The World’s Strangest Monument to a Woman’s Fear
I meet Johnny through Simon, a friend from my job at the movie theatre. Maybe I’m overly nice to Johnny at first because of the way he looks. He looks like he’s dying. His hair clings to his skull in gray wisps. There are circles under his eyes so dark and deep that I’m staring, trying to figure out if they’re actually bruises. Could he possibly have two black eyes? I conclude they are not black eyes, but that rather, this must be the world’s weariest person. How long since you’ve slept? I want to ask.
I’m sitting with him on Simon’s couch. Simon has left the room and is spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. He invited me over to watch Requiem for a Dream and then told me he’d invited a friend as well. Johnny walked in, sat beside me on the couch and started talking about music.
He has no eyebrows or eyelashes. His skin is dusky, like there’s one enormous fading bruise across his entire body. I want to ask him if it hurts. You must be so tired. But I just listen to him name-drop bands I’ve never heard of. Johnny may be dying, but he’s way cooler than me.
“Is Johnny, like, okay?” I ask Simon in the staff room the next day.
“I just thought maybe he was sick? Like really sick, some kind of cancer or something?”
“Huh, not that he’s mentioned.”
“Maybe it was when he was a kid, and it just never went away totally?”
Simon stares back at me like he’s caught me talking to myself.
“Anyway,” he says, “he asked for your number.”
“Oh,” I say and stare at the bulletin board, shifting from foot to foot.
“So it’s okay if I give it to him?”
I try to figure out how Johnny could possibly be interested in me. I was distracted the whole night; we’d barely spoken. At some point, he invited me to some show he was playing, and I’d said sure, I’d come see him play.
Simon’s looking for something in his backpack, not waiting for my answer.
“Sure, that’s fine,” I say.
Why can’t I just say no? Because I’m not the type of person to reject someone with cancer? Or someone I think might have cancer? Or is it because Simon’s asking? One night not too long ago, he asked to see my tits. I sat on a saggy couch with my shirt off in the cold basement of his mom’s house. We sat there in silence for an excruciatingly long time while my nipples got hard, until he said, “they’re nice,” and giggled. I put my shirt back on, and now we both act like it never happened.
A couple of days later, Johnny asks if I want to see Concorde: Airport ‘79 at The Fox. The theatre is in a weird transitional phase and still shows pornos when it's not hosting cult movie nights for hipsters. I’d hoped Simon might come along too, but he doesn’t.
There’s a long line to get into the movie. I don’t find Johnny easy to talk to. I’m not certain yet if this is because I’m nervous around him, or because he’s boring. I watch the other people’s faces in line to see how they react to Johnny’s appearance. I think the girl with tortoiseshell glasses in front of us is actively trying not to stare.
We’re finally allowed inside and seated uncomfortably close to one another. Everyone around us is trying to identify the stains on the upholstery. There’s a smell like old books and sweat mixed with an underlying tinge of bleach. The movie is awful. And even though I know it’s supposed to be and that that is the whole point, I can’t get into it.
“Being on an airplane is the most boring thing in the world, why would you set a movie on one?”
Johnny laughs when I say this, and I think it’s the first time I’ve heard him laugh. He drives me home and as we’re sitting in his car in my driveway, I try to think of something to say that will make him never want to see me again. I talk about Simon in a way that’s vaguely admiring, but since I’m not yet admitting to myself how I feel about Simon, the I want to bang your friend, not you vibe doesn’t come across.
“Thanks for the ride,” I say. The black hollows where his eyes should be gape back at me.
“See you soon,” he says right before I slam the passenger door closed.
Inside, Dad’s sitting in his EasyChair doing a crossword puzzle. Ever since Mom moved away, he’s developed an attachment to that chair. Sometimes, I forget that he used to leave the house. He’s wearing the same clothes as yesterday.
“Hot date?” he asks, looking up from his puzzle.
“It wasn’t a date,” I snarl and head for my room in the basement.
Or was it? Johnny didn’t pay for my ticket. He didn’t try to hold my hand or kiss me. So what was it then?
It’s my turn to be workshopped in my screenwriting seminar. My instructor’s name is Moira. Ten years ago, she adapted her own novel into a screenplay and hasn’t produced any novels or screenplays since. She’s middle aged, maybe forty-five, and always wears a too-big black leather motorcycle jacket.
