Angus By Sten Spinella (2017)

The Jennie Hackman Memorial Prize for Fiction, Second Place (2017)

The girl I was seeing had this dog, a real fluffy fucker, whose name was Angus. It was her boyfriend’s dog. She was taking care of Angus because his owner was studying abroad in New Zealand for the semester.

I was, finally, over my ex. The summer had passed with me spending its time seeing a girl I didn’t like but pretended to, and a girl who hated me as much as I hated her. After work I would drive to one of their houses or see my friends. The one who hated me did because we had met each other freshman year and I pretended to like her then, but I didn’t, and ended up hurting her, which I was wont to do because I’m not good looking, but I am smart, whereas if I was the opposite, meaning hot and shallow, then I would never hurt anyone, because they would just want to fuck me and be done with it. She has red hair. We had picked it back up again because we were bored and we knew each other. I’d go over her house late at night and we’d fuck in her hot tub and tell each other we hated each other and why before, during, and after.

My friends were keeping me alive.

After working my way through the summer I had convinced myself that I was happy being alone. Everybody knows I’m girl crazy – people were surprised that I was still single when junior year started, but I got by just flirting and messing around with a few girls. That’s why, when I matched on Tinder (this app hath giveth, hath taken away) with this girl Léa, I laughed and didn’t think much of it. Sophomore year I had developed a crush on her from meeting her that one time at the student newspaper banquet. We had spoken during production of the paper before – I was a copy editor and she worked on layout – and now we apparently had some time on our hands. The Tinder conversation went as follows:

Me: Hey

Léa: Hey, what’s up?

Me: Fancy meeting you here lol

Léa: I know, right?

Me: I thought you had a boyfriend. You bring his dog in the newsroom all the time.

Léa: Straight to the point, huh? I do, but he’s studying abroad this semester. We’re in an open relationship.

Me: Of course you are. Well okay then. How do we proceed?

Léa: Do you want to come over tonight?

Me: It’s midnight on a Monday.

Léa: So?

Me: I’ll be right there.

An hour later I showed up at her door with a half bottle of rum and some weed. She let me in and said hello then returned to the couch. I petted Angus for a while. What an adorable dog! So ready to accept your advances, and to lovingly advance upon you, tongue out, all five-and-a-half feet of him begging for a hug.

Léa’s roommate had a Tinder date over too. They were on the couch together. I sat on the beanbag chair adjacent Léa, who was also on the couch. We were watching a movie. I drank, cracked jokes, made fun of Léa a little, tried to act like I was above it, but I had never actually met someone off Tinder before, I mean I knew Léa beforehand, but still, the concept was baffling to me, and she was so goddamn beautiful, I mean really, truly gorgeous, she was born and raised in Paris before moving here at age 14, had short hair like a flapper, wore glasses and looked smart (and was smart) and had one of the best, most shapely asses I’d ever seen, and finally, around 3 a.m., we descended into her room in the basement. Angus followed us.

“Should the dog be down here?” I asked.

“He’s fine,” she said.

“Alright. So, thanks for having me. I guess I’ll be going home now. I wouldn’t want to intrude.” She looked at me for a moment then kind of laughed to herself.

“Shut up and get on the bed.”

I could barely control myself. She was so sexy. This wasn’t her first time doing this. She probably had boys over to keep her busy while he was gone all the time. We had drunk, sloppy, quick sex, fell asleep, then had sex in the morning, too, maybe because she felt bad, or because she knew it would be the last time, and I mean I was definitely happy, but I underperformed, because I didn’t know the chick, and she had a boyfriend, and like I said, she was gorgeous, and then we tried again in the morning, which was a bit better, but she left for class before I was dressed.

Over the next couple weeks I saw other girls but I really wanted to see her again. I’m not going to try and posture, it was honestly because she was pretty, that’s it, I mean she carried herself in this confident, awe-inspiring way, and we smoked cigarettes after fucking, which I thought was cool, and I made fun of her for being French, and her room was great and spacious and romantic, a candle lit on the bedside, music playing and everything, she seemed so intelligent, we had great text conversations, but it was honestly because she was pretty, that’s it.

We would see each other here and there outside her place. She was blackout drunk at a football tailgate and we drank champagne together and we made out for a while and held hands. She kept kissing my neck. One time we went to a mutual friend’s party and I drove her home while I was drunk, because she needed a ride, and then we made out for a good fifteen minutes on her front step, really impressive stuff, not too much tongue, like porn stars before the film starts, but then she smiled, laughed, said “not tonight,” and closed the door in my face.

I had to have her again.

She kept warning me away, she could tell I was too into it, I tried to play it like she was too into it, though, like she couldn’t handle seeing me because my charms were just too much and I would almost certainly whisk her away to settle down in Portland and own a bookstore, like I imagined.

