Jennifer Pashley is the author of the story collection States (Lewis Clark, 2007). Her work has appeared recently in BLIP, SmokeLong Quarterly, PANK and Mississippi Review. In addition to the Esoteric Award, she has also been the recipient of the Mississippi Review Prize for fiction (2009) and the Red Hen Prize for Fiction (2005). Visit her website.
Pushcart prize nominee
Love destroys you. Sometimes it crawls right up into your lap and wrecks you from the inside out. Gray knows that. If he knows anything, he knows that.
And still he goes ahead. In that last second, with his insides twisted up into his throat, and Kenyon's face so close, Gray says, Wait, you're … But Kenyon stops him. With just a Shh underneath his ear, he stops him.
After, Kenyon says, You started it, to Gray, like they are boys playing tag. You started it twenty years ago. He sits on the edge of a hotel bed, with the flash of a muted TV on his face, lighting him up with expressions that aren't actually there, just the movement of reds and greens and blues.
Why'd you wait so long? Gray says.
What you said was past tense. You used to say, “You're missing out.” He mimics Gray's movements with his shoulders and hips. But this time, Kenyon says, you said “Missed. You missed out.” I didn't like that, Kenyon says.
All this time, Gray says, and it was a past tense verb that got you?
I didn't want it to be over, Kenyon says.
But he fears it is. Gray expects Kenyon to look unhappy, to look the way Gray feels, shook up, like his insides are coming loose, will fall out, tumbling out of his mouth like a magician spitting out coins. But instead, Kenyon lies back on the bed, with his belly and his thighs loose, his eyes closed, his mouth open.
Pour me a drink, would you? Kenyon says.
. . .
They shoot pictures on the sidewalk. The scene is a boy in a chicken costume, holding a sign that says Harold's Chicken Shack. The boy looks disgusted, looks annoyed, looks like he is out of college or grad school and wearing a chicken costume for a job that pays less than minimum wage. Which is exactly what he's supposed to look like. It's an ad for student loans. Don't put yourself in this position. The chicken position.
Kenyon shoots it himself. Gray sits on a brick half wall, not directing, playing with his mobile phone. He watches Kenyon. The wind, sudden like a wall, almost knocking him over. The Chicken Shack sign, taking flight.
They pay the boy several hundred dollars. Tomorrow they will shoot a woman behind a desk pretending to be a financial aid advisor. In between they'll have dinner, they'll have sex, and they won't talk about it. They'll walk around, in a city where no one knows them. Where they could be anyone, doing anything.
. . .
Gray pretends. They walk on a narrow street of shops with books and wine and chocolates and little glass elephants. He pretends Kenyon is his. That they have paired off, maybe even married. He thinks about slipping his hand into the triangle space left by his elbow, about walking down the street connected. He watches the movement of Kenyon's pants, pressed, easy. His long legs inside them. His torso, reaching for a paper lantern at an outdoor kiosk. He tips it and it sways, orange crinkled paper with a bare bulb inside, the light over the sidewalk back and forth like a cop's torch.
. . .
The woman who plays the financial aid advisor is a slut. She is all over Kenyon. She comes in with her blouse part way undone and says she has come from another shoot. They are in a school. School's out. She's supposed to stand by a blackboard behind a desk.
She notices her button. My God, she says to Kenyon, leans and puts her hand on him. I hope you don't mind. I'm kind of keyed up, she says. I was shooting for The Wire. We were shooting a sex scene. I'm all keyed up, she says again. Then she takes the blouse off completely, changes into the outfit that the financial aid advisor would wear. She does it all in front of Kenyon. And Gray, who watches with less interest and more bile.
Kenyon smiles into a coffee cup and turns his back. He raises his eyebrows at Gray. Because of course he notices. He notices women. He has a wife.
. . .
Louise is Kenyon's wife. Gray has been best friends with Louise since they accidently slept together in college. He says accident because there's no better way to describe it. A funny mistake. They weren't attracted to each other. They were attracted to Kenyon. Only Louise married him. It's a real problem.
Back then, they sat outside at Commons, at a wooden table in the sun, drinking iced tea and Louise said to him, Are we going to have a problem?