A boy named Evan goes first. His scene is some Tarantino rip-off about wannabe gangsters who kill a stripper by accident and try to cover it up.
“I hope I don’t sound prudish,” begins Moira, “but the profanity—the racist and misogynistic language in this scene—I wonder how much of it actually serves your story and how much is there simply to shock us?”
Evan rolls his eyes but Murray, a retired lawyer who’s trying to become a screenwriter, nods his head in alliance with Moira.
“It’s lazy writing,” says Murray.
I’m typically mute in these seminars, unless Moira calls on me and I’m forced to stammer out an opinion. But now it’s my turn. My scene is read aloud in class. It’s from a script I’ve been working on about a couple who kill their baby when one of them rolls over it while sleeping. Evan performs it with a girl named Cassie, and they both sound like they’re reciting a grocery list. I really think it would benefit from better acting.
My classmates’ feedback is all along the lines of heavy and not cinematic. Moira encourages “gentle yet constructive” criticism in her classroom. She doesn’t think trashing someone’s piece is helpful, but I don’t find people avoiding saying what they really think very helpful either.
“Alex,” Moira begins when it looks like no one else has anything to say. “You show a great ear for dialogue. I do think this is very heavy subject matter, however, and while I’m not saying that a twenty-year-old has nothing insightful to say about mortality, I would encourage you to look to your own experiences and exploit the conflict and tension there.”
I catch Murray nodding enthusiastically and I am secretly pleased Moira thinks I’m already twenty. Murray would be the perfect friend for my Dad, I think as I watch him watch Moira pack up after class. And Mom would totally hang out with Moira. I suddenly wonder if Murray and Moira are having an affair.
I read her notes on the bus home and see that at the bottom of the last page she’s scrawled: Someone doesn’t have to die for me to take you seriously.
I bring the stack of scripts I’m supposed to read for next week to work with me. Murray’s submitted a scene that looks hilarious, about a doctor with a midlife crisis who sleeps with his brother’s hot young wife. I hope Simon will invite me over after work and we can read it together. He always gives the characters silly voices and accents—I can imagine him perfectly playing the role of Horny Doctor. And I wouldn’t mind playing the sister-in-law. I’d finally know what it feels like to have Simon want me.
While the other “cast members” sit on the benches in the theater lounge eating popcorn and drinking fountain pop (the only employee perks we get), Simon and I retreat to our usual spot in the alcove by the water fountains. I hear the other kids laughing—a popcorn fight has broken out yet again. Simon is almost ten years older than me. Sometimes he seems embarrassed to be working the same job as those still in high school, but most of the time he doesn’t seem to care about that stuff. He doesn’t go to school, doesn’t have his own place, doesn’t have a girlfriend. He can’t even be bothered to get a haircut. Tendrils of dark hair are always falling into his eyes. I think this might be what I like best about Simon, his lack of caring.
“How’d it go with your scene?” he asks me.
“Ugh, not great.” Simon has never read one of my scripts, and I wouldn’t let him even if he asked.
“How’d you like Concorde?”
“Oh, you heard about that? What exactly did Johnny tell you?”
“That you guys went to see it, that it was dope.”
“I mean, I guess parts of it were pretty funny. Did he say anything about me?”
“I just don’t get if he’s like, interested in me.”
“Do you want him to be?”
“No! That’s what makes it so awkward.”
“I wouldn’t worry. Johnny has a lot of female friends. Why, did something happen?”
“No, nothing weird. I just couldn’t tell if it was a date.”
“Can you usually tell?”
Simon is probably worried now that I think we’re on a date every time we hang out. The movies start to let out and we go in to sweep up the popcorn and recycle the beer cans that were smuggled in. Simon doesn’t invite me over after work.
I read Murray’s scene on the bus home and make notes. It’s actually well structured, and I feel sorry for the doctor character. He can’t help being pathetic.
“Your boyfriend,” says Dad as he passes the phone.
I fix him with my deadliest stare when I hear Johnny on the line.
“They’re showing Deep Throat at The Fox this Friday night. Do you want to go?”