It wasn’t until I stopped talking to her, until I had basically given up, that she came back. I went a week without saying a word to her – she texted me first once and we talked, but that was it. Every time we talked I would ask her if I could come over and she would make up some excuse as to why it couldn’t happen. Once she even told me she was seeing another guy instead. That was about the time I shut the hell up and got on with my life.

I copy edited from 6-9 p.m. on Tuesdays. She had the 9-12 shift after me the same day. She would walk in, all confident and sexy, Angus by her side, that big, grey, friendly Labradoodle, and I would try and talk to her shortly, pull up a chair next to her and her big computer, ask how her day was, and she would humor me, then I’d be on my way. I remember that this night was in November, because I had begun to let my facial hair grow. It was nothing special, but it was noticeable.

Usually, on these Tuesday nights, I would take my copy editing partner home and we would have sex and then I would kick her out. She was cool but there wasn’t any magic about it, for me, anyway. For some reason, that night, I wasn’t in the mood. At 1 a.m. Léa texted me and told me she liked my facial hair. We talked a little bit back and forth, but I wasn’t about to give in. She had held too much power over me for too long. Finally, at 2 a.m., she asked if I wanted to come over to “smoke and spoon.” I obliged.

This was performance art. We got high, probed each other, then she took off my clothes. We got onto bed together and afterwards, when she was breathless, and I was speechless, she asked me if I was seeing other people.

“Because you seem to have improved considerably.”

“Are you jealous?”

“Of course not.”

“What, you think I wait around all day for you? I got options, baby.”

“Well okay then. Nice.”

“There’s this one girl that likes me, but I don’t like her, and another who we work with, and then some British chick.”

“Good to know. I wish you’d tell me the one we work with.”

“No chance.”

“Why?”

“Because you know I like you more than her and then you can have that over her without deserving it.”

“I guess that makes sense.”

We got up to smoke a cigarette by her sliding door, blowing the smoke outside into the dark. Whenever we did this during those days I would try to reach into her and pull out some morsel of information, because she was so secretive, and I was quite curious, but it was only rarely that she’d give any of herself up.

You must understand that I had thought that I could have been with, like, dated, and stuff, two of the girls that I had seen since the ex. Neither worked out, they both had boyfriends. I told myself to chill and just let it ride. The truth was, I was having fun. But sometimes, in the dark, after a lonely day where I would ignore my roommates and only do some of my schoolwork, before I fell asleep, I would still find myself wondering why I treated my ex the way I did, why I had fought to leave her, and just what, exactly, was I doing now? For Léa to creep in, whether she meant to or not, whether she meant to make me like her or feel whatever that feeling is when you can’t rid someone’s name from your thoughts or not, was egregious. How dare she? With her established life, friends, and significant other? How dare she be perfect, how dare she ingratiate herself into the life I’d built, a life now based on merit, forceful writing, good grades, and long conversations with friends? And how dare she make me love this fucking dog who was basically a human and would bury his head into you and would tell you when he was hungry, when he wanted to be fed, when he wanted to be let out, and I would let him out, then play with him and walk back in and see Léa smiling at us and telling Angus to come to her, a dog who would jump on you, his paws on your shoulders, seemingly smiling, this impeccable animal who was not mine, but made me think of my dog Mozart who had died, because they both loved the people who took care of them so damn much, and would lose their damn minds when you walked through the door?

Smoke and spoon night started a trend. More like a schedule. Léa and I would execute our respective days then talk at night and I would come over. I began sleeping at her house regularly, with a couple exceptions in case she wanted to “maintain distance.” I started knowing her. She started begrudgingly telling me things. I had to dig, but she told me what she wanted to be and why (either manager of personal art collections or some position in a gallery), why she loved art so much and wanted to dedicate herself to it, why she took care of everybody around her like they shared her blood. She started telling me things, about her past, about her family, how hard it was to not speak a word of English while a sophomore in an American high school, started letting me in on her music taste, I started coming over earlier to watch movies with her and have her cook dinner for us, to get high with her.

Every now and then she would leave the room we were in to talk on the phone with her boyfriend. I would pretend I didn’t know what was happening. One time she did this immediately after we had sex. She jumped off the bed, both of us still naked, and into her bathroom. I rubbed Angus and heard muffled phrases through the door: “I miss you too baby,” “No, I love you more,” and the like. It was good. Didn’t bother me. Helped remind me what this was.

Every time I came over, Angus got more and more excited to see me, to the point that Léa said one day: “I think he thinks you’re his owner now…”

I loved Angus. I wanted him to die. He was so cuddly and the girls treated him like another roommate. I wanted to sell him off to the Chinese. He was so cute, everybody in the newsroom loved him, considered him journalism’s mascot. Every time I saw him I wanted to drop him off in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a leash and bag of dog food, the fucker. He was the best animal, the embodiment of loyalty, love, and affection, the reason we adore our pets and would never do anything to hurt them. I wanted him to go away forever, but I hoped he would tell the boyfriend what his girlfriend and I did every night.