And Gray narrowed his eyes, crossed his legs at the ankle. Why would we have a problem? he'd said.
Because you're in love with my husband.
She was beautiful. Still is. Her hair, with a habit of flipping the way she doesn't want it to, whichever way she thinks is unfashionable, in or out, but perfect no matter what. Now, with a faint underbelly of silver above her ears, when the wind moves it backward, or lifts it off her shoulders.
Of course not, Gray had said.
. . .
He has a couple of real low points and then goes to confession. Not because of the low point, and not because he feels like confessing them. It just sort of turns out that way, in that way that your mind tells you want to do, before you even know what's happening.
They ride in Kenyon's station wagon at lunch time. Kenyon just keeps driving and not talking, the radio on between them, satellite jazz, until he pulls into a random parking lot, way off the highway, miles from the office. It's an abandoned mall, a Fotomat hut in the middle of all the parking spaces. Off to one end, an old Ames department store that was turned into a Fun Junction, both of them gone, the windows papered over. Kenyon pulls the wagon around the back where there is nothing but trash and graffiti. Gray buries his head in his lap, wriggling. It's not enough. He wants to fuck him. When he sits up, he's about to say this, he turns to see if the seats are able to fold down. Imagines them banging knees and elbows in the front seat. Kids go by on bikes. Four of them, boys, about fourteen, in black with knit hats and low rider BMX bikes.
Great, Kenyon says.
We're not in your neighborhood, Gray says.
When they park back at work, people see them get out. It's okay. They use the word partner. They've been partnered for years. Lunch is nothing. In front of the elevator, Gray says, I'll be up, and then goes outside. He turns back once, sees the side of Kenyon's face, looking down at his phone. His pants, creased. His shoes, shiny and square.
Gray walks with no destination, down one block, onto another. In days, the trees have unfolded full leaves. The sun, bright and warm. Dogwoods like some kind of miracle, growing up out of the pavement. When he circles back on another street, a one-way cobblestone, he curves into the church. Into the side door. Confessions are in full swing. Which means two other people are there. Both of them women. Both of them old.
It's not a confessional you can slouch in. He imagines collapsing inside, back against the wall, speaking into an amber grid to a pair of lips on the other side. This is a bigger room, brighter. A kneeler on one side of bamboo shades. On the other side, a priest younger than thirty. Polish. We don't have young priests of our own any more.
Gray tells him he hasn't actually confessed since he was a teenager.
What was it then? Father asks. Zbigniew. Gray doesn't know how to say this, just sees it, the word, in its type in his head: Father Zbigniew Swicki.
Boys, Gray says.
Now? Father says.
I stole someone's husband, Gray says.
A long silence.
Well, not yet, Gray says, because it doesn't feel complete, but like the wanting that to happen, that's the sin. This intense wanting. He sees himself as an infant, on his back, his mouth an open O, shouting: I want! I want! He realizes then that he forgot a mint, that he is leaning into the bamboo screen with Kenyon on his breath.
The priest sighs. Gray has seen him before. Blonde with a wide Polish face, square hands, big green eyes. Gray, the priest says, long, like breathing.
. . .
He goes to Kenyon's office, and the account executive he finds difficult is coming out. She wears camel and bone spectator pumps that are irresistible. Bare legs. A flared skirt. Her shirt, open to a low freckle. She looks over her shoulder at Kenyon, nods at Gray. They find each other difficult. She thinks Gray is a diva. He thinks she is a bitch.
He sits on Kenyon's desk. His knees, near Kenyon's shoulder. Around them, the stuff of Kenyon's office: toys, collected and still in their packaging, action figures and Hess vans, pictures of vacations, and children, the big wooden oar that says Saranac on it, hanging high up on the wall. One time it fell, just missed cracking Gray's skull. Maybe that should have done it. He can't stop thinking up ways to die.
Kenyon says, Do you have the job jacket for the Chicken shoot?
But Gray kicks his door shut with his toe.
