Right now Maria is leading the young’uns from her dance class onto the stage and I’m sitting at the back of the auditorium. They’re wearing lilac bloomers with matching sequin-covered shirts tucked in and I can’t help but think that their parents must’ve had to pay a lot for such costumes. The air smells like strawberries and cream yogurt or Dip ‘n Dots and I really would love to complain to whoever keeps spraying that perfume. I don’t say anything, though, because I’m here for a reason and I don’t want to make a fuss.
Maria makes sure that all the girls are lined up right. They’re standing in a triangular shape reminiscent of Egyptian pyramids. I can hear someone tuning a guitar in the wings, preparing for the moment when Maria is gone, music starts, and movement commences.
She doesn’t look at the audience once while she lines the kids up. It takes maybe a minute and twenty seconds for all of this to go down but I’m thinking so hard so it all goes slower. I think maybe if I shout out or cry like an infant she’ll look up, realizing there’s something new she can protect. But I miss her—in my concentrated haze I lose track of her whereabouts, her navigating the kiddos. I peek up at where she had stood and I hear the guitar finger-picking and the kids are beginning to move.
I toy with my fake fur vest and the plastic threads are clinging to each other from the rain outside. It’s ten in the morning and I usually don’t spend time in the presence of others until at least noon so I’m sipping a bloody Mary out of an old soup thermos and before I know it I’m dozing off, my feet sliding on the concrete floor just a bit as I scoot my back down. My chin is to my chest and no, it’s not comfy, but in my dreams, it’s Maria and that makes all the difference.
We took the runt kitten because the farmer who had all the barn cats thought it would die, and then we christened it Little Cat and went into the woods. We built a box out of old wood from her old doll house and we sang old songs and church hymns and it was holy, holy, holy.
“What if we built a spaceship and moved to Mars with our kitty?” I giggled. And we built the prettiest house for our kitten and we drew little horseshoe crabs on the sides of the boxes with mud and we kissed the mud so it would last forever and when we were tired we sat on the big leather couch in my house under the spinning fan spinning faster, faster. My love was a young critter clawing at my insides saying let me out, let me out.
Maria and I hung out on weeknights outside the community college funded by a romance novelist who decided they’d start educating the southern masses. The beach was just down the road and sometimes we’d go night swimming and have conversations under the water, salt-water wiggling in our mouths and around our teeth.
That night was different, though. She said, “There’s only two ways to live, baby.” Her drawl was long and her breath was dough rising, sweet beer on tongue.
“How’s that,” I asked. I looked her square in her green eyes. They were simultaneously wary and full of knowing.
“Well, you live the honest way or you don’t. If you want to love you’ve gotta be honest.”
That relatively deep moment was interrupted by a drop-out of the name Johnny, who until then I had never talked to but had often seen at the hardware store.
He rolled down his car window and hollered as he pulled over on the side of the road, as if in anticipation of a kinship. “Aren’t you freezing?”
Maria and I looked at each other. I shrugged and turned my face to look at him. He had skin like sandpaper and wore a baseball hat crooked on his head. I galloped to him.
“What’s your name?” I asked, before responding to his question. “But yes, yes I am quite cold.” I was wearing a huge cut-out sweatshirt from middle school that said APA in block letters. It almost went all the way down to my knees. I crossed my arms across my chest and felt the worn, over-washed fleece interior rub against me like a beat kitten.
He had brown eyes. Shit, I thought. Brown eyes weren’t good, not good at all.
“Johnny, or that’s what everyone calls me.” When he spoke, smoke expelled from his mouth and his breath smelled of corpses or piss. Not that I know what corpses smell like.
Unpleasant, though. Definitely unpleasant.
By this point, Maria had departed after bestowing a knowing wink upon me. I didn’t know why, I thought he really only wanted to make sure we were warm enough. Maria told me a story later, though:
Johnny was the kind of guy that went around to one of the big cul-de-sacs in town where the wealthy folk lived called Dee Price Fitz and changed all its street signs to “D-sized Tits.” Then he would toss stolen bras on the candelabras and wrought-iron garden sculptures lining the front walks.
Legend has it, though, that once when Johnny wanted somebody to love, he took a stroll to the Yatsen family’s house and used the softest stolen bra as a sling-shot to fling Hannah Yatsen’s favorite Koi fish at her bedroom window. He was trying to get some action and was good at playing the naïve and sympathetic. He had the system planned out.
