ISSUE THIRTEEN | FALL 2019
She was born under a bad sign. She hated it here. There were nights we’d wake to the sound of rushing water.
“Did you hear that?” Lisa’s wide body was hunched over a glowing screen one of these nights, her feet flat on the floor. She craned her neck to look up at the darkened ceiling as if it could tell her something.
“Mmm,” I mumbled, gathering language. “First floor. We can hear everything.”
I rolled over to my side and slid my hand underneath Lisa’s sweater; her back flinched at my touch.
“Your hands are so cold,” she said, snapping her head back to look at me. I glanced at her phone. She was browsing food delivery options.
“What are you gonna order?” I asked. “Isn’t it late?”
“It’s twelve twenty,” she said in a low voice. “There’s plenty.”
Lisa always knew plenty existed, if not here then somewhere else. I was never so certain. Once, on a road trip to Canada in late autumn, she’d veered off-road, careening skillfully into a gravelly patch off the highway. Primordially she’d sniffed out a lavender field set back a bit from the road. It spread out before us; nothing had gone to seed or been killed off by the cold yet.
I sat up and inched my body close to hers, feeling the way she radiated heat. I exhaled hotly onto my hands and rubbed them together, then reached under her sweater again to touch her folded stomach and drooping tits. She reached over to the bedside table to turn on the lamp and I buried my head into her back, squinting away flashes of light.
“What are you doing?” Lisa asked, her whole body stiff.
“It’s so bright,” I said, tightening my grip on her. “I’m hiding.”
“Can you stop?”
“What?” I asked, wounded.
I flopped back onto the mattress and stared at the ceiling, where Lisa’s gaze was fixed again too. A toilet was running.
“Lise,” I started to say, “let’s go back to sleep.”
Lisa shook her head. “No, I’m not tired.”
“You don’t have to be tired,” I said. “You can just lie down.”
“What would be the point?”
“So you’re just going to sit there?”
“No,” she said, “I’m gonna go for a walk.”
I propped myself up on my elbows. “Now?”
“Yeah,” she said, already sliding her phone into her back pocket and guiding an arm through her coat sleeve. “Then I don’t have to pay for delivery.”
She shrugged. “Dunno yet.”
“I thought you’d ordered.”
Lisa turned to face me fully, now bundled and cross-armed. “I’ll be back soon, okay?”
She pulled on her boots and crossed into the kitchen, not bothering to turn on a light, to get her keys off the table. I listened to her footsteps as they receded down the hallway and continued listening after the creak of the building’s double doors until all I could hear was the toilet running again, all I could feel was my own itch.
* * *
My landlord, Lucy. Lucy periodically comes by to collect my rent in cash, then lingers too long in the threshold, sometimes swinging her body around the doorframe in a way that feels inherited from a sitcom. She was pounding.
“Hi, Lucy,” I croaked from the kitchen. “It’s not time yet, is it? I don’t have money for you right now.”
I was taking no visitors and rinsing off my dildo in the sink, just above the honeyed spoons and the pot with the half-stuck tomato sauce lining its sides. Lisa had left for work an hour ago.
“No . . . ah. . . I’ve received a complaint,” Lucy shouted back.
“About me?” I shut the faucet off and shook the cock dry. I always used the wrong soaps, too harsh, which left cummy streaks all over the blue silicone.
“Ah . . . not about you . . . the guy two over, Jay?”
There was a silence. I didn’t know what to say.
“Can I come in?”
“I don’t know Jay,” I said, still hovering over the sink.
“Can I just come in?”
I sighed, stripped off my dishwashing gloves, and walked over to the door. I twisted open the padlock but kept the chain fastened, opening the door only a few inches. Another thing I’d seen in sitcoms, but which I’d never had the occasion to do before. It felt powerfully selective, though perhaps, in that moment, not selective enough. Through this crack between the door and the frame, Lucy’s mouth hung a little agape, betraying a salmon-pink smear of lipstick on her front teeth. In the fluorescence of the hallway, she looked like some kind of phantasm.
Lucy stepped even closer and adjusted her ponytail. As soon as she raised her perfumed wrists I felt the low throbs of a migraine at the base of my skull. I was always worried I had diabetes, always, it was something I sensed rumbling somewhere in my body, deep below the surface and in every darkish fold of skin or foot pain, and it had to be sniffed out and named. Many times I’d read that a telltale symptom was sweet-smelling urine. What does sweetness smell like? Each time I peed I’d fold over with my head between my thighs, hoping to identify the sweetness. But now I knew it: this was Lucy’s smell. Lucy smelled like diabetes.
“Whatcha hiding from me, Monroe?”
