Lie and say you have to pee. In his bathroom, check your purse for the condoms and then list, in alphabetical order, every kind of lie you can think of: barefaced lie, big lie, bullshit, fabrication, fib, lying through your teeth. At “half-truth,” relax the rules and make the list into a little tune set to “Ebony and Ivory”: mendacity and perjury / self-deception, half-truth, and perfidy. Of course you’re forgetting the worst one—no, not really forgetting. More of an omission.
You’re about to tell him. You have to tell him. It’s probably required by law or something. People are always making crazy laws. If you don’t say anything and he finds out, would it just be a civil matter, or could they send you to prison? Prison … all that time to draw. Flush the toilet and fantasize about your new life as an inmate, how your story goes viral and launches your career as an outsider artist.
Don’t forget to run the water.
In the living room, kneel at the foot of the couch and slip your hands under his shirt. His chest is firm and hairless. Wonder if he shaves it. Roll one of his nipples between your thumb and forefinger and savor his hoarse sigh. When his shirt is off and you’re on top of him, just as he is fumbling with the clasp of your bra, that’s when you brush your lips against his neck and murmur, “Wait.”
Beneath the skinny jeans and hipster posturing, this man is tender, inexperienced, and at least five years too young for you. He has probably spent more time considering the qualities of craft beers than puzzling over the meaning of consent, but he has older sisters, and he is not a bad person. He stops when you ask him to.
Say: “Before we go any further.” Tell him, “there’s something I need to…” Anxiety, a prickly flower, blossoms in your chest. Say: “I’m positive.”
His mouth opens and closes like a fish gulping air. His faux hawk is a khaki fin, bobbing gently on the tide. Wish you hadn’t waited this long to say something, that you didn’t like him so much already.
Take his hand. Trace the letters into his palm likes it’s a secret message, a love note passed in health class: H - I - V.
Reach for his belt buckle. As you press your hand against the front of his jeans, ask: “What do you want?” It’s like a fairy tale. You’re cursed, and you can’t break the spell yourself.
Someone else has to say the right words.
Ask him again.
It’s what they all say, reciting from The Nice Guy Handbook, Chapter Thirteen, “How to Reject a Girl with the Plague”: “I guess I’m just not feeling it anymore,” “I have to get up pretty early tomorrow,” “I think I’m still in love with my ex.” What they don’t do is give you a chance to explain what “undetectable viral load” means or how you’ve managed to live with this for so long.
Did you really think it would turn out differently this time? You keep forgetting, you’re not the princess in this story. You’re the poison apple.
Find your bag, delete his number from your phone, and take the Blue Line to the aquarium. It’s free on Thursdays and doesn’t close for a couple of hours. On the train, remember the way your grandmother used to squeeze your hand. Always three times, once for each word: I — Love— You. Wonder if you’ll ever be loved like that again.
The shark tank is closed for renovations and the artificial reef, its hand-painted polyps, just reminds you of all those colonies bleached to bone by a warming ocean. Even Shelby the sea turtle lacks her usual buoyancy. She lurks at the bottom of her tank, a scuttled igloo, working over a scrap of cabbage with her fleshy beak.
Claim a bench in front of the coastal habitat case and begin to sketch the fairy penguins. A colony of pygmies, the birds are tiny, blue, and iridescent. Their feathers shimmer indigo as they preen in the floodlights, dimming to slate when they shuffle into their shady burrows (one for each mating pair, the label says). One of the birds thrusts out its chest, struts in a circle, and brays. Think this must be Franco, the one from the subway ads, his photo captioned “The Ladies Man.”
But then again, maybe not.
Despite the aquarium’s city-wide “Penguins with Personality” campaign, you have to confess, they all look pretty much the same to you. The same short grey beaks and foam-white bellies, the same pink-cake-frosting feet. Close your sketchbook and consider the possibility that this is a symptom of a much larger defect, an inability to see world in its particular and manifold splendor—and isn’t that what an artist is in the end, a person who can see?
