We sat across from one another on the sofa, our legs twisted together in a tangle of limb over limb, my fingers interlaced with her toes. Her anklebones crinkled beneath the back of my thigh as she tightened and released the muscles of her foot. Through half-closed eyes, I watched as she dragged a spoon across her tongue, the jar of peanut butter wedged between her hip and the back of the couch. She was staring off over my shoulder, at nothing.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Amy said.
She sighed, waved the spoon lazily in a circle. It glistened with her spit and the beige remnants of the peanut butter her tongue had missed. On her chin, I saw a thin sliver of saliva dripping down. I rolled my head back on the arm of the sofa, looked up at the ceiling. Green mold crept from the corner, framed by tea-colored water spots.
“I love him to death, you know? It’s just not what I thought.”
I nodded as Amy wiped the line of beige drool from her chin. She looked down at her sleeve, then at the spoon as it nearly brushed the fabric of the couch. I closed my eyes and let gravity pull my head down. My hair fanned out above me, brushing the floor. When I opened my eyes again, I was upside down, watching smoke unfurl from the ashtray on the coffee table. It curled up into the air, curled around Amy’s hair that curled around her cheeks like smoke. My fingers wrapped her toes and my body curved backwards over the couch.
Amy scraped the spoon against the sides of the peanut butter jar. I closed my eyes again and listened to the familiar sound of metal against plastic. Sometimes I would wake in the middle of the night and hear it, followed by Amy’s shuffling feet as she wound her way from the kitchen back to bed. Amy to me was the faint aroma of Skippy and the musky smell of morning.
The scraping stopped. Amy sighed, squeezed my toes, then unraveled her legs from mine. The space where skin left skin felt cold, like alabaster. Outside, spring was coming but still seemed a long way off. The days trudged along toward the warm months, but the air still carried the sharp bite of winter. Each new snow that fell felt like it could be the last, seeping into the ground in the days of warm weather before the next last snow fell. I wanted blues skies again, green grass.
Amy stood and went to the kitchen. I watched her, upside down, her feet smacking the ceiling, her head floating like a bobble. From the ashtray, smoke dripped down into the upside-down air. Amy disappeared through the doorway. I closed my eyes, opened them. Amy came back into view, still upside down, leaning against the doorjamb and holding a bruised-up banana. She examined the fruit in her hand, turning it left then turning it right. Smoke poured down over her, wrapped itself around her.
“I’m young, you know? I should be exploring myself.”
“Then break up with him,” I answered.
Amy sighed, turned the banana over again.
“It’s not that easy,” she said.
She stared at the fruit in her hand. Having considered its angles, she peeled away its skin in quarters. She broke off a piece, popped it in her mouth, licked her fingers. I thought about the way it must have felt in her hands, mushy and sticky with sweetness.
“I want to be fair to him, you know? I like him a lot,” she said.
I nodded, closing my eyes. I could feel my neck beginning to ache from the way it was hanging off the couch.
“You don’t understand,” Amy said. “You don’t know.”
I opened my eyes. Amy was taking another contemplative bite of banana, squishing the pale pulp between her fingers. The smoke dripped down, petered out. My hands were cold and my hair was brushing the floor.
“When are you going to get a boyfriend, anyway?” she asked. She leaned against the doorframe and her body was a sloping arc. She finished the banana and turned back to the kitchen.
I watched her go, her shoulders slightly slouched, her hips swaying, her hair pouring down her back, a river of auburn and gold.
Then it was John and Amy tangled together on the sofa. I took the floor, crouching before the coffee table where I rolled a joint on the cover of Amy’s anatomy textbook. The light from the streetlamp outside, seeping in through the slatted blinds, was yellow. I was thinking about the way it made everything yellow. The cushions of the couch were yellow. The wooden floorboards were yellow. The skin of John’s cheeks and my fingertips crumbing weed, yellow.
John had an arm wrapped around Amy’s shoulder, holding her close. They had to hold on because the couch was narrow. He wrapped his legs over hers, held her back from the edge, from falling. Amy’s eyes were closed. She might have been asleep, I couldn’t tell. John, though, was staring up at the ceiling. His eyes looked glassy. He pulled a lock of Amy’s hair away from her neck, hooked it over her ear.
