred anger to the friendly detachment she was showing. He’d rather she called him an asshole like the week before graduation, when she’d wept in the passenger seat of his Toyota because he’d said taking psych meds was a sign of weakness, and he could only sit like a block of wood and watch her, and hurting her sent him into such a shame spiral that he drove around Pittsburgh for hours singing along to angsty alt-rock songs.
She noticed his mortification. “I’m sure it happens to everybody!” she said. To test this, she turned her right wrist counter-clockwise until the hand popped off. It wobbled like a rubber chicken in her fist. She stared in fascination at the stump, the two bumps of bone lodged in red muscle that reminded her of cherry pie. She reattached it. “See?”
The look he gave her was shy and appreciative. “Got that Kanye in me,” he said.
If she was ever going to kiss him, she thought, it would have been Montreal. He’d been on a book tour that coincided with her Canadian vacation. Something about him driving through North America in a rental car, doing readings in bookstores and living rooms, felt youthful and adventurous. They spent twenty-four hours in each other’s company and kissing him would have been right, but never felt right.
“You’re not white, by the way,” said Kalonji. “You’re more red. Like, Irish red.”
“Well,” she said, “you look brown.” Under his jokes she could see the injury. She wasn’t helping him by skirting the real issue. It occurred to her that a good friend was a surgeon who prodded the painful spot in order to heal it.
“You said you apologized to your ex?” she asked. And added, “The pregnant one.”
“Yeah. First thing this morning.”
“What was it you called her on the voicemail?”
“I believe it was ‘trailer park psycho cunt.’”
She sniggered. “I like that one. Okay. Show me the text.”
He handed her the flip phone. He shouldn’t have enjoyed her reading it aloud. Regardless of being rude and supercilious, it still felt like someone reciting his work, which made the tiny artist inside him dance at his typewriter.
“I’m sorry about last night,” she read. “It was immature. The thing is, trust between us is low. What is it, a gas tank?”
“I didn’t want to just say, ‘I don’t trust you.’”
“You should have. It’s honest. You fell out of contact for ten days. Wow. You really said the number. I shouldn’t have to have this stress.”
She said it with a whiny tone. “It sounds emo,” he said, trying to laugh it off.
“It’s a little self-centered. Okay. Gotta finish this. Call me back. I’m in this. I’m a part of this. Be in touch. That’s a dramatic way to end it. I can tell you’re a writer.” She handed the phone back. “It’s good.”
“You really think so?” He stared at the message, then at her. “You think I’m self-centered?”
“She’s pregnant!” said Kim. “There have to be all kinds of things going on in her head. It sucks for you but, y’know, she’s pregnant!”
“She’s toxic! Everybody hates her!”
And you fucked her anyway, she thought. Men always wanted sympathy for that.
“She had her sister call me to yell at me,” he continued. “What kind of redneck shit is that? I can do that. I have an ignorant-ass sister, too!”
“I’m not defending her,” Kim said, which she knew for a lie, as well as a stupid thing to do. His bitch ex deserved scorn. “Just, you carry someone in your womb, you get attached.”
The words just came out. She hadn’t thought they would offend him, but Kalonji turned livid. He spoke in a snarl. “She’s not attached. She’s terrible. She’s the worst kind of person and she’s not gonna keep it, anyway.”
His viciousness hit her like bullets to the chest, made it hard to breathe. She bit a thumbnail. “Hmm,” she managed to say.
“Which, y’know, it’s her choice. Ain’t shit I can do about it.” He manufactured a chuckle. “I mean, once I start makin’ that paper, I’ll get everybody an abortion. I’ll pay to get you one, if you want.”
She needed to escape this conversation. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to go. It’s almost noon.”
“How much do I owe?” he asked.
“I got it.”
A pensive look came over his face. “Can we stay an extra minute?”
“You ever had times when you weren’t sure of the world? Like, maybe your reality wasn’t actual reality?”
“Um, all the time.”
“I don’t feel like that now. I feel real centered.”
A minute later they exited into winter. Snow filled the air like sawdust. Flakes coldly prickled their cheeks. He kept his tote bag of chapbooks under his coat and wedged in his armpit. Like a vinyl record, Brooklyn rotated around them. He picked a rectangular piece of black bean from his teeth and flicked it away. It bounced off the ski-capped peak of a homeless man’s head. The man transformed. Like a videogame glitch, the world in front of them seemed to crash, only instead of a keyboard blitz of numbers and symbols, he saw the radio waves of sex and agitation that made up their universe. Before them appeared a ferret in a tiny crown standing on hind legs.
The little furry thing addressed Kalonji. “Many thanks, O lord of givings! For years I have been imprisoned in the body of a man, when truly I am Skalalala, the prince of ferrets!”
Kim clasped her hands and squeaked, he was so cute.
The prince twitched his tail that looked like an old bath brush. “My Moorish benefactor! I have waited millennia for someone to break the spell of manhood by tossing a bean on my head. Now that you have freed me, I will bless you with good luck.”
Kalonji almost thanked him, then said, “It wasn’t me. She did it.”
Skalalala opened his mouth and screamed a burst of orange magic at Kim’s stomach. It hit her like a ferret-sized punch, so she doubled over. “Fuck your mother!” she grunted. Kalonji was asking if she was okay. The prince of ferrets ran into the sky and toward the white sun. Annoyed, she also felt grateful to see him depart, and for Kalonji. He was there with her in this moment, which she knew would not happen again.