And if you’re not an artist, then you’re just a “good drawer” and no different from those hacks at state fairs who make sketches of people with tiny bodies and enormous heads—people on rollerblades or skateboards, their attention divided between swinging tennis rackets and reading the Bible. Consider that you may be the same as your mother and your sisters and everyone else, with no special power to transform your private humiliations, the stupid suffering of your life, into something better.
For Christ’s sake, will you stop crying?
“Excuse me,” someone says. Then, “Maggie, is that you?”
Turn to find a spindly boy in a denim shirt staring down at you. There is a blankness to his look, like someone who has just been in a bicycle accident. But there’s more to it than that. It’s a receptive, good-hearted sort of blankness, a vacancy that suggests openness, a capacity to abide amongst uncertainties. He has a lop-sided grin and his hair is scruffy and blond. Decide that he is not un-cute.
“It’s Zach,” he says, sparing you having to ask. “From, you know, the place.”
God, Zach. You haven’t thought of him in months. Two years ago, Zach had been a mistake, a nuthouse romance you’d gotten yourself into during a seven-day stretch at McLean for generalized anxiety disorder.
“Gad,” the intake counselor had said, reading aloud from your file. Funny, you’d thought, how that little verb could encompass so much of your life. Wasn’t that just what you’d been doing? Gadding about, rambling idly from park to library to movie theater, your mind locked in a state of intransitive dread that refused to attach itself, directly or otherwise, to a single object.
And then, tonight at the aquarium, you compound the mistake. Freshly forsaken and near-psychotic with loneliness, you snivel and cry and spill your guts. Zach sits with you on the bench and agrees with everything—yes, people do treat each other like wolves; and sure, that dating site, the one for people with HIV, it might be worth a try; and of course, if things get really bad, (well worse, anyway), you could always pick up stakes and move to Oregon or, in extremis, do that thing you’ve been fantasizing about: leave everything behind, your apartment and all your possessions, and go off to live in a shipping container.
Zach is so affirming, such a surprising source of comfort. When he leans in and puts his arm around your shoulder, you do not move away.
At home, change into sweatpants and order take-out. The radio is tuned to the college station, and the kid at the controls is playing a single album without commentary or interruption. It’s Nirvana, you think, the one with the medical model on the cover, the indecency of her organs held in place by clear plastic.
Remember when those songs were new, when Marcus made you that first mix tape. Remember Marcus. Marcus Calidus, Marcus Crispus Dorsuo. Hot-headed boy, he of the curly hair and broad back. You used to steal glimpses of him in the lot across from the school, where he liked to stand with his friends, impudently smoking. Shifting his weight from one leg to the other, his elbow flexing as he brought the cigarette to his lips, he’d had the cool perfection of a Greek statue come to life. He finally noticed your looking, and within the month you were riding in his car, helping with his homework, and teaching him the Latin names for every part of him you loved: musculus deltoidei, rectum abdominus, frenulum preputii penis.
There were other girls: girls who took his hand at bonfires and allowed themselves to be led into the woods, and the ones he bedded on trips to see his cousin in the city. At least that’s what you imagined. For a long time, you didn’t really want to know. But then you did, and it was easy, insultingly easy, to catch him.
In his car, you shouted and cried, then ordered him to pull over and let you out. You went the rest of the way on foot, five or six miles along the shoulder of Route Seven and then a shortcut through the pastures to your house. You went straight to your room and didn’t tell your sisters or your parents a thing about it. Instead, you pretended to be sick the last two weeks of school and, when summer came, only made trips into town to buy CDs from Second Spin and take out books from the library.
The rest of the story is almost too painful to remember. Marcus going away to join the army and then coming back to live in his parents’ garage. The sound of his voice as he told you, between choking, child-like sobs, about the physical exam and why the army wouldn’t take him, the desperation in his voice as he begged you not to tell anyone. Then your test, the cheap molded plastic of the waiting room chairs, the ringing in your ears so loud when the nurse gave you the results that you weren’t sure if she was speaking or maybe just mouthing the words.
