By Miranda Williams
I saw my boyfriend’s brother’s penis before I saw his. We walked into their shared dorm room—a disarray of sauce-hardened paper plates, haughty metal band posters, and wadded jeans—where Lucas lay sprawled, naked and half-asleep with his arms folded behind his head, on an unmade bed. Body hair all dishwater-colored and wiry. Dick slumped across his thigh, pink and worm-like. The only sound was the whirling ceiling fan, smacking away the scent of drug-store cologne and pot. I stared at him too long, and Quentin took too long to react. He grabbed my hand and lead me back into the hallway, door rasping as it shut. His laugh coated the humid air.
“What an asshole—can’t make himself decent even when my girlfriend is coming over. Sorry, Billy.”
I didn’t respond, but instead squeezed his doughy hand and smiled at him, lips pressed together.
I could have had sex with Lucas, too, if I wanted. A few days later, while Quentin was drinking with his friends, I went to the 24-hour diner Lucas worked at, wearing tight shorts and a black cotton shirt that dipped just far enough for discomfort. The seats of the booth were sticky and ripped, bulging with yellowed stuffing, and the walls and decor clashed orange against teal. His gaze wandered as he came to the table, eyes to tits to mouth to neck. I sat my elbows on the wobbling wood and stared up at him, batting mascara-glued eyelashes.
“What do you want?” He asked, resting one hand on the top of the booth near my head and taking a pen out of his back pocket with the other.
“A chocolate milkshake,” I said, voice low and languid. “Extra cream. No cherries.”
I liked having his eyes on me. They were light brown and warm. He looked kind, even when he was staring at me like he could tear everything off and fuck me into the threadbare carpet. He didn’t write anything, just clicked his pen over and over.
Lucas walked to the kitchen and came back with a milkshake five minutes later. Whipped cream dribbled down the side of the glass, and he handed me a cloudy silver spoon. Before he left again, he brought his hand to the side of my face, brushing a calloused thumb against my cheek.
“Do you have freckles like this everywhere?” He said, glancing down once more.
He left his phone number on my receipt. I didn’t pay for the milkshake.
I cared about two things. Quentin, I figured, was one of them. Because of this, I never called Lucas. I tossed the crumpled slip of paper into my fish tank when I got home, watched it become all bloated and mossed for two weeks before disintegrating
Quentin had his flaws: he made me listen to awful rave music in the car, he stuck sticky notes of poetry—twirls of soft, sappy melodrama—into my back pocket when were were making out, he was a slight kleptomaniac. But, sometimes he let me pick a song and, often, the poetry was endearingly horrific. The stealing wouldn’t bother me if he were good at it. We’d been together for four months. I thought I could love him. Like the world could end—zombie apocalypse, ice age, blistering heat-wave dystopia—but it would be okay because I had Quentin.
The second thing I cared about was my pet fish. A betta. She lived in a spherical tank clustered with tiny neon rocks and plastic coral reefs. She was small and had muted charcoal scales with thin lashes of grey at the tail. Her eyes were shiny and piss-colored. I liked that she was ugly. Her name was Noreen. When I was lonely and had spent far too long in the shower, I made up stories about her. Before being captured, she was a single mother of five. Her ex-husband was a lawyer. He fucked his secretary on the side. She was really into cocaine for a while before being wrangled into a Ziploc by the Walmart pet supply section.
I stopped feeding Noreen two days ago. She hid under a hot pink twist of coral, fluttering her fins with slow disinterest. I sat the cylinder of fish food by her bowl, twirling it so the blocky, garish logo was facing her. I wanted to give her motivation.
“Just last one more day, and it’ll be yours,” I whispered.
Quentin spoke often about when his father left: He was fifteen, the oldest sibling. It really fucked him up. It always began with fried foods. Today, it was the fries. He saw them all crowded on the porcelain plate, smothered in grease and salt, and then he got doe-eyed. Stared into the distance. Hung his shoulders. He didn’t speak but I knew what he was thinking because I’d heard it many times before. It’s always the sound I remember. Popping and searing. Mom left the stove on when she chased him down the neighborhood. The kitchen filled with smoke. White smoke. The stove was electric, so it burned the pan. Me and Lucas washed it with vinegar the next morning. We washed all the dishes. It was like a script. Sometimes he would add small details. His mother’s apron was red. His dad smelled of gasoline. The kitchen table only had two chairs. I wanted to care, but what I wanted more was silence.
Our hands were under the table, resting on my thigh in a wet, balmy embrace. Quentin’s jaw always tensed when he was sad. I imagined him grinding his teeth together until they disintegrated into nothing. I pretended I didn’t know what was happening. People feel better when they believe they are unpredictable.