Even Lucy’s breath was sweet, with only a hint of stale coffee.
“Nothing,” I said. “I don’t know Jay. He only moved in this month. Seems fine.”
“Ah, I don’t mean that so much. Talking about why can’t you open the door more?” Two beats as I searched for something to say, then Lucy moved on. “Okay, someone’s been talking about roaches in the hallway and they say they’ve seen ‘em coming out of 103, Jay’s place. They’re convinced. Like, tons of ‘em and they’re all coming from Jay’s. You got roaches?”
I shook my head. “Just mice, and only sometimes,” I said, meeting Lucy’s gaze. Then I looked down again.
Lucy laughed and swiped her finger across her upper lip, where sweat had been forming. “Okay, Monroe,” she said, and it would’ve been accompanied by two slaps on the back had I let her in. “I need you to keep an eye out for me and give me a call if you see roaches around here.”
Before I could protest, she was walking off toward the building entrance, trailing sweet.
I edged out of our interaction slowly, treading backward. I was fully alone now but still felt the reverberations of Lucy throughout the space.
Felt the swell of my labia, the itch from which a conversation could temporarily distract but could not obliterate. No no no, no touch no itch no more shea butter no suppositories no fingers whitened with flakes of dried yogurt no slow sting of tea tree oil no cold compresses failing against my heat no fluconazole no econazole no clotrimazole. Before I got my tonsils removed they were so engorged that when I laid down to sleep I could not breathe. No. Each touch of an unclean finger is another three days in the fire and the finger is never clean enough. Cannot be clean enough, can never be sanitized, nonporousness null. Thread a string through a clove of garlic. Let your hands wander anywhere else. Some research reports that topically applied boric acid, along with the antifungal flucytosine, successfully treats approximately seventy percent of women. I vomit oregano. I itch again. I spread myself onto the arm of the couch and I grind and I rub and I sweat and I salivate and my yeast begins to cover every surface. I propagate.
* * *
In the second week of the fire I took to walking, usually in the evening after Lisa left for work. I’d leave with my backpack over my shoulder, filled with alternate clean clothes I never changed into. Sometimes, after the first five blocks, the burn would be too much and I’d return home to fall asleep in an oatmeal bath. Mostly, though, the more I walked the more the pain began to abstract itself over the course of many miles.
I knew there was a sharp shift from city to something much more rural here, but had never seen it until I began to walk through the burn. At a certain point the sidewalks simply dropped off. One night I made it almost as far as the next county, tracking damp and dirt on the road’s grassy shoulder. Toward the end of my energy there was a forked punctuation in the road: one pizza place, closed, and one illuminated gas station. I stood outside the station, looking in for signs of movement and watching my breath as it fogged itself into existence. The door had been kicked or smashed from the waist down; the glass had somehow remained tethered to itself and was holding on, funneling cold air into the store. A red blinking light hung inside, flashing out: YES, WE HAVE NIGHTCRAWLERS.
* * *
Lisa loved to go out and I found myself consistently capitulating. It’s not that I didn’t like it; once I was drunk or at least tipsy and Lisa and I found ourselves in a groove, pressed up against the bar or each other or moving together on a dance floor, it was so good to be out in the world with her. It’s just that it always took so long to get to that place, and the distinction between being there and not was acute. We expended so much energy: anticipation, readying, paying the cab driver and the cover charge and the drinks and the tips and more drinks and the cab back home and the time it took, god, so many hours.
Lisa could illuminate any space or darken an entire evening. If even one of these elements were slightly out of place—the bar too crowded in the wrong way, the cab driver too nosy in his questioning or too taciturn, if I bought drinks when she’d wanted to treat me or if I didn’t offer to pay at all—the night could nosedive with alarming rapidity. We both knew the signs and could identify when things were about to sour, but neither of us had a remedying strategy, and we both refused to cut our losses when the problem was identified. There were nights when I’d stand with my back against the bar, switching my weight from one foot to the other, drunk and dour, and watch Lisa dance for what felt like forever. The longer we stayed out in the presence of others, the more we prolonged having to talk about it in our quiet shared bed.
The night of the final fire seemed like it was veering toward that untenable place, but some combination of circumstances was keeping things buoyed. I was pleased. There was very little traffic on the ride over, and for once we arrived late enough that the party was well underway—everyone drunk, dancing, everything well-lubricated.
“What do you want?” Lisa half-shouted, rubbing the small of my back lightly and smiling. She was nodding her head over in the direction of the bar.
“What are you having? I was thinking a Modelo and some tequila.”
“I’m having a gin something tonight,” she replied, grinning. I reached into my wallet to hand her some cash, but she shook her head and waved my hand away. “Got you. Be right back.”
