Deep Spacehttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/11_30-hr.jpg?fit=1920%2C1440&ssl=119201440C.M. GreenC.M. Greenhttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/22CMGreen.png?fit=96%2C96&ssl=1
As I slip the bottle of mint-green nail polish into my pocket, I think that this will be the offense that gets me fired. It would be worth it; I don’t have anything in this color, and nail polish is one of about four things that make me feel like my body is my own. I can already smell the acetone I’ll use to strip my toenails when I get home so I can try this new shade. I look up and down the aisle, and there is no witness to my petty crime. There is no slick of disappointment, but neither is there a flood of relief.
I finish stocking cosmetics and then find Jo at the front of the store. Her fingers move with the speed and grace of a dancer, and her thinning hair is dyed auburn, with grey roots showing. Her bones are buried under soft skin, as though hidden by dogs under the earth, and her eyes are turned downwards at the outer corners. She’s checking out a customer, and I mouth Fifteen? She nods, so I slip outside, my covered limbs prickling with heat and humidity the second the automatic doors swish open.
As I knew he would be, Otis is sitting on the curb outside the Toano Walgreens with his vape pen. His bony legs stick out from under basketball shorts, dusted with sandy hair that matches his wispy beard. His neck, long and bent, leans towards me as I approach. “Dude,” he greets me, “Kelly texted me.”
“Oh, shit. Is she in town?” I sit next to him and pull out a cigarette. I know it’s going to kill me, but the vast expanse of my body becomes focused when I smoke, a single point. Knowable.
“She will be tomorrow. She wants to come over. Can you not be in the apartment?”
When we were seniors in high school, Kelly promised to marry Otis. Now, three years after graduation, she only talks to him when she’s in town and wants convenient sex. When she comes over, I drive down the Colonial Parkway. I park by the beach and sit in my car, staring out at the murky water lapping the shore, imagining the two of them together, thick limbs twisted like braided rope. I try not to, but it comes to me like piranhas.
“Yeah, no problem. I’ll be gone.” I watch the smoke from my lips, and I vanish with it.
“Oh, but next weekend, Mandy invited us to a party. She asked me if you would be there.”
My stomach twists. I’ve tried to avoid Mandy for almost a year, since we kissed last Fourth of July. “I’m going to Richmond next weekend.” My body is in pieces in the parking lot right now, but the thought of Richmond reconstitutes it for a moment.
“I want to visit my sister.”
“You’re not just avoiding any girl who might actually want to fuck you?”
“Dude, come on.”
He snorts. “You’re the only virgin I know who runs away from girls. You could have Mandy, or Lyla, or Eliza. If you wanted to. You’re so faggy.”
“Shut up.” I stand and kick his ribs. “Just because you’re a whore. I’ll see you at home.” My fifteen minute break isn’t over, but I hate when Otis talks about sex. It’s like tapeworms crawling into my brain, and I can’t think of anything else. When we were fifteen, he and Kelly slept together for the first time, and he told me every detail until I tasted bile in my throat.
Inside, Jo frowns at me, and I think she must know I took that nail polish. Instead, she says, “I hate when that boy hangs around outside. The two of you together are just creepy. You’re going to scare off all our female customers.”
I don’t respond. I slip off to the bathroom and cry a little, wishing I could punch the mirror that shows me the body that Jo sees.
Two days later, it’s Sunday and I drive to Williamsburg in the morning. When I pull up to Uncle Melvin’s house, he’s gardening in running shorts and a glaring orange sleeveless shirt. You’d never know he was a professor, seeing him here. He has a stomach that protrudes, but otherwise he is small in every dimension. His pale skin is marked with moles, and the top of his head peeks out from under his receding hairline. He straightens when he hears the car, and waves at me with his left hand, like he does every Sunday. I don’t get out right away, waiting for my body to gather into one thing. It only ever does when I’m here.
As I approach him, he smiles. “Could you call me a seamstress? For sowing seeds? Let’s get into the air conditioning, it’s awful out here.” He leads me through the front door of his small brick house. I’ve been coming here since I was a child, but it’s only in the last two years that I’ve made it a weekly ritual. When I stopped talking to my parents, Uncle Melvin called me. “Your father told me,” he said. “Come over this weekend. We can talk.”
Since then, I’ve spent every Sunday here. Like Uncle Melvin, the house is orderly and small. Each room is decorated with a meticulous eye for color, and there are shelves full of DVDs, which we watch at least two of every weekend. He leads me into the kitchen, grey with green accents, and pours me a cup of coffee. “How was your week?” I ask.
