Image by Brooke Bourgeois

Fiction Tiny Beasts

Ayla Zuraw-Friedland

Global warming was fucking up the squirrels. It was of course fucking everything up — the new and improved Boston Seaport would be underwater in twenty years, and the mosquitos were leaving particularly nasty welts. But special attention was on the squirrels. Higher-than-usual temperatures were fermenting the berries they ate off the trees and getting them so drunk they lost their sense of balance. They dented the roofs of cars on Rte. 9 as they plummeted from the branches, and the Boston Common was littered with their chubby, lethargic bodies. I am telling you this, A, because you would have loved them. You would have called them your messy bitch children and left them bottle caps of Gatorade for their tiny hangovers and sat down to draw them, sketching each individual tuft of fur: brown then silver then gold then chestnut until one could believe that these were actually the most majestic creatures that had ever lived. You hated Boston. But I like to think you would have come to visit this particular summer because I was there and because of the novelty of squirrels getting even drunker than we could on the contents of the dozens of stolen nips bulging from our overall pockets. I am going to tell you about the summer of the drunk squirrels because I wish you could have been there. I miss you and want you to explain what it means that I am now in my Saturn return.

As you might expect, I was not in a good place this summer. You had been gone for two years. I was in my second year as an editorial assistant at a small nonprofit publishing house. I thought it would be a dream job — editing books, or at least assisting in editing books about social justice issues I cared about was, on paper, exactly what I wanted to be doing with my life. But in practice I spent most of my time slouched in the recliner set up in the nursing room playing Candy Crush until each subsequent panic attack about cover mechs with unmarked typos or mis-stapled proposal packets subsided. I knew that eventually I would either quit or be fired and it was only a matter of how stubborn I was, or how long it took them to realize that any time I was asked to secure permissions for the images that were to accompany a Y.A. history book about indigenous genocide, I would simply lie and say the image could not be traced. The idea of sending another email to an artist begging them to let us use their labor for free ~bEcAuSe wE’rE jUsT a nOnPrOfiT~ made me want to die. I was allegedly making contingency plans to leave. I was applying to things at a manic rate: graduate school to be a high school teacher or administrator, a Fulbright in India to learn Urdu for the CIA, used bookstores, hemp farms in New Hampshire. 

I started therapy because I hated my job as much as it hated me, but kept going with the hope that one day I would be brave enough to tell Susan, the nice, heavyset middle-aged woman who took notes on her Google Chromebook and drank an entire Dunkin’ XL iced coffee over the course of our lunch hour sessions, that the night after you were killed by a drunk driver while you crossed the highway that bisected campus to get more cigarettes, our friend Martin raped me at the memorial service held by our college. At times I got close. I spent the first 50 to 54 minutes of my appointment railing against the capitalist system where my survival depended on me continuing to destroy my mental health by working at a company that was enjoying what the board members called, with less awareness of the irony than they thought they had, a “Trump bump” in sales for books about the emoluments clause and why immigrants are actually good. In the last 45 seconds I would maybe say something like “and I’m probably so mad about this because of how grief and sex and loss and agency and death are now inextricably intertwined in my psyche. See you next week!” as I headed out the door and back to my desk for a long afternoon of forging invoices and making less than $15 an hour. 

You know that I am terrible at picking out people to sleep with; I do not read red flags any better than I read the dimensions of things I buy online. That’s why I wind up with puny, ten-inch-tall cat scratching posts that looked bigger on Instagram and men who think that being described as “sensitive” by one fifth-grade teacher excused them from developing a single additional cell of emotional intelligence. I would have loved to tell you about how this particular man, a postdoc at MIT ten years my senior, tried to test my nurturing instincts by coming to my shitty shared attic apartment with a beta fish in the same bag as the three limes, condoms (ribbed for no one’s pleasure), and one-percent milk. 

