Toy Boy by Joanne Merriam
He stood in my bedroom in the morning, glowing in his white dress shirt open at the neck. The musk of used socks rose from my carpet. My window was positioned such that at 8 a.m. the sun was directly behind him, though at that time of the year it was strained through layers of cloud first, surrounding his head with its softening light, which his blond hair melted into as he said, "It's time to get up."
It must have rained the night before, because outside the cars were making swishing noises against the roads. A lone gull cried out. I could picture it strutting around the garbage bin, picking up pieces of refuse and then dropping them again. Another gull answered it. More and more gulls were moving into the area, I'd noticed, presumably because of all the restaurants and takeaway boxes strewn along back alleys. I spent hours watching them, standing at my window, when I was home alone. I liked their swagger, and the loose way they dangled their feet when flying. I liked the way they watched me from one side of their face, and then the other.
"Okay," I said. "Thanks for waking me."
He was the kind of man I'd been raised to despise: disposable, easily impressed by cash, and more beautiful than handsome. Impeccably dressed. Delilah had made endless fun of him while sliding him twenties, the kind of teasing that led to rough sex and low self-esteem.
The first time we'd met, I'd been seventeen and into grunge. He was only three years older than me – an impossible barrier then, and nothing now. Funny how that works. I probably had been wearing plaid flannel despite the constant sunshine here. I live in a place where the highways close when there's half an inch of snow. I remember I asked him who his favorite band was, and he'd looked at Delilah, as if for guidance. Delilah had said, "Kevin loves jazz, don't you, honey?" and Kevin had nodded and smiled, yes, he loved jazz. He'd talked knowledgeably enough about Alberta Hunter and Charles Mingus, but I've never seen him put any on the stereo.
I got out of bed. I'd taken to sleeping naked. He took a good look at me before reacting. "Jesus," he said as he turned his back on me, rushed from the room. Outside, the seagulls were screaming.
"Do you remember the summer we went to Colorado?" Delilah asked. She liked to spend these visits reminiscing, and I couldn't see any reason not to indulge her.
"Of course I do." Delilah's make-up was impeccable, and she was the only person in the world who looked good in that orange jumpsuit. She held her slim body very carefully on the edge of her plastic chair, her hands folded on the table in front of her, her elbows just beyond the table's edge. Though I couldn't see them, I was certain that her ankles must be crossed, too, unless the leg irons prevented it.
"Do you remember that cat?"
Delilah had rented a farm for us to stay on, as if the virtue of country life was something you acquired by osmosis, and the farm had a number of cats that prowled the barn for mice. There weren't any other animals in the barn, since Delilah had decided against actually doing farm work, so nobody was around when the dog, or coyote, or whatever it was – we never reached a consensus – got in and started attacking the cats.
It happened like this: I was lying in bed with the pillow over my head so I couldn't hear Delilah and Kevin fuck. There was a horrible yowling, and then an even more horrible silence. I ran toward the barn, thinking that I should really be running away, this was stupid, and then Kevin overtook me. As he passed me, he said, "Stay back." His voice was firm and low, the voice of the gritty sergeant in an old war movie. He threw the door open, and a large grey animal ran past him, almost knocking me down. The body of a cat, head crushed, lay in the doorway. Its blood was a darker spot in the dirt. Kevin pulled a cord, and the bare bulb on the crossbeam clicked on. I carefully didn't look at the dead cat.
"Whatever that was," Kevin said, "it's gone now. You're safe," and his eyes slid past me to where Delilah was standing, just outside the circle of light.
"What a lotta fuss for nothing," she slurred. Her robe slipped over one shoulder. "I'm going back to bed." She gave Kevin a meaningful look, and sashayed back to the house.
He looked at me. Tears were standing in my eyes, and I was keeping them really wide open so they wouldn't overflow. "We can bury it tomorrow," he said gently.
The thought of leaving it out in the cold overnight was too much. "Can we do it now?" I asked.
"Of course," he said. "One second," and he left.
I stood looking around the barn. I could sleep out here, I thought – in the loft, in case that thing came back – and then I wouldn't have to hear them at night. I reached for the lightbulb's pull-cord, and then I noticed a cat-shape huddled against one wall. I walked over to it, and looked down. It had been torn in half – we'd have to find the bottom half tomorrow, I thought, and wanted to vomit. Then the cat looked up at me, and meowed.
"Oh my God," I said.
"Mew," it said. I bent over it, and stroked its head. I forgot to keep my eyes wide, and tears spilled down my cheeks, but I wasn't really crying, if you know what I mean. They were just the leftovers from before. I felt kind of numb. The cat's fur was silky, soft, not matted with blood or anything. It was a pleasure to pet it, so I went on doing it. I couldn't tell if the cat found it comforting or not.