If you have to think about it at all, it’s best to think about the sex. How the two of you, convinced that no one would ever want you again, fucked until you were sore. And then fought or cried, and then fucked some more. You’re just starting to salvage a fantasy out of the wreckage of those memories, just beginning to consider going into the bedroom to get your vibrator, when the buzzer sounds—an ear-splitting, gut-clenching clang that sends you dashing for the door release button.
Take a look through the peephole and find something familiar about the delivery guy, some familiar essence untouched by the fish-eye effect of the lens— the way it flares his nostrils and stretches his ears to the antipodes.
“Maggie,” he says when you open the door, “don’t be mad, okay?”
It turns out not to be the delivery guy at all, but Zach, who, stepping inside, fills your apartment with the olfactory bouquet of a fresh-from-shift’s-end aquarium custodian: the amoniac tang of seabird guano anchored to a foundation of brine-ripened lichen, and fluttering between these—heart notes of Murphy’s Oil Soap, that not-unpleasant savor of freshly-polished horse tack.
“I guess I should have called first,” he says now, “but I wanted to see you. And look, I brought you something.” He unzips his coveralls and produces a lady’s evening bag, a knock-off Fendi sort of number, its surface bristling with blue fur.
It is clearly a bag for a crazy person.
Is that how he sees you? Crazy Maggie? Maggie, the crazy bag lady? You’re about to be offended, but then he turns the thing over and you can see that it’s not a bag, but a stuffed animal: a bird with a white belly and puffy pink feet.
“It was like fate or something,” he says, standing the plush creature upright on the coffee table, “seeing you again.”
He’d been thinking of that night the two of you snuck out of the red-brick dorms (yours filled with neurotics, his a melting pot of borderlines, skin pickers, and the acutely impulsive).
Together, you’d stolen away to the shelter of an oak grove on the hospital grounds where you’d talked for hours and made out like teenagers. On the walk back, you’d worked together to wrench a plastic owl from its perch on a garden shed and, smuggling it into the group room, placed the decoy on a high mantle shelf. The next morning, during the mixed therapy session, you’d stifled giggles and shared secret looks, waiting for someone to notice.
And then tonight, alone in the aquarium, he’d been spraying out a chum bucket, emptying the contents into a grate in some non-public area, when the realization struck him like the bump and bite of a shark attack. He could feel it now, what must have been there all along, this cosmic connection between the two of you, a gene-deep imperative like the one that drives those little birds to make their nests together and pair up for life.
He’d dropped hose and bucket then, and instead of locking up the gift shop, absconded with a stuffed penguin from the window display. Taking a leap of faith that you actually lived at the address you’d given him on your last day at the hospital—the one to which he’d sent letters and postcards and hand-crafted mail art, all without reply—he’d fired up his Honda Civic and driven across town to your door.
Tell him he needs to slow down; he’s talking so fast. Notice your own breath quickening and think how strange it is, this susceptibility you have to other people’s moods. Know that whatever happens, you must not give yourself over to his unhinged energy.
Show signs of improvement. Tell him thank you for the stuffed animal and for listening at the aquarium—that helped a lot—but you’re hungry now, and tired, and, to be honest, his showing up like this in the middle of the night is kind of scary. He’s scaring you.
Ask if he remembers all that talk at McLean about setting appropriate boundaries. Say: “You can’t just show up at my house. I mean it.”
Think you may have said the words out loud: “Boundary set.” Wonder if that’s how it’s supposed to work, like casting a spell. Or is it a performative utterance, like when a judge says “guilty” or “not guilty”? Either way, at this moment, it doesn’t feel like enough.
He looks hurt and bewildered, but he’s going. On the front stoop, he asks if he can call you tomorrow, or maybe in a couple of days?
Say “maybe,” and shut the door. Set all the locks and watch from behind the blinds as the twin beams of his headlights sweep across your door and into the street.