He did not provide water purification tablets or food or a bowl or the pretty marbles for the bottom of the bowl or any warning, but somehow the fish was now my problem. It seemed my ability to figure it out or develop an attachment to this twitchy aquatic handkerchief would decide for him whether I was worth the effort or the cost of a second towel for when I spent the night at his place. The next morning I accidentally dumped the fish down the garbage disposal when, while trying to pack a hurried lunch, I grabbed the first tupperware I saw. You would have shrieked, A, at how I looked this man dead in the face when I flipped the switch.

I should disclose that lately the place I most often see you is when I am having sex, or being had sex with. I don’t want you there for my passive, vanilla attempts at letting loose any more than you probably want to be. You loom over their left shoulders and make lewd jokes that surprise me into laughter that turns to tears, that turns to a very long, self-flagellating cab ride home that I cannot afford. You are not there to take my phone when I start typing things like “I’m embarrassing! Throw me to the ocean!” to the person I just left with a snot-covered pillowcase and a conviction that ALL bisexual women are insane.

I wonder if it is because the moment before Martin pinned me to the air mattress with just one of his rugby-swollen arms, I had been engaged in the project of trying not to imagine what you looked like crumpled on the shoulder of Mohegan Avenue just 24 hours earlier but of course, doing it anyways. You had been still and frozen there while cars whizzed past and now I was still and frozen not 3,000 feet away in that room in Larrabee while Martin tugged at the knotted drawstrings of the pajamas he had lent me for the night and wasn’t it funny and sad how different and the same it all was? Wasn’t it just like me to compare two things that had no business being held up next to one another?

All this to say: I see you most often when I am making choices that I know aren’t good for me but feel like something I ought to try to know for sure. When I see you, you have bits of what I somehow know is hollandaise sauce at the corner of your lips and not, definitely not, dried and cracked spittle from when you cried out for help as the life slipped out of you. It is hollandaise sauce because the last plans we made with one another were for a brunch I slept through. I am still sorry about that. I will always be sorry about that.

 

But again I digress. The morning most important to this story was a Sunday morning and I was, as always, late to my second job working as a babysitter at an Episcopalian church in Beacon Hill. I had woken too early with too much energy after downing a bottle of rosé the night before. I suddenly had big ambitions. I dug the single pair of workout shorts I owned from the back of my pajama drawer. I drank water straight from the tap and ate a fistful of granola. I intended to get off the train three stops early and run the rest of the way to the church before breezing in, pressed green juice in hand, with a few minutes to spare for stretching before the first kids were dropped off for an enriching morning of the same three alphabet puzzles and two books about Noah’s ark and absolutely no lessons about Jesus. 

But a key component to running is breathing and by the second block I was alternating between doubling over and putting my hands over my head, unable to remember which was supposed to help. I had envisioned clearing my heart and mind in the silence of early morning Back Bay before the streets crawled with brunch-goers and hotter, fitter, richer people. But rather than charging past the Panera where I usually ordered a well-balanced breakfast of a cinnamon sugar crunch bagel with strawberry cream cheese, I found myself in line again, clearing my throat and nose incessantly while other bleary-eyed retail workers grimaced at the shared conundrum of a necessary Sunday morning shift. The run was doomed and I was doomed to reckon with the fact that as much as I wanted to see myself as an Amy March or a Jo March I would most definitely have been a sickly Beth March who died a slow, fevered death choking on her own phlegm.

A, there’s a point on my walk to the Sunday job that I love. Just as you enter the Public Garden at the gate on Arlington, there is a sculpture of George Washington on a horse. We hate George Washington, but there’s something about the way he is positioned so grandly in front of a city that is sprouting skyscrapers at an unsustainable rate, skyscrapers that will remain vacant because no one can afford to live in them, that makes him look like he is leading an army of hollow ruin that feels appropriate and true — so American it hurts — and like something you would have pointed out to me. 

This particular morning I kept to the edges of the park. There were too many other runners, so many that it looked like everyone but me knew they were being chased. Maybe if I had taken my usual tear through the dead center of the garden, swinging my legs over the fenced-off rose plots like a giant to shave seconds off my tardiness, I would not have found myself in the landing zone for this squirrel at the moment he tumbled from one of the gnarled oaks that grew along the fence.

