“I could eat you alive,” he says as he pecks the tip of her nose. Then he throws his arms around her shoulders. She hugs him, her small, pudgy hands climbing his lean, long back, her head nestling under his chin.
“No one has ever said that to me before,” she tells him, eyes closed.
“You just look so adorable,” he leans back, appraising her like something he himself has fashioned.
“You’re just saying that.” She knows how she must look after work--violet eye make-up smudged; thin, mousy hair in a mussed ponytail; yellow and black print shift to hide her two rolls of belly fat and two small breasts stained midway with salad oil from today’s lunch. Only her high-waisted, purple, sequin-trimmed, open vest and cowboy boots that Tyler helped her buy could be considered adorbs.
He is wearing cowboy boots too, tight black jeans, and a black and white wife beater she picked out for him at Old Navy that highlights his scrawny, long arms and the blue vein running down the small bump of each bicep. His spiky hair is dyed platinum and green. But for the cluster of zits on his forehead and chin and the missing corner tooth in his lower mandible punched out by his dad during their last fight, he would be Hollywood material, she thinks, maybe even with these.
“Just take the compliment,” he nudges her playfully as they are led to a small corner table with a view of the street and sidewalk in the nearly empty vegan restaurant they like to frequent.
A very pale, bored-looking young waiter, wearing a stained apron, brings them each a glass of water and inquires if they’d like something to drink. Tyler passes. She says, “I’ll have a carrot, celery and OJ smoothie please.” Then to Tyler, “I feel like I need energy. It’s been a long day.”
“Totally. So tell me, what’s your new place like? How many rooms?” his each word accenting a particular excited emotion.
“Two bedrooms, one bath. The kitchen is huge. It’s on Hitchcock.”
“Lane? Wasn’t a girl raped there not long ago?”
“What? The landlord said it was safe. I haven’t seen what it looks like at night.”
“Why don’t you show me. After. I’ll let you know what I feel. You know I always pick up on vibes.” His hands wave a little pointing up. She responds with a shy, little smile. “Awesome.”
“What’s a bestie for?”
He orders spinach salad, all he can afford, he says, so when Shelly catches him looking longingly at her plate, she offers him half a sesame bun from her open veggie burger which he douses with ketchup and devours with gusto.
Afterwards they ride in her Corvair past the apartment complex where she plans to live, although nothing is really visible from the road since it’s dark out. “I hope there’s lights in the parking lot,” he says, brushing back his hair with both hands while gazing into the visor mirror. He jerks turning left then right.
“Wait. If that’s Hitchcock, this must be Jamison,” and delivers a playful slap. “This is less than a mile from my BS, beauty school!”
On her next day off, Shelly’s older cousin Lou and one of his buddies help her move from her grandmother’s senior complex, where Shelly lived for three years since graduating high school until her grandmother passed away naturally in her sleep a month before. Shelly would get $50-dollars a week from her Grams for shopping, cleaning and cooking. Most of her allowance she managed to save, having neither to pay for food nor rent. This is why she can now afford to move, even if she knows in the near future she will need either a second job or a mate to make ends meet.
Her first weekend in her new place, Tyler comes over and they hunker down over a bowl of buttered popcorn to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which they have already seen twice, once at Tyler’s mother’s house, where he lives, another time at Shelly’s grandmother’s. The barren living room holds a few big, randomly-placed, unlit candles, a brand new braided rug, two floor cushions and Shelly’s grandmother’s TV.
Shelly and Tyler have only known one another a few months, having met in the coffee shop of The Bookery, where Shelly works part-time. Waiting in line for coffee one day, they started chatting about something random and haven’t stopped. It was literally a friendship forged overnight. Twin souls, she thinks and he says.
“You should get some nice hanging plants. Maybe a pooch too,” Tyler suggests.
“Who’s going to feed and walk him? I have to work.” She makes a sad face. He mirrors it, and pulls her up with him as he breaks into, “Working Nine to Five.” She joins him for the refrain as they kick their feet, right, left, then mimic the scene in the movie where the female leads march arm in arm determinedly through an office. They end, turning to each other laughing. Still in a giddy mood, Tyler yanks the rust-colored Scrunchie out of Shelly’s tangled mane and runs his fingers through it. “Ouch,” she exclaims, then smiles.
“This great color just came in, persimmon, you would look so great in. It would bring out your per-sona.” He rolls up his eyes saying persona, as if it’s something deep or complex he would never normally say, even if he knows what it means.
