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“Scarification” by Nicole Haroutunian

15 March on Fiction   Tags:

 

Pushing a wheelchair is something I hope never to get good at, though I figure I should at least try to get better.

“Jeez, sorry honey,” I say.

Levi winces, rubbing his elbow.

I bend to kiss the bruise but knock into his shoulder on the way down. “I’m going to get a nurse.”

He grabs my hand. “Don’t be ridiculous.” He gives a weak smile. “Just aim for my legs instead.”

All this to look at some fish. There’s a big aquarium in the back of the lobby filled with creatures in varying hues of blue, yellow, orange and green. They are fluorescent, iridescent, otherworldly in their movements and their watchful silence. I think they must be aliens, but Levi insists they’re more like people. “Look into their eyes,” he says. He gestures at a fish with a surprisingly intelligent gaze. Its mouth opens and closes as if there’s a point it needs to get across. “Tell me you don’t know guys like that,” he says.

“I do,” I admit.

 

Levi’s rehab is out in Jersey, near his parents’ house. “What, New York City isn’t good enough for them?” I asked.

“They pay, they choose,” he replied. “Plus it’s fancy — I’ll probably get home faster this way.”

It was hard to argue with that. On my own is not a place I like to be.

Luckily the classes I’m working with right now — third graders at a school in Brooklyn — meet in the afternoon. I wake up at 5:30 each morning and take the car out to see Levi and then catch a bus to a train to get to the kids. I tried driving the whole mess once but the traffic made me so late I was nearly fired. After teaching, I do it all in reverse and drive back home to our own neighborhood on the other end of Brooklyn at night. Does it get tiring? Not as tiring as recovering from being hit by a truck, I tell Levi.

We are working on African masks, my eight year olds and I. Though it’s a little delicate given that the kids are mostly black and I am totally white, they give me credit where credit’s due — I know my stuff. The teachers are another story, but here’s the thing about teachers: they’re tired. Even if they think a person — a teaching artist, say — is a hack, they will likely turn over their class to that person if it means they can do some grading from the quiet of their desk.

During our first few sessions, we got situated in West Africa, looking at maps, talking about climate, diversity, natural resources. We made a collaborative mural that I hoped to hang on the classroom wall, although its whereabouts are now unknown. I suspect it hit the trash as soon as I was gone for the day, but maybe it will turn up at some point. Today, I am introducing the idea of masks. I assemble my first class of children around me on the rug. Ms. Bell settles in across the room, an incredible pile of paperwork half obscuring her from view. She is about my age but seems older; it’s probably the responsibility of all these little lives weighing on her face.

The kids love me for a few reasons. One, I’m in each classroom only once a week, so I don’t see them enough to get frustrated and yell. Two, I don’t see them enough to learn their names so I call them all “sweetie” or “buddy,” and en masse I refer to them as “friends,” which is better than what some people call them. Three, they get to call me by my first name, Tess, which they find hilarious. Four, I think everything they do is wonderful. It’s not an act — I do.

“Why do people wear masks?” I ask.

“Protection,” says one sweetie.

“Sports,” says a buddy.

“Halloween?” tries another. This child is so large that I imagine he must have been left back at least twice. He assumes he is wrong when he answers questions but luckily that doesn’t stop him from answering them.

“That’s wonderful,” I say, and we delve into why we wear masks on Halloween—fantasy, fright, transformation.

I check to make sure Ms. Bell is still grading and pull small palettes of black and white face paint out of my tote bag, along with plastic handheld mirrors.

There are, of course, a couple who can’t handle the freedom. While everyone else is wonderful, painting whiskers besides their noses, horns onto their foreheads, spots, stripes, sports team logos onto their cheeks, these little outliers have a squabble over the mirror they’re sharing and start to throw punches. Now Ms. Bell has to get involved and her involvement, sadly, doesn’t stop at removing the offenders.

“I can’t send everyone to gym with paint on their faces,” she says.

I show her baby wipes, explain my timeline for cleaning up, assure her that she’ll have her sweet-faced students back by period’s end, but she demands they wipe their faces immediately and gets on the phone with the teacher I have next. In her class, we make our drawings on paper.

Back at the rehab center, I focus on the positive. “One kid said we wear masks to fit in,” I tell Levi. “Doesn’t that blow your mind?”

“Do you still have any of the paint on you?” he asks.

I do.

“Do me,” he says.

