You can’t do that!
Her teeth halted their gliding into the hard yielding flesh of a beeswax candle, eyes curious, wide open, searching. Drool slipped down the side of her mouth, and dropped with a hand-clap splash onto the floor. Her jaw loosened its grip and she slurped the spit, swallowed.
I can’t?, she asked, though it sounded more like “a ant”, because the candle never fully left her mouth.
No-o!, came the answer, a touch of surprised indignation in the voice of the young man. I’m pretty sure anyway. This last addition had revealed him. He wasn’t an employee.
She relaxed and met his eyes. Her teeth sank all the way through and the candle snapped in two inside her mouth. Oh, she uttered, matter-of-fact. She spat the pieces out into her hand, scouring her mouth with her tongue for rogue pieces of wax, which she excreted through her lips in a thick slime. Like yucky broccoli from a kid’s mouth. She unloaded the whole dirty ordeal into his hand, and move on to other things. The young man’s bewilderment faded as he watched her disappear into another aisle. He looked down.
What is… thiiis!?, he exclaimed, louder with every word, as he awoke to the mess in his hand. Like when an itch suddenly becomes a spider. Whaa… Who does that?! Dropping the candle slime onto the counter, nauseated, but mostly also perturbed. Scratching the slimy palm of his hand against the edge of the couter, he shook his head, dismissing the whole affair from memory, dismissing the girl, and eventually, he regained enough countenance to allow him to carry on with his shopping. Only his arched eyebrows remained as a lingering proof of his indignation. What an insane thing to do. He walked through the aisles, listlessly, unable to concentrate on the task at hand. Unaware of his own eyes wandering, searching. Akin to watching murder on the news, his mind idled restlessly in need of a why. A motive for the crime. He watched from a distance as the young woman sauntered aimlessly, her hand blindly grazing all objects in her path, upsetting careful symmetries of pencils, pens, markers, brushes, and turned the corner into another aisle. His mind suddenly regained focus as he encountered that which he had come to the store to purchase. 18”x24”, 16”x20”, 11”x14”. He couldn’t decide. Was it even up to them? Why hadn’t he asked what size? He cursed himself for being so absent minded. Then he remembered that regardless of his choice, there would be disappointment or anger waiting at the other end. His eyes were still periodically scanning for the whereabouts of that weird girl. He then caught sight of the display of off-white canvases. Great, add more variables.., he thought.
After some moments of indecision, his mind crossed-over from preoccupation into indifference. He grabbed two of the first ones his hand fell onto, resolved to keep the receipt for, not ‘if’ but ‘when’, he would be sent back to the store to replace them with the correct size. He was about to leave, then thought twice. He peered down at the 16”x48” canvases he had ended up with. ‘If’ was better than ‘when’, he reasoned. However futile the attempt, he would at least try. He returned to the canvases and on his way back, happened upon the half-profile of the young woman chewing on an eraser at the end of an aisle. One of the thick brown smearing erasers too. His gums began tingling, tickled by the proposed softness, the squeaky resistance, the yielding flesh, the chewy tastelessness. His teeth clenched.
No, no, NO!, he couldn’t help but yelp through the aisle, surprised at hearing his voice so loud and already angry with himself for it. Her eyebrows rose in lazy surprise. He paid for the 16”x32”s or whatever the hell they were, and left. His angershame ringing sharply in the bell above the door, though its stiff hinges and probably foam-padded door frame, didn’t quite convey the slam he had intended.
Yes! He walked swiftly to his room, ditching the canvases on the couch, next to his indignant father, and closed the door of his room, this time with a much-needed slam.
At least here one can think. The soundproof privacy. The intimacy of a small room. No one would even know I’m in here. This is my time. No one can yell at me. No one can… god that girl was weird. I hope she doesn’t go to that art thing too. They’d probably kick her out for licking the paint! Dad would lose it. Oh! he would lose it. And we’d all get kicked out because of her. At least my shame is private. I keep my shame from the ears of others. The silence is so obsolete that, to me, paradoxically, the sound is all there is. It fills the air and reigns undisturbed. And I’ve slowly grown fond of it.
On Tuesday, he exchanged the canvases. His teeth clenched, as he entered the aisle, at the mere memory of her. Who does that, he thought, shaking his head again, withholding a smile. Still shaking his head, he stepped out of the store and set off down the street. What if everyone acted that way? He nearly tripped on his thoughts, and luckily so, for he was heading straight for an intersection. The light was actually turning red, however, and he might conceivably have made it safely anyway. He whisked the thought out of mind, with a toss of his purposefully ungainly hair.