I was doing pretty well with the whole Léa thing. Angus loved me, Léa liked me, and I got to have mind-blowing sex almost every night. She would cook me breakfast and dinner a lot and I had even started believing we could be friends when all this was over, smiling knowingly to ourselves about our big secret, our torrid love affair, our respective boyfriend and girlfriend on our arms.

That changed when I crashed my car.

I was on my way to Léa’s. It was midnight. It was raining.

“So when do you plan on coming over?” she had texted me.

“Right after I finish smoking this blunt with the boys.”

“Lol. I can come pick you up. That’s dangerous.”

“Don’t worry about it lady, I drive high all the time.”

“If you say so…”

Three cars stopped abruptly in front of me as I tried to choose a new song on my phone. I attempted to break but slid on the wet pavement into the SUV’s bumper. My car was totaled. His didn’t have a scratch.

I called her.

“Léa?”

“Yes?”

“I crashed my car.” She laughed.

“No way.”

“I wish I was joking.”

“Wooooow. I’ll be right there.”

She came. We stood in the rain, outside the car, looking at it, me wondering how this had happened, how I had simply killed a car I’d driven since junior year of high school, my first car, an important car. She took turns hugging me, kissing me, laughing at me, scolding me. We were there for two hours before it was towed. I embraced her tightly for a long time.

When we got back to her house, she made us food, we got high, and then we had slow, deliberate sex. I’d venture to say we made love. I almost forgot about the accident.

Her boyfriend was set to return from New Zealand in just over a month.

“Listen, I’m going to have to start seeing you less in the coming weeks.”

“Why?” I knew why.

“So we can make a clean break when he gets back.”

“Haha. Whatever you say.”

We went through the same routine. I would come over, we would have fun, have sex, repeat. I told my friends that I was pretty broken up about this. They told me I was stupid, that she was using me. So I told her she was using me.

We had finished, were about to go to bed, I was holding her to me under the covers, two weeks until Angus’s dad returned. The weaning thing wasn’t going well; if anything, we were seeing each other more.

“Léa, I gotta say something.”

She turned to me and smiled, as if she was expecting this. I had to pause. Her face was basked in brilliance, a few strands of golden hair framing her lips perfectly, her eyes jumping at you, challenging you.

“Sure, what is it?”

“Well, I, well, I think we both know, at this point, that this is more than, uh, just sex.”

“Mhm.”

“And, well, I wanted to say that I feel used. So I thought we might as well get it out in the open, that I like you, and you like me, and, I know that I’ve become your replacement boyfriend these past couple months.” She was quiet for a few seconds.

“I’m sorry that I made you feel used. But you’re mostly right. You’re right.”

“I am?”

“Yes. But that doesn’t change anything.”

“Okay. As long as we know what this is.”

“I do.” She kissed me then went into the little spoon position. “Can you let Angus out before we got to sleep?” she asked.

“Sure.”

Angus and I went outside and I closed the door behind me.

“Go potty, Angus.” He trundled off toward the blackness. After a couple minutes I called him back. He came bounding back to me, wagging his tail.

“Good boy. Now tell me what’s so special about your owner. Why does Léa like him so much? I mean, I’m pretty good too, right? My dick works and I can speak words coherently and prepare food and sometimes even tell jokes. I seem to make her happy, focused, I have a calming effect on her at the right times. Why him and not me? How did I end up here?” Angus jumped on me, a paw on each of my shoulders. We went back inside.

A week until the boyfriend comes home. He gets back on New Year’s Eve. She’s meeting him at the airport. This night is supposed to be our last together. It’s the beginning of winter break. We drive up and meet each other at school.

She leaves at one point to talk on the phone with her boyfriend, disappears downstairs. For the first time, this bothers me, I mean, it really gets to me. I go outside to walk around and punch the air a little bit. Her roommate follows.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing, just walking around.”

“You like mom, don’t you?” That’s what her friends call her.

“How could you tell?”

“It’s okay, everybody does. She just has history with him, you know? It’s not your fault.”

Léa comes out to the front step.

“What are you guys doing?”

“Smoking a cigarette,” I yell back. We rejoin her inside.

I pensively stroke Angus’s ears. We’re watching a movie. I fall asleep on Léa’s lap but can hear her say things like, “It’s okay, it’s his last night,” to the roommate. We go downstairs. We make love. I give her a letter.