I watched her ass jiggle away, then stood back and watched, looking to see who, if anyone, was checking her out. Finding nothing, I shifted my gaze over to the darkened dance floor, where I could make out the bodily outlines of people dancing but not their individuated selves.
Just then I saw George and Sean emerging from the crowd. Fuck, I mumbled. Fuck, fuck. It was too late to turn around and pretend I hadn’t seen them, but I could feel the night deviating irreversibly. I scrambled with my body, unsure of how to stand, how to look.
“Monroooooe!” George threw her arms around my neck, choking me. All I could imagine was Lisa’s reaction; was she looking over here? George was wasted, but Sean seemed sober. I couldn’t tell whether it was George specifically who smelled of vomit or whether that was the bar. I’d no desire to hug Sean, but did anyway, a halfhearted union on both sides.
“Hey, man!” he cried.
“He-ey. . . how’s it going?”
“I’m all sweaty,” he said. “Sorry!”
“No worries. You having fun?”
George beamed at me. “The most fun.” She was distracted by the DJ, gesticulating in his direction frantically and meaninglessly. The height of her intoxication meant that she’d either bring up the fact that we’d fucked outside the bounds of my relationship immediately or not at all. I held up hope that it remained the latter.
Sean turned to me and shrugged. “Still warming up.” A beat. “Lisa here?”
I stiffened. “Yep. Getting drinks.”
“Nice,” he said, not attempting to conceal a smile. “I’ll go over and say hey.”
“Oh,” I began to say, “she’ll be right back . . . ” But Sean was already striding off in her direction, patting my back as he walked away. He said something I didn’t catch in time. I grimaced and spun around, trying not to lose the thread of him snaking through the crowd in search of Lisa.
George, unbothered, had disappeared. I was alone again in a desperate way. I squeezed my legs together, wishing against logic for some divine intervention that would remove both George and Sean from the room. My cunt began to itch, as if the mere sight of him were enough to ignite a yeasty rage. I’d been trying not to touch myself all day and now could feel the hot dampness between my legs, noxious white cream and coconut oil. I scanned bitterly for a culprit: the chamomile-scented toilet paper at the coffee shop, my new body wash, the frankly indulgent hour-and-a-half of Lisa’s face between my legs. Or George. Something was taking residence. George was positioned behind the DJ, who was now absently grinding against her. Sean and Lisa were still nowhere to be seen. I burned. I elbowed my way over to the wall, where I’d be less in everyone’s way. I was profoundly drinkless.
The pulsing light of the dance floor, obscene in my sullenness, seemed to triple in speed upon Sean and Lisa’s return. They were smiling. In a manic flash I was sure, for a moment, that they’d just fucked in the bathroom. No, impossible. I willed Sean to disappear back into the throbbing crowd. Lisa still looked happy, which likely meant that Sean hadn’t mentioned George’s presence here.
Sean stayed with us, either oblivious to my discomfort or actively enjoying it. As for Lisa, she had her hand around my waist but spoke almost exclusively to him. I crossed one leg over another so as not to itch. Should I go home? Wasn’t this just socializing? But Lisa was growing animated when she spoke to him—about her job, this party, the city—in a way I’d never seen before, almost flapping her free hand around, and I knew I couldn’t be imagining things.
I excused myself to get another drink without offering a second round to either of them, and Lisa didn’t follow me. I bought two shots of whiskey and drank them one after the other, chasing with water from a nearby plastic cup that didn’t belong to me. I debated leaving, but felt determined to make a show of not caring about Sean around Lisa, which couldn’t be accomplished by going home.
When I returned, empty-handed but buzzing, Sean and Lisa were dancing. They were part of a larger circle of strangers—or maybe these were Sean’s friends—but they were dancing side-by-side and laughing to one another. My clit throbbed, the itching fever rising up into my belly. I stood dumbly at the periphery of dancers.
“Hey!” Lisa said, motioning me over. “C’mere!”
Sean was waving too. I shook my head, but they redoubled their efforts, now beckoning me over with both hands. I cut through the circle to them, trying not to be noxious or punitive.
“Cool shoes!” said Sean in my direction.
I smiled weakly. “Thanks.”
“You look good!” he shouted.
In the manner of a person attempting to coax a good mood out of someone else, Sean playfully shimmied up to me, a grin on his face. I couldn’t feign any enthusiasm. They wanted me to dance and I couldn’t. Or they wanted me there to sanction their touching. To chaperone.
