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"Certain Human Lips," short story excerpt

Saturday 3/19/22

A young woman wakes up at mid-day, and leaves her room to make toast, which is all she wants to eat, or what she thinks she should eat, or all that she will be able to keep down.

Her friend sits in the common room, sans makeup, but showered and looking scrubbed, reminding the young woman of a white cat she had as girl after it had fallen in the tub, fur sticking to its body for an hour afterwards, its nose a polished lychee. The cat enjoyed baths, and would descend on purpose after a perfunctory show of perching on the edge, a few mincing paces back and forth.


The friend has squeezed droplets of pus from her nose. It’s something she does every morning in the bathroom mirror, door ajar, and has no compunction of doing and will do in front of any female with whom she lives. Even from five or six feet away, the young woman can see the telltale, freshened pores like pits on the face of a strawberry. It’s 2:30 and the friend is drinking wine. A muted phone on the battered chest that serves as a table in front of the couch intermittently squeaks, traveling a few centimeters in its vibrational bounce as another missive comes through, unchecked. They’re piling up, like a stack of shingles that one can convert into words whenever one so desires.


“You and Peter were going at it hard all night,” the friend says, by way of observation and question, too, because she used to have at thing for Peter. Still has it. And last night was both a first and a surprise. Not those two, the friend thought, from within her own room, in darkness, listening, comforter askew and ultimately discarded. They’d each known Peter well—really well—since sophomore year.


The young woman wants to ask if the friend saw Peter leave. Or what time Peter left, if she knew. She’d been asleep when he started, and woke up into what was happening. There he was. He’d been going. She didn’t know that measurement of time either. The how long of it. Mensuration. Menstruation. There’s a lot of or in life, her dad used to say. Still says. Will say until the day he dies. Perhaps come back to say it, if he can manage. Dried blood on her inner thigh, which she left to itself, and threw on some boxers overtop upon leaving for the toast.


She remembered telling herself she liked it. The more she told herself she liked it, the more it became apparent, or possible, that she did. The roommates were getting some show, by the sound of her room. Her room. Didn’t feel like anyone’s room. A strange thing to lay possession of, a room. All the people who’d been there before, all the people who’d be there after. Wasn’t theirs anymore. Wasn’t theirs yet. When you went to a hotel, the moment you opened the door and went into the room it belonged to you. Or when you stayed at someone’s house. Even if you weren’t close with them. They had to say, “Can I come in?”


He had one of her feet in each of his hands. They were almost behind her head. She was surprised she was that flexible still. A gymnastics coach in high school had said you lose it fast, but maybe not that fast? She’d seen a raunchy British situational comedy once, which also happened to sound smart—something she put down to accents—and a man on the show told his buddies at the pub that when he was younger he used to be able to suck himself off. He practiced so that he could do it. One of his mates, face as inquisitive as an eager pupil next to a learned, imported master, asked him if he could still “kiss the duke, so to speak,” and the man said, “I’m thirty-four, that’d be a hell of a thing to train for now, wouldn’t it?”


That was the punchline. “Fuck me harder,” she had said to Peter, playing to the nature of the position, the angle of concavity. Spelunking depth. Her breath swirled around the rising and falling high ground of her sternum so that could smell the alcohol as if she were some giantess nosing a cloud of vinegar, sodden bread, and disinfectant. The skin over her breasts folded into itself from two sides. Pita sandwich with a glaze of sweat. A valley of skin. She thought of the word “vale,” which she’d learned only the other day in her Chaucer class. Her professor told her she picked up Middle English faster than anyone he’d had before, having asked her to come back in as everyone was filing out.


“A word, Ms. Merton, if you please.”


She didn’t know what to say, even if it had been true, and she knew it wasn’t.


“It’s not that hard,” she replied, looking over his shoulder, thinking for the first time it seemed incongruous to have a chalkboard in an English class.


He stared at her. Long enough that she thought maybe he’d say, “That’s what she said,” because he was an awkward man who on the first day told the class to call him Christopher, then paused, as if to consider a possible breach in propriety, before repeating the statement with an appended “that’ll do.” Talked about his wife whenever remotely possible as an example of what he termed fellowship, which he maintained The Canterbury Tales was all about. Because ultimately there’s a human tapestry, isn’t there? Or that’s all there is, no? He was one of those men who upturned the ends of his sentences like they were being made to emanate from the side of the mouth from which the most important truths gain their entry into the world, and all of his questions of this nature and shape were themselves statements worthy of a force of nature and the tailored, fleeting geometry of certain human lips. Then he’d compare the Wife of Bath and one of her saucy anecdotes to his days of courtship. Wilder days. Much talk of close quarters, and how people move in them, even when they’re not aware they’re doing so. The human tapestry, yes?