Look, I had to. I didn’t have a choice. It was that movie moment where you have to tell the person how you feel. But in my fucking situation, that wasn’t all I had to do, no, I had to fucking persuade her to leave her boyfriend, to date me, good old me, relationship baggage me, writer with no real skills me, far-left-liberal wannabe Malcolm X me, sad, lonely, forgetful, irresponsible me, going up against this unknown entity, who is by all accounts handsome, charismatic, had chemistry with her, and, you know, was dating her, but me, desperate me, handed her this four page, single-spaced letter, left her to read it alone, told her I needed to do this, I didn’t have a choice, and she dutifully read it while I smoked a cigarette upstairs with her roommate, who had become a part of our melodrama.

I go downstairs. She tells me that it was beautifully articulated. And that she feels the same. She feels the same? She feels the same. She feels the same! But it’s bad timing, really bad timing. She isn’t sure she can do anything, she doesn’t think she can do anything, she’s upset about it. She has feelings for me. It doesn’t matter.

We say a sad goodbye outside my car the next morning. It’s uncertain. It feels like we’re going to see each other again. And we do, four days later, after she sends me a heartbreaking letter.

“…At first I wanted to be a short story, eventful but forgettable in the grand scheme of things. I can’t deny that I slowly started to want more though, that I craved the way you looked at me, the way you both stroked and stabbed my ego with underhanded compliments. I hate how true all your words sounded. I hate that you know exactly what to say and when to say it and that somehow, you manage to strike a chord every time and leave me speechless. I hate that you managed to pin down some of the deepest and darkest parts of me within a few weeks of knowing me. I hate that, somehow, it made you want to see me more. You exposed me and admired me; you made me question my morality and made me accept its lack of rationality…

“…You said you stopped pretending when I stopped treating you like you were nothing. I think that’s when I realized just how smart you were, and just how well our minds worked together. The respect I developed for you from that point on surprised me; I found myself feeling guilty, feeling manipulated, by your wits and charms and your ability to cut straight through my bullshit and make me look you in the eyes instead. Respect is not a thing I give easily, mostly because I’m a conceited bitch with an oversized ego and the attitude that goes with it, but also because I only give it to people who have earned it. Respect brings you on my level, in my mind at least, and makes me take everything you say to heart…

“You were my plaything, you were my cooking partner, you were the one who kept me warm at night and kept my insanity at bay. You were the one who made me laugh and annoyed me at the same time. You drove me nuts and calmed me down. You made me hate you, doubt you, hurt you and want you all at once. I’ll admit it; you made me need you at times too. I didn’t make you come every night for those last few weeks simply because I wanted sex, or your witty conversation. I wanted the way you looked at me when you first walked through my front door. I wanted the touch of your hands on the arch of my back when you pulled me closer. I wanted your kiss to drown my confusion temporarily, just long enough to forget about the rest of the world. I wanted the serenity that you brought to my room, casting away my solitude as if it were nothing. I wanted more of your pretty words, I liked what they stirred in me, I liked that they made me fantasize about something different, new, and romantic. I liked the idea of the modern writer and his dysfunctional muse, too caught up in her toxic cycle of drugs, sex, and alcohol to appreciate what was given to her.

“Timing is a bitch really, right up there with fate. They both entail a sadistic sense of humor. Looking back on the last year, I realized that I hated being alone, but I also couldn’t be with someone without proximity. I thought I was just too wild to be tamed, too much to be handled by one person at once.

“You’re what I want and I’m what you need, and as much as I wish it wasn’t the case, it’s just not enough to make a difference right now. You’ve forced me to face things I wasn’t quite yet ready to face, to reconsider a relationship that has barely started but that I have already gotten invested in. Somehow you’ve managed to spread doubts in my mind when up until now, there was such a blissful clarity.

“So I need time, I need to reflect on where I am, who I am, and what I want. I thought I knew, but then you showed up and made me remember who I wanted to be and what I could do with the proper support, and now I need to recalibrate. I refuse to settle, but I also refuse to give up. I need time to make more mistakes I can learn from, and form my own opinions on what my decisions are at the moment. Once I figure it all out, and if it comes down to it, I hope you’ll be the one standing there telling me ‘I told you so.’”

We hung out again, it doesn’t matter how or where. I told her she should be with me. She said she wasn’t sure. She said she had to think about it. Before we left, we kissed. She’d be back with him in four days. She made it sound like she’d rather be with me. I had to wait.

We were both at school for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, but we were apart. She stopped by my party and left before 9:30. Ten minutes after she left I had blacked out. I can vaguely remember, or I was told, that I did bad things, kissed girls I called my friends, danced with girls I usually keep a distance from, got violent with my door, got into twenty person bloody brawls with guys who were asking for it. I knew she was with him, sleeping with him, changing her mind, going back to him. She came over unannounced on New Year’s Day after our night apart.

“What happened? Why are you here?” I asked.

“I broke up with him.”

“You did?”

“Pretty much.”