Sean backed up into me, continuing his shtick. I placed my hands on his hips to try and push him forward, away from me, but he took my touch to be affirmative and touched his hands to mine, our bodies getting closer. Lisa, facing Sean, looked thrilled. I could feel her moving closer to him, the two of them making eye contact. She was grabbing at me through him almost frantically, first for my hands and arms and then pinching my breasts and shirt and whatever else she could make contact with. I was pressed up against Sean’s back, the whole expanse of it. His sweat smelled like pine. The friction of our bodies made my soreness even sorer.
As soon as Sean’s ass stopped grinding against me, I knew his pelvis was pivoting in the other direction, his cock against Lisa. I watched as his hands grabbed her face and his fingers ran through her damp, slicked-back hair. The three of us were spinning around in circles as a unit and Lisa maintained her digging grasp on me. We tornadoed. If I broke away from them our dynamic could no longer plausibly be described as a threesome; it would just be them.
Over Lisa’s shoulder I watched with panic as George approached, elbowing her way through the crowd. I tried to leave, but Sean’s hands were gripping my thighs and Lisa had a fistful of my shirt and I was stuck.
Lisa didn’t turn around. George grabbed Lisa’s shoulder and shook. “Linda?!”
Sean gestured at George for Lisa’s sake. “That’s George!”
Lisa shot me a look. George was so close to her that pieces of her orange frizz were resting on Lisa’s shoulder. Everyone was kind of half-dancing through the strained conversation. George made her way over to me now that I’d unlatched from Sean and Lisa. “That’s Lisa?” she shout-whispered in my ear.
Lisa and Sean were still holding onto one another. George was insisting that I get another drink with her, but I was holding onto my eye contact with Lisa as long as I could.
I looked toward George, then back again, and in a moment they’d disappeared, leaving a brief absence before more dancers filled in. I shoved through in the direction of the DJ, but then stopped short. They were gone and George was now dancing with another two people as earnestly drunk as she was. In the midst of all the moving bodies, I was still and burning.
* * *
After struggling with the stuck lock long enough to feel almost as if I were breaking into to my own apartment, I burst in, let out a heavy sigh, flipped on the light switch, then promptly flipped it off again. “No use,” I slurred to myself. Instead I fumbled around in the darkness, which now—after a momentary flash of light—felt impossibly dark, but within the span of a minute or so my eyes began to adjust. Soon, an orange tint crept into my space: that omnipresent glow of the city on one side of my apartment and the building hallway on the other. There were certain forms of light that could never be blocked out completely.
I took my phone out of my pocket and checked for anything new. 3:02am. Who would answer me if I called?
The only distraction from Lisa and Sean was the fire in my crotch and the pulse and swell of my labia. I googled natural yeast infection remedies and scrolled through two separate lists of forty suggestions each, almost all of which I’d already tried: yogurt, oregano oil, coconut oil, tea tree oil, apple cider vinegar, honey.
With the lights still off, I shuffled over to the kitchen and took the jar of honey down from its shelf. I unbuttoned my jeans and pulled them down along with my boxers and, not bothering with a spoon, drunkenly scooped the grainy raw honey out of the jar with two fingers before shoving it into my cunt. When it melted to a thinner consistency against the illogical heat of my body I just pushed it in further, sticking my fingers as far as they could go in spite of the pain. Then I wiped off the excess onto the prickles of my pubes. Good enough.
No toothbrush, no hand soap, just fell into bed—a catatonic sleep marked by dreams of floods.
I woke up seconds from coming. Was Lisa back? I groggily looked around for context clues; perhaps it was my dream? She was still gone, probably at Sean’s by now. Why did I feel so good? The sting was still there, but only faintly now; it had given way to something much closer to pleasure.
I debated jerking off before going back to sleep, but finding it too contextually pathetic, I laid there until sleep almost arrived again naturally. That’s when I saw it: a black line streaming from the corner of my room toward me. I squinted and propped myself up.
I threw off the sheet and looked down at myself. There were thousands of them coming for me, making a direct appeal to my sugary yeast. Swarming the mattress. Their mass expanded into a whole flood; they entered and exited, some of them coming greedily back for more after their first turn. They’d been waiting for me.
My head rolled back and I let out a laugh, long and loud, surprising myself. I didn’t need to turn on the light; I could feel them all over my thighs, my cunt. They were taking turns inside me and dying in the sticky sweet. They had smelled me, a whole colony of them. I wondered whether there would be enough of me to satiate them.
I spread my legs wide, as wide as they would go. I fell asleep laughing and coated in honey and black and I fell asleep coming.
Heather Holmes is a writer and editor whose work concerns the specificities of the body and the built environment. Her writing has been published by Art Papers, The New Inquiry, ICA Philadelphia, The New Museum, Art21 Magazine, and SWAG PURGATORY. She lives and works in Philadelphia.
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