Shelly feels tingles when he speaks like that, as if his very words and touch, a tantalizing tease, are undressing her. She has never been this intimate with anyone, and this is their first time alone. At Tyler’s mother’s house and at her grandmother’s, there was always someone in the next room.
In high school, Shelly mostly kept to herself, compensating for all the bullying about her weight by getting top grades, which only seemed to lift her up, as her parents only cared that she didn’t act out or skip school. Her father, a plumber, got his GED late, and her mother’s entire world has only ever revolved around her husband, daughter, sister, and the Kardashian’s reality show.
Shelly’s Aunt Tula was like an older sister until she met her current girlfriend Iris. Now they hardly see each other. No more museums, girl chats or forays to restaurants since when Tula finds a girlfriend, she disappears. Junior year, it was Aunt Tula who had the acuity to tell Shelly “go get some cool accessory to show the kids who you are, go for it.” Overnight, a pair of rad, violet-framed glasses turned Shelly from “dough girl” into dope nerd. She became everyone’s go-to for homework, someone everybody could count on.
“I’ve never done anything, even put a rinse in my hair,” Shelly confides to Tyler, feeling like she’s talking about something more personal than her hair.
“Oh, that’s OK. I’m good, really good at what I do. You have to trust me,” he comes close, still fondling her hair, enraptured with the idea of dyeing it and transforming her. In a rush of feeling, she hugs him tight around the waist raising her face to be kissed, which he does, and they wind up having sex on the rug, mostly giggling while yanking off each other’s sweat pants.
“I feel like I should spend the night,” says Tyler with a question mark as afterwards they nit pick popcorn seeds from the floor and rug.
“Only if we cuddle,” she bats her eyelashes at him.
In her bedroom, they make a thing of each one tossing a stuffed animal—a dog, rabbit, bear, and lastly a turtle, from her pink bedspread onto the orange shag rug under her bed. Under the covers, they giggle, play slapping one another, then spoon. Shelly has never been this happy before and says, “I love you,” to which Tyler replies, “love you too.”
In the morning, while Shelly lollygags in bed, Tyler brings to share two pieces of burnt toast slathered with butter on a paper plate and a too strong cup of tea, left too long in the microwave. Since it is Saturday, Shelly has to work, so Tyler helps her pick out an outfit--jeans, a light sweater and the boots. The jeans barely fit since they are from last year, so Shelly leaves them unbuttoned under her red top, feeling uncomfortable and slightly inappropriate, but happy to please.
At work, Erin, who usually works in the customer service booth, says, “you look glowing.” That is all Shelly needs to hear in order to breathlessly confide she has a boyfriend with whom she had “wild sex” the night before. Making a frame around her face, she adds, “therefore, glow.”
Erin points at her grinning, “Knew it.”
Shelly does not tell Tyler that, not counting her vibrator, she was a virgin before him. More than anything, she wants to appear experienced, the queen. She is after all a little older, was, it turns out, a senior when Tyler was a freshman at their local high school. So, when he moves in a couple of weeks later with not one but two spider plants donated by his mother and an old couch from her basement that will allow them to “sit and watch TV like an old married couple,” his words, she begins wearing red lipstick, a brash red that clashes a little with her persimmon hair, which is Tyler’s gift in exchange for his half of his first month’s rent.
This is the first time Tyler has lived away from home, not counting two summers spent with his cousins in West Virginia when he was a boy. After the second visit, when he was 14, his parents divorced. It was long coming. After his four-year old brother Tommy had died of leukemia when Tyler was six, his parents started drinking. It turned out, his mother, who was a teacher then, wouldn’t tolerate getting beaten up by his dad. Same night Tyler lost his tooth, she wound up in the emergency room with a concussion and a bruise shaped like Texas down one side of her face. After that, she got a restraining order, and, after divorcing, got sober. At 40, still dating, she is not unhappy to see her son leave home with “someone like Shelly, “who she intuits “will be good” for him.
The red lipstick and dyed hair together stir something in Tyler. “You look hot, like some 40s movie star,” he tells Shelly. They have sex practically every night and Shelly goes to work floating, high as in a dream. Now she knows what it’s like being in love. Now she no longer wants for anything.