No, I don't, Gray says. The door just misses clicking shut. He waits. Kenyon clicks at his keyboard, he brings up windows, his phone vibrates on a back table. He has work spread out on the floor in a system that only Kenyon and Gray understand. If he was gone, Gray could come right in and figure out the last thing Kenyon worked on, the most important thing, the thing that could wait until next week if it had to. All of them, with urgent pink sheets on top. Numbers, budgets, account executives, difficult bitches assigned to keep track of budgets.
Kenyon says, I set up a shoot for Empire in Austin.
Austin might be the only place in Texas Gray would ever go. There's no question there, about whether or not Gray will go or should go, about what is in the budget for creative direction, for concepting, for travel, for talking on the phone until two am, for text messages with filthy implications. He doesn't ask. Kenyon just puts his fingers behind Gray's Achilles tendon and says, Clear the third through the sixth.
. . .
Maybe it'll be a plane crash, Gray thinks. He sees them sitting there, side by side in coach. The sudden turbulence. Panic. Masks extended. Sees himself taking Kenyon's face in his hands. I love you, he says. She was right, Louise was right all along. It's you. You're the one I want. I love you I love you I love you. You. You. But there's so much noise: the stainless steel beverage cart crashing down the center aisle, screaming; the thump of luggage stomping down from the overhead compartments; praying; the voice of the captain over the loudspeaker. Kenyon doesn't hear him. In the end, they don't even crash. And much later, Kenyon would have to ask him what it was he said on the plane.
They sit in the Chicago airport facing the windows on separate seats that are hot from the sun, hot and pliable now. They don't face each other, just look out to the tarmac where kids move around in vests. One of them a girl in braids. They look so small. Her orange vest puffed and large on her shoulders.
Kenyon says, I was married to an air traffic controller.
It has occurred to Gray that Kenyon is delusional. This is one of those times. He says, I've known you since you were nineteen. You've never been married to an air traffic controller. The time before nineteen, Gray thinks, doesn't even exist.
I might have been, Kenyon says. He looks. He raises his eyebrows. It feels sincere, so Gray takes it so. Kenyon smiles.
Why do you do this to me? Gray asks. He feels his face stretching. The sun, so warm he is already sleepy.
Because we're married, Kenyon says.
It's on, Gray thinks. He feels a terrible ache that he has learned to quell, that he is relearning to let erupt. He wonders what kind of room they'll have in Austin.
. . .
The flight is smooth. He loses his peaceful feeling though, when Kenyon falls asleep. He leans his head toward the window and his knee falls open and rests against Gray's. The touch vibrates and annoys him. When the attendant comes by, he is a tall and slender black man with an English accent and beautiful bones. He gives Gray a ginger ale and looks over to Kenyon, sleeping.
Gray says, He'll want a diet Coke.
The attendant nods to Gray's expertise, and when Kenyon wakes minutes later, he says, You got me a diet Coke, and Gray doesn't even look up. Kenyon looks out the window at the faint and distant squares below, the veins of interstates, an occasional lake.
Kenyon says, I always imagine angels.
Up here? Gray says.
Holding us up, Kenyon says. Holding up the plane. He turns, his eyes slanted and sleepy still.
. . .
There are three children. Two girls and a boy, fifteen, who is undoubtedly Kenyon's son, and Louise's boy. Her baby. The youngest, Cole. He's soft around the edges, dark haired like Louise, but with Kenyon's mouth. He writes poems. He breaks Gray's heart a little. Maybe it'd be him. He could kill Gray with a kitchen knife. It would be Greek in its sadness, in its depth.
. . .
You're going to break my heart. That's what he tried to say, when Kenyon shushed him, his lips, right there, his breathing, hot on his face, his neck. His hands, around Gray's ribcage, like the indentations were put there, were molded for Kenyon's fingers. Shh.
. . .
When Gray slept with Louise, he was blinded by her. Her body, like it had developed inside a sieve, inside a corset from a hundred years ago. The waist, a thin pinch. Her hips, even before children, spread and full, her breasts, white and pink and round like balls. Her neck, long, slender, pulsing under his fingers. Her hair then, longer than now. Over his face like a curtain.