“Happily,” I say, reaching for the waistband of his pajama pants. Despite the injuries to his legs, other important things, we’re told, are still in working order. But we’re never alone here to test it out. Sometimes I joke about wheeling us into a supply closet. “Oh wait, you mean with the paint?”

He laughs even though it hurts his ribs.

I went to college with someone who died after being hit by a car, this red-headed girl who was always the drunk hilarious one at parties, who once burned me on my cheek with her flailing cigarette. When she got hit, though, it was years later and she was sober, just crossing the street on her way to work. Sometimes I wonder if it’s still okay to laugh at the memories of her acting so crazy back when she was twenty. And then there was this other crash, this other kid, a neighbor from the cul-de-sac where I grew up; he sustained a head injury that changed his actual personality. What he’d liked before he didn’t like anymore. So I know how lucky we are that Levi is still here, that he’s still Levi, but it’s hard to feel it sometimes. I watch for a miracle out of the side of my eyes: a twitch in his toes, a knock in his knees.

When I first saw Levi, he was riding his bike past me as I walked to a party. The air moved around me and I felt pulled in his wake. His muscular calves and the curve of his back, the way his knees were pumping, the freckles on his neck — I hoped we were headed to the same place, even though, at the time, I was dating the party’s host.

I paint white onto Levi’s lips and around them in an O, then outline them in black. I use my fingernails to dab C-shapes up and down his stubbled cheeks, then shade his eyes so it looks like they’re bulging. I pass him a mirror. “Do you get it?” I ask.

He opens and closes his mouth, fish-faced.

That night, when I brush my teeth, I notice a faint transfer of fish scales on my chin.

 

Between the hospital food and what Levi’s mother cooks for him, I don’t know what’s worse. One day I see crusts of bread on his bedside table and stomp my foot. “But you’re allergic to wheat!”

“It’s what she made me when I was little,” Levi says, sniffing.

“There!” I say. “Now you’re all stuffed up.”

“It’s that or the chickenmush they have here,” he says.

“You could let me bring you food.”

“I don’t know that I can stomach quinoa right now,” he says.

“Quinoa,” I say, “is a superfood.”

He rolls his eyes, but rather than get into one of our usual health food disputes, I stab open his carton of chocolate milk with a straw. For all my talk, I’m not proud of what I’ve been eating for dinner. Late at night, overtired and sad to be alone on the couch when usually there are two of us, my legs thrown over Levi’s, my head on his chest, am I really going to soak chickpeas or wash arugula?

Tonight, when I get home, I don’t even turn on the lights. I take my ice cream out of the fridge and eat it as I pace around in the dark. It’s expensive, like seven dollars a pint, because I thought what the hell — that’s a lot cheaper than dinners many people eat.

 

Later, in bed and sugar-high, I can’t come up with that poor dead girl’s name. I call the boyfriend I had back then. We still talk from time to time, a fact I’d never admit to anyone.

“The red-head was Angela,” he says. “I kissed her once.”

“Before or after me?” I ask, although, knowing him, the answer is probably “during.”

“It’s funny you’re calling,” he says.

“Because you were just thinking about me?” I stare up at the dark ceiling, pursing my lips to stifle a smile.

“I am now,” he says. “What are you up to?”

“Having a drink,” I tell him, because what was I going to say, I’m in bed in my sweatpants?

He asks if I want to come meet him, tells me he’s at the bar across from his old apartment. I know it. I say I’ll see him there and pull Levi’s cool pillow to my chest. I like picturing him watching the door, waiting for me.

As I fall asleep, I’m almost sure Angela wasn’t her name at all.

 

At the rehab center the next morning, Levi’s bed is empty. I grab onto the door frame, sucking in thin breaths. After the accident, he had a surgery that nicked his spleen; he seemed fine for a few hours until he was anything but. I didn’t know until he finally came to and asked someone to call me. For a moment, looking at his bed, I just know that he’s dead.

But then I find out from his new roommate that he’s got one of his physical therapy sessions at 9 a.m. now. Reggie is in his seventies and, given his thick, slurry speech and erratically shaved head, is likely recovering from brain surgery. He wants to chat and it breaks my heart but I couldn’t give a shit. I call Levi’s mother at work.

“He’s fine,” I say before she says hello. Her energy is pure panic.

“Can I talk to him?” she asks, forgetting already that I was the one who called her.

“No,” I say. “I mean, he’s not here. But I am. Did you know his schedule changed?”