After he has gone, and the Chow N’ Joy delivery guy has gone, and the world outside has been shut away behind the deadbolt and the door guard, you’re finally free to unfold the take-out containers’ white cardboard petals and consume your promised double portion of Hon Sue Gai with rooster sauce.
Brush your teeth and get ready for bed. Take one five milligram tablet of olanzapine, two forty milligram capsules of fluoxetine, and of course the ATRIPLA®, it’s film-coated surface dyspeptic pink and stamped with the numerals 1-2-3. The clean-smelling immunologist had called it a “drug cocktail,” a phrase that promised way more fun than swallowing a full gram horse pill every night.
Think of that Greek word for medicine, pharmakon, with its double meaning of “tonic” and “poison.” Or are you mixing it up with pharmakoi, one or the other a term for those deformed people kept like pets in Hellenic city-states. Well, at least until a plague or some other crisis came along, at which point the townsfolk would march the pharmakoi (pharmakeus? well, whichever) to the edge of the city, and then beat them on the genitals with fig branches until the poor, cast-out things expired. Turn out the bathroom light, resolving to go online in the morning and sort out the mix-up.
Sleep through most of Friday and then, in the afternoon, finish falsifying the week’s unemployment forms. In the Work Search Activity Log, indicate that you have, as mandated by the Massachusetts Department of Labor, engaged in multiple work search activities, on multiple separate days, using no less than three different job search methods: Monday, answered a Craigslist posting for a job as a taxidermist’s model. Wednesday, attended “Running with the Big Dogs” long haul truckers networking event at Natick Service Plaza Eastbound. Thursday, offered up holy hecatombs to the never-dying gods and prayed aloud for a position as an adhesives company sales representative.
The little penguin (Roxy, it says on her tag) still sits on your coffee table, accusing you with her shiny, black-button eyes. Unlock your phone and find the Wikipedia entry for fairy penguins. The page is full of useful information, some of which must be true. The birds are nocturnal, it says, and have a wide range of calls. Though not endangered exactly, they have a surfeit of natural enemies: sharks, seals, gulls, weasels, feral cats, oil spills, bottle packaging. Imagine the game of Clue, Fairy Penguin Edition: Roxy the penguin, strangled in the bathtub by the weasel with the ring from a Coors twelve pack.
List your natural enemies: insomnia, self-doubt, phone calls from your mother, your immune system, boys with cruel eyes. Click through to the marine conservation chart and decide that you are a G3: globally vulnerable and at high risk of extinction in the wild. Feel strangely comforted; you are no longer alone, but part of a tribe, your fate linked to that of the Mississippi pigtoe, the old prairie crawfish, the frecklebelly madtom.
Realize that you’ve been stalling, putting off leaving the apartment to meet Zach across town. Wonder why you agreed to the date in the first place. Though, on reflection, it’s not hard to understand. It’s nice to be wanted, even by the unbalanced, and whatever his issues might be, he already knows about your status and the trouble you have just being in the world, and he’s never been weird about it. He’s been great, in fact. Besides, you tell yourself, it’s just a drink, a casual meeting in a public place. Nothing to get worked up about.
Unless, of course, this ardor for you turns out to be more than free-floating libido looking for a place to land, more than the passing mania of a boy who isn’t taking his meds. It’s unsettling to imagine that there might be something inside you that you don’t know about and can’t see, some thing that has set off these feelings inside him.
Arrive late and find Zach already seated at the bar. Take a moment to enjoy being unobserved, the one who gets to look. He is wearing a car coat from the seventies, saddle-brown leather with too-short sleeves that ride up to reveal wrists ringed with freckles. Jeans cling to his runner’s calves, tapering to bony ankles and frayed canvas sneakers. He is talking to a pretty twenty-something, a girl with green hair, tattoos, and surgical steel punched through her ears’ lobes, each fleshless tunnel defining a void the size of a newborn’s fist. Become aware of an immediate hatred for her.
