He was a large boy. She noticed that right away. Not exactly fat but teetering just on the edge, in a Korn T-shirt and voluminous shorts and puffy yarn-ball feet stuffed into sneakers and loopy, black hair to the sides of his face and what mesmerized her was that he was the teenage version of her ex-husband.
It was at a carnival, a cheap fold-up assortment of gaudily painted aluminum spinning rides and sinewy men whose lean, animal faces talked of crystal meth and rape, but this soft pudgy boy stood there and shuffled from foot to foot, his eyes looking at her and then pulling away.
The man that was her husband had now grown sleek and dark. His eyes wouldn’t stay on hers too long and she saw how easily he laid back when she took his clothes off. He stared at the ceiling and then closed his eyes. He made no sounds but screamed when he came. This all flew through her mind quickly in chunks of gulping thought. The boy in front of her was no more than seventeen. His eyes were soft. They came in her direction and they stayed with her and she felt as if someone had rubbed powder inside her chest.
Her husband had been a large boy, also. At nights he sat on a sofa and his mother on the other. The TV was always on. The room had a dark olive tint in the air and the couches were plaid and worn and smelled of bodies because they slept there. The father beat the mother. The father beat the boy. Sometimes the child and the mother would go to a motel down the street that had pink flamingos and was the color of the inside of your eye. It was made of rough stucco that the boy ran his hand against, and there they would wait out the father’s rages. The boy would sit on the edge of the bed in the motel and see how his hand was orange from the stucco. He washed it off with a tiny soap the size of a cracker from the bathroom. The mother lay on the bed, drinking a Pepsi, switching the remote and the room flashed with TV’s fake moonlight. When later they came back from the motel, the mother gave him chocolate ice cream in a huge bowl and he would fall asleep on that couch with the TV and the spoon in his mouth, and all this comforted him, the TV, the couch, the ice cream, and when this woman dated him in the beginning, it wasn’t his dark hair or skin or smell she liked but the fact that he kept his TV on all the time, like a talisman, with couches in front, flickering and silent. You wanted to love him for that, for the TV, for how sad it made you. He keeps it on mute. But you couldn’t love him just for that. She wanted to find something she could love besides his pain and all she found, along the way, were all the ways he turned a person into himself. One night she slept in his living room chair and he slept down in his bed. His house smelled funny and it made her sick to her stomach. When they married, he kept his distance, occasionally touching shore to make an appearance, but by morning he was back in his drifting, lonely boat. The lights are luminous and bright at his house now, gone is the olive green mistiness of the house before. His father is old now and the shouting is to his own face in a mirror. He combs his gray hair over his forehead and his eyes are dark wet stones.
That boy in the carnival, the only soft thing there, is like some ghost from before, as if he stepped from the couches, ice cream in his mouth. He stands in front of her on cheap metal stairs that gives you the clanking of childhood, the rasping metal as you used to run up to the ride. The sounds of childhood are deep and chilling, and when she hears them they pull her into a dream state, and her body feels too big and smelly. She remembers having a chest that was flat and smooth. She remembers the tiny white underwear she wore. She remembers her hands smelled like warm metal in her damp palms.
A hot smell invades her nose, greasy burned sugar wafting like a singed promise. A carnival is a prostitution of fun. She gives him three tickets so her son can enter his little world, a grimy circuit of rope ladders and a heap of stained plastic balls a child wades through. The music of the ferris wheel, ancient and tinny, merges with the heavy metal bashing from a worn-out boom box. He half smiles, the way tiny children do, and his eyes look back, away, then back to her, back again. Passively, like her husband, he looks up toward where they sell cotton candy. He gives her the side of his face. She stands there, a mother. This is her husband before the couches and the father who hurt him and the mother and the ice cream, this large boy in front of her.