“Baby, what’s the matter?” I asked, inching closer to him so our hips smashed together.
“Nothing,” Quentin said, meeting my eyes. His were the color of overcooked toast. He reached to caress my face—awkward with a trembling hand—and spoke again. His voice flaked like dried glue on skin. “You know how I get sometimes. These places. People. Life.”
“I know,” I turned sideways in the booth and folding one of my legs into his thigh. I could smell his cinnamon breath mint. How it covered the reek of soured milk from breakfast. I wondered if Lucas was the same way as him. If any or all of Noreen’s five children were the same way.
“Sometimes things like these just remind me of my dad,” he said, and I nodded, flapped my eyelashes at him so he knew his two-parent-only-child girlfriend understood. He opened his chapped mouth to speak again and suddenly it felt crucial that he didn’t. I didn’t need to hear it. To think about it.
I lunged forward and suctioned my lips onto his. The kiss was dry, all gnashing teeth and foamed saliva. I sunk my nails into his scalp. Tugged him closer. Three minutes later and there was a slight wetness slithering down our cheeks. I ignored it, pushing him to the wall of the booth by his shoulders. We made muffled squeaking noises. Quentin’s beard was giving me rug-burn. He kept pulling his lips away but I couldn’t give in. Every time he tried to slow things down, I went harder.
“Billy, stop,” he said, muffled by flesh and proximity, before shoving me away. “We’re in a restaurant.” He laughed lightly, but his eyes were red-rimmed and glassy. They made something vicious and fanged swim in my chest. I felt the need to scream at him. My face was warm as I retreated to my half of the booth. The french fries now looked feeble, pale and soggy next to our grilled cheese. I tried to picture Quentin’s dad’s when he walked out the door: hair plastered with sweat, thick eyebrows raised, sleeves rolled to his elbows.
We didn’t speak while we ate. Just dragged pieces of sandwich through runny ketchup and listened to the restaurant’s static-riddled radio. We tried to slip out, as Quentin liked to do, but the waitress called us back over. We paid quickly, unable to meet her smiling face.
It occurred to me that maybe I wanted something bad to happen. I needed a piece of me to be shattered. This realization didn’t stop me from not feeding Noreen.
She was dead by the fourth day, bobbing at the surface of the water, belly up. I took a finger and pressed her grey, slick stomach, as if all she needed was to be coaxed deeper into the tank. However, Noreen continued floating in the green-tinged water. The room was warm, the air stagnant. I took the cylinder of fish food and unscrewed the cap, before pouring it all into the tank, covering Noreen in tiny orange flakes. I swallowed the tightness in my throat. As she wobbled up and down, some of them stuck to her and melted on her skin. The others just sunk to the bottom.
I wandered back to Lucas’s diner later that night, eyes burning. He hovered near the kitchens like a wounded animal before eventually dozing to my table. His polo was a size too small, and I could see the outline of his nipples. He stared down at me, frowning. Really? We’re doing this again? He seemed to say. He and Quentin looked so alike. Brown eyes. Square face. Wide nose. It made the differences between them feel miniscule.
“You’re not going to do this.”
He raised his eyebrows at me. “That’s not what happened last time.”
I shrugged and gazed around the room. A fly buzzed in circles above me, repeatedly hitting the opaque lightbulb. He would die from it, eventually. If not, he would only live a week or two anyways. Or the fly might stay there, flitting around the hazy amber for all of eternity. Neither option was better than the other.
“People can be changed,” I said. Lucas’s mouth tilted into a smile. This time when he left me his number, I crumpled it on the table because I didn’t need it. I waited until he was off work, until he took off his apron and undid the buttons of his collar. I slid out of the booth and took him by the hand. Up close, his nose was red and raw. Skin shredded by soft tissue. I put his fingers on the waist of my jeans. Something slick greased his skin. Leftover whipped cream. Or tears. His pupils turned to shiny moons as I whispered.
“Want to figure out if the freckles are all over?”
Miranda Williams is a writer and student from New Mexico who now resides in Phoenix, Arizona. Her work appears in Breakwater Review, Sixfold, and Menacing Hedge, among others. Additionally, she is currently working on a short story collection tentatively titled “Decay” and her first novel about growing up, becoming one with nature (literally), and a multitude of wrongdoings. When not writing, you can find her failing miserably at video games, gushing about Jupiter’s moons, and continuing her quest to find the world’s best veggie burger. Find her on Instagram @mirandaiswriting.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.