Direct your attention to the long mirror behind the shelf of liquor bottles. Your face is still youthful—or, at least, not yet old—your skin tanned to a pale fawn from days given over to aimless strolls around the city. Your eyes, though, they seem duller and deeper-set than you remember, the skin below them blue-blotched and creased. One of your lids, the left one, seems to be drooping. A pretty face given all that, but expressionless, like a late-night cashier at a grocery store. Wonder when it was exactly that you started looking so hapless, so tired.
Zach glances over his shoulder, then vaults off his stool. He calls your name and hugs you for much longer than is proper. It’s awkward at first, being held like this by a boy you hardly know. His arms are stronger than you remember, and after three seconds the first tingle of panic shimmers down your spine. It’s like one of those UFC matches that Marcus used to watch, the kind that end on the ground in a tangle of limbs, one of the fighters writhing in the grip of some colorfully named submission hold—the Inappropriate Anaconda, the Uneasy Ascot, the Flying Double First Date. A moment later, the feeling changes again, to something like relief, the taut cords of muscles finally warming and untwining. But then it’s all just too much, and you have to break away.
He has a fresh bruise on his cheek, just below his left eye. Remember two years ago, braced against an oak tree, touching that face in the light of a quarter moon. Experience a fresh surge of tenderness.
“It’s nothing,” he says, “I caught an elbow at a hardcore show.” Be certain that he is lying.
Follow him to the dark-stained bench and squeeze in behind a table. As the waitress takes your order, trace your fingers over the pair of initials scored into the wood, the rough-hewn heart enclosing them.
Take sips from your stout and catch him up on the last two years. Your health has been good, and it looks like it might stay that way, at least for as long as you can keep paying for the drugs. The anxiety, too, has been mostly under control, despite a week last summer when it was just too frightening to leave the house, to take a shower, or to answer your phone. You lost your job at the deli after that, and then your favorite cousin—the one you told him about at McLean—well, he went alone into the woods one morning and shot himself. Mostly, though, you’ve been doing much better. You’ve started drawing again—sketching, really, but then he already knew that.
Take this opportunity to affirm that, despite evidence to the contrary, you are not prone to public weeping these days, nothing like before. He takes everything in, seemingly without judgment, his eyes never leaving your face. It’s both validating and off-putting, this unremitting attention.
He doesn’t ask any questions, but instead, apropos of nothing, informs you that the jukebox is broken, that it’s been stuck on free play for weeks. Is there anything you want to hear? Leave the table and stand, hip to hip, in front of the old machine. Press its fat beige buttons and flip through the racks of postpunk standards. With his arm around your waist, lean forward and punch in your selections: “Pictures of You,” “How Soon is Now,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the maudlin anthems of your youth.
Have another beer, then switch to bourbon. Crack up at one of Zach’s stories, something about dropping acid and a fountain in Las Vegas. When the lights come down, notice that the barroom, a single corridor, has filled up with people.
Lean your head on his shoulder and stare into the mirror above the bar. It is the wall of an aquarium, its shadow-smudged surface a portal into a place filled with unfathomable creatures. Watch them as they glide through a world in which you cannot breathe.
Finish your whiskey and instigate a pointless, one-sided argument. Say: “So, Roxy, what was that supposed to mean, anyway?”
“Roxy, the penguin with personality.”
Inform him that you’re nothing like that, and never will be—some flightless bird that he can spring from its cage, a mate-for-life that he can carry off to some grimy one-bedroom burrow.
He’s making that face again. The wounded incomprehension of the wrongly accused. Guess that he is the kind of man ultimately incapable of seeing himself as anything but innocent, the sort of person who believes that, in the end, good intentions are all that really matter. Or maybe that’s just how his face looks.
Kiss him before he says something stupid.
It’s not as good as the first time, lacks the thrill of stealing away from your captors to meet in secret, the tartness of transgression. You can also discern an unpleasant eagerness in the movements of his tongue, its anguished probing. Why does he need so badly for you to feel him? Is it to prove that he exists? He should know by now that people can’t do that for each other. At least not for long.