I say okay. Afterwards, I wonder why I did. Am I worried he’ll think I’m a prude? Or that Simon will find out and think that? Maybe I’m still scared of being mean to Johnny, even though he probably doesn’t have cancer anyway. I decide the movie has been name dropped enough in my film classes that I’m curious. Still, I try not to think too much about the implications of agreeing to go watch porn with Johnny.
I smell it the moment I get into the car. It smells like something’s died. A stench like when my Doc Martens get soaked and I leave them to dry next to the radiator, combined with something sweet and heavy, as if someone knocked over a bottle of vanilla extract. I peer behind me to see if Johnny has any garbage in the backseat, but his car is very neat, unlike Simon’s, where the seats are covered with dirty sweaters and bags of half-eaten french fries. I look at Johnny’s feet, but he’s wearing black Converse and it hasn’t rained for days. Maybe a rat crawled inside the car and never got out?
The smell follows us when we get out of the car at the theater. It has to be coming from Johnny. The line is a lot longer this time, almost around the block. The crowd huddles together in the cold, and surprisingly, no one moves away from us.
Once we’re inside and crammed into our seats, the smell gets stronger. I start to feel nauseous. The people on either side of us seem oblivious—no one whispers or holds their noses. I pull my sweater up over my mouth and nose and breathe in musty wool. I spot Moira’s leather jacket near the front. She takes her seat next to a balding man who puts his arm around her. Looks like Moira’s taken. Murray is out of luck. I feel oddly disappointed, but Moira’s too cool for Murray anyway. I watch her shoulders slump into the balding man and I wonder if I’ll ever feel that comfortable.
The film has a plot but it’s kind of ridiculous. I’ve seen porn before. A couple of times by myself and once with Simon—his idea. I kept all my clothes on and it was supremely awkward. I can feel myself start to gag and I’m pretty sure it’s from the smell and not the constant blow jobs on the huge screen. I’m certain I will throw up if Johnny touches me. Thankfully he doesn’t.
The movie ends and the thought of being in another enclosed space with him makes me want to puke. I try telling him I can take the bus home, but he insists, and I can’t come up with a good excuse.
“Bye,” I bark when we pull up in my driveway. I slip on some dead leaves as I scramble across the lawn.
Inside, Dad sits in his chair with another crossword puzzle. I shut the door and stand staring at him.
“I didn’t say a word,” he protests.
Before I can start complaining about how he never rakes up the leaves, I take a deep breath and realise it’s here. That damp sweet smell is in the house. I bring the sleeve of my sweater to my nose and recoil.
“Dad, can’t you smell that?”
“What? Have you been smoking?”
“No, I’m serious, smell me!” I lean over his armchair and he moves his head toward my shoulder and breathes deeply. This is probably the closest I’ve been to him in a year. We aren’t huggers.
“You just smell like you,” he says softly.
I pull away and stand in the middle of our living room. He’s been wearing the same clothes for three days now. I make a deal with myself that I’ll say something when it gets to five. Five days and he’ll start to stink.
“Oh, I ordered pizza,” he says. “There’s some left in the kitchen in case you’re hungry.”
The thought of cold congealed cheese makes my stomach lurch. He looks bewildered as I stomp down into the basement. I strip, pulling my clothes off and straight into the wash. I take a long hot shower using every kind of product I can find. I even use some of Mom’s pricey body wash that I’ve been avoiding since she left. The bathroom fills with steam, the scent of roses and an animal musk.
When I’m done, I crawl into bed and fall asleep smelling like her.
When my clothes come out of the dryer, I can still smell it and I have to wash them again. I shower every day after work and use almost all of Mom’s Dreamweaver body wash in a week. Simon asks if I want to come over after work on Saturday, but I say no. Instead I go home, shower, and crawl into bed.
Johnny calls while I’m in the shower on Tuesday. Dad tells me, “that guy Johnny” called and I nod but don’t call him back. Mom calls and we talk for over an hour. I wonder if Dad told her to call, if he’s worried about how much time I’ve been spending in the shower. But she just tells me what she’s doing to fix up her house and talks about her cats. She asks me about the normal stuff, school and work. She doesn’t ask about my sudden increase in personal hygiene. I consider telling her about the smell: I have replaced the stench of death with the smell of you. Where do you get that body wash anyway? But before I do, we say goodbye, and after we hang up I realize it’s the first phone call since she left that she hasn’t bugged me to come visit.
