This piece was awarded the Reynolds Price Award for Fiction in2022.
We’re going to fall in love, Alex says as we wait for our lattes, and I can tell he really means it. He doesn’t hesitate or even ask me my opinion, so I know he’s serious. He makes all the important decisions on his own. Good for the ego, he says. His victory or his loss, no one to scapegoat and no one to steal the credit. I guess that’s why I trust him when he tells me, and why I get those shivers down my spine.
Anyway, I know I have to say something back but I’m not really sure what. It’s not like this is my first time dealing with something like this. Guys get sort of prophetic when I’m around. Matt was easy enough to handle because he was right, I did break his heart, and Jimmy down the street was right, too, when he said I’d be the death of him, God rest his soul. Even Mr. Cavanaugh, my high school biology teacher, told me I was trouble walking and that I’d make him lose his job, but that one was actually pretty fun to live up to because I got to march into the principal’s office, chin held high, and tell her the sorts of things that Mr. Cavanaugh wrote on my papers. Honestly, that one may not have been a prediction so much as a natural progression of cause to effect, the idiocy of leaving a paper trail. Still, it made me smile when the cops came in during fifth period and marched him out of the room, and the other girls started whispering and then cheering and it turned out I was becoming something of a hero, really. But this is different. I’m not really sure how to react.
I met Alex in the women’s room at my favorite bar, where they don’t look at your card too carefully since most of the other students aren’t willing to walk so far off campus. He was peeing in the sink like it was a urinal and I told him he must be drunk out of his mind. He said he absolutely was and put away his dick before reaching out his hand to shake mine. I told him to wash it first but afterwards I held true to my promise and shook his hand. Even though his hand was still a bit sudsy, he had a surprisingly sturdy grip. Firm, like a businessman or lawyer, ever the professional.
We danced a little after that, and it would be embarrassing if I was the type to get embarrassed, but I’m not, so instead it was just sort of pleasant. Somewhere between songs he said something like, I’m not usually the type to show a girl my dick on a first date, and I think I said something back like, I am, and he laughed and I smiled because it wasn’t really that funny of a joke but he was humoring me and it felt nice to be just sort of seen.
I think that’s why I took him home, but we didn’t do anything but eat pizza rolls and ask each other wildly inappropriate questions like do you think God is dead? and why don’t our mothers ever love us? We dozed off at something like four a.m. and became fast friends afterwards. In the morning he frowned at his disheveled clothing and said he’d have to do a walk of shame so I offered to be a gentleman and loan him some of mine but he said no, thank you, that fishnets weren’t really his style. I shrugged and said to each their own and that he should at least look the part, so I rumpled his hair a bit with my hands and smeared some of my spent lipstick onto the back of my hand and transferred it from there to his lips. He went still at that and took a moment to really recover himself, only breathing again when he’d gone red enough that the lipstick wasn’t making any difference. When he finally came to his senses he said I should add a hickey if I wanted to be really authentic. I told him that I wasn’t a biter and he said he didn’t believe me, but he went anyway. He didn’t even stay for coffee, though I offered, but he did take me up on my offer of aspirin and lukewarm beer to wash it down. He left me his number scrawled on a Post-It note with a cartoon dick drawn where he should have put his name. I thought it was funny at the time.
I didn’t even call him, I just sort of ran into him again at the library a few days later, and we kept sort of stumbling into one another’s paths. Turns out he’s studying Victorian love poems while I’m trying to have an original thought about Willy Shakespeare some four hundred years after his death just so I can get decent marks in the Intro Lit class that I should’ve taken as a freshman but instead wound up stuck in during junior year because my advisor said it was time to declare a major and that I had the most credits in English and Public Policy. God knows I don’t want to spend my life inside a courthouse or a consulting firm, so instead I’m resigning myself to my inevitable fate as an underpaid barista with a wacky dye job. I’ve always thought I could pull off aqua hair in a sexy mermaid sort of way.
Anyway we’ve been talking for a while now but I didn’t think it was anything serious until just now and he’s still watching me, waiting for a response while I wait for our coffee. His eyes are so round they look like cartoons, and I can tell he’s getting a bit impatient. His eyebrows say to me, well? and so I try to use my eyebrows to say I don’t know what to say but I’ve never really been good at using them to say anything other than come hither so I give up on that strategy after a moment or two and bite my lip instead.
“Well?” he says out loud now, his mouth finally catching up to his eyebrows, and I laugh out loud. That turns out not to be the right reaction because he gets this angry look now, like all his features are contracting towards the center of his face. He gets sensitive about things sometimes, especially in public, and while no one else is looking at us in this coffee shop I can tell he’s still embarrassed. I reach out a hand to smooth the furrow in his brow and he softens a bit at my touch, like a pat of butter left on the counter too long.
“Love,” I say out loud, testing the word out on my tongue, but he takes it for an affirmation, a term of endearment. I don’t want to correct him because that never usually goes well for people and frankly I’m not sure I can. Ten minutes ago I would’ve sworn I was frigid and unlovable but now it seems the future may disagree. It was that voice he used that did it, really, and though I don’t feel any closer to loving him now than I did before he said anything, I feel a whole lot more uncertain.
I don’t think he’s the type to be violent when he’s angry, especially in public, but that doesn’t really mean anything. My instincts for people are shit. I guess it isn’t helped by the fact that their instincts for me seem to be spot-fucking-on. I don’t like to think of myself as predictable because that sounds like a code word for boring, but time and time again it seems like these guys can read me before I even open my mouth. I don’t know what I did to bring any of it on, really, except for maybe look the part, all lips and tits and hips and bedroom eyes, and that’s just a matter of genetics, which I guess is another way the world made plans for me. But these men see me and they see danger, or pain, or sin, or salvation, all of which are just fancy ways of saying sex.
“Love,” he says again, echoing me, and I can’t help but think of the Greek myth of the nymph who loved the narcissist and played ventriloquist for his reflection until he withered and died. I wonder if maybe that’s us, now, if he’s the aching nymph and I’m about to turn into a daffodil, or maybe the opposite. Maybe he’s hearing my voice but seeing his own reflection, distorted, showing him the flattened version of what he wants to see. But there’s the lit student in me, always reading into things when I should be running away from them instead.