Her ex-husband picks up her son with his new girlfriend, who is young and wears a halter top.They are going to the beach and she’s terrified they’ll kiss on the beach and forget about the boy but her husband would just throw this back in her face as an example of her neuroses, so she just says have a good time, and her little boy hugs her and smells soft and sweet like honey and the haltered girl gives him a yo-yo and he doesn’t even look up as they drive off, ripping open the yo-yo package.
She drives home through the back way, the nasty side of town, by Dunkin’ Donuts and she wonders if guardian angels are real, and she sees inside furniture stores and Korean markets and then she sees the carnie boy walking. She follows him slowly and he goes down a small street, and then back even smaller, and then he heads towards the trailers. She drives up slowly and he stops. He comes over.
You were at the carnival.
Do you want to get something to eat? she says.
Do you like Outback?
There is just too much silence in the car. She wishes she could get inside his head. The whole year has been so hard on her, her heart feels hallucinogenic in its pain, unruly, giddy. She stops at her house.
I have to get something, she says. You can come in and play with my cat.
The boy walks in and sits on her couch, his knees spread out as he strokes the cat between his legs, as if he is obliged to play with her cat.
She walks out of her bedroom in a black cocktail dress she wore to her rehearsal dinner ten years ago. She goes over to him and pets the cat, and she takes his hands and puts them on her breasts. He breathes rapidly and the cat jumps away and he lays his head against her. She holds his head against the front of her dress, her hands like a small cap over his black curls. He uses his mouth to push up her dress and his hands twist around in her panty hose. She pulls his T-shirt off and then he pulls back and holds his chest.
He says, I’m kind of on the bigger side.
She gets down on the floor and faces him, the dress bunched and crumpled.
You look really nice, she says, and she means it. He is pale and takes up space. His chest is hairless and unexpected, all the seams and round edges go in ways the eye wouldn’t predict, up instead of down, shapeless and mounded.
She then kisses his neck, and he smells like french fry grease mixed with some sweet indefinable thing, a cheap lotion perhaps, and together it creates a hazy attar, a hollow sickness in her stomach, an aching of need and fear. This reads to him as desire and then he’s gotten wilder and grabs and kneads her ass and she drags her tongue up his neck to his mouth and they kiss.
She pulls back. Outback will close if we don’t go.
Oh, yeah, he says.
At Outback, they eat a Bloomin’ Onion and steak and baked potatoes. They have beer. He tells her he lives with his grandpa in the pale orange trailer, behind the gate. She saw it. It was the one with the farmer silouhette in the yard. His grandfather is eighty-two and his mother lives in Staunton. She’s a dancer. She’s sure he means stripper but she just says, that’s really cool. She pays the bill. And then they are at the trailer, walking in past the old man sleeping on the plaid couch. Nothing in hell could wake him up, he says.
In his room, his bed is bent on one side and falls down. It’s covered by a Superman sleeping bag which is old and as she lies down, she notices smells like feet and hair. There are clothes all over the floor and a KISS poster on the wall and as he takes off his clothes and lays next to her, his breath, his body, smells uncomplicated and new, no rot of age in his mouth or on his skin and even his pimples seem fresh and he wears white underwear that are a bit dingy. His penis underneath stretches the knit cotton to one side, and his stomach hangs down over the edge and he is blushing.
She pulls down the underwear to his knees and gets on top of him, and as soon as he enters her he makes some kind of buffalo whelp and squeezes her hips and goes limp. She sits there, gyrating a bit, until she realizes it’s all over and then she gets off and lies down next to him. He is covering his eyes with his hand.
I kind of, he says, fucked it all up.
No, that’s just. Normal.
She holds him and all his extra flesh softly gathers around her and he smells like a smoky lime deodorant now which he must’ve put on before the Outback and he sleeps in her arms.
After about ten minutes, while he breathes softly like wind, she is cataloguing his whole room, she even sees the edge of a dingy yellow towel sticking out from under the bed which must be his masturbatory reservoir, the old man comes to the door. He stands there.
Timmy wakes up, bounds upward.
Timmy. Who you got in there.
She gets up, smoothing her dress.