The days Shelly gets home from work first, she makes soup or macaroni salad or spinach salad, and weekends, they order pizza, on him. So goes their first month together. At the end of it, Tyler tells her, glassy-eyed, hands trembling a little with trepidation, that he’s not sure he can make the next month’s rent. “I’ve got all these tools I have to get at school. They’re expensive and I still have another semester to go.” He throws himself on the couch, self-flagellating, despondent. She nestles close. “It’s OK. I totally get it.”
“I’ll pay you back. Promise.” He kisses the tip of her nose and then leans on her shoulder, making her swoon with the feeling of his love for her. She feels wise, mature, and tells herself, giving is what love is for, an insight she will write later in her diary. Compared to him, she has money to burn and wants above all to show Tyler how supportive and generous she is. This, she realizes, is their first real hurdle as a couple, the mere idea of which brings tears to her eyes.
Near the end of their second month together, just as Shelly starts thinking she and Tyler jell so well together they might as well be married, Tyler suggests they start entertaining. “We have all this room and it’s just you and me. I have a friend at school I want you to meet. He’s the only other guy in my class and is so great. You will love him.”
A few days later, Tyler brings Jason over and an extra large pizza. Jason is short, stout, maybe a little older than her, with very neat short black hair and a neatly trimmed days’ old beard, the kind considered “sexy.” Jason contributes two liters of Diet Coke and extends a well-manicured hand to Shelly. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
It’s Saturday, and after pizza, unable to decide on a movie, the threesome play a game of Scrabble. After announcing how smart Jason is, Tyler shares a tray of letters with him, leaning in as if to learn from him, which Shelly finds kind of endearing. She wins and is surprised to hear not a laudatory word from either of the other players, making her suddenly feel as if it’s her against them. Instead, she hears Tyler say under his breath to Jason, “It’s OK, she probably cheated,” a remark that stings, although Tyler quickly makes up for it by winking at her.
After Shelly wins a second time, they decide, or rather, Tyler and Jason decide, to watch a horror movie, a genre Shelly loathes. She handles the situation by saying she has a headache, and Tyler makes a big to-do as she retreats to the bedroom. “Aww, feel better. I’ll be in soon to tuck you in.”
Under the bed covers, Shelly finds she actually does feel queasy, figuring it was probably one too many slices of pizza as she drifts off to the scent of incense and the sound of giggling in the next room.
In the morning Shelly finds Tyler already up having coffee and Jason still on the couch.
“Did you guys stay up all night?” She yawns, still dim with sleep. “Why is it smoky in here?”
“Sorry. I had a cigarette,” Jason turns sideways so he is actually eyeing Tyler in the kitchen, not her, as she is behind him.
“Blame me,” says Tyler, raising a hand and turning up his nose in mock regret. “It was cold and rainy last night. I couldn’t very well send him outdoors. He slept on the couch. I hope that’s OK.”
“Yeah. Sure,” Shelly says quietly. “You’re up early.”
“I know. Right?” He turns to Jason to deliver a newsflash, “I’m never up before 10 Sundays.”
Half an hour later, after a mini quarrel about breakfast, who will make it and how two eggs can’t be split three ways, Jason leaves awkwardly and Tyler accompanies him to his car, then returns about 20 minutes later looking sad and deflated.
Unpleasant thoughts run through Shelly’s mind, but she says nothing, wanting only for things to return to how they were, even if they only get weirder after that.
For one, they stop having sex, although they still cuddle. A few days later, Tyler whispers to her that Jason thinks she’s hot and wouldn’t it be dope to have a threesome. She doesn’t know what to make of that and freezes in the spooning position to which she has grown accustomed until Tyler crotch bumps her from behind to get a reaction, or rather, reply.
“We both want you,” he hisses into her ear. “Two guys. Talk about ego boost.”
“Have you ever had a threesome?” she asks, still turned away from him.
“No! But am willing to try. I mean, Jason’s not ugly or anything.”
“No,” she pauses. “You could sleep with both of us,” she says softly, neither in a question nor statement, just wonderment.
“I guess. I don’t think I would hate it. I mean, I love you, and he is a friend.” She can see him shrugging in her mind while taking into her the “I love you” she lives to hear.
“OK,” she says. Then they have sex.
Saturday, when Jason comes over, he is pale and nervous, because, he says, he’s never been in a threesome before. Surprise, neither have they. They talk a little about it, holding hands in a little circle, agreeing on a few boundaries, mainly that anyone can stop whenever. After tossing down two shots of tequila each, they head for the bedroom, where Shelly first lights candles.