“How do you know?” I ask. I always ask. It’s a genuine question, but when it comes out of my lips I hear it turn coy. My body has a way of doing that, of taking the things I say and turning them into flirtations, overtures, seductions. I can’t wink, but you’d never guess it from hearing me talk.
“Well, I’m already halfway there,” he says, not bothering to blush, “and I’ll win you over soon. My dick wasn’t enough to scare you off, so I’m not sure what else could.”
“To be frank,” I say, “I didn’t really get a good look.”
I realize too late that he’s taken this as an invitation. He’s looking at me differently now, but in a way that isn’t unfamiliar. I’ve just never seen it in his eyes before, not really. I can see from the way his pupils dilate exactly how I appear to him right now. I’m a raw butterflied chicken, spatchcocked, splayed out flat. Headless, naked, pink, all breasts and thighs and cavity torn open, waiting to be rubbed, stuffed, grilled, torn apart, consumed.
I can see it now, how I’m ruining things again, and it’s killing me as he steps closer and puts his hands on my jaw, my scalp, pulling me closer. His mouth is already open and I can see his crooked teeth and I don’t think I’ve ever been less in love with someone but I know it’s coming, feel it like a twist in my gut or a flood in my lungs. When he kisses me he uses so much tongue, and I’m so disgusted I can’t quite pull away.
He does pull back, eventually, and his spit cools on my lips and dribbles down my chin a bit. Part of me thinks I should just fuck him now and leave and maybe that’ll be enough to count, that ten minutes of skin on skin, breath on breath, sweat on sweat could count as a certain sort of love, enough to set me free so I can get away for a while, strike out on my own.
His eyes have darkened, focused on the searing flush in my cheeks that he probably doesn’t know is from fighting back tears. “You don’t know,” he says, breathing heavily, “the things you do to me.”
He wipes his spit from my chin with his thumb, and as he sucks it off I step backwards.
I almost say, what the fuck have I done to you, but I don’t want to draw more attention in this quiet café. I almost say, you don’t know what you’re doing right now, but that isn’t quite true. I almost say, I’m scared, or I’m sad, because I’ve been trying so hard to convince myself of those two things that I’ve almost forgotten I’m not scared or sad, I’m fucking furious. I almost slap him across the face but that would require touching him and I can’t have him getting the wrong idea again, because it is the wrong idea. I didn’t do anything to him, just like I didn’t do anything to the others. I haven’t done a single goddamn thing, like I’m some passive fucking piece of poultry, and it’s killing me.
“Paloma,” the barista calls out loud enough to pierce the fog of my frustration, and I grab my latte. His is on the counter too—I paid for him, of course I paid for him—but I leave it there. I don’t bother putting a sleeve on the cup and the scalding coffee burns my skin through the thin paper, but I don’t say a word as I walk out the door, leaving him standing there, baffled in the low light of the evening. He doesn’t follow, and I don’t expect him to. Or I do, sort of, but then I remember just how shit my instincts are and so I guess he probably won’t. He’ll probably just linger there for a while, confused, before eventually heading home or maybe to the bar to pick up some other girl by peeing in front of her and hoping for the best.
I don’t have a plan. At this hour I’m not sure where to go. It’s that awkward time where it’s too late for dinner and too early for drinks so the entertainment district is basically a ghost town. The weather’s nice, I guess, and the river isn’t far. It feels good to move under my own power with no firm goal in sight, so I just keep walking.
This piece was awarded the Anne Flexner Award for Fiction in 2021.
The pit bull sniffed at the eyeless fish with a professional disinterest. The first fish had provoked great intrigue and investigation, and the second somewhat less so, but by the third, the whole scene had become routine. The fourth was granted only a perfunctory brush of snout to scale before the dog moved along to the next item of interest, a green coconut bobbing menacingly in the shallows. The divorcée who trailed the dog at a respectable distance, clutching an unclipped leash and a spool of forest green poop bags, chuckled a little to herself before glancing rapidly around and going silent. Hardly anyone was around to hear her, and she felt a bit silly laughing without an audience.
It was just past dawn, the murky edge of morning where the sun hadn’t quite made up its mind about whether or not to shine, and the tide was going out, slowly revealing sandbars in middle distance where seagulls and tourists would later stake competing claims. A few joggers had run past her as she’d knelt to unleash the dog, and they’d passed one enterprising family who had arrived early to stake out a good blanket space before the Saturday rush. There would be more, later, a flood of nameless strangers sharing the same air and urinating in the same sea. Red tide didn’t scare off the day trippers like it used to.
The two children had been very interested in the dog. The dog, in his usual manner, had not been very interested in the children but had instead endured their affection stoically, his head inclined to watch the waves lap at the coast. The divorcée half-heartedly apologized for his aloofness and the children half-heartedly accepted, but the parents had looked at her as though she had personally ruined their beach day with her standoffish dog. In truth she wasn’t sure she had needed to apologize. The dog hadn’t asked the children to come up and pet him, but he also hadn’t bitten them. As far as she was concerned, that was an achievement. But it was easier to concede to courtesy and then move along. She didn’t want any trouble.
The divorcée put plenty of distance between herself and the family, and the dog was, of course, unfazed. Remarkable creature, really, with no interest in children or even other dogs. She’d gotten him fresh after the divorce. She’d never lived alone, going straight from her parents’ house to Stephen’s, and at least with a dog she figured she’d have something to do. Taking him out for walks got her out of the house, kept her moving, but at home he was remarkably sedentary. He would curl up on the couch and he wouldn’t move, no matter how much she tried to play with him. She’d taken him to the vet a few times to make sure he wasn’t sick, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with him. He was just more interested in whatever was going on inside his head than outside of it. He made a decent roommate, though, and once she’d gotten used to his unnerving sense of ennui she started to take comfort in it.
Even now she marveled at his utter disinterest in the aquatic decay all around them. The fish carcasses were spread out at an eerily consistent distance along the wrack line, about ten feet apart, like they’d been placed there on purpose for some ritual, or a trap. They were small, silver things—mullets and little snooks—and the vultures and the pelicans had gotten to them sometime earlier by the looks of it. The algae had killed them, but the birds had taken their eyes. The divorcée got nervous just looking at them, like they were looking back. She didn’t like how they all seemed just the same—faceless, soulless, blank. Meat and scale and stench.