“Oh, yes, they told me yesterday,” she says.

According to Levi, his mother and his college girlfriend — the lawyer his mother always thought he would marry — are still in touch. They go for tea and send each other text messages. She’s never even asked for my phone number. In her mind, I’m like Levi’s “artist phase:” temporary.

“Shall I tell him you stopped by?” she asks.

I take a few deep breaths. The aftermath of the accident has revealed what I’ve heard wedding planning often does — strange hierarchies of love. Should she tell him? What I should tell him is that I won’t be marrying him.

That’s bullshit, of course. Maybe I won’t even wait for him to do it, maybe as soon as he can walk down the aisle, I’ll propose.

 

I spend the bus ride into the city with my eyes closed and my forehead pressed against the glass. I can’t help thinking how nice it would feel to go swimming. Levi and I take trips rather than vacations. We’ve explored different neighborhoods in Toronto (Tehran-to!) and partied in Kansas City, going to art galleries and barbeque joints and dancing all through the night. We’ve crashed on couches and friends’ floors; we are artists and we are poor. But man, wouldn’t it be great to go to a resort and spend five days migrating between bed and beach, rolling together in the waves?

The elementary school sits right off of a main thoroughfare, a road canopied by an elevated train, casting it in loud, grubby shadow. It’s a wonder that any of my little asthmatic friends can even climb the stairs. And, the few bodegas around here that carry fruit and vegetables, meager selection though it is, keep it in barrels outside the door! God, the thought of it getting near a small child’s lips. It’s a bad day when the state of the neighborhood’s produce does me in.

For class today, I brought images of West Africans with kaolin spots painted white on their faces, of men with scarification, raised mottled skin patterned across their cheeks. I start with the kaolin and we continue the conversation from last week — “Are these masks?”

They’re evenly divided. “A mask is something you can take off and put on,” says one student.

“But can’t you wash off the clay?” I ask.

She screws up her face, contemplating. “I think she’s wearing a mask now,” says another kid. We all laugh.

I post the pictures of scarification, explaining how it’s done — a wound is cut and then fruit juice and dirt are rubbed into it so that it eventually forms a raised scar. I’m matter-of-fact so we’re not sensationalizing or exoticizing anything. In the image I’m holding up, a man’s scarification takes the form of systematic lines on his cheeks — they almost look like scratches from an animal. I ask, “Why might someone take part in this practice?”

“Maybe he fought a bear.”

“Maybe those are tally marks — he’s keeping track of something.”

“Maybe that’s what his father’s scarifications looks like, and his father.”

“Maybe his wife did something bad and he wanted to show her how much she hurt him so he cut his face in front of her.”

I wait until the class period is over to approach Ms. Bell.

“Believe me,” she says. “I know. Apparently the last incident before the restraining order was the father threw the television at the mother, it went through the window, glass was flying, etcetera. They’re still allowed supervised visits, though, and he really looks forward to them — his journal entries are ‘daddy this’ and ‘daddy that.’”

“That’s terrible,” I say.

She says, “He was actually one of the only parents to show up at back-to-school night.”

 

“Hey, at least they’re on top of it,” Levi says that evening.

“Is that what you got from that story?” I say. “That’s the takeaway?”

He apologizes for missing me that morning. I let him change the subject, although I have so much more I’d like to say about my day.

“You better not just have missed me this morning,” I say. “You better miss me every moment we’re apart.”

“I actually have a new partner now,” he says. “I believe you’ve met Reggie?”

His roommate Reggie is half propped up in bed, snoring, a napkin tucked into his shirt.

I nuzzle his head with my nose, resting as close to him on the bed as I can. “I miss you so much,” I say.

“I’m right here,” he says.

Levi has never said “I miss you.” His feelings and compliments go without saying, he believes. He doesn’t understand that I need to hear things like love and lust spoken. I run my hand along his arm, dip my finger into the divots between knuckles. I avoid his eyes, wondering if I will ever be able to complain about it again. What kind of woman would ask something so petty of a man she nearly lost? Am I ever supposed to be anything but grateful?

“By the way,” he says, “my parents have been talking to the lawyer.”

Levi does not want to press charges — he feels the fact that he survived is reward enough. His parents feel otherwise and I feel that the best expenditure of everyone’s energy would be to invent a time machine to stop the accident from having happened at all.