“Don’t pull on my ears,” Amy said, brushing his hand away. “You’re always doing that, you know.”
She untangled herself from him, sat up. She looked away at the blinds that blocked out the dark evening, the yellow streetlamp. John pressed his palm into his forehead, shutting his eyes. On the cover of the anatomy textbook, there was a diagram of a man opened up to show all the organs. I ran my fingers over the glossy finish. The red and purple sacks looked like smooth pebbles.
“I don’t know why everything’s got to be such a big deal,” John said.
Amy stood up, shaking her shoulders like a horse shakes off flies. She walked past me into the kitchen. John watched her go, his forehead wrinkling into a frown. His eyes were dark brown, so dark they looked black, just a pupil floating in a pool of pink. I kept my head down, focused on rolling the joint. The weed felt good between my fingers, rough and sweet smelling and green.
“Is she on the rag or something?” John asked me.
I told him I didn’t know. John was a big man, tall and broad-shouldered. He had dark hair that curled into his face and always looked wet. We sat for a moment in silence, just the sound of the weed scrunching between my fingertips. Then he cleared his throat, stood up and followed Amy into the kitchen. I twisted the ends of the joint, ran my fingers along the smooth edges.
I lit up, then turned around so I could lean my back against the coffee table, stretching my legs out in front of me. On the tops of my feet, I could see red squiggles from where the grain of the unfinished wood had pressed into my skin under the weight of my body. I wiggled my toes, took a puff of the joint.
John and Amy were in the kitchen together, framed in the doorway. I watched them through the smoke. She had her back turned. I could see the tips of her fingers peeking out around her waist as she hugged her arms around her body. John stood a few feet behind her, explaining something with open palms. He took a step toward her, stepped back, stepped closer again. She shook her head, but her fingertips relaxed around her waist, letting go of the fabric they had been clutching. When she turned around, I saw the half grin that meant she had already forgiven him but didn’t quite want to yet. He saw it too and the lines of his frown unraveled.
She leaned back against the counter, crossing her arms under her chest. He accepted her challenge, came toward her, put a hand on either side. Leaning forward, he pressed his lips against the bottom of her neck and she relinquished, folding her arms around the small of his back. They kissed, still framed in the doorway. It was like watching TV.
They came back to the living room together and fell into the couch. He put an arm around her, leaned against her as his hand found her knee. She blushed and put her nose against the cradle of his neck.
“I’m going out for a walk,” I said, passing the joint to John.
As I put on my coat and headed out, I didn’t need to turn around to see Amy’s lips pulled into a stupid grin, and John smiling too as he clutched her shoulder in a tightening grip.
The next day, I tried hard to study. I shut the blinds against the grayness outside, turned on the yellow lamp. On my desk was a letter from the college, the jagged edges of the torn-open envelope like the mouth of an animal. It said that I couldn’t fail any more classes, that I was in danger of losing my scholarship. I hadn’t told anyone about it. I spread out my books, the notes I had scribbled in class. But whenever I turned a page, it was like the previous page had been wiped clean from my mind, forgotten.
My room was cluttered with laundry, dirty dishes, notebooks and folders. Empty soda bottles peeked from under my bed, black drops of Coke still clinging to their sides. As my notes sloshed in my mind, I wanted to wrap myself in my blankets, let myself drift into darkness. This semester wasn’t going any better for me than the fall had. Things were only getting worse.
I leaned into my fingers. They felt cool and good against the skin of my forehead. I rubbed my temples, closed my eyes, opened them again. The words on the page blurred before me. I swallowed hard, pressing my hands against my face as tears welled up in my eyes.
I heard laughter from the living room. John and Amy, coming home. His rich baritone mingled with her soprano as they chattered, spilling over into the harmony of their giggles. I pressed my fingers into my ears, gritted my teeth. They were laughing, laughing. One of them turned on the stereo and music poured through the crack under the door to my room.