It was too quiet of a thud, though, so she didn’t notice. As a “plan-B” he threw his Bic lighter at her window, which made a more noticeable noise. She opened her window, saw the dead fish lying on the roof’s shingles and let out a frightened sob. She was fifteen, still half-asleep and didn’t know much about creeps so she asked Johnny how the fish got up there.
“Couldn’t tell ya,” he said, “but if you hop on down I’ll take you to the pet store and get you two new ones.”
She shimmied down the roof in the slip she wore under her Sunday’s best and Johnny snuck a peek. When she hopped down, he patted her rear and said Atta girl before feeling her up on the back lawn. They never made it to the pet store. She liked it too much.
Johnny and I had started to play show-and-tell on the hood of his car. “This,” he said, “is weed.”
“Don’t you think I know what weed looks like?” I said, which wasn’t honest but I’d found that appearing knowledgeable was attractive.
He picked up my hand and sort of massaged it before spitting his chewing gum into my palm. It was endearing, though, because he did something for me and I had to show him I wasn’t a pussy.
“Spitting gum on me? That’s all you’ve got?” I laughed before throwing it into the air.
“That’s kind of hot,” he said. He was the first guy to ever call me hot, too, so I knew! This was the beginning of a wonderful thing! He looked at me again in this come on, baby way before holding a joint in front of my lips.
“Why would you give me a present if you just met me?” I asked, making sure he wasn’t being what Maria called a D-bag. She said a guy’s a D-bag if he gets you high and then tries to get you laid.
He snickered and brushed a mosquito off his cheek. “It’s usually how I greet pretty ladies.”
Thankfully, we ended up sharing it—I think that’s what he wanted anyway. What a night, really—so we found this TV in a field somewhere and rigged it in the far, far back of his station wagon. It was the kind of car where you could fold up seats in the trunk so you’d face backwards. That’s where we put the TV. He didn’t once try to kiss me.
Another night, this time a Wednesday and New Year’s Eve, the moon was five-hundred fists big and really close to the horizon. “You ever had a bloody Mary?” Maria looked at me and suffocated temporarily on a giggle. “If you were a drink, that’d be you.” She waved a wand of celery at me. We were outside the community college again, this time eating Sonic burgers. It was almost midnight.
So then, an old car honked from down the road. “Shit, Johnny!” I groaned as I began to run across the road, swaying my hips like an old Flamenco dancer. Maria’s disappointed sigh was audible as I leaned backwards and blew a kiss at her before saying “Love you right in another year!”
Once I got in Johnny’s car, we didn’t drive anywhere. “You’re certainly a nice lady,” he said. He passed me a joint.
“So what do you have in mind today?” I asked. My stomach hurt pretty badly and when I breathed heavily I could taste undigested beef.
He didn’t reply. He unbuttoned my jeans and kissed me down below before he took off his clothes and I took off mine.
“Wait,” I said, “Can you tell me something?” I set my shirt across my lap and looked at him.
“Come on, babe,” he went. “What?”
“I’m not using you, alright? In fact...I was going to wait, but here—” he reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a plastic egg: the kind at the front of grocery stores where cheap metal or plastic rings reside. Something someone might propose marriage with.
“Let me love you. That’s what you want, right?”
It was my first time and I tried to pretend like I had before but the blood was a dead giveaway.
My shoulders quivered against his chest.
The day Fargo was released to home video I let Johnny punch out my front tooth with a rolling pin. It started at the Waffle House in New Bern. Maria had just gotten a job there and she tied her uniform shirt up high so you could see her pierced belly-button. I picked out the ring for her because it looked like a lizard was crawling through her.
I remember seeing her behind the counter that night in old Levi’s jean shorts when we walked in. She saw me and winced before quickly pulling her mud-colored, straight hair up. I remembered an earlier conversation.
“You can’t let him use you,” she said, “Just be sure.”
I said he wasn’t using me. He really wasn’t. That was the first time Maria disagreed with me.
Johnny grabbed me by the arm just as I had begun to wave at Maria and he pleaded with me to stop caring about her. His mouth was right near my ear and his breath was warm. “She’s just jealous,” he said, “because you don’t love her. Don’t you see that look she’s giving you?”
He moved behind me a bit and held my waist firmly. Many attempts at stalling were made by me as I glanced back at her standing there. There was a definite look she was giving me. What could it have meant?
“Thanks for this,” he said.