He was riding in the bike lane when his front wheel caught on some construction debris, a stray cement-slab from a condo going up nearby. His helmet came through unscathed, as did his face — the sharp cheekbones, straight nose, pink lower lip — but the truck that hit him as he descended back toward the street did a number on everything else. One shoulder shattered, elbow too, ribs bruised, and, of course, his legs.

Rewind: the truck switches lanes, the construction company disposes of its materials in the appropriate manner, the city installs better bike lanes, Levi takes the train that day. Problem solved.

“Who keeps texting you?” Levi asks.

I stuff my phone into my pocket. I didn’t realized it was lighting up on the bedside table. The college boyfriend always was persistent. Levi’s probably seen the guy’s name on the screen; I should probably give up.

It’s not that we were ever perfect together. We fought all the time. My insecurity, his insensitivity. How his mother hated me, how I should try harder with her. How I wouldn’t look for a job that paid more even though I could never quite make my half of the rent. But what were the stakes back then? There was time to improve; everything was plastic. I always imagined us morphing into something better.

“So tomorrow morning,” I say. “Should I not bother coming?”

Levi sighs. “It’s not like I was the one who changed the appointment time.”

“If that person were here right now,” I say, “the person who did change the time, I would take this knife,” I pick up a plastic knife from Levi’s discarded hospital tray, “and I would slash my face to show them how much they’d hurt me.” I draw the knife across my cheek hard enough to leave a scratch.

Levi looks stricken. He says, “Not. Funny.”

“No,” I agree.

 

Soon after I get home, there’s a phone call from his mother. I feel a bit of a thrill that she finally got my number.

“If he’s worrying about your feelings, Tess,” she says, “it’s going to take him that much longer to recover.”

The thrill dampens as I try to understand what is happening. It sounds like Levi’s mother is breaking up with me.

“He needs to focus on himself for a while,” she says. “He needs a break.” It is all euphemisms and cloaked terms, but no less mortifying than if she told me outright: you are making this worse. I wonder if she offered to call me or if he asked.

“I’ll give him a break,” I say, touching the scrape on my cheek. “Okay.”

I hang up and throw my phone at the wall. It doesn’t shatter or crack, just falls onto the floor with a little bounce. I drag a chair into the opposite corner of the apartment, the one we use for an art studio, our shared materials piled floor-to-ceiling in an optimistic fashion, as if we had the time and resolve to create our own art anymore, and sit there for a while, staring at my hands. Then I pull out sundry supplies — a bone folder, a bottle of India ink, a stack of irregularly cut chipboard. I wait for inspiration. I drink a glass of water.

Nothing comes. I shuffle through a stack of drawings Levi and I made together. When we first moved in, we were wary of collaborations — the mix of sex and art and using the last of the milk and love and forgetting to send in the electric bill — but we thought we found a way to make it work with this project. We started it during a period when our schedules had no overlap and we barely got to see each other. The alarm would sound, I’d run off to teach and he’d start a drawing, leaving it out for my additions when I got home and he was gone. For weeks, everything we did was beautiful. The drawings were mostly black and white, abstract, but one day I sat down at our desk and there was a wash of pale green on the page. It threw me off. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it, so when Levi returned to it, it looked just the same as when he left it. I don’t remember if we tried to keep going after that, but if we did, it wasn’t for long. The green paper is there, in the pile of finished drawings. I tack it to the wall.

In the back of one of the desk drawers, I find a ball of wire, knotted and craggy, flaky with rust. As soon as I start to unravel it, I poke myself in the finger, scrape the tender skin of my inner arm. It is impossible. I tie the one end I manage to extract from the fray to the front doorknob of the apartment, figuring an anchor might help me proceed. It does, though slowly. Once I’ve untangled enough, I hook it from the doorknob to the leg of the kitchen table, then to the floor lamp beside the couch, then nearly full-circle to the coat rack next to the door. I loop it around the apartment like winding a skein of yarn. By the time I get to the end, it is three in the morning and the whole of my face around my eyes aches from the strain of doing this in the dark.

There are people who would look at this cat’s cradle I’ve created, print up an invitation and stage an opening for the “installation” in their apartment, serving tallboys and wine to the neighborhood idiots who show up to pretend to admire it. But I can recognize the psychological implications here. I know the difference between art and killing time.