“It was okay. The first week after all the students leave is always strange. Lonely, I guess. It always makes me miss Louella.”
I nod. His daughter, my cousin, dead five years now. Sometimes, images of her mangled body buried in a twisted car tattoo themselves onto my brain and I can’t think of anything else. Melvin must want to talk about her; he brings her up often. I change the subject. “Any big projects for the summer?”
“I’m going to DC in July to look at some archives, but for now I’m just trying to relax. What about you? Anything interesting happening?”
He asks every week, and I never know what to say. My days follow a pattern and I’m usually too tired to deviate from it. “Not really. Just work.”
“Come on,” he says with a smile. “There must be something.”
I think about the yellow sun dress that came in the mail yesterday, the package I hid from Otis. I could tell Uncle Melvin about it. But even though he knows this about me, I worry that his love has limits. I worry that talking too much about things like dresses and nail polish will tire him, and that one week, he won’t be there on Sunday morning.
So I just shake my head. “Nothing.”
We spend the day baking brownies and watching The Thin Man. Myrna Loy’s body is long and lean, almost like mine. I rub a hand along the bones in my shoulder, for once sitting deep in my own body. I shut my eyes for a moment, and I am one thing. Tension drains out of me, like water from a burst dam.
We cook together, pasta carbonara, the smell of bacon fat saturating the kitchen. As we eat, I tell him I’m going to Richmond next weekend. “There’s a queer dance party at this bar I saw online. I took off Friday and Saturday, so I’m going to drive over on Friday.”
He smiles. “That sounds like fun. Is it safe to go by yourself?”
I like that he worries over me. I feel it in my back, like a rope hooked into my spine, tying me to earth. “I’ll be fine.” When we finish eating, I do the dishes as he plays an Etta James album. I imagine detailing the agony of mundanity, of working in Walgreens and living with Otis. I imagine asking about his wife, now gone five years.
Instead, I finish the dishes and say goodbye. “I’ll see you next week. Thanks for having me over.”
“Okay, Hailey. Have fun in Richmond next weekend.” He hugs me, as he always does. It’s the only time someone touches me and I don’t fly apart. He’s the only person I know off the internet who knows my name.
On Wednesday, when Jo comes into the store at noon, she approaches me and says, “You can work this weekend, right?”
I shake my head. “I put in a time off request last week. It was approved. I’m not working Friday or Saturday.”
“No, but see, Raquel needs to do something this weekend, and you know she has seniority. So you can work, right?”
“I—” My bones separate, scatter. “Please. I have really important plans this weekend.”
Annoyance in her voice, she says, “Can’t you just reschedule?”
“Yeah. Fine. I’m going to the bathroom.” Alone in the bathroom, I stare at the ceiling and blink back tears. I pull my phone out and type out a text to Mandy: Where is your party this weekend?
When Friday evening comes, I’m once again restocking cosmetics when a trio of the queerest kids I’ve ever seen in Toano walks in. I try not to stare, but they’re laughing, joking, touching. Hair purple, green, bleach blonde; mullet, shaved head, wolf cut; studded belt, leather collar, denim jacket coated in pins. They look trans, I think, and then I wonder if that’s an offensive thing to think. I feel an energy come from my fingertips and reach out for them.
They pause in front of the makeup, feet away from me, and I feel my face burn. “I like your jacket,” I say to one of them.
They look at me in surprise. “Thanks. I thrifted it at the CHKD. Pins are mostly from online, though.”
“I love CHKD,” I say, an animal need to keep them talking. “I got my favorite—” Skirt. I got my favorite skirt there. “My favorite outfit from there.”
“Is this color good for me?” another one asks them, holding up a purple lipstick.
They grimace. “Please, no. You’ll look like a scene kid.” They turn back to me. “We’re going to a dance party tonight, and she’s looking for an outrageous lip color.”
“Is it in Richmond?” I ask. My body is vanished and I am all heart, all blood pounding. “At Roxane’s?”
Their voice is surprised when they say, “Yeah, are you going?”
“I can’t. I’m working until midnight. But I wanted to.”
“What’s your name? Did you go to high school here?”
“Yeah, I graduated three years ago.”
“I’m Harris,” they say. “We graduated the year after you. It sucks being back here for the summer, but we like to go to Richmond when we can. I’m surprised we didn’t know each other in school. I thought I knew all the queer kids.”
“I’m not—I’m nothing.”