“What does that mean?”

“We’re not dating, but we might still see each other.”

“Christ, I’ll take it, for now. So you’ll be coming with me to the party tonight?”

“No, I promised to hang out with him and his friends.”

“Ah. Okay then.”

“Sorry babe.” We hugged, we kissed, she drove away.

Three days later she was at my house in my hometown. My family was gone. She told me she wanted to be with me.

“Okay, then stop seeing him.”

“I can’t yet. It needs to be slow. I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want him to know why.”

She saw him a few more times after that. Never did anything with him, thank God. Said she only went over there to see Angus. In late January, she officially broke up with him. On January 31st, she was my girlfriend.

Now we do the same things we did that first semester except I don’t have to worry about him, just the future, just myself. Léa is good to me, and I’m trying to deserve it. Now I am in love and, despite all my deficiencies, I feel right, as if I wrote my reality into existence.

I never saw Angus again. I see Léa every day. The best part of every day is when we’re alone. I don’t need anything else. I don’t care anymore. She is the world, everything it promises to be, says it is, looks like, she is its embodiment, she is all there is, and I will never forget that, and I will always love her. Right?

An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents an unedited, full edition of this piece.

Cold Water By Catherine Hires (An Excerpt) (2015)

Collins Literary Prize Winner, Prose (2015)

Nia was still sleeping when I woke up. She was snoring loudly as I crawled my way down the rickety ladder that supported my lofted bed. I walked past her bed, her open mouth smushed ungracefully against her pillow, and made my way into the kitchen. I turned on the sink, pulled the hair out of my face and stuck my mouth in the stream of cool water that poured out from it. Rubbing my eyes, I walked over to the wide double windows of the living room and opened them. It was sunny for late September, and the chill of the breeze made the hairs on my arms stand up as it wafted through the screens. I was still in my going-out clothes from the night before: a black tank top and a pair of short-but-not-like-slutty-short shorts. There was black soot on my knuckles where I had rubbed my eyes from the mascara I had forgotten to take off.

I ambled toward the bathroom. The muscles in my calves and thighs were sore and tense, like I had been driving all night. I plopped down on the toilet seat and focused on my toes for a few seconds before I noticed the blood in my underwear. Blood in underwear is not foreign territory for any woman; it’s usually more annoying than it is upsetting. You’ve either lost a pair of underwear or you have to spend a good seven minutes at the sink scrubbing them in cold water. The blood in my underwear was less alarming to me than the clumps of almost-black mulch that were also gathered there. I could smell them from where I stared down at them: the smell of grass and woods. The longer I stared, the more I smelled: cigarette smoke, muddy petrichor and wet pavement, twinged with subtle notes of iron and cheap beer. I staggered off the toilet seat and looked at myself in the mirror. The eye makeup I had smudged clouded around my eyes like black-brown bruises. I leaned into the sink and got close to the mirror, running my ring finger along my bottom eyelid to wipe away what little waterproof eyeliner I could.

I looked down my legs for bruises, but I wasn’t really searching for evidence. I was as pale as I was the day before, remarkably markless. My quietly aching legs remembered the previous night before my brain and hands did, even as I stood at the sink scrubbing my underwear with the useless coconut-lime hand soap we kept there. The water made my knuckles almost numb as the black stains on them washed away. I let myself believe that the cold was why my hands were shaking for a full minute before I gave up on the stain and turned the water on in the shower.

I got into the shower with the intention of cleaning myself, but I just sat in the bottom of the tub while I waited for the hot water to turn cold and then warm again. The water intensified the smells in my hair, which had been matted with dirt and cinnamon whiskey. I let the foulness float away with the steam as I tried to cobble together some image of the night before that didn’t frighten me. Moments drifted in and out of my mind and melted together like the water pelting and rolling off my body, which looked even paler against the navy shower curtain.

I could remember everything to a point, but I couldn’t locate that point. The images were crisp when I closed my eyes, but blurred when I tried to string them together. My whole head, heavy with the post-drunken stupor that I was pretty well used to, felt vaguely disconnected from my neck. I remembered taking jelloshots, but the plastic flavor in my mouth tasted alien to me. I could remember avoiding someone, I could remember Taylor backing her car into a dumpster on the way out, and I could remember that I had forgotten my mostly empty bottle of cinnamon whiskey in the back of her car. I could remember kissing in the cold darkness and saying no and a hand over my mouth and again across my left wrist and cackling hysterically as he tried to put my shorts back onto me while I lay in the dirt. Sitting there in the shower, I laughed a little when I remembered that he tried to put my pants back on, and how bad a job he did of it.