What I did not expect is that a squirrel would have such heft. Perhaps I should have assumed — aside from this newfound drinking problem, the squirrels of the Public Garden and the Common had been putting on weight. Despite signage from the Boston Parks Department pleading with us to not feed the wildlife, tourists could not seem to resist giving them the remnants of $27 Faneuil Hall lobster rolls. The squirrels ambled about with the butts of soft hotdog buns drenched in butter and hand sweat wedged into their cheeks. 

This squirrel hit my shoulder like a well-meaning dad clapping me on the shoulder before realizing that despite my short hair and boyish figure, I was not, in fact, one of his nephews or sons or a player on one of their junior league soccer teams. It was solid and full and sent me off balance enough that I had to take a knee. On the ground next to me was the squirrel, who for purposes of clarity and what you would have called a garishly white impulse to give everything a name, I will call Bruce. 

“I’ve been hit!” I sent not-boyfriend a photo of Bruce, sprawled into a belly flop. Because not-boyfriend is an earth sign and therefore a psychological terrorist, I saw the message go from delivered to read where it remained like an unreturned high five. I waited forty-five seconds, two minutes, without the immediate-gratification ellipses. There were no squirrel emojis to follow up with, so I sat on the ground with Bruce. I guessed he was young, although I am far from an expert on the aging patterns of North American city fauna. He seemed impossibly relaxed, and were it not for the breath twitching around his tiny black nostrils, I would have assumed he had died on impact. With the hand that was not clenching my phone as though to choke a response out of it, I stroked the fur between his ears. It was spongy, like new grass or duckling feathers. Squirrels did not typically present opportunities for us to notice their feral beauty. This squirrel, you would have said, went to private school — his overbite wasn’t even that noticeable. I think I was with you when I learned that something like 80 percent of the trees we enjoy today are the result of squirrels burying acorns and then forgetting where they’d left them. Despite or because of their chaotic natures, we now have parks and forests and 200-year-old oaks, and we get to live on an earth with oxygen and shade even though we kill off trees at twice the rate we plant them. But now, here Bruce was, relieved of this immense responsibility, at absolute ease. 

I wanted what Bruce had, so I took Bruce. He was supple and loose and barely stirred when I picked him up; his head tipped backwards, arms thrown back as though opening himself up to the universe or to embrace the early morning sun or simply because he had torn his tiny rotator cuffs and there was no way for them to remain in their sockets. He was too girthy for the fanny pack where I kept my keys and wallet so like most other Sundays, I found myself snarfing down my idiot confection breakfast as I power walked toward the church, not only because I didn’t want to saunter in late holding evidence of my disregard for timeliness and how much I truly needed their $17/hr, but because the wax paper now served as Bruce’s sleeping bag. 

 

For the first service of the morning, the daycare center was set up on the ground floor of the rectory. Really, it was just four enormous industrial rug samples laid down to make an even larger rectangle, closed in against the back wall with a folding gate spread in a zigzag. In addition to bins of nubby Rose Art crayons and recycled church service programs, a hyperrealistic miniature shopping cart filled with mildewy wooden replicas of fruit and knockoff cereals, seven books (two of which we hid behind the carrel of folding chairs in the supply closet because they felt “too Jesusy”), twelve naked babydolls of varying skin tones, “the puzzle box” where all the pieces of generations of puzzles lived together, and a rubber donkey toy named Rody. 

When it was not their turn to feverishly hump Rody in the corner, kids aged three months to eight years ran back and forth across the carpets and tumbled over the gym mats along the walls pretending to be Ninjago, or just sat on our laps and pouted until it was time for their parents to come down and get them for the children’s sermon and blessing. The parents would say “Thank you for watching them!” and we would say “Of course!” And then they would say “Say thank you to Miss…” trailing off as they forgot our names again, and their kids, suddenly shy despite having spent the better part of the last two hours making us take them to the bathroom every ten minutes, would cover their faces and say, “when donuts?”

