This story is by Jeffrey Muchuweni Becker and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Her consonants were cotton through her mask, which softened nothing. The antibiotics would take seven days, and my arms were brown goose flesh in the fluorescent light coz I knew I’d only been with one person. “It just takes one filthy key to contaminate a keyhole,” the doc said, and her ponytail never flinched. I knew I’d leave out the adjectives when confessing to him what I have, coz he only dealt in straight-up nouns.
In the clinic’s parking lot, Trina’s windows were rolled up “to deflect corona-thugs,” she said, so her hand-me-down Nissan was an aquarium of hand-me-down air. But all Asheville breathed second-hand air from the lockdown, and you just lived with the disappointment. “Thank God Dad believes I work early today,” I said. “He didn’t sniff out my fucked up situation with his wide-ass nose.”
For a month the way my man parked his car at an angle to the dumpster was half cute, half psychological. My manager with no mask and a queer son felt bad for us gay boys, so she’d let me off an hour before closing to see him. The tinted windows on his black Honda Pilot were overkill, and sketch, but I’d get in anyway. “Where’s my kiss?” I asked over the new leather vapor.
“Poor thing,” he answered.
“It’s OK,” I said. “Kissing’s vertical. I need horizontal.”
He smiled, then lifted my hand and tsk-tsked, noticing I bite my nails. In exchange, I noticed the gold band on his piano key-shaped ring finger. “She’s Romanian,” he said, as though I’d even wondered.
Before I could talk again, it was time. I could say I got raped, but his crystal blue eyes that could’ve cut glass, and his eyebrows straight as the old cartoons, would slice lies to scraps. “I got chlamydia.” The words dislodged themselves.
He gripped my wrist so hard, even his hand went pale. Any thought of suggesting he was patient zero was strangled.
After like eighty seconds, he let go. “Of course I’ll take care of it,” he said, but his lips were a slit in his face. “Got meds?” he asked.
“I know,” he cut in, “So you can’t get it again for seven days.”
He pivoted his hips and unzipped. I was excited and sick, but it reminded me that he cared. Jewelry would follow.
At breakfast my Autistic baby brother screamed coz his runny eggs bled into his grits. “Really, Dad,” I said, “You’ve had us for five years! You know him!” The banging didn’t stop Dad from digging into me like a cavity search about work yesterday. I slipped my brother some Tic Tacs I kept on me for tantrums, and he chilled and Dad chilled. Tic Tacs made me think of Tik Tok, and I went to my room to watch men acting out.
Dad busted through the door and held up my antibiotics and yelled, “Do you mind telling me what the fuck this is?”
I said, “Where—”
“In your backpack!” He cut in. “As long as I pay rent and you bring home jewelry you can’t afford, search and seizure is my right!”
When I asked why doesn’t he search my sister, he said, “Boy, I’d put you in another PRTF if I knew they disinfected the facility.”
I said, “Dad, I—”
“Had unprotected sex,” he broke in. “I know what these are for. One day you’re gonna need people, and your slick and self-hating mentality will shut them right out.” He paused and tossed me the bottle. “Don’t miss any doses,” he said, leaving.
“You’re crushing me!” I shouted, and then I jumped on my math Zoom meeting.
Eleven years before she overdosed, our white birth mom gave my twin sister hair she could comb. Comb! But my black bio-dad left me this nappy-ass hair when he bolted in her first trimester. I opened my drawer and pulled out jeans – no shorts, uh-uh, legs too brown – and a nice shirt, which is always jumped by my brown golf ball eyes bulging from my skinny-ass face with bitten lips. Whatever points I get for nice outfits, the mirror cuts by half.
Through the window the deserted street looked even more isolated than this multiple personality apartment. Isolation wrapped in emptiness sealed by lockdown. Dad would say it’s happening to everyone, so don’t think I’m so special.
I don’t know why, but I carried my journal to the kitchen table, opened to a recent entry about considering suicide, the funeral, who would cry, who wouldn’t. Dad didn’t disappoint. He said the game had changed since my last inpatient. Hazmat suits in the ambulance. Hospitals asking just enough questions to send you home to outpatient telehealth. “It’s you and the mirror, baby,” he said. What’s he know about mirrors? That black-ass man’s hair is nappier than mine.
In the thin light at the dumpster, my man’s windshield only revealed small jaws and square cheeks, but anytime he said words like thick, or fun – or faggot – his cheeks became sandbags. We were regular now, so I asked him his name.
“Personal,” he said. “That’s my name: Personal.” But he called me precious and gave me the address of an abandoned house near my apartment, where there was a cellphone for me in the mailbox. For when I’m ready. (Weird.) Location services stay off. (Weirder.) But this just proved he cared. About me.
“Who the fuck gave you that watch?” Dad lunged for my wrist.
“I bought it with my work money!” I yelled.
“Yeah, a jeweler open during the lockdown,” he snapped. He pressed his fat thumb on the band and plucked the catch like a fucking guitar string.
“You’re not trashing this like everything else you don’t think I deserve,” I screamed, and I stood up so fast that my chair fell in his way.
Then I freaked. I ran into his room and pulled his bookshelf down and dragged his entertainment center to the floor, before he grabbed me and threw me into the hall. He pinned me to the carpet with a therapeutic hold. And I got mad at that hallway carpet, coz I was right on the worn spot, the trampled intersection of everyone’s Point A to Point B. While I strained to get nowhere, I said, “Adopting me hasn’t made you love me.”
And he answered, “Yeah, I love you. But if you keep saying I don’t, I might just believe you.” That’s when the carpet went watercolor from my wet eyes.
When he let me up, I threw some shit in my pack and put some floor behind me. When I flung open the door, he shouted, “You’re carrying your life with you! Don’t do this!”
I ran down the road to the abandoned house’s mailbox to get the cellphone. “It’s Tariq,” I panted into the phone. “I’m ready. Please, I can’t go back!”
In the parking lot of a grimy motel by the airport, he asked for the phone. He checked to see if location services were still off.
I wish I hadn’t seen what happened next. His arm made a heavy arc over to my forehead, and when he cracked it open with the phone, I smelled the weirdness of earthy skin mixed with suspicious plastic as the phone ricocheted. I was blinking blood out of my eye when he punched my shoulder, then my chest. Every time he punched my abdomen, he knocked a memory loose. Stomach: Dad throwing me into the ocean, so high that I laughed at a faraway thunderstorm. Liver: Being six and my sister buttoning my shirt, softly hushing me after mom’s latest ambulance. Solar plexus: Dad pulling a letter out of the mail and smiling, and I knew we’d been adopted, and I couldn’t breathe I was so angry and afraid and ecstatic.
When he pulled my head back so I’d see myself in the rear view, I saw vines of blood branching out from the ruby fault line on my forehead.
“Can’t fuck up that pretty face,” he said. “But I gave you a scar to remember today. I’m gonna take you to a place where I clean em up, let the cuts and bruises fade. Then I’ll tattoo you, and you’ll start your new career giving at-home massage services.”
I sat motionless, stung and stunned, and he laughed and said, “Don’t worry about massage school. Most of my customers will wanna skip the massages.”
Eyes closed, I heard the urgency in Dad’s voice: “You’re carrying your life with you.” It had sounded lonely. Isolated. Misunderstood and robbed.
On cue, my kidnapper says, “Be grateful. It’s prison, this coronavirus. But you? You’ll never be alone now.”
When we pulled away, I saw a rhododendron bush, and I realized I hadn’t noticed the signs of the end of Spring. All the vibrant purple flowers had wilted to a tired lavender. Just last week they looked like they might last forever.
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