I was killing time at a bar — that’s the other thing about the accident. Levi was supposed to meet me there after work. For weeks, he’d been immersed in this installation he was doing with a friend. I was fine with that for a while; I had plenty of friends myself and understood becoming absorbed in a project. But after two weeks of barely seeing him, I made us a dinner reservation and didn’t give him the option to back out. I put on heels and lipstick and picked a dark, narrow restaurant with elaborate cocktails. I perched on a stool at the bar and I waited. I texted once or twice, asking where he was, when he’d arrive. When I didn’t hear back, I figured he’d forgotten. The bartender — bearded, in a vest — asked me what I’d like. “Whatever you think I’d like,” I said, holding his gaze. He mixed me up an elixir swirling with cynar and aperol and other lovely things. It was sweet but strong and he mixed me another and before long, I was having a nice time. It was over an hour before I thought to worry.

 

I don’t know until I hit snooze one too many times that I’m not going to drive to New Jersey. I’m not sure what I’ve agreed to until it is true.

This is what he wanted, I tell myself — a break. But, of course, his wants and my wants aren’t that easily extricable. I don’t always know which is which. I hate to admit it, but isn’t staying home this morning a bit of a relief? I would like to call him to see if I misunderstood, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Maybe it was kindness on his part, letting me hear from his mother rather than straight from him.

When I finally get out of bed, I see the apartment in daylight for the first time in weeks. It is gilded in filth. Since we’ve moved in here, I don’t think I’ve washed the floor even once. I vacuum and open all the windows, wiping the windowsills down with a wet rag. I remember to water my poor potted plants. What seems beyond repair — a stopped clock with corroded batteries, a throw on the couch sour with spilt coffee — I stuff into the trash. I scrub right up to the spot where my phone lies on the floor. It was low on power when I sent it across the room so I can’t tell now if it’s broken or just out of juice. I consider charging it but when I see how late I am for work, I drop my dust rag and take off.

At school, it’s time to start on our final projects. We discuss when masks are worn; the students choose the occasions that will inspire their own creations. Many of them are taken with the idea of celebrating a passage into adulthood. They imagine themselves, at eight years old, to be quite close. Some of them are right.

After our conversation, twenty-six balloons must be inflated roughly to the size of a child’s head; they will be the mold for our papier mâché masks. I’d envisioned the kids blowing up their own balloons, but after a few spit-soaked moments I realize they don’t have the lung capacity for it. We throw out all of the germy balloons and I have to ask Ms. Bell for help.

I instruct the kids to start sketching their masks on scrap paper and I pass Ms. Bell a bag of balloons. “What are these for?” she asks, holding fast to the pen she was using to grade. “Rewards? I don’t know if they deserve them.”

I explain the process. “Paste?” she says. “In here?”

“I’ll clean up,” I say. “I swear.”

She pulls in a student teacher from down the hall and between the three of us, we get the balloons tied off and ready to go before the kids get too wiggly. They are mesmerized, in fact, by the sight of us — grown women — puffing out our cheeks and turning red in the face. Before Ms. Bell can remember her grading, I hand her a box of rubber gloves and a stack of smocks and she outfits the left side of the room while I tackle the right. I give them each laminated mats to cover their desks, apportioned and rubber-banded stacks of papier mâché strips, a small cup of water I squirt out of a jug I brought, pre-filled, from home.

“You are prepared,” she says.

“I’m a professional,” I say. I blow up one more balloon and hand it to her.

“No thanks,” she says.

 

Because I didn’t drive to Jersey this morning, and because I had so many supplies to bring to the school, and because I was so late, I took the car to work. I parked it under the elevated train and when I return to it, it is covered in hundreds of bursts of crap from the pigeons nesting overhead. As I survey the damage, a passerby remarks, “You got shit on, baby.”

“No shit,” I say.

“You shouldn’t park your car there,” he says.

“I had to carry some stuff to the school,” I say. “And you can’t park right in front of it unless you’re a teacher, so —”

“You have a kid at the school?” he asks, nodding towards the building down the road.

I hesitate. “Yeah.”

“My cousin owns a carwash a couple blocks away.” His head is shaved and shiny, just like his eyes. They practically gleam.

“You’ve got nice eyes,” I tell him.

“Let me give the compliments here,” he says.

That’s when I notice we’re standing in front of a pet store. It looks scummy — the window is all fogged up and the vinyl letters on the sign are tattered and peeling. “Excuse me,” I say and let myself into the warm, still store through its splintering door. He follows me. He’s wearing huge grey sweatpants and a matching zip-up hoodie; I imagine what it would feel like to be folded up in his arms. I want him to squeeze me to his chest, tight, until I can’t breathe.