She’d always loved the water but hated the wildlife. Even aquariums gave her chills. She could still remember a class trip, some decades back, when she had seen a moray eel devour a crab. It kept opening and closing its mouth afterwards and looking right at her with its hollow eyes, extending its jaw as if in invitation.
The sky above the beach was just beginning to blue. She’d never been much of an early riser, but since she’d gotten the dog she’d made a habit of walking on this beach at this time every day she could manage it. She liked watching the color come back to the world. They had gotten some twenty fish past the family, far enough that they were nearly invisible, when the divorcée bent down to shake the sand out of her shoes, and as she rose again the dog began to bark. He was normally almost monastic in his muteness, rarely even growling at squirrels or grunting at the mailman. The last time she’d heard him truly and properly bark, the two of them had witnessed an armadillo struck by a careless passing semi. The animal had been flattened, slowly dying on the road, and the pit bull had stiffened, following the truck with his head and barking indignantly at the driver as though to say look at this, come back here and look at what you’ve done. The truck kept going, and once it was out of sight the dog had gone back to a sort of gentle keening before she had managed to tug him along. They didn’t walk past traffic anymore.
Startling at the sound, the divorcée jerked her head up to see what had riled the dog up so much. “Blue! Cut that out!”
At the sound of his name the dog fell silent, but he did not move from his post. He was some fifty feet up, standing over some early sunbather. From this distance she couldn’t see if the person was a man or a woman, not without her good glasses, and it didn’t much matter. They were bothering Blue, or Blue was bothering them, and one way or another she had to fix it or who knew what might happen. As the divorcée approached, Blue prostrated himself and began to whimper. After a few quick steps and some labored breathing, she finally understood why.
The sunbather was not a person at all but a corpse, bloated as the fish on the shore. She was still too far away to tell anything much about the body or its clothes, and she had no intention of getting any closer. She called out to Blue again, quieter this time but with more conviction. She looked around, trying to gauge if anyone else had seen, but it appeared they were alone—the dog, the fish, the corpse, the divorcée. Her eyes kept circling back to the corpse, though she moved no nearer.
Blue had come up to her in the meantime and nestled his face into her calf, just behind her knee. The shelter, when she had gone to sign the adoption papers, had referred to him as “unflappable,” but in this moment he seemed distinctly flapped. It occurred to her that she, too, might be a little flapped, and so she took a moment to back away and take a few calming breaths before clipping Blue to his leash and turning back the way she had come, tugging him along when he tried to linger.
Both dog and divorcée had made it back into their condo by the time the police sirens sounded. Blue didn’t look at her once on the walk back home, didn’t stray from the straightest path back to the condo, about half a mile up the beach then over a little wooden bridge then through the complex parking lot, sniffing impatiently as the divorcée fumbled in her pockets for her key card to enter into the complex. He’d been just as quiet as usual but he was carrying himself with a strict sort of posture, like he was waiting for something bad to happen. It was a stance she recognized well from her own body, the stiffness of spine, the wideness of eyes. She’d spent years on high alert.
He only relented inside the house when she offered him a spoonful of peanut butter, and even then he sniffed at it for a solid minute before taking his first tentative lick. Now he was starting to relax some, chomping on the spoon and relishing in the clattering noise it made against his teeth. Simple things seemed to please him sometimes, and she wondered if perhaps she could learn to be more like him. Disinterested mostly, but generally content.
Instead she went upstairs, slid on her good glasses, and peered out from between the blinds in her bedroom window as the police arrived, muscling through the midmorning rush of sunburned and soon-to-be-sunburned tourists and forming a barricade around the body with wooden stakes and yellow tape. It struck her as funny that they cordoned off the dead in the same way they would mark off a sea turtle nest, and she wasn’t sure if that reflected ill on the way that society treated the dead or the hatchling reptiles.
She’d bought the condo largely for this window. Since the building was on the only hill on this side of the island, she could see for miles in either direction, all sea and sand and possibility. Her marriage had left her claustrophobic and her divorce even more so, and she liked the way the sea and sky seemed to blur together at night, an endless and churning expanse of couldbemightbemaybes. Anything could happen at night, when the sun wasn’t watching and neither, it seemed, was anyone else. Unencumbered by the weight of daylight, she could imagine herself going out into the water and walking upon it, or venturing down deep below, or climbing up among the stars.
For now, though, it was a way to stay transfixed upon the scene below without having to endure the endless questioning of police or the growing swelter of the sea air. She wasn’t particularly fond of law enforcement for a number of reasons more complicated than she knew how to put into words, so she usually just said they were useless if anyone asked. It was close enough to the truth that she could say it with conviction, but far enough off that she never quite made herself completely understood.
Predictably, it only took a few minutes longer for the novelty of the scene to wear off for the majority of the beachgoers, and the water began to fill with boardshorts and bikinis. She could almost smell the coconut tanning lotion from here, covering the stink of rotting fish with a sickly, saccharine perfume. There was something about it all that simultaneously charmed and disgusted her, depending on whether she chose to see the swimmers as resilient or apathetic, whether they were swimming despite the corpse or indifferent to it as Blue was to the fish.
When she saw the local news team moving in with boom mics and cameras, the divorcée finally pulled herself away from her window and down the stairs, back to the main room where Blue was snoring lightly on the couch. She would have a better view from the television.
These days her key source of weekend entertainment was watching the local news on mute and making up stories about the newscasters. She’d only gotten basic cable at the condo so there really weren’t many options, and she liked to watch the anchors move. There was a sort of truth to their actions that their words could never quite meet. She’d never trusted people with even voices or anyone who wore a blazer, and she hadn’t yet met anyone who proved her wrong. People were always lying with their words, lying to friends, family, coworkers, even themselves. Their bodies always betrayed them.
A gesture here or there might tell her that Hector “Hurricane” Daniels, the weatherman with the Tom Selleck mustache, was pining after the lead anchor Jessica Maywood, and her eyes, the way she moved her arms in front of herself, might show she knew his feelings and did not reciprocate them. All the while, with the volume on, they’d be doing that classic awkward banter that hovered somewhere short of the minimum requirements for humor.