Hey!, that’s all he unexpectedly said, for he was speaking to the window of a bulk store. Blinking a few times to make sure that she was actually outside his mind. Hey!, again he stayed brief in his convocation as he struggled in confirming that indeed she was outside his mind, and inside the bulk store. At it again, he thought. That hooligan! Someone ought to.., he thought, looking down the street, empty for the Tuesday that it was. I ought to.., he thought, not wholly convinced. Breathing to the sky, and with a hand inside his perfectly tangled hair, he walked assuredly into the store.
She froze. Her right hand was forearm-deep in cocoa nibs, wiggling deeper, while her left, was in couscous, doing the same. At his shout, the wiggling ceased. Her neck dipped, and her shoulders rose, but the voice rang familiar in her ear. Then she recognized it. Pfffoooush.., she exhaled, relaxing her shoulders, not acknowledging the young man’s presence. The wiggling resumed, and she closed her eyes to the two different scraping textures against her fingers, the prickling and the smooth against the palm of her hands.
Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to behave? He hadn’t prepared for this, so those were the words he uttered. Then, he just waited. Stared at her back until she got bored. She was dressed, he noticed, exactly as the day before. Her style could not easily be identified by any other descriptive than, well, yesterday’s clothes. The dress she wore swayed above bruised shins and her feet weren’t much cleaner than you would expect for the worn leather sandals she wore. She withdrew her hands. The pleasure had vanished anyway.
That’s right, he thought in answer to the delayed reaction to his authority and presence. The girl looked down the aisle and felt a swoop of lazy boredom sway through her limbs. She turned despondently to fully face the young man. Her travelling stare did not fully acknowledge his presence. His eyes got lost in her eyes and, for a minute, he too stared at himself, through them. He was beautiful, with his brand new, clean variation on the theme of second hand or vintage. His neatly trimmed ‘yesterday’s regrowth’ facial hair. Through her, he came to observe his hair, and found a hand in it. The fingers splayed, and gliding forward. He closed his eyes on the pleasurable sensation. Reaching up, he too interlaced his fingers in the hair. His hair, normally so soft and voluminous, felt stiff, dry. Craach craach craach. And also, there was that upsetting sound. Craach craach craach.
The wasabi peas were cracking loud in the amphitheatre of her open mouth. Ooooh, she vocalized, and held her nose against the mustardy sting. Ooooh, she said, and sneezed green. And again. His eyes fell open and he stared at her down the aisle. He discovered both his hands inside a spaghetti bin, digging. His cheeks flushed swedish-berry-candy red, and he looked away so she wouldn’t see. On his way out, he told the cashier about the girl, eating from the bins in aisle 3.
And if you use the other tip of your brush you can re-create the lines of texture by scratching the fresh paint out of the way.
It had been his dad’s stupid idea to do an art workshop. Neither had ever painted before, so their attempt at Edvard Munch’s Scream reflected just about exactly how they both felt about their attempt at rekindling their relationship through new and positive experiences. When his dad punched a hole through the canvas with the butt of his brush, they both had to leave, because the teacher was not understanding just how much of an idiot she was, how Eddy Munch was a fraud and an amateur, and how much more of an idiot she was for thinking he wouldn’t write Munch a serious email about it.
His dad’s car had driven off before he had reached the parking lot. So he went to the park and sat on a wet bench. It was not a quiet park. A bunch of kids were kicking a plastic bottle against the plastic climbing wall. Their moms were on the phone.
Am I the only sane person left in the world?, he muttered, clearly furious, and was about to stand, when someone sat down next to him on the bench. He stopped.
Hey, light and familiar-like.
Oh. It’s you. Shouldn’t you be somewhere…, he stepped angrily over to the kids, grabbed the bottle and chucked it in the trash, …licking something?
Can’t do that!
So you’ve learned?
No you. You can’t…, she stepped over to the trash, fished the bottle out, and gave it back to the kids, …do that. She sat back down. The kids looked at the bottle, then back at the two strangers.
Whaaat? Sorry, I’ll have to call you back, the kids are fighting again. We’re leaving!, she yelled over. You want to fuss? Let’s go.
The kids looked down at the bottle, the smallest one of the bunch kicked it towards the strangers on the bench. It bounced off the curb of the sandpit, and landed short of its mark.
Come one let’s goooo, the ‘o’ stretching out like the ‘a’ in lame.
