Universal Love Story

by | Feb 13, 2024 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-Seven

You are not pretty, and that’s what I love. Jowls like a bulldog’s and white, chalky makeup that collects in the ravines between your nose and cheeks, turning to wet cornstarch when you sweat—and you’re always sweating.

I touch the lines of your neck where the moisture pools and think of a sideways accordion. In bed, I imagine playing it, fingering the flabby skin until you tell me to stop; it tickles. You grip my wrist and rake my fingernails hard into your throat. Like a gorilla would do it, you explain.

And when we’re in the corner store in Harlem where I tell you we’ll catch a bullet one day, I find you even more terrible and sickening that my heart and body swell. I watch Kinder eggs, lip balm, and little clappy hands disappear into your pockets—then your brassiere when you run out of room—and I’m sure I’ve never felt so alive, so much of a man.

Even in the summer, when you tell me you want to jump into the Hudson River wearing nothing but a masquerade mask, I laugh and say, You’re crazy, you’re wild. And I buy you a mask with feathers and gems and tie it to your head. I sit on the bank and smoke as the police yell and yell, and you splash and wave, looking braver than any other woman on Earth.

It’s when you sit me down one night and ask me to take something for you—something small, anything, that lipstick you’ve been eyeing for months. Can’t you do it yourself? I ask, and you get angry. You break the mirror with one messy slash and reach into the potted orchids, hurling handfuls of soil across the room at me. Your arms are flailing like an ape’s, in a swinging rhythm, and I’m scared and turned on at the same time.

I want unsophisticated, you say. I want dirt and love. Real, hot love. And I leave before I can get any more soil down my collar.

In my apartment, chilled by autumn, I file you away with all the other unspecial women. It doesn’t take me long to forget about you, but dementia’s haze clears now and then, when I’m holding the wattle of another woman and my fingers start moving, playing the ghost of an accordion.

Years later, I meet you again on the TV screen. Gaunt and ragged, pupils ringed with petrified white in the camera flash. And I’m glad to see that the space next to you on the news report is as empty as my bed. I shut my eyes and remember your head under my chin. Sticky breath, murmuring your dreams of matching mugshots and life in the jungle.

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