They were drunk. Gray more so than she. In her little apartment on Fountain Street. On the green sculpted carpet. They'd gotten Indian take out. Had two bottles of Chardonnay. Louise smoked. Afterward, Gray smoked too, even though he did so only when drinking. They sat in the living room, with the TV on mute and Louise still naked, still just sprawling like all that beauty wasn't too much for one dismal little room, wasn't too much woman, too much femininity for one man to take, her hair down her back, over her shoulders, under her arms even, back then she didn't shave. Between her legs, but contained, a shimmer still. She rubbed her open hand down the lower part of her belly. Turned her head to Gray.
Have you noticed Kenyon Smith? she said.
He could've come again. Sure, he said, and burned hard inside. Like coal. It might burn forever.
. . .
Austin burns with heat Gray has never felt before. Kenyon lived part of his childhood in the South, has an affinity for bourbon and pecan pie, for this kind of warmth that sets on your shoulders like a mantle of fire. Their clients pick them up and drive them around town. Gray sees a man who looks like Colonel Sanders, protesting outside the state building. Taco stands. A trailer selling cupcakes. Kenyon's hands and legs spread over the back seat. The driving client talks on. Kenyon's hand, flat between them on the seat, his pinky, a hair’s width from Gray's. He leaves his hand like that. Gray, like electricity moves through his veins.
The clients are young, fifteen, even twenty years younger than Gray and Kenyon. They are both named Ben. It's hard to tell them apart in other ways, too, like the ways in which twenty-five year-olds are sloppy and delicious at the same time. They put Gray and Kenyon up in separate rooms in a downtown hotel that overlooks the bridge where the bats fly out. When Gray opens his room, Kenyon follows him in, walks past him to the window. He leaves his suitcase by the mirror.
Where's your room? Gray asks.
. . .
In the night he thinks of a thousand bat bites, of the bats coming out from the bridge at dusk, breaking through the window in a spray of blood and glass, all of them lighting on Gray, biting, sucking him dry. It's comforting, he thinks, to think up these violent ways to die, because he realizes, underneath Kenyon, that this is what is killing him. That he will die slowly from a broken, leaking heart that fills up his torso with blood until he is nothing but mush.
. . .
They have an extra day, and Ben and Ben take them to a winery that is two hours away. Gray says he didn't know Texas had wineries. Ben says pretty much every state has them. He wears shorts and a cuban. Gray thinks he is wrong. There are no wineries in Kansas. In Nebraska. In fucking South Dakota.
Kenyon comes with linen pants that Louise has pressed, that have wrinkled inside the suitcase.
They look better that way, Gray says in the room, in the morning, with yellow light coming through the panes. He wants to take everything Louise has touched, wants to wad it up in his own hands, wrinkle it until it can never come straight again.
They put gas in Ben's SUV, and the other Ben reads aloud from a book of business advice that a guy they know has written and self published. It is terrible, but funny. He reads in a comic voice, loud and accentuating the more ridiculous phrases.
Fear only yourself in the face of real success, Ben reads. You can make or break your own destiny.
At the gas station on the outskirts of town, Gray spots a man on a bicycle that has two giant tidy cat containers strapped to the back of it. He has a ponytail and skin so sunburned it is like deep oxblood leather.
Oh, see this guy? Ben says. He puts the book down. Kenyon looks out Gray's window, his face near his shoulder. He's got four books of poems, Ben says.
Really? Kenyon says. He looks homeless, Kenyon says.
He is homeless, Ben says. But he was my professor for a while. Then he snapped. He published all those books before he was thirty, he says.
Are they any good? Kenyon says, as if this makes a difference.
They're great, Ben says. It's too bad. They all watch for a minute, men inside a chilled box, while the man picks green glass bottles out of the trash, piles them into a milk crate that is bungee corded to the back of his bicyle.
Gray gets out of the SUV then, and goes around to the side of the building where the men's room is, but it's locked. He leans his face against the pressed metal building, which is white and rust and covered in dirt. He can't stop crying, and by the time Kenyon comes to get him, his face has mud on it.
. . .
A cowboy band plays at the winery. Gray thinks of wineries as having string quartets, or maybe jazz ensembles, but in Texas they have cowboy bands. They wear hats and boots and pick guitars and banjos and one of them plays a fiddle. There's a pavilion, with tables around a big dance floor and ceiling fans turning overhead. Some of the songs are so sad that Gray can barely keep his head up.