By the time I got out of the shower, I had given myself a thorough, meticulous, mostly frantic scrub. Toweling off under the fluorescent bathroom lights, I felt less clean than I felt raw and red, like all my skin had been under the sticky part of a Band-Aid I had just ripped off. The tremor had left my hands and some tears had unwillingly made their way down the shower drain. The ache in my legs had crept its way up into my brain and I imagined it lining my skull, thick and black like the sludge you see on pictures of smokers’ lungs. My fingertips felt unfamiliar as I walked them over my flesh, trying to remember where the pieces of myself fit.

***

I walked out of the bathroom wrapped in my big orange towel. Nia, who was now awake but still sprawled out in her bed, with her laptop on her belly, said, “Girl, you need to take shorter showers. How was that party last night?”

“The party was pretty shitty, actually,” I answered, getting dressed in the corner.

“You got back pretty late last night for a shitty party,” she replied, not looking up from her computer screen.

“Yeah, well, Taylor may or may not have backed her car into a dumpster on the way out.”

Nia snorted. “Are you serious?” she asked, looking up and patting the Bantu knots on her head in disbelief. “How many people were in the car?”
“Eight.”

“Damn,” she laughed. “Is her car alright?”

“Yeah, believe it or not it looks completely unscathed.”

“Lucky,” she said. “But where was this party again?”

“Willy Oaks Apartments.”

“And what was shitty about the party?”

“Um,” I started. “Well, I didn’t really know the guys who were throwing it, you know? Also this weird fat guy was following me around all night and it was creepy.”

“Oh-kay. Why was he following you around? No offense, but you were wearing that huge flannel when you went out.”

“Well, there was a Star Wars poster in the apartment and I made a joke about it, and it was like this guy had never spoken to a female who had seen a Star Wars movie before, and so he followed me around all night trying to get me wasted.”

“Ew. Sexually repressed, over-attachable dorks are the worst. And he was fat?”

“Yeah, pretty fat. Kinda like a shiny, sweaty fat dude.” Nia squinted and stuck her tongue out. It was astonishingly pink against the brown button of her face. I laughed a little. “I’m going to get breakfast with Haley and them. You wanna come?”

“Look at me,” Nia replied. She was covered in blankets and propped up by at least five pillows. “I am not moving. Go.”

“Ok,” I laughed quietly, walking away. It was strange, but I was surprised by how easily I was able to pretend that it was a completely normal Saturday morning. The nagging pains in my thighs were my walking reminder that it was not a normal Saturday morning. Still, it was easy to fool Nia, and, waiting outside my on-campus apartment building to join a gaggle of brunch-craving college girls, I hoped that eventually I would find it just as easy to fool myself.

***

I was watching Haley apply a mildly disturbing amount of cream cheese to her bagel while I listened to her and Britney argue about the events of the night.

“You did not make out with Brian and Claire at the same time, Britney. Nope. No.” Haley was saying, flatly, her voice low and
cloying and her eyebrow cocked defiantly.

“Actually, she kinda did,” Rachel interjected, taking a bite of sausage as she gesticulated. “I saw it. Still not convinced it was a good decision though.”

“It was a good decision!” Britney said, with a flourish of her small hands. “We have gotten over all of our past grievances.” She
ran her hand through her electric pink hair. “Besides, it’s whatever, so.”

“That’s a really strange way of solving problems with your ex and his girlfriend.” Haley laughed. “You’re a stone cold slut.”

“Baby, I know it!” Britney joked.

“I am getting more tea,” I said, getting up. I had been sitting there for fifteen minutes listening to them prattle about nothing. I had thought that listening to them talk about nothing would be comforting in its simple single-mindedness, but after a while, annoyance broke through my private catatonia. The low hum of the dining hall was mainly composed of people talking about nothing. I felt mildly guilty about judging them harshly, but at the same time I was looking for anything to be even remotely angry about. I wasn’t going to give myself the room to think about my situation, at least not outside the walls of my small bathroom.

“I need more OJ,” Haley said, rising. She walked in step with me. “So,” she asked.

“So?”

“So did you have sex with that guy?” Her eyebrows were raised to match her playful smirk.

“Kinda yeah,” I sighed. I was trying my best to look aloof and nonchalant as I refilled my mug with hot water.

“Dude, quit walking around like a zombie,” she said.

“Regretting sex is like one of the main parts of being…” she paused, looking up for the right word. “One of the main things about being a part of our generation.” She laughed. “Besides, if you don’t regret it, you probably aren’t doing it right.”

“That’s healthy,” I said dryly, following her to the juice counter.

“I went on a run this morning while you were sleeping. Don’t tell me what’s healthy,” she grinned at me.

“Fuck you.”

“Shut up, bitch,” she replied. I rested my forehead on her shoulder while she refilled her cup.