I heard the shuffle of their feet, the ground shaking from John’s clumsy stumbles. They were dancing, twirling one another around the room. They would have the lights on, the music up. They would have each other, caught in hooked arms. I pressed my palms over my ears, pressed until it hurt, but their laughter only echoed louder and louder.
My ears rang. I began to cry. The tears were hot and wet on my cheeks. The music was still playing. I took a moment to pull myself together, to swallow back the bubbling tears, wipe my face on my sleeves, clear my throat.
I got up from my desk and opened the door to the living room. The music stopped suddenly. The room was empty. I stood in the doorway for a moment as evening crept through the blinds. I went to the kitchen, to Amy’s room, back to the living room. No one was home. I was alone in the darkening apartment, and had been for a while.
The apartment Amy and I shared was a twenty-minute walk from campus. The yellowed grass crunched beneath the soles of my shoes. I was supposed to be in class, reviewing before the midterm exam, but instead I headed home. The last snow had melted, but the air was still frosty and my breath fogged out in front of me. I thought about how the grass would feel against my bare feet: prickly and sharp and cold. I pulled my jacket closed around me as the wind whipped my hair across my face.
By the time I got home, my cheeks felt dry and the knuckles of my hands were rosy and beginning to fissure in fine lines. I took off my coat, rubbed my palms together. The lights in the apartment were off. It was still afternoon, but the sun coming through the blinds was muted and gray.
In the living room, the dank smell of weed mixed with the smell of sour milk, wet cotton, peanut butter. In a red plastic bowl on the coffee table, leftover Fruity Pebbles drifted in a shallow pool of purplish milk. It was mine, forgotten from a few nights before.
From Amy’s room, I heard them. The door was closed, the lights off. Through the wall, I heard them, not voices, but the rhythmic sound of springs straining, dull and rusty. It continued for a while, metal grating against metal. Then I heard Amy’s voice rising over the squeaks, whimpering, gasping, something between a cry and a moan.
Masculine grunts joined Amy’s rising sighs. I felt myself growing dizzy. I stumbled into the coffee table, knocking over the bowl with the Fruity Pebbles. Sour milk dripped onto the floor.
I went to her door, leaned my head against it. The grunts, the moans grew louder, more hurried. The springs creaked as though they would break. The mattress heaved beneath their combined weight. I ran my hand down the door, over the cracked finish until I found the doorknob. I turned it and pushed, but it was locked. My fingers crept up the door again. I knocked.
The sounds stopped at once. There was a moment of silence, a caught breath, before I heard Amy whisper something. I stood still on the other side of the door, but the floorboards creaked beneath me. Evening was gathering outside. The apartment grew darker and darker. I heard Amy whisper again, the rustle of sheets.
Then the door opened. Amy was in a bathrobe. Her collarbone flashed before me, then was covered as she pulled the robe tighter. Further in, John was still in bed, his legs twisted in the sheet that draped over his waist. He squinted, reaching up to rub the back of his neck. I saw the dark hair of his armpit, his chest.
“Hey,” Amy said, a little breathless. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I told her. My legs were going weak beneath me. I leaned against the doorframe. I could feel her eyes on me, looking hard into my face. The room started to spin.
“What do you need?” she asked, concern creeping into her voice.
She looked back at John and he gave a half-hearted shrug. She brought her pinky finger to her teeth and dug into the nail. With her other hand, she held on to the collar of her bathrobe, wrapping it around the soft skin of her neck.
“Nothing,” I said.
Amy stood there watching me. I knew I should walk away, let her shut the door again, but I didn’t think I could stand on my own because I was feeling so dizzy, my legs so weak. Her eyebrows knitted together on her forehead. She cast another glance back at her boyfriend, but John’s dark eyes were fixed on me.
The next night, I fell asleep on the couch. The sound of Amy’s key turning in the latch woke me up. The streetlamp outside cast yellow swatches of light on the opposite wall, but otherwise the apartment was dark. The fabric of the couch smelled like Skippy, sour milk, sweaty skin in the morning, Amy’s smell. I heard her in the kitchen, shoes knocking against the baseboard as she kicked them off, coat rustling as she pulled it from her arms and hung it on a hook by the door. I rubbed the grit of sleep from the corners of my eyes.