They buy six bottles of wine for the four of them, and Ben One has packed a lunch of cheese and bread and sausage and apples. Kenyon wends through the gift shop, picking up trinkets and putting them down.
Are you looking for something? Gray asks. He watches Kenyon put back a glass wine topper that looks like swirled blue ice cream.
I'm looking for you, Kenyon says. Gray sees the sales girl, a twenty something in a tiered skirt and a peasant blouse, sashay away from Kenyon, her hand off his arm. She looks back.
. . .
In the night, he leaned over Kenyon while he was sleeping and he mouthed the words, Do you love me? to him. They barely came out. Kenyon didn't hear him. He slept on his back with his mouth closed and his chest flat, his one arm snaked around Gray at the waist. Gray pressed his nose into his collarbone. He thought about the building collapsing. About being happy.
. . .
There's a couple dancing. The woman, about Gray's age, with wavy brown hair to her shoulders, and an earthy face. Someone who might ride horses or love dogs. A woman who gardens without gloves. She wears a white dress that is jagged at the edges like it's in rags. The top of it is off her shoulders and lace. She has on brown cowboy boots and silver bangle bracelets. She dances with more than one man, but the one she dances with the most is older, maybe sixty, with a brown hat and a small paunch.
He puts his hands on her like they belong there. One in the small of her back and the other holding her hand. They move like they could on water, or air, without looking or counting or paying attention to anything but each other. It's hard to see the man's face, but her face tips up to him, her eyes never stray. She looks at him like she is lit from within. She tilts her pelvis in, and he dips her, and the people watching applaud.
. . .
In the night, Kenyon's hands fit him like he was molded for them. Gray thinks of the woman and tips his face, his hips. He lights from inside and glows, he thinks, like his skin is made of paper.
. . .
On the last day he goes to see the bats. He stands on the bridge by himself, waiting for Kenyon, who is late, who will not answer his phone, or any of Gray's texts. Going to see the bats, he writes. Where are you? he asks. He doesn't get a reply.
The bats come out like a black curtain against orange sky. They fill, solid and then disperse. They are bigger than Gray thinks they will be. Like birds but clumsy, darting. He watches with other people, who disperse, after the bats leave. It gets dark. He stays on the bridge by himself.
When Kenyon comes he is open chested and relaxed in a way that Gray has always recognized, but now knows differently. When he gets close, Gray tries not to breathe. Whatever it is, he doesn't want to smell it. Instead, he smells the river, exhaust, smoke from a barbecue pit on the other side.
Shall we? Kenyon says.
You missed it, Gray says.
Don't say that, Kenyon says. He puts his hand at the base of Gray's neck and they walk toward downtown. He wonders if it's safe. Kenyon's hand. His neck.
. . .
At home, Gray goes to Louise like a broken doll, waiting to be restrung, waiting for her to notice his loose limbs, the hole in the back of his head that needs plastering. She looks at him in the front hall, and says, Oh Gray, and pulls him inside.
They have a long wordless moment where he feels his chest caving in, the bones breaking, his spine curved like a C. He folds inward. Louise takes him to the living room, to the couch, but they end up on the floor, lying, forehead to forehead, rolling into each other. She kisses Gray's cheek. She strokes his hair away from his forehead. He holds her hand. In another universe they would belong to each other, but here they are, satellites of the same man, both of them, burning with anger and shame.
Cole comes in after school and they are still there. He holds a marbled notebook and stands in the doorway, looking in. He shakes his head, and Gray sits up.
Cole, he says, but he has walked away, his feet slapping on the wooden stairs that go up to the bedrooms.
After, Gray sits at her kitchen table, in the full sun of a late Tuesday afternoon with coffee cups that Louise bought at an antique store, dainty cups with saucers, with rims lined in gold that has flaked off, that might flake off and kill you if you ingested enough of them. He thinks about going this way. About being poisoned from the inside out, by gold, from her coffee cup, instead of wrecked from the inside out, from fucking her husband. Louise gets up and reaches for the pot to pour them a second cup, and he works his way around the rim, flaking off as much gold as he can.