I jumped. Kevin was standing in the doorway with a shovel.
"What's that?" He was looking at the second cat, and I shook my head and said, "It's alive."
He came closer, and looked down at the puddle of fur. The cat's skin quivered under my fingers, and it made a plaintive sound deep in its throat, and then it died.
I think Kevin noticed the tears on my cheeks then. He pulled me into a hug, rubbing my back and whispering, "it's okay," and, "shh," and stuff like that. I'm afraid I was a bit clingy. After a bit, I lifted my face to thank him, and that's when he kissed me. I kissed him back, and then we just held each other, shaking.
It's funny how some moments you can only remember in pieces. You try to get at all of it at once, but you can't remember the way his hands must have been warm on your night-chilled back at the same time as you're remembering thinking, "holy shit, Mom's going to kill me." You can remember his tongue sliding over your teeth, but not the taste of his mouth. You can picture his hair haloed by the bare bulb, but the sound of his breathing is gone forever.
We buried the two bodies at the back of the barn in silence, and Kevin knelt at the gravesite and murmured some words. We walked back to the house together, or, well, next to each other anyway, and Kevin touched my arm with his fingertips outside Delilah's door, and I nodded at him, although I don't think I had any idea of what I was agreeing to, and he opened it. "What took you s'long?" I heard her say as the door was closing.
"God, I'd forgotten the cat," I said now. It wasn't even a lie – I hadn't thought about that night for years. I tried not to think about it at all.
Delilah laughed and said, "I couldn't have engineered a better way for you two to get to know each other."
I remembered the way he didn't flinch when I picked the gravel out of his shoulder the night Delilah threw him down the back stairs. I remembered the way he broke my father's nose after my father hit me for saying he wasn't my Dad anymore. Yeah, I guess we'd gotten to know each other.
"Sure," I said. "Me and my mother's toy boy, burying a cat together in the middle of nowhere." We'd never told Delilah about the second cat.
She laughed at me. "Good times," she said. "You bet."
"I had the strangest dream," I said.
He sat down on the edge of my bed. "What was it about?"
The sun streamed through the window. It was the first sunny day of the season, and outside I could hear the enthusiastic sounds of gulls who've found a cache of French fries. "You were in a glass bubble, underwater, and so was I," I told him.
We had been together, but the muscles around his neck had gone rigid as he asked, so I said, "No." He relaxed, and I went on, "and everything was blue, and there were white flakes in the air, like we were inside a couple of snow globes. And when you touched the edges of the bubble it gave you a shock. Like sticking your fingers in an outlet."
"What happened then?"
I sat up. I was holding the quilt to my breastbone with one flat of one hand. Delilah had made this quilt for me, before Kevin, before Dad left and she got addicted to smack and lost her job and started stealing to supplement the alimony, before everything went to hell. The repeating pattern of bird-shaped silhouettes in blues and greens was soft and warm against my cooling skin. The A/C kicked off and the house went silent, that weird sudden expectant silence of houses that don't have enough people in them.
Kevin felt solid and warm against my calf. I smiled a little, and he smiled in automatic response, leaning into my story. Our faces were only seconds away from each other. I'd taken the precaution of getting up to brush my teeth before slipping back into bed, so I'd taste fresh for him. I'd done it every morning for weeks.
"The bubbles evaporated," I said. That was another lie. In the dream, the bubbles just kept shocking us, every time we touched not only their edges but each other, but I wanted to extend the moment. "And we were drowning."
"Hm," he said.
There was a pause, during which we just looked at each other. All of the air seemed to have left the room, and the cries of the gulls seemed muted and very far away. He'd taken the trouble of shaving before coming to wake me, and his smoothness made his chin look vulnerable. I don't know how long that went on before I let the quilt slide out of my hand. It made a dry rustling on its way down.
"You can't keep doing this," he said. His voice was strong and resolute, and I imagined him practicing the line in front of Delilah's vanity, down to the slight lowering of the brows. "Your mother –"
"You're the one who comes in here every morning." I touched his arm. His skin quivered under my fingers, and he made a plaintive sound deep in his throat. "You could stay away, and you don't. You already know what's going to happen next."
Kevin put his hand on my leg, and even now I can picture it in all its carefully manicured smoothness crumpling the green bird covering my knee. I could describe the chalky traces of toothpaste lingering on my gums, and the way the sun was making the room glow, but what I really want to tell you is how his eyes were sad and serious and somehow kind as he moved closer, and pressed his face into my neck, and whispered, "couldn't we pretend we're good people for just a little longer?" and I stroked his hair and the air smelled like aftershave.
I swear every seagull outside my window chose that moment to cry out, first one and then another and then the whole flock of them, their shrieks blurred by the swishing of the air being beaten by their wings, as they circled around and around something somebody had thrown away.