I put my things down on the windowsill, careful to cover Bruce’s bag with my sweatshirt so the sun streaming through the dirty glass wouldn’t wake him. Aside from the pay, the only thing that kept me coming back was that my best friend was the boss. Emma had been working as a daycare worker, and now “childcare coordinator,” a role that allowed her to add an extra two hours to her time sheet each week for the duty of texting the group chat “be there or be an octagon (double square)” since she was a freshman at B.U. I was known as the worst employee because I was always late, but the kids liked when I spun them in circles.

“Hiiiiii you look sporty,” Emma said, licking peanut butter off her fingers and waving at one of the dads dropping his three daughters — Alba, Lexi, and June — like puppies over the side of the gate. 

“I run sometimes,” I said, gesturing to her with the remaining half a bagel, which I knew she would take.

We sat together for a while and welcomed each of the families coming in. It seemed like it would just be the two of us this week and I was grateful for the easy silence of being with someone I’d known for fifteen years in this unlikely place. You didn’t ever meet Emma, A, but upon seeing a photo of the two of us together from first grade, covered in chickenpox scabs and contorting our faces into screams while we posed in our swimsuits and drug store goggles at my neighbor’s pool, you took a picture with your cracked phone and declared that it was the purest love you’d ever seen. You told me you were going to paint it, but I don’t know if you ever did.

I considered telling Emma about Bruce, about this stupid thing I had done and would soon be both of our problem depending on how long it took him to sober up. But soon we had eleven kids, a largeish crowd for summer. 

“Dill dou die dy jew?” Iris asked, putting her pink sneaker on my lap. Iris was six and she was homeschooled and would never benefit from the powerful interventive tool of bullying in addressing the speech impediment that made all of the consonants at the front of words turn into “D” on her weak soft palate. I felt bad about how many times I had to ask her to repeat herself, and worried that one day she would be trying to tell me about a fire or a flood or a choking child and I would have no idea what she was saying. I would have felt worse if it weren’t so funny to ask “How old are you Iris?” and hear her exclaim “dicks!” or inquire after her favorite movie for her to say “DAR DOORS.”

“Day dou,” Iris said, curtsying when I had mimed shoe tying long enough for her liking. She returned to her game of trying to pick up baby Caleb, who had no interest in being picked up, only in trying to cram as many wooden men into the toy bus and his mouth as he could.

“Iris what did we say about picking up other kids at daycare?” Emma asked from where she was crouched on the floor changing the diaper of a baby we called “big head Jacob” to distinguish him from “tall Jake.” 

“Ondy on dhe due dats,” she said automatically. Emma glared at me, because the actual rule was that it was not allowed at all due to legal liabilities blahblahblah, but really who is to stop a six-year-old from playing with a real live baby doll when it is defenseless and available?

“That’s right!” I said and Iris started corralling an irritated Caleb with a glimmer in her eye that said “Dime donna drock your dorld, daby.”

It is impossible to say whether these kids were especially or even unusually weird, but I loved them in a way that is only possible when you’ve watched their personalities form over weeks and months and years. They were all rich. They lived along the Freedom Trail and used the Public Garden as their playground. They were used to either a certain level of benign, wealthy neglect, or absolute laser focus from the adults around them at all times.

Of course, children do not love me nearly as much as they loved you. I remember going to the coffee shop down by the waterfront in New London to edit the op-eds for the school newspaper. A baby spent the entirety of his mother’s meeting at the table next to ours looking at you, flirting, waving his hands until she asked if you wouldn’t mind holding him while she went to the bathroom. You bounced him on your knee and tore apart an article about pro-Palestinian activism being akin to anti-Semitism. In the warm, flat light of midafternoon in March, you looked at peace patiently explaining his position via voice memo and holding a baby who patted your mermaid-dyed hair and tangled his fingers in the fringe on your leather jacket. It was beautiful to see you as the person you would grow into — a dad an uncle a professor an artist a person absolutely sure of who they were, which was everyone. It is not enough. I wanted to grow old, not seeing you for eight months at a time and getting to pick up where we left off. 