***

In bed that night, I spent the majority of my time attempting to sink into my mattress. I couldn’t sleep for Nia’s snoring, but my mind was buzzing like a fly around a piece of meat. I thought that if I could build a wall around myself, somehow white out the memories I didn’t want, I could keep from rotting. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to invite that insincere “talking is healing” attitude from anyone I knew. Lying there, face close to the ceiling, I thought about what it meant to be a victim. I couldn’t be a victim if I refused to allow that night to exist in my mind. It couldn’t have been a crime if I wanted it, so I convinced myself that I wanted it. It took almost no effort to drop into the lie, to deny myself the thoughts I didn’t want to be thinking. I decided my brain was a malleable thing, to be sculpted and molded into the shape that I found most comfortable. I decided that my memory was an uncertain mechanism, and that the truth was not important as long as I avoided it.

Haley had watched me be led away by the hand at that party. I let myself believe that if she ever learned what happened, she’d blame herself. I let myself believe that forgetting was a way of protecting her from guilt she shouldn’t have to bear. It was a convenience that, in protecting her, I was protecting myself. I dreamed a million reasons to keep everything inside, not a single one of them was the fear that was slithering into my heart – that I was weak, and that my body was not mine.

This story first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.

A Tie By Joshua Couvares (2015)

Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, Third Place (2015)

Another shot. Tequila dried onto his knuckles, his fingernails. When he makes a fist, the skin between his fingers sticks together, like his hand’s one ball of flesh and bone.

It tastes like an extra-bitter version of Vicks nose spray is dripping down the back of his throat, the nervous up-and-down of his heel, the stick and unstick of his shoe against the grime on the bar floor.

He catches her watching him, like she’s calculating something out in her head, figuring the odds to a game he doesn’t know he’s playing.

Adam wonders how this would all end if it were a movie. But every time he plays it out in his head, the ending always changes.

“We shouldn’t do this,” she says, her hands resting on Adam’s belt. Her other hand pushes him against the siding of the building, its cold ridges digging into his shoulders.

It’s like he’s getting plowed into over and over again by a car made up of these little lines of white he keeps putting into his body, leaving less and less of him intact with each hit.

She’s laughing, leaning against the bar counter, staring right at him. Why’s she laughing?

It’s starting to occur to him that that’s what him and Rachel have been doing to each other for months — going at one another until there’s less and less of them left.

His phone buzzes. It’s his mom. He ignores the call, turns his phone off.

Adam’s gin and tonic slips out of his grip, all four dollars worth of it spilling out on the bar floor.

“I’ve never felt better,” she says.

Adam pictures Rachel middle-aged, married. What will she think of him then?

She says, “How good do you feel right now?”
She says, “How good is it to be in college?”
She says, “How good is to be this young?”
She says, “How good is it to be alive?”
She says, “How good would it feel to fuck right now?”

It sounds like a dare she wants Adam to take.

Adam’s almost sure he could have her right now, could bring her outside behind that parked Honda Civic where there’s nobody watching, could lie her down on the cold ground and dirty her dress, could feel his hands smear into the warmth between her legs, could feel the stretch of her panties while he slides them down her bare thighs, could feel the ache in his knees against the hard asphalt, could feel her small hands under his shirt so cold it burns his back, could hear the small slap sound of their bodies against one another, the heat and electricity of their hips and the screwed-shut eyelids and the tight breaths and stiffened limbs and loss of control.

“Here? In this parking lot?”

“Let’s be adventurous,” she says, her fingertips squeezing their way into his underwear.

Why not have her? He wants to fuck everything. He’d fuck the whole world if he could, because it seems like it’s always been trying to do the same to him.

But Adam keeps seeing her middle-aged, married with kids — older.

And what about the abortion she had to get because they’d been sleeping together, and what about the condom he doesn’t have, what about her boyfriend — and his friend — Tyler, and what would his mom think if she knew what he was doing?

His belt’s undone. She takes his hand, guides it between her legs, under her dress.

He doesn’t want this. He knows that, but he’s already doing it, and it feels good, how can he stop now? It’s different. It’s the same — same bodies, same tits, same ass. But different. He tries to get it over with as fast as he can, but his body is so deadened with alcohol and coke it takes an eternity, and when he finishes it feels like a tired yawn lost in a sea of noise. He gets up off the parking lot pavement, wipes off his penis with his hand, buttons up his pants, and looks at Rachel: she’s got that crooked twisted smile of hers. Like she’s happy because she knows she’s doing something wrong.

Never again, he tells himself.

This story first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.

Lights in the Night By Stephanie Mei Koo (2015)

Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, Second Place (2015)

Her bedroom lights haven’t been off for twenty-four years.

Oh, it is silly, isn’t it — to be scared of the dark? Yet here she is, shivering in her nightgown, far too tired to go to sleep.

She likes to think she is a reasonable woman. Those superstitions did not haunt her when she was younger, and why change now? Eighty-four is far too old for change. Eighty-four is far too old for such nonsense.