My eyes met Johnny’s and I cringed, fearful of their brownness. I asked him once to never make eye contact with me because I could never tell what a brown-eyed person was thinking, or what they want and might expect. Still, he looked, and I shuddered before hastily smooching his cheek. The bathroom of the Waffle House was a carnival of removed pants and watery eyes like sunflower petals dripping down a cherub’s face. He clenched onto my hair, syrup still running down the sides of his palms from hand-feeding me earlier.
I winced, feeling the stuff join with my hair. “I suppose we’re sugar-coated tonight,” I whispered, caught on a disgusted laugh. Then he pulled me to the ground and started fingering me. I wasn’t feeling it so he asked what else he could do.
He said this: “Let me take out your teeth.”
I kissed his neck and he ran his tongue down my nose. He ran out of the bathroom and said something to Maria. I heard the shitty kitchen door shut and open and slam and he was running to me again, eyes ablaze, rolling-pin in hand.
“This should do the trick!” he exclaimed in a sloppy smile. There wasn’t fear in my mind because he mumbled, “I love you, I love you” as a bit of drool trickled down his chin. I doubted he would even be able to hit my mouth with the pin so I opened my mouth real wide and let out the sound little kids do at the dentist’s. These things were all games!
Then I felt surprise: a release of bone, the jagged edges of where my teeth nested in my gums now poking at the inside of my mouth.
When I was little I loved the taste of blood in my mouth. I started swaying violently in the memory and let a warm hum escape me. He carried me out of the Waffle House and threw my tooth at Maria on our way out.
Then we got in his car and I had forgotten that once when we were smoking we rigged up an old TV in the backseat and put in an electrical cord and we heard George of the Jungle in the background and I already had my tape of Pachelbel’s Cannon playing and it was the sweetest mix of sin cradling us.
We drove to Pine Knoll Shores and parked a few blocks away from the aquarium —the only one I could ever handle, I swear. So he took the same rolling pin and broke out a small window in the back because he helps his ma out there sometimes and we know that window’s weak. But in the parked car on the side road I looked in the passenger window and it swirled all come on, come on. I looked at Johnny and cackled.
Johnny was always maneuvering his body so that it was forcing something out of me or forging closeness between us. He held me in a way that drew us both to the floor as he started to play doctor. He pushed both of his hands on my body everywhere saying is there any pain here, is there any pain here?
When his hands got to my belly and applied pressure I felt vomit churn out of my mouth and seep around his palms.
“Damn it!” He was really angry.
I didn’t mind though. Johnny was moody at best and kind at worst. I know it sounds weird to say his kindness was a bad thing, but he felt mechanical in his most sincere state.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, feeling chunks of waffle warm against my chin and neck.
Back when I’d been at the aquarium with Maria, we lay on our backs on the ground. Some of the crabs were asleep but the biggest ones, the parents, she said, we could hear crawling in their watery display, protecting their young.
I had my portable CD player with me, the one I got back in high school with a check my Aunt Louise sent me for my 17th birthday. I had pirated the song called “Lucky” because it made Maria cry, and put it on a blank disc—it happened to be in the CD player that night. I hit the play button and turned the volume up as loud as I could.
“Did you know that horseshoe crabs have been around longer than dinosaurs?” I looked gleefully at her. “Can you believe it, Maria?”
She was standing above the display of them. It was still cover-less. “I want to touch them,” she said. The song was semi-audible and I remember wondering if the crabs could sense the new kind of noise.
I rose to meet her at the display. “I want to touch anything that might love me, I think,” was what I had meant to start out with, but my speech fumbled as I stood bow-legged, trying to catch her stillness and maintain it in my attempted confession. We ended up slow-dancing, though. Her eyes were closed and lips pained as she mouthed the words to the song.
Maria was standing with me in the gas station. I was buying a pack of Sweet Mint gum and she was getting a fancy bottled water. (“You can splurge on water because it’s pure,” she liked to say.)
“I swear, I refuse to meet him again.” She wasn’t a fan of Johnny.
I sighed and went to the cash register. The man behind the counter was Indian, somewhat of a young guy. I paid with singles and only got coins in change. More for wishing, I said.
But upon seeing the shade of his eyes, I covered my own with my hands. “Miss, are you okay?” he asked. I pretended to wipe some strands of hair out of my eyes, which only got hair in them. Suddenly I was aware of the brownish paint on the walls, of Maria’s brown leather Rainbow flip-flops...I blinked. Vulnerable.
“Maria, I just don’t understand. I’d do anything for you. Why won’t you meet him?”