“Greetings, cowards!” was Henry and Freida’s dad Simon’s weekly hello. Simon made parachuting sounds as he lifted Henry over the gate. Freida nodded at us and skulked over to the book corner. She was twelve and too old for daycare, but she liked to sit downstairs with us as our “apprentice.” Her stepmom once paid me $25 to talk to Freida about switching her Instagram profile to private. Freida already looked sixteen in the way that sixteen-year-old Instagram models looked 22, and the graphic DMs from gross old men with profile pictures of fish were starting to roll in in response to a photo she had posted over the summer of her hugging her golden retriever. That one conversation earned me as much as the hourly rate I was paid for tutoring her in math and study skills once a month. 

Simon was the coolest of the dads in that he was a total fucking dork. He wasn’t hot so much as he was academic and nerdy and actually read good books that he could talk about. He wrote books too, and he sometimes got me into events held by the MFA department at Emerson where he was the writer in residence. I didn’t love his books, but they were serviceable and weren’t about sad professor men who masturbated to their students’ abandoned hair ties. They were mostly about pirates and Ireland. When they first started coming to this church, driving in from Framingham early in the morning, I thought the comments spoken from the side of his mouth were attempts at flirtation. But it eventually became clear that this was just what it was like to have a distant, situational friendship with a man who had an interest in the things you were saying because he was interested in the words. He also earned points helping us set up the tables and chairs for coffee hour if it meant avoiding the service. He was Jewish. He only came to the church to keep the peace with his new wife and her family, and to make good on the promise that they would not become one of those couples that moved to the suburbs and were never seen or heard from again. 

“Do you have a second during coffee hour?” he looked up from wiping the crusted boogers around Henry’s nose. I didn’t see him often enough to know whether he had plucked his eyebrows, but his eyes looked more hazel and clearer than I’d seen them. It was a day of noticing things about creatures that didn’t usually stand still.

“You know where to find me.”

“Sitting at the kids’ table hoarding a wheel of brie and sweating out a hangover?”

I whipped a hacky sack ball at him and he tried and failed to catch it. It bounced off his fingertips and rolled under the radiator.

“Excellent, I have a project for you,” he said, on his hands and knees looking for the bean ball. He was stalling and that was fine. Even if it wasn’t flirting, it was a relationship that could remain, blissfully, separated from everything else. A good crystallized thing.

He waved as he trudged up the stairs.

“Be good, demons.”

Henry cried for a minute as he watched his dad disappear into the chapel, but soon forgot when Emma, ever the good employee, started a game of sharks and minnows. While they all argued over who would be the shark, I peeked under the pile of cardigans and diaper bags to see how Bruce was doing. He hadn’t moved. His snout was buried in his paws as though asking God for mercy. Basking in the moment of attention from Simon, I was now sheepish about my dramatics. 

I did something my therapist was trying to get me to do less of, which was play through the absolute worst-case scenario of what could happen if Bruce did wake up before I figured out what to do with him. In some ways, it was not as bad as I thought. We usually kept the door to the courtyard propped open to give the kids more space. Birds had flown in before, and once a stray cat burrowed into our beanbag chair to give birth. A squirrel wasn’t, in context of all God’s creatures, all that strange. Perhaps it would be okay. So long as no one noticed him emerge from my belongings or could trace the origin of some newfangled squirrel-borne pox back to me. It could all just be a good story about a terrible idea. A story you would have loved and gathered people around to hear at a party no matter how many times you’d listened to me tell it.