She stands in front of the old man who is in boxers and he looks at her.
You work at the track, he says?
No, I. I work at a bank, she says. My name’s Heloise.
I thought you worked at the track. Thought I saw you down there.
Granpa, she came to the carnival.
Yeah. He eyed her up and down. Okay.
He shuffled away, and went to the kitchen, banging around, and the boy, Timmy, pulled up her dress and pushed her down and put himself in her, awkwardly stabbing around while she lay back, paused, and then as he pushed up inside, he grabbed her face with his two meaty hands and looked at her, held her eyes with a look of questioning. He kept looking and then he moved so hard, the whole bed squeaked and hit the walls and made a cracking sound each time and she knew it would be impossible for Granpa not to hear, and she suddenly felt her whole body warm and focused and she lost sense of where she was and made a lot of noise and the whole time he held her gaze, unlike her husband had ever done the entire marriage. At the end, they heaved and the bed spilled them on the ground.
Timmy lay there, looking at her. His eyes had a light in them, a multi-layered shining and she just gave up herself to looking in them. They were brown, but light, the color of pale muddy water in a pond. They were laying on the carpet, looking at each other.
What’s your name anyway, he said as he moved her hair to the side of her brow.
Heloise, she said. I know, it’s weird. I work in a bookstore. I sell books.
I had a girlfriend two years ago. Her name was Manny.
It’s for Manuela.
Where is she now?
She’s around. She said, you know. She wanted some space and stuff. I’ll come to your bookstore. Is it downtown? Heloise put her arm around Timmy.
How old are you, Timmy?
Well, if you want to know, I turn eighteen in two weeks.
He got up and went to the window.
I work on Thursday and Friday and Saturday. They pay me pretty good. I have Sunday off.
The window was a small thing, levered and like the kind you might see on a boat. He twisted it.
It gets hot in here a lot. That’s the problem with trailers. The heat.
He can really play guitar good, says Timmy.
He likes Jimmy Page. She listened to Led Zeppelin when she was a kid. Now Timmy listens to them. So they sit there, she in her cocktail dress and Timmy in his underwear listening to “Whole Lotta Love.”
Here she is again, fourteen and skinny, with frosted pale pink lipstick against her dusky, olive skin. But a whole lifetime has gone by her and not by him.
She’s had endless jobs and lived in Bali, and studied in Florence for a summer and had a baby named Joshua and was married and then her husband left her for the haltered girl and Timmy is going into twelfth grade. She comes out to the kitchen and eats a hot turkey sandwich on Wonder bread with the Granpa and Timmy. Granpa talks about a horse he bet on yesterday, Schrödinger’s Cat, weird name he says, for a horse but he had low odds and I up and won fifty on that one. She tells Granpa about Quantum Physics and what Schrödinger’s Cat means, and they all laugh nervously, like she told a bad joke. She knows about it because Terry, her ex-husband, studied light differentials and fractal vectors and talked about these things endlessly, and now, thinking this is some synchronistic joke the universe is playing on her, she gets up to leave. She tells Timmy she’ll see him at the carnival tomorrow, but she really just wants to get home, in her own bed.
Driving back, she thinks of what she’ll do that night. Take a bath. Read her Tarot cards. Listen to Led Zeppelin. Buy turkey and Wonder bread and make hot turkey sandwiches. It occurs to her that retrospection is more pleasurable to her than the actual happening, that the sandwich will taste better in her own world, through memory, than it actually did, when she ate it at their linoleum table, with the smell of Timmy on her hands and Grandpa’s opaque, wet eyes glancing up in bewilderment, and the TV on, and Timmy eating with his mouth open. When she could take in one sense at a time and not be overwhelmed. The bread will smell like his skin. He had soft skin, that boy.
She will think about the sex with Timmy and it will gain more mystery and awe as the days go by, as the memory grows, replacing the awkwardness with youthful vigor. The yeasty smells that came from Timmy, the fumbling trying to put it in, the strangled, grunty sounds she made will all be blunted and soothed by the memory of the graspy orgasm and become only that.