I ran out before she answered. From across the street, a few stray cats walked by. At the front door of the stop, there were advertisements for the lottery, in addition to a rack of brochures. Most were about touring the Tryon Palace or visiting the Pepsi place downtown, but some said things like this:
Battle phobias at our at-sea adventure, this spring!
Still-born children are the devil-spawn...
Leave your partner now to prevent upsetting our God Almighty!
Nursing Homes in New Bern: Let us take care of you.
I was also delirious because of the brown eyes so I’m not sure if they really said things like this. The last one was definitely true, though.
“They’re just advertisements,” said Maria. Her hand was on my shoulder. She backed off.
I was crying. “Just let me love. Just let me love.”
The morning after Johnny made me throw up, I threw up again. I was staying with him in his trailer home for the weekend. He was calling my stay our honeymoon. I think he just felt bad about hurting me, though, so this was his way of making things right. What a romantic!
I brought an old paper Harris Teeter grocery bag and filled it with my essentials: an old shirt that was Maria’s uncle’s, along with a water bottle, a toothbrush, and a book I got when I was really little called “Babies.” There were pictures of lambs and kittens and stuff with 3D things like fur and mirrors. I looked at it every night and I was going to show it to Johnny because you’re supposed to share things you love with people you love.
“Babies” was on the bathroom counter-top and I was brushing my teeth with his toothpaste, something people in love also do. All of a sudden, I keeled over the toilet bowl, squatting low to the ground, and vomited. The toothbrush collapsed among the shag carpet. I hadn’t eaten much at all since for dinner we had zebra cakes and red wine from the gas station, so it was swirling red in the toilet.
Johnny made his move. “Everything okay in there?” he asked, turning the doorknob. I poked my head through the door, made an excuse about how there were knots in my hair I had to brush out, and shut the door in his face before locking it. I wasn’t okay, though. “It sure sounded like vomit,” he said. He sounded angry. I shut the door with all of my force.
Panting on the floor, head propped against the toilet seat, I didn’t think him pushing on my belly would make me sick the next day, and we weren’t that drunk. All of a sudden I look and see the front cover of “Babies”. The little critters are snuggling together. I got out of his house through the bathroom window, in fear of embarrassing myself. He didn’t notice me leave.
“You said you needed me, but you seem fine. What gives?” Maria left her yoga class early to meet me outside Trent River Coffee. I was eating a cinnamon twist. My shirt was covered in crumbs. I felt awful.
“I’m sick,” I said. “My stomach is killing me.”
“And you’re eating?” she asked, unfazed.
“Yep. When you’re hungry, you strike, or that’s what Johnny says.” Maria reached out and picked some pieces of the cinnamon twist off my sweater.
“When do you think it’ll end, anyway?” Maria looked around Craven Street.
“Hopefully never,” I said. “You don’t think...” I grabbed my belly and chuckled, sending bits of cinnamon sugar flying about my face and into the spring air.
“A baby?” Maria reached out for my arms and held me in place. “Is there something you didn’t tell me? Did he sleep with you?”
Her face was bright red. She only was like this when she was disappointed, which rarely happened. The only time I’d seen her this red was when her mom re-married, and a 19-year-old guy at that. I heard the remnants of a swear word under her breath. Shit came out like a hiss, a pained and remorseful realization.
“He said he loves me.”
She grinned, despite her sadness. “Of course he does.”
“Don’t be sad,” I said. “We can be its mothers. I’d let you, if you want.”
Maria sighed. We walked to the general store in silence. She got me a pregnancy test. What a trooper!
We drove to the coffee shop again. Maria called in sick to the Waffle House because she said she had to protect someone she loved from something bad. I never figured out if the baby or Johnny was the bad thing.
“So I just pee on this?” I asked. She nodded. She hadn’t spoken since I suggested we could be mothers together.
The test was white and plastic, like a Magic 8 Ball that was born with a deformation. Albino or something. The test was a fairy wand.
Yes, deﬁnitely. Better not tell you now. Outlook not so good.
I waited a bit with my eyes closed. I handed the little white fortune teller to Maria, reaching out to where she sat. I accidentally poked her cheek with the metal tip. “Shit, man! That’s my face!” She giggled.
I opened my eyes. There was a plus sign!!
Maria started out saying “God help us, we are on our knees before thee.” We made a little church in the bathroom.
“Maria, will you be a mother with me?” I was rolling on the ground like a sea critter.