Johnny calls again while I’m at work, and Dad passes on the message. That night I finish the bottle of Dreamweaver. I rinse it out in the shower and pour the soapy water over my body. I go to dad in my pajamas, my wet hair dripping onto the towel draped over my shoulders.
“Do you know where she bought it, this Dreamweaver stuff?” I hold up the empty amber bottle.
He flinches and I know I’ve prodded a tender spot. He doesn’t want to remember her smell and I’m standing here stinking of her.
“I couldn’t tell you,” he sighs. “You should call and ask her yourself.” He goes back to his puzzle. I see he’s wearing a fresh set of clothes today and I’m relieved I won’t have to have that talk with him.
In the morning I call mom and get her voicemail. I leave a message asking her to call back. When the phone rings a couple of minutes later, I answer, certain it’s her, but it’s Johnny.
“How are you?” I ask.
“Oh, I’m fine,” he says. There’s silence on the line and I wonder if he’s going to ask why I never called. Instead, he asks: “What are you doing Saturday night?”
“Um, nothing,” I say instinctually. As I realise what I’ve done, my face gets hot and I frantically struggle to backtrack. I’ve practiced thousands of excuses to him in my head, but he still managed to ambush me.
“Well there’s a big party happening at my studio. Would you want to come with?”
“Um…sure,” I say. “What time?”
“I’ll pick you up at 9:30.”
My stomach clenches at the thought of being in the car again with him and that smell.
“I can just meet you there. What’s the address?”
“It’s hard to get into the space. Probably easier if I just pick you up.”
After he hangs up, I call mom again and leave another message. “Can you please just tell me where you get this Dreamweaver body wash?”
I almost pick up the phone to cancel countless times, but instead I ride the bus across town to the store where Mom finally told me I could get the bodywash. I also buy myself three pairs of bright orange underwear. Orange is Simon’s favourite colour. Simon will probably be at this party. I decide I am going to make it happen with him. I wear one pair of the new underwear and put another in my purse.
I wasn’t expecting Johnny to knock at the door. Dad is seated in his usual spot and makes no move to get up, so I open the door to find Johnny looking even more ghastly than before. His skin is now marbled, with a green tinge. His stomach is bloated and my first reaction is to giggle, thinking it must be some joke, him pretending to be pregnant. Which doesn’t even make sense because when has Johnny ever been funny? Sure enough, his black eyes show no glint of mischief. Then I collide with the smell, like I’ve tripped and smacked face first into concrete.
“Hi,” says Johnny, peering into our living room and waving to my dad.
“Oh, hello,” says Dad, still not getting up from his chair. He looks up and takes in the full shock of Johnny framed in the doorway. I wait for his response: Alex, what are you thinking? That boy is repulsive.
He looks back down at his puzzle.
“Bye,” I call to him.
“You kids have fun,” he says, and I know no one will save me.
I take a big gulp of air before ducking into the car. Immediately, I have to cover my nose and mouth with my sleeve. The smell’s gotten worse. It’s sourer than before, yet still mixed with an oppressive sweetness.
“Are you okay?” Johnny asks after he’s done up his seatbelt.
I nod as my eyes well. We drive in silence. I can barely see Johnny, but when we pass under a streetlight, I’m able to take in his mottled skin and distended belly. Combined with the smell, it’s too much—I don’t know whether to barf, scream, or cry. Can you do all three at once? Someone should put that in a screenplay.
We pull up to a warehouse in the industrial district. There are no lights on in the building, and no streetlights either. If I ever write a movie about a serial killer, this is where I’ll set it.
“What is this place?” I ask.
“My studio,” he says. “I think it might’ve been a slaughterhouse at some point?”
I get out of the car and stare at the building, greedily breathing fresh air. There are covered ramps leading into the warehouse—I assume that’s how the pigs and cows were led to their deaths. I can hear the faint sounds of laughter and music from inside.
“This way,” says Johnny and I follow.
We enter through an unmarked door that’s propped open with a brick. The hallway is dimly lit, presumably painted white once, long ago. Johnny ambles ahead and we go down a narrow flight of stairs into a huge room with low ceilings. A band drones on in the corner under blinking Christmas lights. Clumps of people stand around drinking from red solo cups.