“What are you going to buy?” he asks.

“A fish,” I say.

“Looks like that’s about all they’ve got anyway,” he says. “Me, I’ve got a dog. What do you want with a fish?”

The tank is dull and overcrowded — nothing like the one at the rehab center. “My boyfriend is in rehab,” I say. “And I’ve gotten attached to the fish there.”

“Rehab is rough,” he says. “Was it court ordered?”

The fish I want is very small and orange, with diaphanous fins and a determined look on its face. It’s the way it moves in a zigzag across the tank, skirting other fish, like it’s got somewhere to go. “Yes,” I say.

He jerks his head to the side. “You need a shoulder to cry on?”

“Do I look like I’m crying?” I ask.

An older woman, her face twisted — perhaps by a stroke — emerges from the back of the store with a little net and scoops my fish into a tiny bowl. I can’t keep myself from staring at her. Her mouth is pinched like the knot on a balloon; she doesn’t even try to talk. She pops a couple containers of food into a bag and charges me eight dollars. I start to pull out my wallet but the man is faster. “I got this,” he says. “You live in the neighborhood?”

“More or less,” I say.

“Well, I’m Andre,” he says. “You come find me if it doesn’t work out. If he gets put away next time. And go see my cousin.” He pulls a flyer for the carwash from a plastic bag full of them; his job must be to stuff them under people’s windshield wipers. “Get that car cleaned up.”

 

At home, I trip over the wire still attached to my doorknob and the fishbowl water sloshes up and out, the fish riding the wave. The apartment is not large, but try as I might, I cannot figure out where it landed. I’m on my hands and knees, searching under the couch, in the corners, beneath the radiator. I cleaned and cleaned this morning and still, everywhere I look, there is dust. I am desperate, imagining the fish suffocating, writhing, its agile little body rendered useless. I press my ear to the floorboards listening for it, for the faint thump of its thrashing tail or the quick patter of its heart. Where did all that zigging and zagging get it?

 

On day seven, there’s an email from my boss wondering if I lost my phone, because she’s been calling. I was reluctant to pick it up from its spot on the floor, to charge it and bring it back to life, but the email makes clear she’s expecting to hear from me. As I wait for it to power on, I am afraid of two things: that there will be a message from Levi — or about Levi — and that there won’t be.

I have three missed calls from him, all from the first day I didn’t come. If he was calling out of guilt, it didn’t last long.

I listen to the messages from my boss and then delete twelve — twelve — texts from the ex.

My boss was checking to see that I’ve got all my paperwork ready to go since my residency is ending soon. I return her call, assure her I do. Then she asks after Levi.

“He’s doing better,” I tell her.

“How terrific,” she says.

“It looks like he’s getting feeling back in his legs,” I say. “He gave a little kick yesterday.”

“Oh honey,” she says.

 

In the last text from the ex, the last one I deleted, he asked for my address. Before I climb into the shower, I send it to him.

When the buzzer sounds, I meet him at the door. I don’t even look very nice, my hair wet and stringy, but still, we’re barely inside before he has me up against the wall. I keep my head at an angle; I don’t want him to kiss me, not even on the cheek.

“I thought you were never going to write back,” he says, his hand under my skirt.

“I wasn’t going to,” I say. My hands are at my sides. I move my legs together, then apart. He smells like lemon soda, same as he used to, but he has a beard now and a very small paunch above his belt. If I couldn’t feel it against my own belly, I wouldn’t know it was there. I lift my chin over his shoulder, taking a gulp of air. It is hard to find the room to fill my lungs. I feel like I’m drowning and at first, I like it. If I could submerge, everything would be easier — it would be concrete, what I’ve done.

But the way his mouth is opening and closing on my neck makes me think of the fish. Suddenly, irrationally, I think I can find it. My knees buckle. I feel his hand on the top of my head, see the other one unzipping his pants. I let him hold me down, but I can’t help it — there is something buoyant in me.

I lean back from under his grasp. “I hear my boyfriend’s footsteps on the stairs.”

“I don’t hear anything,” he says, his voice low and thick.

“You don’t know what to listen for,” I say.

“Jesus,” he says. “We didn’t even do anything yet.”

“I know,” I say, although actually, I don’t.

 

I go in to school early for my next class, armed with a box cutter. I spend two hours in the teachers’ lounge cutting eyeholes out of fifty hardened hemispheres of papier mâché. The blade makes a screeching sound as I saw through the plaster; even I feel bad for the teachers around me.