She’d been good at reading people like that her whole life, tuning out the noise and seeing the truth in their movements. The one time she’d gone against her instincts, she’d wound up married to Stephen, and if anything that made her a better study of character from afar. She’d learned to recognize his moods, the subtleties in his face and posture and hands that helped her predict the best course of action before it was too late, and once she’d learned them she started seeing them everywhere. The bagger at the grocery store, the mailman, the guy in accounting with the patchy mustache, they all were carrying that same sort of rage inside them, and she wondered how they didn’t all just burst. Or, rather, she wondered how they contained themselves until they got home. There was always a bursting, just not always one you could see.
Onscreen now, a paper towel commercial (absorbs twice as much as the leading brand!) wound down and the bright flash of the breaking news intro flooded the screen red. The divorcée turned on the volume in time to see live footage of the beach, the dead fish little more than specks in the distance. The phone was focused on a commotion, navy-polyester-uniformed officers pushing back boardshorted beachgoers to establish a perimeter. And then the operator manning the camera jolted forward, turned its gaze to the body. Only an outstretched arm was visible before the police pressed in, the report switched camera inputs, and Jessica Maywood began speaking in her clear professional voice about a local drowning still under investigation. The breeze was now strong enough to blow her hair back behind her in a wide ripple. She looked like she was underwater.
The divorcée gleaned little from the report at first—unidentified body, discovered that morning on the beach, police were still investigating—but soon enough the coroner’s truck had pulled up and men in green uniforms began loading the body onto a stretcher. The cameraman nearest the body had managed to evade the police for now and got a clear shot of the body’s face just before they zipped a black bag around it. Jessica Maywood said, too late, that this footage might be disturbing to some viewers, but the divorcée had already seen what she couldn’t earlier, or perhaps simply hadn’t wanted to. The face was greenish, bloated, missing a chunk of the nose, but she had no doubt that it belonged to her ex-husband Stephen.
She shut off the television a moment too late. Blue had already seen it and begun to whimper. He’d never met Stephen—not the living version, anyway—but he must have recognized the face from the beach. Even after the screen went dark Blue continued to whine, and after a moment he got himself up and trotted over to the nearest window, then set himself back down and resumed his banshee wail. The divorcée sighed and went to the kitchen for more peanut butter. If she couldn’t get Blue to calm himself soon the neighbors would come knocking, and undue attention was the last thing she needed today.
There had been a time, just after the divorce, when any attention, due or otherwise, would have lifted her spirits. It had taken her forever to build up the nerve to leave him and when she had it had gone quickly. He didn’t put up much fight—rare for him, and sort of frightening. She’d heard the stories about women who were shot months after leaving, women who were stalked and harassed for years, and it was so unlike him to just let go of her, but nothing had happened. It had been a year now, nearly to the day, and she hadn’t heard a word from him since that final day in court. See how you manage without me, he’d said, and she’d tried hard not to laugh at the time. He’d stopped scaring her, she thought, and instead just seemed like a petulant child tantruming when he didn’t get his way.
He had been right, though. Everyone she’d used to know had changed after the divorce, or maybe she had. Either way, she no longer fit in the spaces she used to. Even the cop who had finally helped her get out had stopped coming by to visit, and she couldn’t help but take it personally. People would look at her, sometimes whisper, and she knew they all blamed her for causing a scene. Around here, marriage was for life and wives were for husbands and pain was for behind closed doors. She no longer believed any of that, and they no longer believed her, and she had stopped wasting her effort trying to win the approval of people who would rather she had died than blabbed.
She had never lived alone, so she’d gotten Blue. She kept the job, left the house, moved into the condo, fought off the boredom as best as she could for a while. She’d tried, God knew she’d tried. She’d taken up painting, and knitting, and sympathetic magic, and amateur carpentry. She’d joined a book group, but all the men in the romance novels they’d read reminded her of Stephen and the other women didn’t understand why she’d keep having to leave the room to stave off tears in the bathroom. They thought she missed him, and in a way it was almost true. It wasn’t about him, not really, but about all the lives she could have lived if he hadn’t shown up in the first place. When she had told the group that she wouldn’t be returning anymore, their only response was to complain that it was supposed to be her turn to bring donuts next week and now Marie Michelle would have to sub in a week early on top of being snack mom for her sons’ soccer team. The divorcée had simply walked out while the others continued their negotiations. She was sure they didn’t notice her go.
Blue eventually quieted a little, but he still seemed out of sorts. The divorcée resolved that another walk past some less-disturbing scenery might lift his spirits—or at least level them out to his typical disinterest. There was a park not too far off, just a couple blocks away, with sea grape hedges blocking out the beach. It was a small island and she was certain that news of the corpse would permeate it just as thoroughly as the stench of rotten fish, but she ought to have time to walk Blue a bit before anyone ambushed her with nosy questions.
She wasn’t sure what she’d say if they did. She could lie, she supposed, and pretend that she was sad that he had died. But she’d never been much of an actress and if she was telling the truth she still found herself bleeding in the shower sometimes from scrubbing her skin raw, as though if she could get rid of any skin that had ever touched Stephen, she might get him out of her head. But that wasn’t the sort of thing you could say to an acquaintance. It wasn’t the sort of thing she’d even admit to her therapist, a lonely older man named Dr. Nakamura who clearly wanted the divorcée to get better. He reminded her of her grandfather in some way she couldn’t quite name and she couldn’t bear to disappoint him.
Blue didn’t resist her as she clipped the leash to his collar, and followed her out the door. Once outside, though, he began tugging her in the opposite direction of where she intended to go. He was pulling her back towards the beach, towards the divot in the sand where Stephen’s body washed up. She couldn’t understand why the dog was so insistent.
When neither of them would compromise, she ended up pulling Blue back into the house after he’d grudgingly peed on the grass. He didn’t make any noise in the house, but she could tell he was upset with her. She left him brooding on the couch and went back to her bedroom to think things through.