“Hey,” someone says, clapping me on the shoulder. I turn to see Simon between Johnny and me, his arms draped over our shoulders. I hug him for just a little too long before he breaks away.
“You made it,” he says, and I feel relief at having done just that.
Simon gets us all drinks, and the three of us stand and watch the band. The lead singer, a skinny man in leather pants, is screaming and writhing on the floor. Simon and Johnny start naming the band members’ side projects, and I’m amazed at how quickly I can go from being terrified to being bored.
A short, wiry man with a faux-hawk approaches Johnny, and they immediately start talking intensely. Seizing the opportunity, I take Simon by the hand to get more drinks at the bar. I get a gin and 7-Up that’s too sweet and too strong and buy Simon a beer. I drink quickly, and it takes me a while to register that Simon has his hand on the small of my back.
I take his hand again and lead him to a dark corner. His mouth is sour from the cheap beers. He kneads one of my breasts through my shirt and I remind myself that he’s seen them already.
“Alex, I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Sure it is,” I say and place a finger on his lips, my best attempt at being playfully seductive.
“I mean it,” he says, brushing my hand from his face.
“Is this because of Johnny?”
“What? No. You’re not even a thing. I just think this could get complicated.”
I lurch out of the darkness and try to find the bathroom. I start to cry immediately after closing the door behind me. In workshop, they’d say this is an overused trope—cut the girl crying in the bathroom. I fumble for the light and cockroaches scuttle away. One remains boldly at rest on the wall above the toilet, even when I put my purse down on the back of the cracked tank. I can’t tell if it’s alive or dead. I wash my face with cold water to erase the tears.
Back at the party, I stride up to Johnny, intent on asking him for a ride home. He’s still talking to the faux hawk guy. I’m about to tap him on the shoulder when he turns to face me. A fly crawls out of his nose. I run.
Up the stairs and into the hall. The hallway never seems to end but finally I’m guided into the night by a flickering exit sign. I walk around the building to find the parking lot. Smashed bottles and pieces of clothing are strewn everywhere. I hear music from the warehouse again—another band must’ve started to play. I spot Johnny’s car and hurry past, out into the street.
A car slows down and creeps beside me for half a block. The window rolls down and a man leans his head out, asks, “how much?” I try to hail the only cab to drive past, but it doesn’t stop. A block later there’s a phone booth, and only now do I register that I’ve left my purse at the party. I tell myself there’s no point calling Dad anyway. He doesn’t even have his license. Mom had always driven me everywhere—picked me up from drama club and dropped me off at the mall. I keep walking, burning with shame at the thought of someone finding the purse with the orange panties inside. I imagine that same person checking my ID and then handing the purse to Simon because they’d seen us together. Simon opening the purse and cupping the never worn panties in his hands like a baby bird, its mouth gaping open at him in a desperate display of misdirected need. My mortification burns so hot that my insides turn molten.
I don’t make it home until after one. Dad is asleep in the chair. He can’t even get it together enough to go to bed. I feel a pressure rising, fire churning. How hard is it to change into pajamas and brush your teeth? Walk the twenty steps to the bedroom? I slam the front door shut behind me. Dad blinks awake and stares up at me.
“Well, I’m alive, in case you care,” I say.
He looks to the clock on the mantle and then back at me.
“Of course I care. Alex, I’m just giving you the space you seem to want, trying to treat you like the adult you’re so desperate to be.”
“Maybe if you’d given Mom less space, she’d still be here,” I explode.
“It’s more complicated than that,” he sighs.
“Complicated? You know what’s not complicated, the fact that when you don’t change your clothes you stink. Seriously, why would she come back to some smelly blob that barely moves?” My words arc like flames across the room.
“I know she’s not coming back,” he says. “Alex, you know that too, don’t you?”
I have a midterm meeting with Moira. I don’t know what to expect, but I anticipate I’ll have to say more in this meeting than I have all semester.
“So Alex, how are you feeling about your work this term?”
“I feel kind of stuck.”