If it hadn’t been for the clatter of an overturned frisbee full of colored pencils falling off the top of the toy cart and baby Caleb’s surprised shriek that gravity had in fact worked again, I might have had time to release Bruce in the courtyard among the European wild ginger that grew at the base of the bird bath. There he could have finished napping off his hangover amid the refuse of years of unfound easter eggs. And morning service could have commenced with the usual chaos of asking Chastity with the blunt blonde bob to please stop draping the cold cuts from her ham-and-cheese croissant over her arms (to which she would say, solemnly, “No, thank you”), or keeping Luke away from his favorite toys (the fire extinguisher and the piece of tape over the broken electrical outlet), or making William cry by accidentally calling him Will (a major, major no-no). And at the end of the day I would have gone home, exhausted, maybe had tepid sex with not-boyfriend if he responded to my triple text. If I was lucky, perhaps I would see you over his shoulder tsking sympathetically, if not with a note of exasperation, that this is how I chose to spend the remaining hours of weekend that our working-class forefathers had won for us. And perhaps I would have resolved to be the person that I felt like you remembered me as — someone strong, someone you would sit on the median of Williams Street with when you were homesick, who would put out American Spirits on the hood of campus safety cars. 

And then I would have remembered that you were dead and likely not thinking of me or of labor history at all. And I would wake the next day to sit at the desk in the trendy seaport office building working a job I thought I wanted to support a life I should have wanted, but that made me feel like my heart was crumpling in at the corners like a fitted sheet being folded.

 

But the colored pencils did fall. We needed to find them all and find a new bin for them and Caleb needed a diaper change because he was so scared of the clattering sound that he shit himself and we were out of his diapers and had to text his mom to get another and then it was time to clean up and fold up the big rugs and find Amelia’s special chapstick that was in her sweater pocket and stack the mats and open the baby carrots and the gluten-free crackers for the cheese plate and fill the coffee urns. This was the ballet that we had mastered in the three years of this existence in the downstairs of church life and we were very good at it.

“Why do you keep checking your bag?” Emma asked, a tray of cinnamon rolls balanced on one hip and a stack of napkins tucked under her chin.

“No reason. Do we have any more half-and-half for the coffee table?”

When Simon did find me at the kid’s table, I was wiping a spilled lemonade disaster while Lexi screamed at Lily that she needed to be more careful because Princess Elsa would never do something like this. 

“Bad time?” 

I shrugged.

“Girls, do you need another drink or are we good here?”

“I want a brownie,” Lily cried.

“That’s great news, Lils,” Emma said, nodding at me to say ‘go,’ “because you have one on your plate.”

I followed Simon up the stairs and into the side hallway behind the offices. We stood next to the watercooler and I made some dumb joke about how it was very retro of us to have actual watercooler talk. There were French doors leading out to a decorative Juliet balcony overlooking coffee hour. Through the gauze of the curtains, I could see the dreamified version of moms in linen breaking crackers into the smallest pieces possible to deposit between their children’s lips. And of course I couldn’t see him, but I knew Bruce was there too, asleep and waiting for me to decide what to do about him.

“Since Lucy died I’ve had this idea,” Simon began.

The long and the short of it: he had a job for me. He had a funder and a company, and that company needed a young, enterprising editor to help him start collecting projects and writers. It was exciting, and once again, he assured me, funded, and — double assurance — no pressure. It came with benefits and a salary that would give me $700 a week more than I was currently making; I could work from home; I would only report to him. It was a literary agency named after his deceased first wife, Freida’s mom. It was a passion project, a labor of love. Did he mention it was funded?

“You can have some time to think about it, but you were the first person I thought of,” he went on. I couldn’t tell if I was getting flushed because we were on the top floor of the church where all the heat was or because the possibility of leaving my job before they dismissed me was closer than I thought and I wouldn’t even have to pretend I wanted to work at a hemp farm to do it. Or maybe it was because Simon was suddenly close enough that I could smell that his toothpaste was cinnamon flavored.

“What do you think?”

I was going to say that I didn’t see much point in thinking about it when I would literally start tomorrow if he would let me, but you were shaking your head at me. Yes, you, A, you there, just behind Simon’s shoulder, sitting on the edge of the balconette, peering at me through the curtains. You were also holding a plate of brie cheese and about ten of the mini samosas from Trader Joe’s.

“Tiny beast, what are you doing.”

“I’m about to leave my stupid job and work for a man who loves his kids and his second wife.”