Outside, conceal yourself in a shadowed spot in the bar’s backlot and share the joint Zach produces from his jacket. It takes only two puffs to discover that this weed—a variety of locally-sourced, hybridized and hydroponic kush—is a different vegetal entirely from the parched schwag of your dorm-room days. Try to wave off the offer of a third hit and find that there’s been some kind of breach between volition and action, as if signals from your brain must now traverse a great gulf before reaching your limbs. When your arm does begin to move, the gesture has a flipbook quality, a consecutive layering of discrete frames, each overtaking the one before it, contributing its tiny variation to the global illusion of motion and time.
Become aware of a mouth moving over your neck, your ear, a tongue finding its way to your lips, pressing them open. Do your best to kiss the mouth back, even though it feels like a muscular worm in your mouth. Cold hands press up against your hips, move upwards to the wire of your bra. In a spasm of modesty, look over Zach’s shoulder into the lot, scanning for any movement amongst the parked cars.
When he drops to his knees and moves his mouth against your bare belly, a mix of kisses and murmurs—“love you,” “so hot,” “make you feel good”—determine that things are moving much too fast. Kissing is one thing, but the weed is making you nauseous, and under no circumstances are you having sex with this boy in a parking lot.
Shake your head from side to side. Say “Mm-mm,” the closest thing to “no” you’re capable of articulating with this much THC in your system. Grope in the dark for his face. As he undoes the top button of your jeans, get hold of his chin and draw him up.
Off his knees, he rises into a crouch and lifts your shirt. Kissing his way up your front, he slips his hands up and under your bra. You’re able to make a wider variety of noises now—the groan of a sleeper who doesn’t want to wake, the whimper of a kicked dog, the snarl of a wolf caught in a trap. But words still won’t come, and your muffled protests have no effect. How is it that he can’t or won’t understand?
His hands and mouth, they’re so relentless; it’s like fending off a predator. Wish you were an octopus, capable of releasing a cloud of ink. With a jet of water, you’d launch yourself away from danger, tentacles trailing behind you, your three hearts pumping hard in the boneless chamber of your chest. Or maybe a starfish, able to shed its limbs. If only you could detach your right arm and flee, leave it behind as a horrifying distraction. Remember reading somewhere that the abandoned arm can go on growing, eventually transforming into a new creature altogether. How cruel it would be, and sad, giving up this other you, this limb daughter, to fend for herself.
A car door slams, and then another. A few feet away, an engine is turning over. Headlights strike the side of the building, the beam’s reflection illuminating your hiding place like a flash of lightning. Zach takes your hand and leads you onto the sidewalk.
Walk together for a few blocks without saying anything. When he asks if you’re okay, yank your hand away and run into the street. Find, miraculously, that your legs are working again, well enough at least that you can stumble between the cars waiting at the signal light and make it down the stairs that lead into the subway station. You can hear him calling your name from the platform, his voice echoing through the station as you step through the closing doors of a Red Line train.
Wish tonight that you could be anything but human. How was it that you were born to this, to be caught up in all this needless complexity, to be both possessor and object of so many desperate desires? How much better it would be to live at the bottom of the ocean.
Make up your mind that, in fact, the thing you’d like most to be is an anglerfish, a she-devil of the sea. She lacks the defenses of Octopoda and Asteroidea, but then again, she doesn’t need them. She is not prey, but a carnivore, cruising the ocean floor and unhinging her jaw to swallow creatures twice her size. Her mouth, a cavern crowded with bands of inward-pointing fangs, prevents any escape from the smooth-walled cell of her stomach.
Evolution’s darling, she doesn’t waste time looking for a mate. The males of the species are stunted and parasitic and so tiny that she carries whole colonies fused to her flanks and fins. She is led on always by her body’s own light, a blazing phosphorescence, both lantern and lure, beaming a path through the deep-water dark.
Decide that you could live in the world like that; you really could.