“With regards to your script?” She flips through her stack and comes to the title page with my name on it. “The World’s Strangest Monument to a Woman’s Fear,” she reads. “Good title. You’re not happy with the piece?”
I shrug, like I can’t be bothered to hate it.
“There’s a real problem with your second act. Where would you pinpoint the beginning of act two?”
“Well, um,” I try to remember the diagrams she drew for us on the whiteboard. “I guess when they visit the Winchester mystery house?”
“Interesting that you say that, because I have no idea why they go there.”
“Well people used to call it that: The World’s Strangest Monument to a Woman’s Fear.”
“Any reason besides justifying the title?”
“Well, it’s like the house is a physical manifestation of Sarah Winchester’s grief. So it made sense to me that the characters, who are also grieving, would be drawn to it.”
“It feels tangential to me,” she says with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I’d consider cutting it. Can I ask, what was your intention with this piece?”
“I just feel like, you know, my parents...they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, like consciously. But unconsciously they—their separation—it smothered me. Just like the baby.”
“In the piece, the baby dies when one parent rolls over it. Except they aren’t sure which of them did it?”
“Hmm. So you wanted to address the failure of your parent’s marriage and how it impacted you.”
“Well, not at the time. Not when I was writing it.”
“I think we should focus on what’s on the page.”
"Okay.” I shift in the hard, wooden chair. There are things I want to ask Moira. I remember spotting her in the theatre. How at ease she looked with that bald man, his arm around her shoulders. Teach me how to feel that comfortable.
“Your relationship with your parents is potentially a great topic to explore in your work. And I’d be happy to put in a referral to the school’s counseling services if you need to talk about this with someone. A professional,” she says, her smile an apology.
“No, that’s okay.”
“Well, keep going,” she says and bares her teeth at me in a way that I’m sure she intended to be encouraging. She hands me my script covered in notes. Before I can heave myself out of the chair, Moira starts sniffing the air.
“What’s that smell?”
I tense up, bracing myself.
“Like roses? And something else?” Moira asks.
“Oh. It’s a body wash I’ve started using,” I explain. “Dreamweaver.”
“Ah, my nana used to smell just like that.”
We smile at each other and I finally get up to leave, somehow elated at being told I smell like an old lady.
I sit in the illuminated glass box with Simon. Typically, I’m ecstatic when the manager pulls us from the floor and assigns us to the box office, but today it’s the last place I want to be. Simon has barely spoken to me since the night at the warehouse. I don’t think “complicated” accurately describes our relationship now. The total breakdown in communication is absolute and therefore, pretty simple.
All I can smell right now is myself. The body wash’s muskiness is accentuated by the stink of fear rising from my armpits. Am I afraid of Simon or the threat of his absence?
Customers start to arrive for the early show. I tap the screen and recite the corporate script, push the tickets through the little hole in the glass and tell them I want them to enjoy the show. Beside me, I sense a shift in Simon’s attention. He’s usually quicker and more efficient than I am, but he’s distracted by something. I follow his eyes to a girl standing on the sidewalk. She’s wearing a leopard print coat and sheltering her orange sherbet hair with a pink umbrella.
The showtimes approach and customers flood to the booth. I glance up between transactions to glimpse her through bobbing heads and black umbrellas. A man arrives and she kisses him quickly on the lips. The guy, wearing a jean jacket and toque, comes to my side of the booth to buy tickets to Amelie. I study his face and wind up stammering over the script. He doesn’t seem to notice. I sense Simon is watching him also, his body rigid and clenched upright in the swivel chair. We serve the stragglers and latecomers until it’s just the two of us again in the lit-up box facing an empty sidewalk. Simon slumps in his chair, hair covering his eyes.
“Who was that?” I ask, swiveling to face him.
“That girl with the orange hair? Seems like you knew her.”
“I haven’t seen her in a while,” he mutters. “I was just surprised.”
I desperately want to know her name. Mandy or Jessica? Venus or Tallulah? But I leave it alone. It’s enough to know that Simon cares about something. Someone.
The phone rings while Dad and I are putting away groceries. He nods and points to me, mouths “for you” before placing the phone on the hall table. I leave a package of salami on the counter—Dad wants to make pizza together tonight.
“Hi, how are you?” It’s Johnny. I haven’t heard from him since the warehouse party.