Don’t forget your bottle!, the girl shouted at them, laughing. One of the kids gave them the finger, and she barked.
Sweet kids, she said, but when she turned around, he was already walking away. Hey you!
I can tee-ell! Come back.
He stopped. He shouldn’t have stopped. Because now he was in love, and he had to go face up to it.
We have to go.
Why? We just got here.
I’ll tell you on the sidewalk. She grabbed her coat, and left the café. He followed suit with his eyes until she was on the sidewalk, sidestepping back and forth like a child with a full bladder. He laughed, and shook his head. Countering his own annoyance with a quiet pride for his monumental patience. He returned his book to his backpack, picked up her forgotten gloves, and followed after her.
What is it?
Mrrr, she grunted and then whispered in confession, I’ve got an itch.
What? Where? I can scr…
No! You can’t just.., her eyes were watering. Come on. She grabbed his hand and dragged him into the dollar store next to the café.
She picked up a spatula from the utensil aisle, and handed it to him. When she turned around to indicate the spot to him, she caught sight of a better tool. And then another. And another still. Until he was left holding a handful of miscellaneous items, and the itch remained unscratched. She disappeared for a moment, and when she came back, she was holding a sponge in her hand.
A sponge?, he asked, laughing with marked indulgence. He dropped the mysteriously inadequate tools into a nearby bin, all of which he would have chosen every time over a sponge.
I don’t know why with a sponge. I don’t choose… Now would you please! She lifted the back of her shirt and pointed awkwardly behind her back at the spot. Softer!
Yeah, softer. That’s it! And her sigh of relief was too loud. He blushed. When the deed was done, she pulled down her shirt.
Did it work?, he asked.
Bah, not quite, she said, and they both shared a hearty laugh.
Do you have an itch?, she asked.
Ok then, let’s go. She threw the sponge over her shoulder, and when she glanced back and saw that he was about to pick it up, she yelled: Clean up in aisle four, took his arm, and ran out the door.
His basket was full, and he hadn’t seen her for a while. When he’d suggested they should go pick blueberries at his uncle’s farm, he had suspected she would probably eat them instead, or put them up her nose or something. So when he called out her name, he wasn’t wholly surprised to hear her voice coming from a greenhouse at the end of the field.
What are you doing?, he spoke through the plastic sheet.
How did you get in here?
Umm.. I don’t know.
You better not have a blueberry up your nose!
What? No! Why would I… come here!
He walked to the end of the greenhouse, and stepped through the many overlapping plastic sheets of the entrance. Then, out of the blue, a blueberry came flying towards him, and hit him smack dab straight in the eye.
What? Why! He heard her laughing her lungs out in the corner, and shouted: That better not have come from your nose!
Yehehes!, she wheezed.
Oh-ho no you didn’t!
What are you even doing in here?
Oh right!, she sobered up. Come here.
They walked together through the tomato vines hanging from the ceiling, him rubbing his eye, her scanning the ground. They stopped in front of two rotten tomatoes on the ground.
Take a shoe off.
What? No! I know what this is. I don’t want any part of it!
Take it off.
Off!, she bent down and yanked it off for him.
Now. Step on it.
This is your thing.. I don’t…
SQUISH IT! She was screaming at him now. So he did as he was told. Squished it. And the tender rotten skin yielded immediately and the warm juice filled the space between his toes. And the love he held under such a tight grip began leaking through, spilling into the warm humid air. When he looked over, she was squishing too. And he had never felt love as acutely as in that moment. Squishing each other’s hearts to a warm, wet, sour-smelling mulch. She held his hand.
Then he felt the warm flesh of another tomato sliding between their sweaty palms. He looked into her eyes, and her into his, and the juice trickled down from their fingers.
She asked him: Why do you like me?
And so he decided it was time. They left the blueberries there, in their baskets, and one foot bare, one shoe in hand, he walked her to his car. They drove in silence. All the way to his dad’s place. He told her to wait outside while he made sure no one was home. Was he truly doing this? A moment of doubt crept into him. But it was too late now, they were already inside the washroom. She entered first. He shut the door behind them. The air seemed to vacuum out, whisking all sounds along with it. The silence was made absolute by the egg cartons lining the walls, the thick foam around the door, the carpet. Not a word was spoken. Both were unwilling to break a silence so complete. Like two ants inside a drop of water. She moved aside, and he passed by her solemnly. In a fluid movement, he took off his pants and went about his messy business. The sounds of his shame filled the air.
She reached over and took his hand in hers.
© 2021 Etienne Robert. All rights reserved.