Having been processed through the fingers of eight year olds, the papier mâché isn’t totally white, but a sort of grey. I can see their fingerprints, the traces of graphite from the perpetual pencil smudges on the sides of their hands, a crumb here and there. These objects are wonderful and they aren’t even anything yet.

All that paperwork my boss was calling about says otherwise. It documents the masks as assessments rather than art objects; they prove my worth. I can’t help being anxious, because eight weeks ago, my students described Africa as “a country from back in the day.”  In the face of children’s bottomless need, it’s hard to imagine I’m worthy of much.

When they get started, though, even Ms. Bell puts down her pen and circulates through the room as they apply paint and sundry craft materials, mimicking “natural resources,” to their masks. Asked why he put leaf shapes on the forehead of his mask, one sweetie says, lisping, “I want the tree spirit in me. You know, animism.” There are symbols, patterns, a few tears, a couple instances of spilled paint. One child must be stopped from licking his mask while another manages to cut off a braid and attach it to hers. When I start to hyperventilate, she says, “Don’t worry — it’s a weave.”

For the last ten minutes of class, the students present their work. The kid with the dad and the restraining order, his mask looks like a roaring lion, its powerful teeth bared.

 

I don’t know why I parked in the same spot again.

Or I do know why. But when I get back to the car, there is more shit, but no Andre. I slump into my seat, slam the door. I miss the kids already.

I go to the carwash. I still have the flyer and anyway it’s not too hard to find. I park and approach a cluster of guys detailing a car. They’re speaking Spanish — none of them seem like they could be Andre’s cousin. I think maybe that’s racist, or at the very least closed-minded, so I ask anyway. They look at me like I’m nuts. For the life of me, I don’t know what I’d do with Andre if they found him for me, but I keep asking. I’m blushing and nervous and half want to get out of there, but the fact remains that my car is encrusted in pigeon shit. It has a smell. I head back toward it and work myself into a cold sweat trying to line up the wheels with the conveyor belts that take it through the tunnel to be cleaned. When I get moving, I turn off the radio and sit back, watching the water pour down and soap foam up all around me. The great mops and jets and brushes make burbling, rushing, swishing sounds, ocean wave and wind sounds.

Once, on a day trip upstate, Levi and I got caught in an ice storm and pulled into a hotel to stay the night. As far as we could tell, we were the only ones in the place, which was stale-smelling and dim, but there was a hot tub off of the gym. We stripped down and climbed in, giddy at our good fortune. We sat in it too long, until we were light-headed and nearly sick, but as soon as we rehydrated, we went right back in. Turning in our room key the next morning brought actual tears to my eyes. Watching the frothy water run over my windshield, swirl across my mirrors, I wish I could vacation in here, I wish I could stay forever.

But, then I think, a vacation on my own — who am I kidding? I can’t wait for it to end.

 

He looks terrible. Thinner, greyer, sadder. He tells me that he didn’t even know his mother called me until a day after the fact, that he hadn’t thought anything of it when she asked for my number, that it was a perfectly normal request since we live together. He says that eight days is an insane amount of time to have stayed away.

“I started to think of you like a pot filled with water,” I say. “That maybe you weren’t boiling because I was here watching.”

“Is that true?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say, although I don’t know. I hope it is true that, deep down, I was driven only by the desperate hope that the thing keeping him from getting better was me.

“The news is that I’m probably not going to,” he says. “You know, boil.”

I bend to kiss him on the knee.

“Again,” he says. “Somewhere I can feel.”

We go to see the fish.

“I think they’ve lost their magic for me,” he says. “But I would like to go swimming. That’s something I’ll still be able to do.”

“I booked us a trip to the Bahamas,” I say.

“Is that true?” he asks.

“I hope so,” I say.

I find the goldfish as I box up the apartment, weeks later, a dried-up husk between a cabinet and the stove. There’s no way it could have landed there from where I spilled it. I picture it muscling its way across the floor. A fish out of water can only last for so long.

Our new place is a garden apartment in New Jersey. There is precious little distance between me and his mother, but I am getting better with the wheelchair. We choose a pale green for the walls.

 

Nicole Haroutunian's fiction has appeared in Two Serious Ladies, BAP Quarterly, RedLine Blues and Pearl Magazine. She writes the book blog Our Books Are Better Than We Are and is co-editor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Woodside, Queens.


 

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