“Oh.” They give me a look that scalds my eyes, and I turn back to the foundation I’m stocking. “Well, have a good night.” The three of them walk away, shoulders touching. Each of my cells becomes a star, lightyears apart from each other.
By the time I get off work, Mandy’s party has gone nuclear, spilling outside, poisoning the street. Her house smells like cheap vodka and bodies, and the thump of a bassline decapitates me. I walk in and Otis calls out to me right away from a corner. “I do not get,” he shouts, “How you have so much game and yet you’re still a virgin. Three different girls have been asking me where you are. What is it that you have that they want?”
I take myself away from him to get a drink. Across the kitchen is Mandy, short, round, brown eyes bright, pink smile wicked, long straight hair begging to be tangled in my fingers. She approaches and takes my hand. “I haven’t seen you in ages. Let’s go somewhere we can talk.”
We end up alone in her bedroom, the wall plastered in photos of our high school classmates, and my body disappears into the pictures. I don’t know how to walk away. She sits me on her bed and puts a hand on my knee, the only part of me that still exists in this room. She talks about her brother’s wedding, the day-of drama, and I nod along. When she’s done, she says, “I missed you. Why don’t we ever hang out anymore?”
“I get busy.” Her chestnut hair reaches the small of her back, her crop top tight and revealing her soft belly, her denim skirt riding up her thighs. She is one thing. I want all of it. I glance down at what I can see of myself, and then I look at her mouth. It curves into a smile, and then she leans into me and we kiss.
“I’m so glad you aren’t like Otis,” she murmurs. “You’re what a man should be.” She pushes me down onto the bed, and I’m in a hundred places I’ve never been, woods and volcanos, the bottom of the ocean, the curve of the moon. I wonder if Mandy and Otis have slept together, and then I can’t get the picture out of my head.
I don’t realize what’s happening until I hear the sound of my zipper and I feel her hand, rough and impatient. I let out a gasp as she strokes me, and the sound of it startles me enough to remind me where I am, who I am. I sit up and push Mandy off of me.
She falls off the bed. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Sorry. I don’t want to—not like this. Sorry.”
“Jesus, I know you want to. You’ve wanted me for five years. Why are you such a little bitch about this? It’s just sex.” She’s still sitting on the floor, staring up at me like I’m an explosion. “I don’t even care that you’re a virgin. Is that the problem? Jesus, are you crying?”
I am. I zip my pants and try to collect my limbs. Back in the living room, I press through an anemone of bodies to escape, and it stings. As I’m walking out the back door, Otis grabs my arm. “Dude. You were in there for a while. Did you fuck her?” His grin disembowels me and my guts are on the floor.
“Fuck off,” I say, my voice breaking, and I slam the door in his face. His laugh worms into my ears as I walk down the driveway. In my car, I shake. It’s one in the morning, but I call Uncle Melvin.
He picks up, panic in his voice. “Hailey? Are you okay?”
“I—” A sob escapes me. “Can I come over?”
“Of course. Are you in Richmond?”
“No. Just Toano. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“Okay. I’ll make tea.”
When I arrive, the light is on in his kitchen. I don’t go inside right away, because I can’t comprehend his love, and I’m afraid that if I look at it too close it will vanish. I watch him through the window. The warm light of the kitchen renders him soft, like a camera lingering on a lover, as he prepares tea. After a few minutes, he glances out at me and I see recognition in his face.
He comes out and I unlock the door, and he sits next to me. My body is supposed to exist when he witnesses it, but tonight, it’s not coalescing. “What happened?” he asks.
“I’m just so tired,” I manage. “I’m so fucking tired. I don’t know how to keep living like this.”
He nods, and we’re both quiet for a minute. Then he says, “There are things in every person’s life that kill them slowly, and things that keep them alive. It’s a balancing act. You have to find and hold onto the things that make you alive. And try to root out the things that are killing you.”
“Everything is killing me. It feels like the world was designed to kill me.” When he’s quiet again, I rub my eyes. “I’m sorry. I woke you up and now I’m being depressing. I can go.”
“Come inside,” he says. “I made tea.”
Inside, we drink peppermint tea, the herbal steam clearing out my throat, my sinus, my mind, the warmth of the mug forcing me to exist. He doesn’t say much else. But he stays up with me for an hour and then offers me the guest bedroom. “For as long as you need it. Really.”
As I fall asleep, I think about the queer dance party I’m missing. Without knowing them, I miss the other people like me, the ones who don’t have to pretend. All the people who have knit their bodies together, blood and sinew and organ meat. All the girls whose souls reside between their broad shoulders and burn, burn, burn.