She wrapped herself up in her comforter and finally allowed herself to engage with the events of the day. Stephen was dead, drowned, almost unrecognizably decayed. She laughed a wild sort of laugh, shrill in a way she did not know she could be. It started somewhere in her belly and shook her chest and by the time it brushed past her lips she was already gasping for breath. She couldn’t tell if she was wheezing or seizing or just finally letting go of all the tension he’d ratcheted up inside her for years.
Stephen, dead. Stephen, who had married her at just eighteen and made her feel special while he kept her under his thumb, kept her from going to college, from seeing the world, from doing something different with herself. And he charmed everyone around her, made them think she was lucky to have wound up with a nice boy like him, and made it so that they looked right past the bruises on her ribs, her thighs, the cuts and burns and scrapes. He hadn’t just made the wounds invisible—he’d made her invisible. He’d stolen her name, her youth, her potential, had chewed it up and spit it out and then hadn’t even fought for her when it was all over, and just like that he still had her life clenched in his fist, controlling her even when he was gone.
And now she’d won. She’d pulled one over on him. He was dead and she was alive and she could finally, finally breathe. She could laugh. She could cackle.
She hadn’t thought it would work, not really. It had seemed too much like hackneyed voodoo at the time, like something out of an eighties horror movie that she would’ve hated when she was young but Stephen would’ve dragged her out to see anyway. But it didn’t cost her anything, except the price of the snapper, but the seafood guy at the grocery had given her a good deal since she bought it the day before a new shipment was supposed to come in.
But there, in the bathtub of the en-suite, was the only proof she needed. It also probably wouldn’t look so good for anyone to see it. Even if sympathetic magic wasn’t admissible in a court of law, it would likely cause some suspicion. She should probably handle that.
She rose from the bed and entered the en-suite only to find Blue waiting inside for her. It was strange. She hadn’t heard him come upstairs and enter. She wasn’t so good about closing doors these days now that she didn’t share a house with Stephen.
She flicked on the lights and then realized her mistake as the dog took in the scene. Blue didn’t bother whining this time. He barked again, the same bark he had saved for the flattened armadillo. Look at this, he barked, come here and look at what you’ve done.
The divorcée stared down at the fish in the tub, at the lock of Stephen’s hair pinned to its side, at his name carved out in jagged letters in its scales. She looked back at Blue, who was perched on the lid of the toilet. She still wasn’t sure how he’d gotten himself there, but as he met her gaze she understood something. He wasn’t bored. He had never been bored. He was impartial. He observed, gathering facts and arranging them, passing judgment only when he must. Right now, he had caught her red-handed and held her fate in his slender paws. Judge, jury, and executioner.
“You weren’t there,” the divorcée begged. “You didn’t see what he did to me. You don’t know who he was.”
The dog stared, unimpressed.
The divorcée looked down at the tub again and thought back to the eyeless fish that morning in the sand, the hint of crimson at their gills. The dog had been unmoved. He needed evidence, hard facts.
She took off her shirt. There, below her bra and above the waist of her jeans, the scars still showed.
“From the night he tried to kill me. The last time.”
The dog seemed to raise an eyebrow. She hadn’t realized that dogs had eyebrows. It might’ve been a muscle of some form. She wished he could talk, could tell her something, could even just shut her up.
“Blue, you know me. Haven’t I always been good to you? Don’t I give you the peanut butter jar when it’s empty so you can lick it, even though I hate the way it sounds?”
She wasn’t sure why she was pleading. She wasn’t sure what the dog could do to her if he deemed her guilty. She didn’t want to find out.
“I just had to make it right, Blue, you get that, don’t you?” She faltered. Her eyes drifted back to the fish. “Just had to make it even. A life for a life.”
The dog barked once more. Then, leaping off the toilet, he walked out the door.
The divorcée sank to her knees. Her face was slick with tears. The room smelled like day-old fish, and the dog was silent, waiting for her outside the door. She took the knife she’d used to carve the fish earlier and ran it through the scales, ripping the slippery creature into bits. It was easier than she’d expected to tear it into manageable chunks and flush it down the drain. When she was done she held out her hands to Blue, who licked them clean. Still half-dressed, she followed the dog out of the room in a haze and sat with him by the window, watching the tide roll in.
This piece won the Anne Flexner Memorial Award for Fiction and the Rudolph William Rosati Creative Writing Award in 2020.
I’m going blonde. Everyone else seems to have everything figured out for once, so I need a change.
The stylist finishes checking in another client and comes back over to my chair. She is short and her breasts are straining against her leopard print top, stretching the spots until you can no longer see the holes in the middle. The elastic is fighting a war.
Her own hair is streaky, pink and blue over mouse brown, and I wonder for a moment if I should just get up now and leave before she does something irreversible. There’s still time to drive home and turn on the television and maybe catch Seinfeld reruns or whatever they’re airing these days. I could make microwave popcorn and turn down the lights. I could pretend I was a kid and it was late at night and I was trying not to laugh too loud so Mom and Dad wouldn’t wake up. I could call Frankie and we could curl up in pajamas like old times, but she probably has plans with Andy. She always has plans these days.
I lean back into the chair and grip the armrests until my knuckles turn white.
“What can I do for you today, then?” the stylist says and begins to knead at my scalp with her rough fingers.
My chest feels kind of tight and I don’t open my mouth for a few seconds and when I do I’ve borrowed my grandmother’s German accent that she only trots out on holidays or when she’s angry.
“Blonde,” I say and relax my hands. “All the American girls are blonde.”
The stylist laughs. “So where are you from, honey?”
It’s a bit of a loaded question—I was born in a different place than where I lived longest or where I liked best, and all of those are different from where I live now. I settle on, “Vienna,” because that’s where my grandmother is from and I lived there for a few months when I was a kid.
“Germany?” She talks with her mouth too wide open, like she wants me to count her teeth.
She begins to pin my hair up to the top of my head with those little toothy clips that only hairdressers and cool girls own. I’ll have to get myself some when I’m blonde. I’ll finally be able to wear a messy bun that looks artful and windswept and accidental and delicately crafted all at once.
I have this theory that I’m going to feel better once I do it. People will be nicer. Guys will smile at me more and rush to pick up my pens when I drop them. Girls will be jealous of me, except the other blondes. We will have an instant camaraderie.