She said she didn’t know if she could do that, but she could tell me a story: A horseshoe crab was lonely and went to shore and turned into a baby. Two girls found it and they raised it and lived in love. One of the girls had to leave. There was a storm coming. They danced until the sea took them in, and at the depths, when all ended, there were thousands of horseshoe crabs humming beneath them.
“Johnny!! Open up!” I rattled on the front door of his trailer.
“Where the hell were you? You ain’t quittin’ out, are you?”
I pranced past him and into the house, brandishing the pregnancy test and twirling around like a noble lady at a ball.
“We’re having a baby, we made a baby, something really loves me...”
He ran up to me, held me softly for a moment, tenderly, picked me up.
It ended with a punch in the gut, my knees to the floor like a devout man prays.
Then I felt hollow. I imagined my baby’s unformed teeth breaking out of its unformed skull.
“Jesus, Johnny!” I cried.
“I don’t want to be inside you anymore. Get out."
I crawled across the front of his trailer slowly until he kicked me in the back, my belly thumping against the staircase, my chin in the soil. A door slammed behind me.
My belly was already bruising, the baby would be dead because it was so early on. I couldn’t even hope for the kid to make it. And over and over in my head I heard myself saying I had a baby, once. I had a baby inside me and it loved me.
So I got in the car and I started to cry and I rolled down the windows and hollered all the way, hugging the steering wheel because I just wanted to be close to something.
I drove to the nearest Sonic to get a huge bottle of water but mainly to get an answer out of someone. When the waiter skated out to me I made the request: “Define love, please.”
He gave me a funny look before finally answering. “I don’t know if there’s much of it,” he said. His speech was remarkably slow, which was good, but the answer wasn’t what I wanted.
“If there was, though, what would you say?” I felt a little more blood ready to come out and coughed it into my hand.
He never answered me.
A few days later I pulled in to Maria’s driveway. Her house was small enough to be considered a speck on North Carolinian soil and I was sure her parents would’ve said it was a disgrace. I’d hold her grace to my grave though and she knew that.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
Holding the air inside me, I tried to say “I love you.” It came out like “I need you,” though, and she knew I needed her and she needed me because we’re friends and friends need each other.
I took that miscommunication as fate because if that’s what my voice made me say, that’s how it should’ve been. She passed me a tangerine and some green tea.
“The baby’s gone,” I moaned. “I want a baby that’s mine."
“How’d it happen?” she asked, but I think she knew.
“Johnny hit me so hard.” With that I felt my heart collapse like crushed horseshoe crabs and I squished the tangerine on to the counter and watched it ooze into flatness.“Suppose I’ll have to go to the doctor pretty soon."
She just looked at me and that’s all I needed.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly and I bet I was the only creature on earth or beyond who heard it. She stood up and we went to her bedroom. She was wearing a delightfully ratty shirt with an old woman winking on the front.
In the room I touched the walls. Seashells covered the surfaces and I remembered when we hid papers in the shells only to forget about them and pull them out years later, found secrets.
She sat on the bed.
My tongue loosened and I looked at her and her hair limp and loose and I loved her and I said it. “More than friends,” I continued. “I’ve loved you all along sweetly.” It was innocent, though, I’d never treated her with more love than friend-love.
That trust pulled me to her bed and I lay down next to her. She held me. She was quiet and I felt her breath whimpering until she took my hand and pulled me to the bathroom. The sink was industrial sized, the only fancy thing she owned. She said we’d have horseshoe crabs in there one day. She had me sit in the sink and she washed me. I dried in the sun of her backyard.
She held me in her eyes and in her arms around me, and in the grass we lay like sweet souls. I felt her chin on my shoulder and I turned around and there was warmth on my face leading me to her lips and she held my face like a lover would. The kiss was long and painfully divine.
“Why’d you do that?” I whispered.
“Maybe you would’ve wondered,” she shrugged, still in my awe.
Would you call it desperation? Johnny will come back and I know it, he’ll bring my toothbrush and my “Babies” and he’ll want to get high. Maria’s dancing at the dance recital now, it’s almost lunch, and I know Johnny’s outside waiting for me to leave. I think if I’ve ever really loved anything it better have been those horseshoe crabs because they can’t break my heart. So I sit in the back of the auditorium and watch her dance and dance and go on breaking me and I blow a kiss at the ceiling and say, “send it on to Maria, why don’t ya?” I’m still tired so I try to doze off again but I won’t let myself wake again for a while. I guess I’ll love whoever finds me first.