“Good,” I say. “Just got back from the grocery store.”
“Cool. Do you want to come to The Fox with me Thursday night?”
I haven’t gone anywhere besides work and classes since that party. Dad is playing one of his opera CDs, humming along as he sinks his fists into the pale blob of dough.
“Alright,” I say. I know Johnny won’t stop calling until I tell him to leave me alone. I used to think that Simon not liking me was the worst that could happen. Wondering how he felt about me was torture. But now that I know that there’s nothing between us, I feel incredible relief. I can do Johnny the same kindness, and I feel obliged to tell him to his face.
Though it’s cold out, I wait for him outside. Dad was asking all these questions about Johnny as part of his new “engaged father” routine after our argument the other week, and I’d had enough.
Johnny pulls up and I duck into his car. I take shallow breaths through my mouth and struggle to endure the smell. The ride to the theatre passes in silence.
There’s no line outside. Johnny pays the special rate for couples. I follow him into the theatre. The lights have already gone down—the movie must’ve started. Johnny stands in the aisle and waits for me to take a seat before sitting beside me. There’s hardly anyone here, just a few silhouettes dotting the theatre. The synth heavy soundtrack stops, and I hear a woman moan. On screen, a blonde woman is bent over a desk, naked except for a white garter belt. A guy with his pants around his ankles thrusts into her from behind.
Did Johnny ever tell me the name of the movie we were seeing?
Another guy wearing a suit stands in the corner and watches with his arms crossed over his chest. From the fax-machine on top of a filing cabinet in the background, I assume they are meant to be in an office somewhere. This man in the suit unbuttons his belt and grabs the woman by the hair, pushing her face toward his crotch.
“Oh yeah,” is all she manages to say before his big veiny penis fills her mouth.
I want to look at Johnny, but I’m scared he’ll be touching himself. I close my eyes and take deep breaths. Bodies slam together with loud wet smacks. The smell from Johnny is strong. I feel queasy, and I’m sweating. I also feel heat pulse between my legs, same as when I touch myself. Do I like this? Is this what I want? My body simultaneously wants to puke, fuck, and disappear.
I open my eyes and glance over at Johnny’s face. His eyes show no excitement or embarrassment, just black pits of nothing.
The screen shows a close up shot of the woman’s face as she gives the blow job. Her eyes are dead, like Johnny’s. Eventually, both men ejaculate, and the screen goes black. I hear the men around me shift in their seats, clear their throats.
“Can we go now?” I ask.
Johnny holds the car door open and waits for me to get in. I have a weird floaty feeling, like my body is doing things without me while I watch. I hear myself ask about his band and he tells me about a new song they’re writing as we pull into my driveway. I look over at him. His mouth hangs open, like he’s on the brink of speaking. I realise I’m shivering. My teeth chatter and the sound of bone on bone splinters the silence.
I manage to regain control of my body as I blurt, “I don’t think I can see you anymore.”
“Oh,” he says. “Why’s that?” He doesn’t sound offended or hurt, just genuinely curious.
I stare down at my hands. They’re clenched tight. I order my body to release, but they stay in fists. My jaw is locked, teeth grinding.
“Is it because of the movie? I guess I thought you were into the edgy stuff. Like, minus the irony.”
My fist lashes out and clips his chin. His entire lower jaw falls off. I recoil, cower by the window. Johnny holds the body part in his lap and stares down at it. He makes a muffled moaning sound. I brace myself against the window and swing my legs up, landing a solid kick to his chest. My foot goes through his rib cage and a putrid flood of liquified organs pours out of him and onto me. I gasp at the stench released as the foul greenish slime coats my legs. I frantically fumble for the door handle and scramble out onto the front lawn. I race into my house and lock the door behind me, stand with my back against the door, chest heaving.
Dad is blasting opera. Some soprano belting out an aria for her dead lover.
“Alex? Are you okay?” he asks from the chair. “Did something happen?”
I blink back at him. Goop collects in a puddle at my feet.
“I’m not going to see Johnny anymore.”
“Okay, good. Did he do something? Because if so, I want to know about it.”
The orchestra swells over the fading voice of the soprano.
“I can take care of myself,” I say and head down to my room just as the curtain falls and the crowd begins to applaud.