The stylist paints my hair and wraps it up in tin foil. When she’s done I look like an alien from an old Hollywood sensation, an H. G. Wells wet dream. I go and sit with my head in the funny little dryer and everything is warm and I wonder if the tin foil will burn me but I decide that even if it does it won’t matter. You can have horrific burns down your face and neck but with the right shade and shape to your hair you can get away with it.
I close my eyes when the stylist washes the color and the bleach out of my hair. She’s leaning so close over me I can feel the heat of her breath. I’ve got goosebumps sort of and I feel like crawling out of my skin.
Luckily she pulls back once the bleach is all out and I can breathe again as she starts layering some color back in. I don’t want my hair to be white, after all. I want golden, cornsilk, strawberry, all-American, beach babe, bombshell, bubbly blonde. Blonde with dimension. Approachable blonde.
I go back to the hair dryer, then get shampooed, then she gives me a blowout. All the blondes get blowouts. I’m not sure I have the money to drop on a weekly one, not since I’ve been paying the rent all on my own, but I’ll have to find it. They’ll know if I don’t. The crack in the veneer.
The next morning I wake up to sunlight streaming in the living room window. I forgot to set my alarm and I fell asleep on the couch while scrolling through my phone, but the whole rising gently to the midday sun thing feels very blonde so I pad back to my room and strip. I haven’t actually touched my bed in weeks, and there’s dust on the duvet. I throw on a camisole and shorts and then a big knit cardigan on top of it so it covers one of my shoulders but just sort of slips off the other. That feels like a blonde thing to do, and then I make myself herbal tea instead of my normal coffee, because that fits too. I should have a newspaper that I half-read while I sit on my balcony. I should maybe move somewhere with a balcony.
I have a few unread emails, but that’s it for notifications. I haven’t posted anything since before Aidan left and I know that out of sight is out of mind. No one knows I’m a blonde yet, and they’re all too busy having things figured out to bother with me right now—boyfriends behaving, fights forgotten, mental health monitored. They’re probably all staying hydrated and keeping gratitude journals. It’s alright. They’ll come around. They always do.
I need to show the world my new hair, but I have to think about it carefully before I do it. I can’t just post a selfie—I’m terrible at the angles. Anyway, blondes don’t take pictures of themselves. They have friends who do photoshoots at golden hour and capture candids where they’re laughing and all their teeth are perfect. Their eyes crinkle up but it’s cute when they do it. Natural.
I don’t really have the kind of friends who take pictures of me. They kind of avoid me when things are working out for them, really, and when things aren’t they’re always too shaky to hold a camera. We never actually do a whole lot except talk and wish things were better, and sometimes I tell them it’ll be okay without really meaning it or wanting it to happen, but that’s about it. Taking pictures would suggest we wanted people to see us, but I’m blonde now and I do want people to see me, so I guess I’ll just have to find a way.
Later in the day I get a call. Frankie wants to go dancing. It’s a Saturday evening and so it makes sense but it feels a bit out of the blue, especially since we haven’t really talked since the last time we went out. Her voice sounds a little worried and part of me wants to ask if something happened with her boyfriend again, if she’s looking for an excuse to drink, but then I’d have to take care of her and taking care of people isn’t what I’m supposed to do anymore. I’m supposed to go dancing, so I say yes. I’m supposed to turn heads, and make friends with drunk girls in bathrooms, and share that little knowing look with every other blonde that says I recognize you, I applaud you, we are the same, you and I.
It’s kind of cold out but it always gets hot in clubs with all those bodies pressed together so I put on a tube top and a short little skirt and then swipe on some waterproof makeup so it doesn’t slip with sweat. Blondes aren’t supposed to sweat often but when they do it’s supposed to look and smell good so I splash on some perfume and apply extra deodorant to my armpits and even a little to my back, just in case. Blondes don’t wear stilettos because that’s trying too hard so I toss on some booties with a little wedge at the back because blondes are either under 5’2 or over 5’7 and I’m neither.
I wonder if people will be able to tell, when I’m there, that I’m a brand-new blonde. I wonder if my voice will give it away, or my eyebrows, or my posture. I think I slouch too much.
Frankie and I meet up at a parking garage two blocks from the club—I walked here but she drove. It’s nice to see her, I guess, especially since I haven’t in a while and she didn’t really say goodbye last time. She says, “Nice hair,” but I can’t tell if she means it. She has a biting kind of tone whenever she speaks that makes it difficult to tell if she’s being sarcastic.
I’m not sure why I like her, but we’ve known each other since before we lost all our baby teeth and knowing counts for something. Our parents were on the same committee at the UN, so we moved around a lot and often to the same places. We’re very different, but I think Frankie is the only person who gets why I am the way I am.
After a moment, she asks, “Is this about that girl on Aidan’s Instagram?”
I know the picture she’s talking about, from last Thursday—a girl sitting across the table from him with big blue eyes and hair so blonde it gleamed. We’ve been broken up a month now, but it still stings to see.
“No,” I say, and I can tell she thinks I’m lying, but I double down. “I just wanted a change.”
“Just another one of your self-improvement kicks, then?”
I frown. She’s the one who called me to come out tonight, so I don’t understand why she has to pick apart everything I do. “How’s Andy?”
She makes a face, all her features sort of wrinkling up and shrinking in toward her nose, then relaxes and shrugs. This means he’s fine. She never wants to talk when things are fine.
In the line for the club we flash our IDs. The bouncer doesn’t comment on my hair being different and for the first time I’m sad they don’t actually look all that carefully at the pictures.
In the club Frankie says something and I can’t quite hear her but I shout back Yeah! and laugh because that’s what people do in clubs and especially what blondes do. She looks annoyed at me but doesn’t say anything else, so I pretend I can’t see her grimace. We make our way to the center of the pack and begin to sing and dance and for once it doesn’t matter that I’m not coordinated because I’m blonde and I’m untouchable.