She thinks about how every relationship with a man has a theme and now she is available to many themes and that makes her happy. With Terry, the theme was light, refractile light, the light against the bedroom wall as they lay in each other’s arms on a trip in Georgia, the light he calculated and transposed for his research with vectors, the light gray of his eyes, the lightness of his whole body, slight, hesitating, his very essence was undark.
The sky is orange and purple in the sky as she drives. They had their own pattern, the three of them, with Joshua, a pattern of broken waves, atoms, all reinvented and stirred up for this particular pattern which now has blown away.
With this boy, Timmy, the theme is smell, cavorting, emanating, his body a large mass of hot cells, of radioactive growth, his cellular activity almost a haze of buzzing heat around him, his turkey sandwiches, the underwear, the bedspread, everything exuding deep fleshy warmth and change. There’s the carnival to the left, jaunty and bleeding sweet colors against the sky, and the honeyed sweat of its air pours through the open windows.
She pulls up to the side, near the rides, the grass is roiled and dirtied in the mud of tire tracks. The boy, Timmy, stands in front of a ride, talking to two girls in cut-off shirts, their flat, tan stomachs screaming promises of fertility. He looks up, he sees her on the fence, looking in. The colors of the ride, orange and blue are dappled all over her cheeks. He stares at her and then the girls slowly pull their heads her way and they all look and she stays there, and the carnival blasts on.
Even after years, her husband couldn’t look directly in her eyes when he was inside her. In every part of himself, he kept on alert, ever-moving, refractile, evolutionary. He changed his mind and reconsidered and darted. He married her for Joshua and he stayed out or worked obsessively or lay on the sofa and kept the TV on, and lay there. They drove by the flamingo-pink hotel in his small town one day, down the street from his house. That’s where I’d go sometimes, he said, to get away from my father, although she already knew the story well, he’d told her early on. We’d stay there, he’d say, and then come back. How did you know when to come back, she said. I don’t know, my mother just knew. We’d walk in the door and he’d be crying in his green chair. My mother would cook something straight off, it would smell in the house, usually bacon. I could hear her radio in the other room, like Aretha Franklin or something. It sounded distorted and odd, like drifting up from a campsite. My father sat there and cried. I would stand there. I didn’t have a room or a place to go. Everything was back to normal. I watched TV.
When he told her this, he held his arms in his palms. She tried to rub his shoulder but he flung her off. I’m okay, he said. It’s just a memory. On some level, it never happened. On some level, something else happened. She wasn’t sure what he meant by that. Half the time with him she felt stupid but too embarrassed to ask for an explanation. Now though, she thinks she knows.
Timmy and his granpa will stay always in that part of her mind, forever in that night, and then Timmy will come over to the Pink Flamingo hotel and he and the mother will drink Pepsis and she can even see Timmy crying into the plaid couch as the father beat him with a lamp and Timmy in the carnival in his Korn T-shirt and Timmy in Outback eating the Bloomin’ Onion and who invented that, anyway?
(Someone, somewhere in a test kitchen in Minneapolis, tries a cornmeal-cornstarch breading this time, drenching it into the harsh oil, and her cellphone rings from her husband, who tells her they can close tomorrow on the house, according to Lou and he guffaws in pride and she wonders whether she even wants to, and will it snow tonight. One million people will eat her Bloomin’ Onion a year and it’s not even hers or anybody’s.)
Heloise, standing by the fence, carnival pastels sprinkling across her face, the night fading fast. She is not moving. The boy hesitates, the girls laugh awkwardly, and he starts to walk toward her. This is not what she wants.
The huge black speakers near the rides could be blasting rock, like the Led Zeppelin sound in the beginning of “Whole Lotta Love”. It’s a loud guitar, repeating, relentless. It’s like life. It’s like Heloise at this exact moment. It’s how she feels. Strange disordered feelings.
Her son, with a strange woman, near a large body of water.