Amy didn’t turn on any lights, not in the kitchen or as she came into the living room. It was late and she’d been at John’s apartment. We had class the next day. I closed my eyes and listened to the pads of her feet on the wood floor as she drew nearer.
“Hello there,” she said.
I opened my eyes. She was a dark shadow standing above me, but even in the dim light, I could see the way the soft hairs on her forehead curled around her face, the rise of her lips as they converged into a pout, the soft place at the base of her neck where her collarbone dipped into her sternum. I didn’t know if she could see my face, but I smiled.
She sat down beside me on the sofa, curling her fingers around my toes. Her skin was warm. I wiggled my foot into her lap and she cupped my heel in her palm. She leaned forward, brushing against me, and took the remainder of a joint from the ashtray. As she flicked the lighter, her pale skin was illuminated in flashes. Her soft lips curled into a smile, the joint perched between them. Her eyelashes fluttered before the lighter went out and she receded back into darkness.
“You were waiting up for me,” she said.
I nodded, even though she wasn’t looking at me. Smoke billowed from between her lips. She wrapped her fingers around my ankle, gripped me tight.
“I’m glad,” she whispered.
She passed the joint to me, leaning into me as she did so. Her fingers crept up my ankle, under the cuff of my pants, along my calf. Her skin was hot against mine. I took the joint from her, but I already felt like I couldn’t breathe, like the air was filling up with hot smoke that seared my lungs as I inhaled.
She leaned over me now, pulled her body onto mine. I felt the weight of her against my thighs, my hips, my chest. Her fingers brushed the skin of my stomach above my belt as she pushed up my shirt. She was starting to glow with heat.
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” I choked before I felt her hands slide under my shirt, her palms like hot embers raked over my skin. Her weight held me down, made it hard to breathe. I clutched at her clothing, wrenching the fabric in my hands. She pulled my shirt over my head. I tore hers off. As skin met skin, it was like boiling water rushing over us, flesh searing flesh.
I couldn’t breathe. The air was getting hotter, beginning to fill up with actual smoke as our bodies came together. She pulled at my belt buckle and I heard the sound of the metal tongue flying open. Her hair spilled over her head and licked at my skin, as hot as her lips, her tongue, her teeth against my neck.
I had dropped the joint. It smoldered on the floor. The couch caught. Orange flames began to peek over the cushions, lapping at us like a tide rolling in. I couldn’t see. Smoke was filling up the room, choking me. More than the fire, I was suffocating from the heat of her body, from the pressure, from the deep white welts that cropped up wherever she put her tongue to me. The crackle of fire filled my ears, the sizzle of skin. Lips, teeth, tongue pressed together against the space below my ear and I felt the flesh melt off. She was killing me. I was going to die. The flames would devour us, our bodies would burn. I woke up gasping, soaked in sweat and still writhing from a night spent wanting.
The gray light was peeking through the window. Amy was asleep, in her own bed. She had the blankets pulled around her, wrapped in a billowing pile of flannel and cotton. The pile slowly rose, slowly fell.
I watched her from the door for a while. Her tangled hair fanned out behind her on the pillow. Her face was pulled into the frown of someone who is not dreaming. The room smelled like Skippy and sour milk, the musky smell of sleep still crusted in the eyes. Outside, another last snow was gently brushing the window, making no sound except the dampening whistle of the wind against the glass panes.
I heard the rumble of a car pulling into the parking lot. It was John’s, unmistakably. In a few minutes, he would come up the stairs, find the door unlocked, join Amy in bed. I stepped into the room, went to the window, shut the blinds.
I lay down on the bed beside Amy and slid under the covers. Without waking, she turned and laid a sleep-heavy arm over my shoulder. Outside, the snow turned to rain. Heavy drops pattered against the window. I closed my eyes, pulled the arm tighter around me.
© 2012 Colleen Fullin