A song comes on in Spanish and Frankie and I know the lyrics but once I realize everyone else is just sort of faking singing along, I go mute. Frankie frowns at me but continues to sing, enunciating really clearly so everyone can tell she knows the words. She isn’t even Latina. I am, but she spent fifth grade with me in Santo Domingo where my dad grew up, attending the American school during the day and watching novelas with my abuelita in the afternoons. Frankie should know by now that it doesn’t make us special.
We keep moving, keep dancing, and I’m beginning to feel the power of the hair taking over me. I dance closer to people, dance on them. I push my hands through my hair and they come back damp with sweat and I know that I like that, that people like that. Frankie seems upset for some reason but I keep dancing because I’m not about fixing people anymore.
I order two tequila shots at first because tequila is a drink for girls who know how to party, but then for my next drink I can tell my abuelo would be disappointed if I chose Mexican tequila over Caribbean rum, so I get a mojito and sip it by the bar while Frankie is in the bathroom.
Frankie sort of dropped off the map about six weeks ago when she and Andy stopped fighting again. She’s been like this as long as I can remember—I was always too anxious to make friends with people I knew I’d have to leave, and she’d run off with the first interesting person to look her way, then come crawling back to me whenever we had to move. It isn’t worth holding it against her. I got used to it a long time ago.
I didn’t really want to bother her while things were working so I found myself alone a lot more, especially because Becca had finally stopped trying to off herself after she found God, and James got into law school, and his girlfriend Maryam got a promotion and started working longer hours. I didn’t have anyone except Aidan, really, and after the last time I went out with Frankie, that one foggy night when everything started to get to me, I didn’t have him anymore either.
There’s a guy who comes over to me and the lighting’s bad so I can’t tell if he’s actually cute or if the blue edges of the shadows are creating the illusion of good bone structure.He taps my shoulder and I flinch at first, hard enough to spill some of my mojito, but then I remind myself that I’m not supposed to flinch anymore. I turn around slowly and he says something like didn’t mean to startle you and that choice of words, the sort of country lilt to his voice melts me a little. It’s hard to hear, though, so I’m not sure if the accent is real or imagined.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks next and I’m surprised because people don’t usually ask to buy me drinks and then I remember that I have joined the ranks of the elite.
I’m nearly done with the mojito but I’m also getting pretty tipsy and I know that blondes get drunk but they never get hungover and they’re never sloppy about it. I tell him sure and say I’ll take a daiquiri because it’s mostly sugar anyway and I don’t have to drink it quick.
He starts to ask me questions and I can only sort of hear him (huh? yeah, totally, haha! what?) and eventually he says, “You wanna get out of here?”
I look down and it turns out I’ve emptied the glass and I’m not really sure where the time has gone and normally I would say no and maybe get a bit freaked out and wind up at home on my own but I sort of nod because he seems nice and I’m a blonde now and this is the kind of thing you do when you’re confident and carefree.
It’s only after we’re in a cab halfway across the city that I realize I left Frankie at the club and my phone is dead. She’s probably going to be worried about me, and if I’m being honest my breathing is a little quick, but whenever I get wherever we’re going I’m sure I can get a charger. This is nothing like last time when my phone powered down. It can’t be. I’m completely in control.
I don’t know where he’s taking me and that’s the sort of thing that should worry me—I can feel anxiety nagging at the corner of my mind but I push it back. I’m done being nervous all the time. Usually the only thing that keeps me together is worrying about other people, trying to keep Becca away from sharp objects and Frankie away from sharply dressed men, reminding Maryam to take her meds and reminding James not to take Maryam’s meds. I met all of them but Frankie in college after I stopped trying to fit in with the international students and the other Latinos and realized my niche could best be described as (✓) Other. Anyway I’m good at keeping them organized, but when that’s not on the table I start worrying about myself and everything falls apart again. So I won’t worry about myself anymore. I’ll land on my feet. I always do.
As it turns out, this guy isn’t the sort of sleazebag to take me right to his place without some conversation so we end up at a 24 hour diner and he orders us waffles. They’re too sweet but they soak up the alcohol a bit and I need to clear my head. He’s from Oklahoma originally, so I was right about the country in his voice, and he went to college there too so he’s new to the city but he’s looking to break into the advertising scene because he loves graphic design.
When he asks about me I decide to tell him the basics—Dominican-Austrian by blood, cosmopolitan by upbringing, American by citizenship and schooling and heart. I mention that I’m going through a breakup but I decide not to tell him why. I haven’t really said it out loud to anyone yet, not in so many words, and luckily he doesn’t pry.
He’s sweet, and funny, and I start to forget my phone is dead and Frankie’s probably half-crazy. We keep talking and he seems to really like me and when the waffles are gone we don’t really notice because we’re just sitting there, talking, and then a waitress comes over with the check and we both reach for our wallets because blondes reach for their wallet then acquiesce.
He covers the waffles and shyly mentions he lives a few blocks down and won’t I come in for a nightcap. He actually calls it that, a nightcap, and even though I should play it cool and go home or find Frankie or something I can’t turn him down when he says it like that.
He sticks his hands in his pockets as we walk and I loop my arm in his outstretched elbow. It’s bolder than I’d usually be but he just smiles and keeps walking.
At his apartment he fumbles with his keys. We get in and I ask if he’s got a phone charger and he goes into his room to grab it and I slip into the bathroom to freshen up. I’m probably still sweaty-sticky from the club and I figure I’ll splash my face and neaten the edges of my eyeliner and maybe dab under my armpits to make sure they don’t smell too bad. Maybe I should go home soonish but I’m not really sure how that would operate because I don’t do this very often, and he doesn’t seem to either but that could just be a trick like last time. Then again, I don’t think we made it to the guy’s apartment last time before things started going wrong.
I get into the bathroom and hit the lights and the first thing I notice is how very boy it all is, not man but boy with the toilet seat up and one near-empty hand-soap dispenser on the sink next to a tube of toothpaste with finger indents where it has been impatiently squeezed around the middle instead of neatly from the bottom edge.
I register all this before I look up into the mirror and when I do I recoil. I’m still not used to seeing this version of me. After the drinks and the waffles with my head sort of fuzzy I think I look fine but not spectacular. I was supposed to look spectacular. I fix my makeup to see if that’s it, but even so I still just look like a person, just as fragile and tangible as before when my hair was limp and lusterless.