But she’s only that strong woman by the light of day. In the day, there are grandchildren and daughters and sons. There are hugs and simple I love yous and crayon drawings presented to her with proud smiles. There is the warmth and the smell of grass, and the colors, bathed by the sun, shine down on this moment, on this pedestal of her life.

She can’t see them at night.

In the night, he visits. His winter skin glows. He’s younger and his eyes are sharp, but his words are sharper and her heart is a soft peach. She tries to remember a time when they were happy.

You’re eighty-four. You’re supposed to be happy, she reminds herself sternly. The next thought is softer, sad:
Why can’t I be happy?

She shudders and tries to close her eyes, but she knows fully well that she’ll never get a good night’s sleep with the light on.

***

“Who are you?” he barks. “Get out of my house!”

The doctors said he wouldn’t be able to stand after the last episode, but he sure as hell is trying.

She blinks back tears that won’t fall. “It’s me, hun. It’s me.” But who are you?

He shakes and he stutters but she can’t tell if of anger or something else. She reaches for the phone – to call the police or the hospital?

“You aren’t my wife,” he manages to say. He is sitting down again but somehow this is worse. He is shaking his bottle at her. He’s not supposed to drink. “My-my wife’s twenty-two. She’s perfect. Not old. Not like you. I don’t love you.”

“Please remember,” she whispers. She hates this. She hates his twisted smile. She hates the tone of his voice. She hates standing here, quivering against a wall, a wailing cave-canary. She hates herself for wanting to hate him. Because she can’t. Not when this man here isn’t him.

Or is it?

The man laughs. It’s a crow’s laugh; the sound hurts her ears.

“Go away, Stella.”

The doctors say he needs to be monitored 24/7, but she flees before he could destroy her further. She knows it’s futile. She has given up on telling him her name isn’t Stella.

***

Small fires wink at her atop a cake and she kills them with a swift blow. Ghost-smoke trail from the candles and the room is suddenly dark. She doesn’t care. She can feel him beaming at her and he pulls her in for a hug.

“Happy—wait, how…” He shakes his head. “What’s…?”

Her eyebrows push together slightly and her delight feels like it was blown out, too. “What?”

He shakes his head again; his lips purse. “Nothing… Stella.”

She laughs at first. “I’m not ‘Stella,’ silly. Who’s that?” She stops laughing when she sees his green eyes cloud. Then they clear and he kisses her greying hair and she rolls her eyes.

“Happy birthday, Ellie-bean.”

***

Her husband comes home late nowadays. “Just work, Elle,” he calls it. “It’s busy at the office.”

“At 2:24AM in the morning?” she wants to protest, but he looks so tired, so worn out, (so guilty, but she doesn’t want to dwell on that), so she just motions him into her arms. He grasps her like she’s a lifeline. She squeezes back.

One night she stepped out of the tub and her raisin-skin did not swell back. One day he woke and his hair was eaten by the pillow. Yes, they’re still chasing their kids around, but soon enough Peter and Elena would be out of the house and on their way to their own lives.

“When things calm down,” he promises, “we can travel the globe. Like we said we would when we were young.”

“I’d love that,” she whispers.

“And I’ll always love you.”

Elle chooses to believe him.

***

“Wow,” Peter says. “Is that my sister?” The five-year-old peers at the pink bundle in his mother’s arms. Elena squirms, and Elle shifts the baby to keep her calm. Beside her, her husband laughs.

He chuckles. “Of course, silly,” he says, and ruffles their son’s blond hair. He’s taken after his father with his looks. “That’s my sister!” he asserts.

And this is my family, she thinks.

***

Her brown eyes study him when he sleeps and observe the gentle rise and fall of his chest. His warm breath just barely reaches her face. He’s not smiling— but he’s not frowning, either. She decides that he looks calm.

Elle smiles slightly at the sight of glasses still on his face. They help me see in the dark, he had insisted, accompanied with a wry grin tugged across his lips. She had laughed and told him there was nothing to see in the dark, turning off the light before climbing into bed.

The rhythm of his heartbeat lulls her back into a sleepy mood; she’s neither awake nor truly asleep. The sun from the window has not yet reached the bed, and she knows that when it does, it’ll cast its light on his hair: a golden halo.

She counts the freckles that scatter from his jaw to his shoulders, almost blending with his tan summer skin. There were twenty-four. Was it normal to want to kiss every one? Would it wake him up; would he squirm? She presses her lips to one on his shoulder to test it out, but he doesn’t react. So she inches her way up to his jaw, watching for a reaction. She leaves a promise behind with every kiss.

“Hi,” he whispers, sleepily, stirring at her touch.

“Morning,” she replies. And Kyle smiles, as radiant as the sun behind the curtain, and Elle smiles back.

This story first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.