They walked. Smells braided together: roasting pork out the Arab butcher shop, ice on concrete, car exhaust, until those scents muted by a fresh-paved road and the tar played its solo. A low, black blues. “Where are you going after New York?” she asked.
“I have a reading in Philly.”
“Are you going to see Caitlyn?” She remembered the ex-fiancée lived there.
“Doubt it. I think I made her mad the last time I was there.”
“I texted her and she said she’d like to hang. I told her I was staying with a partner. She said she was busy. Isn’t that funny?”
“A partner? Say you’re with a friend, Kalonji. That it’s a friend you’re sleeping with isn’t important.”
“I hope we’ll be friends again,” he mused. “I have to think the passage of time can give us things. Like, there’s people who I wasn’t friends with in college, but now we’re great friends. Cait hates me now but all that antipathy fades.”
“It fades to indifference.” They’d reached the subway stop. Black icicles dangled a foot long from the grating above. “This is me. I’m crashing at Jake’s tonight, so you have the whole place to yourself. You have the keys. You have my number. Have a good reading.”
She was wearing a winter coat. Hugging her felt like holding a bag of packing peanuts. “I love you, Kim.”
“I love you, Kalonji.”
It was cold. The clouds were a herd of great steel beasts traveling across the sky. A page of printed directions in hand, he tromped through the snow to another friend’s apartment. He loved the sensation of walking, of being a flâneur. He wanted to strut Broadway like an 18th century freedman, sash around his butterfly waist, top hat looming like a steeple, twirling a cane on his way to the follies. Or lose himself in Williamsburg until he stopped at the coziest overpriced café to unleash pages of built-up prose onto line paper. In a court, Puerto Rican boys were shooting ball at a netless hoop, striking reverb off the rubber halo. The brownstones made him feel like he starred in a Spike Lee movie, bricks singing “People Make the World Go Round” like the opening to Crooklyn, a movie he’d watched with his dad, the man who took him to libraries and Waldenbooks. It would be a gift to give that to someone else. To be a father.
And Kim really defended that bitch. Sided with the person who looked like her. Something cruel clawed at his insides as he remembered her smug comments, how he was too infatuated to call her on it. To calm the rage he focused on the trees in their leafless trance, the timeless desolation of the warehouses, until he arrived at his friend’s steel-and-aluminum home. They’d met in Baltimore a decade ago, when both were spoken word artists. Now this friend studied poetry at NYU. Before he entered, the friend instructed he take off his shoes. Then they hugged. For the next three hours, Kalonji workshopped with the MFAs, drinking wine and eating Salvadorian food. He felt tenderness from these strangers. New York shrank to fit him.
Kim arrived at her boyfriend’s basement apartment. He was naked, his freckled chest and boyishly soft pubic hairs waiting for her. They kissed. He took the groceries from her tote bag to start cooking. “That’s impressive,” he said, “your friend’s so young and already published. Why don’t you want to go to the reading? Sounds fun.”
She said she’d seen him read before.
“I wanted to be a writer once,” said Jake. He tied on an apron, the strings in a bow above his ass. “I got published in, what was it, ZZYZZYVA I think.”
“He’s a sad guy,” she said. “Got some lady pregnant and wants her to keep it. Thinks a baby will complete him.”
Frowning sympathetically, Jake cut carrots into strips.
In the bathroom she opened the file cabinet. Her row was the one with a half dozen orange vials. Her school had been understanding to give her as much leave as she needed following her meltdown. And she felt no shame with Jake. Like some girls kept a toothbrush at their boyfriend’s, she kept Rx pills. And a pink toothbrush.
She heard him through the half-closed door. “The students were asking about you today.”
“Valentina, for one.”
“Oh. She’s such a sweetheart.”
“And Jose was asking when you’d come back. You should visit.”
“I want to,” she said with Kalonji in her thoughts. He had to be cold right now. Driven through the snow by dedication to his art. She remembered what he’d said about the police and hoped they passed him by. Hoped today was a day he not only reached where he was going, he felt safe once he got there.
A sad guy, she repeated in her mind. Years ago he started telling her he loved her. And sometimes added, “as a friend,” which meant, “as a man loves a woman.” Her belly clenched involuntarily as she reached in her bag for Ativan and came out with a handful of words. She gasped and dropped them in the sink.
“Are you okay, babe?” Jake asked.
“Yeah. It’s nothing.” Chilled into paralysis, she watched the letters ant-march across the porcelain. They’d brought periods and ellipses with them. . . . ever since I was a kid. You were so fun . . . kind . . . beautiful . . . The fucker left words unsaid in her bag. How did Jake miss them? Her heart racing, she was stunned at her good luck. Her nerves twisted to see so many S’s. Versatile, unpredictable letter, beautiful and deadly as the serpent who shared its coil. Progenitor of uncomfortable words. Submit, she thought. Supplicate. Submerge. Unwilling to kill them, but unable to look at them any longer, she gathered the words on an MTA ticket and slipped them into an empty Rx bottle that she then hid behind the hamper.
She would throw them out in the morning.
Elwin Cotman is a writer from Pittsburgh, PA, and the author of two short story collections. He holds a BA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA from Mills College. As a touring artist, he has done readings across North America.