Between the personness of my face and the boyness of the bathroom I feel exposed and uncomfortable and I’m starting to think the nightcap maybe wasn’t such a good idea. I go out to the living room again and he’s there with the phone charger asking if scotch is okay, and I can’t square the man who drinks scotch with the boy who squeezes his toothpaste tube and neither seems like the sort of guy who buys me a drink then takes me to a diner sometime well after midnight. I wonder if any part of him is real and if so which part is, or if I’m making him out to be too simple. I don’t think these are the kinds of things that blondes think about but I’m not sure.
I accept the charger and plug my phone in. It vibrates to indicate it’s beginning to charge. I take the glass of scotch as well. I feel like the daiquiri is wearing off, or the hair dye. I don’t want to leave now. I don’t quite want to stay either, but we get back to talking. He doesn’t ask me all that much about myself and when he does I am able to deflect. It’s easier than explaining all the things that really led me here. Blondes don’t have to explain. They just sort of laugh and the world reshapes itself.
Soon, though, my phone screen lights up as the texts and calls from Frankie pour in. She’s alone, she’s worried about me, she isn’t sure where I’ve gone, am I okay, did I leave, did it get too overwhelming again, am I alive, am I with someone, please tell her I’m with someone and alive and just an asshole, please don’t be a dead asshole. If she hadn’t disappeared on me last time, this whole thing would register as paranoia and I’d be annoyed, but as it is I just feel really guilty. Frankie figured out what happened last time and she feels like it’s her fault for not babysitting me.
I excuse myself and pop to the bathroom to call her. I explain everything as best as I can but she wouldn’t understand because her hair is short and black and it does this thing where it falls in a straight line bob like she used her chin to cut it. Pretty and all, but high maintenance. Dramatic.
She asks me if I’m sober enough to consent to everything this time and I tell her we haven’t even kissed yet and that yes, I’m plenty sober and the waffles helped and I’m sorry for bailing and is she okay and does she need me to do anything for her.
She sounds annoyed when she responds. “Jesus, don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
“You never call me when you’re fine.”
“To be honest, it’s because I don’t think you can handle it. Go deal with your farm boy.”
I’m not sure if he is a farm boy or not because I’m not really sure what people do in Oklahoma, but I hang up without saying anything else and go back out into the main room. If Frankie doesn’t need me, she won’t get me.
Farm-boy-not-a-farm-boy has finished his scotch and smiles when he sees me walking in. I sit next to him on the couch just far enough that it’s not too clingy but close enough that our knees are brushing. That seems like the right kind of energy for tonight. Coy, but not too coy. Blonde coy.
He turns and faces me and says something but he’s staring at my mouth and so I smile a bit then lean closer. He kisses me and tastes like scotch and syrup but suddenly I’m thinking of the toothpaste tube and the way I don’t have any other texts on my phone and this man and Frankie are the only people who really know I’m a blonde now, not including the stylist who did it to me in the first place, and it’s not too late to go back and ask her to add the color back in but even if she did it wouldn’t be the same and I’d have to keep adding toner in every few months to keep it from fading back to bleached white straw.
He pulls away. “What’s wrong?”
I didn’t realize I’d frozen up. Blondes don’t freeze up. Blondes don’t choke. They most definitely don’t start crying on the couches of strangers who want to hook up with them and maybe, just maybe, actually get to know them after.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he says in a sort of whisper-voice. “Want me to take you home?”
I nod. I think there might be snot coming out of my nose.
“Do you want to talk about it? Whatever it is?”
Aidan always left me alone when I was crying, even after that night when Frankie and Becca forgot me at one club because I was in the bathroom when they decided to go to the next one, and then my phone died and some other stuff happened and I had to walk home barefoot and half-dressed with my head fuzzy and my thighs aching, and by the end I was spending almost every night curled in the cold porcelain of the bathtub trying to stifle my sobs so they wouldn’t echo. It only took him two weeks of that to leave me for good. I rub my fingers under my eyes to smudge away the mascara, then sniff so the snot creeps back into my nose.
Oklahoma still has the curl of a worried smile tugging at his lips. I blink a few times, then ask, “Could you do me a favor and get a picture of me?”
He laughs, then catches himself when he realizes I’m serious. That’s the other issue—people don’t take blondes seriously.
“What, right now? Like this?”
“Like anything. Anywhere. Just a picture.”
He nods a bit uneasily and accepts my phone when I hand it to him. I don’t get red very easily and I’ve been told I don’t look like I’ve been crying after I cry, so after a few moments when I start feeling a little better I tousle my hair and strike a few poses on his couch.
When he holds his phone out in front of his face I can see something I couldn’t when I looked in his eyes. I think his eyebrows give him away, raised but only half-way, like he’s trying and failing to keep them lowered. He’s a live wire, Einstein on the verge of a breakthrough, a child in front of a near-finished jigsaw. He wants to know what makes me tick. It’s been a long time since anyone looked at me like that. I forgot how much I missed being dissected.
To Oklahoma’s credit he has a great eye and the photos look nothing like how I feel on the inside. He asks again if I want to talk about it and I tell him I don’t really like talking about myself and that I’ll be okay again just as soon as someone else breaks down. I work well under pressure is the thing.
He sort of shakes his head at this and offers to get me a cab again but this time I’m committed and when I kiss him I don’t think about him squeezing a big fat dollop of toothpaste onto his raggedy old toothbrush and jamming it all in his small little mouth.
The next morning I head back to my apartment after popping three aspirin and doing my best not to vomit them up. I stop in the mail room and tear the name Aidan Thompson off the address card inside our box and drop the torn-up scrap of paper in the trash. On the elevator I check my phone—it’s buzzing with texts from Frankie asking how I’m doing and if I’m hungover and what happened really, and messages from people who saw my couch pictures on Instagram and slid into my DMs, and a half a dozen replies to the Snap story I forgot I uploaded of me singing at the club. No crying, no one asking for a hug or if they can vent at me. Nobody who needs me. Dozens who want me. I brew myself some tea and change into something that says I had sex with a stranger last night and it doesn’t even matter and sit at the window and wonder if I should break my lease and move into Oklahoma’s apartment. It had a balcony.