Kneeling side by side wide-eyed at the foot of her bed, the two guys watch as she slowly strips to a Donna Summer CD, which Jason brought since all three of them are into disco. “Wow,” they both say as Shelly lies back on her pillow totally naked like a queen, feeling in that moment more confident of her size and pallor than she has ever been, even if she still feels like a dough girl. Do they not know that with enough will and love she can be shaped into anything? She notes the sprig of dark hair on Jason’s chest and his firm Buddha belly, the kind you get when you are overweight but work out. She herself has had her soft double belly roll since she was 10.
When Jason begins massaging her feet, Shelly closes her eyes. He massages them a while and when he seems to be slacking off, she opens her eyes and sees Tyler and Jason making out, both of them erect, Tyler’s hand on his friend’s dick. She closes her eyes again, registering the cool air of the room around her shoulders and breasts, imagining the layout of the candles that give the room a warm glow. Then someone pulls her down on the bed and places the tip of his penis on her lips and someone else kneels behind her so they can continue fondling each other while kissing while she sucks one of them off.
She doesn’t open her eyes until it’s over, feeling dizzy from the tequila and everything, hot and removed, like she is part of some human abstract painting someone is making, over which she has no control. She takes a long hot shower and brushes her teeth, noting afterward with relief that neither Tyler nor Jason is around when she goes to sleep.
When she wakes up the next day, she reviews a dream she had in which she explodes screaming like a human chick bursting from a shell, and then weighs possibilities: she could stick her head into the oven, slit her wrists, stab herself in the heart with the only sharp knife in the kitchen. But none of these appeal, or rather, would elicit the kind of reaction she would want. She waits to deliver her punch the next time she sees Tyler.
“You have to go.”
“You know why?”
“You’re jealous of Jason.”
“I’m not even going to go there. You told me Jason was your friend.”
“So, I’m bi,” he says, coming close, toying with the ends of her hair, as if to remind her of who made her beautiful.
“You were with me. You told me you loved me.” She is surprised, despite what she has told herself, to feel hot tears erupting.
“I do love you.”
“You love him. Don’t tell me you don’t. It’s so obvious, it’s like a joke.” She feels out of control and hates herself for it, but seeing his eyes pinch with stress and his face blanch makes her feel he cares just a little. “Just go away.”
“I can’t help who I love. It’s not like I planned it or anything.”
“You wanted him to move in, didn’t you? You actually thought the three of us could live together. Tell me the truth.”
“Maybe. Jason could’ve paid my half. We could’ve made it work, if you cared to try.”
“Fuck you, you big baby. Go back to your mother and get out of my life.”
It is something she doesn’t really need to say, as Tyler’s knapsack is already stuffed with his belongings and he is taking the plants out of the living room, going to Jason, who is sitting in his parked car in the driveway. She waits to hear the car go, but Tyler comes back for the last word. “Bye Felicia,” he says, turning then to exit dramatically. Afterwards, Shelly stands a long while in the remaining dense quiet of her pricked illusion.
When she tells Erin what happened the next day, Erin replies, “that is so pathetic,” then thoughtfully, “everyone has to find their own label,” which makes Shelly flash on an image of people as cut-out dolls needing pricing.
With Tyler out of her life, she senses a shift toward spaciousness within, where before there had only been pain and hurt, as if within the large body of herself there is contained a surprise adventure, an exciting journey of sorts someone, even she herself might endeavor to take one day.
Without Tyler, the pressure of having to impress all the time, be female in a conventional way, be someone she neither likes nor trusts, begins to dissipate. She feels more herself, goes back to wearing her glasses, which have always provided a kind of shield and shelter. She is not totally alone, she tells herself. She has a life, a job and a friend, someone who listens to her and admires her, who is there from day to day. She tells herself that having loved and lost, she has graduated from being a mere nerd, to being a woman of the world now, someone with a precious secret, a story and past, which is something after all.
Arya F. Jenkins's poetry, flash, short stories and creative non-fiction have been published in many journals and zines. Her fiction has received several nominations for the Pushcart Prize and one nomination in 2021 for the Best of the Net Anthology. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks, a short story collection, Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite, 2018) and a mixed genre novel, Punk Disco Bohemian (NineStar Press, 2021). A second collection of short stories is due out in 2022.