“Sure,” you said. And suddenly Simon was talking to me and I couldn’t hear what he was saying; all I knew is that he was close, too close, closer than I had ever been to someone without kissing them. He wasn’t touching me, not yet, but he moved his hands a lot when he talked. I could feel the air passing between us with each gesture and of course it wasn’t the same as non-consensual touch but why, then, A, were you here? It was Simon. Safe, with Jewish golden-retriever eyes. 

I didn’t see you when Martin held me down and tried to get hard enough to do whatever he felt like he was justified in doing. We had been sitting on the air mattress he’d blown up for me watching Bob’s Burgers because he was too sad to sleep, too drunk to lie down without getting dizzy. I hated the taste of Amaretto so I was sober, technically, but could feel the exhaustion of crying in my nose and my mouth in almost the same way. We talked about you. We talked about what we were doing when we found out you were dead. We watched the last Snapchat you had ever sent to us and we saved it to our respective phones. We cried. We put our hands on one another’s legs and squeezed in comfort and then suddenly his hand was creeping further up than my knee in the range of “soothing pressure” to something more. 

And then the “we” split to him and to me and we were no longer both doing the same thing, which was missing you. I kept my hand on his knee and squeezed and squeezed as though that might be enough to satisfy whatever horrible thing I knew was stirring when he moved his other hand to my chest and said, smirking, “your heart is beating awful fast for a friend.” And I said nothing because some stupid part of me was very concerned that his girlfriend, who had passed out after drinking an entire bottle of moscato with frozen blueberries, was asleep and I didn’t want to wake her up. But I should have. Even if she misunderstood what was happening. 

Rigor mortis takes on average two to four hours to set in, but sometimes as little as one hour or as many as six. Martin breathed hard into my neck and begged me not to leave after I punched him in the face and he fell to the side like a tipping tanker truck. The heft of his 220-pound rugby body landing back on the air mattress was enough to almost launch me off the side. I knew that rigor mortis couldn’t be the same kind of frozen stillness as what I was feeling. But I found a strange comfort and revolting sadness at the thought that your body had long passed that threshold. You might be soft again, somewhere.

“Please, please, don’t go. Because I’ll kill myself if you go, and then that’s half of the summer crew gone,” Martin said, arm flung over his eyes, not even looking at me. And I couldn’t argue with that math or the math of it being four in the morning in December in Connecticut and there being three hours until any train leaving for home. So I stayed, curled up as far away as I could be from him until it was just light enough that I could find my tights on the floor and slip out the door into the cold.

And that’s when I started seeing you over the heads of men I didn’t trust. In some ways it was comforting. But soon it wasn’t just when I was trying to sleep with someone I didn’t like as though it were a form of exposure therapy. It was whenever I took on a project I didn’t care about at work, whenever I told myself and others that I was okay, I was ready to move on. Soon your dumb face was just there whenever I refused to trust that I knew what I wanted. 

“You can do this again, babe, or what if you like, didn’t?” you said then, mouth full of samosa. “Also these are like, stupid good. Trader Joe stole the spice from my people and actually used it? Iconic. Take it away, king.”

“Are you victim blaming me?” I snapped. 

Your eyes softened: “Of course not. I’m just saying that you know more about what you need than you think you do, and I want you to have it, love.”

In a moment of what my therapist might diagnose as “PTSD-induced dissociation,” a part of me floated over to where you were on the balcony. From here I could imagine we were sitting beneath the steps of the library watching the rain after the harried night staff chased us out of the stacks at 2 a.m. closing, or standing at the stove in your tiny kitchen while you supervised my use of cardamom as we cooked butter chicken, or any of the hundreds of times we were shoulder to shoulder like this. 

What I saw was a man and a woman talking in a cramped hallway near a water cooler. He was standing a little closer than might be appropriate in a workplace, but not lecherously so. He spoke at a volume that suggested he was telling her (me) a secret he had kept for a long time, which made her (me) lean in closer to catch the words that fell to the back of his throat. He did not look at her (my) mouth, but the back of one of his hands (me) brushed her (my) shoulder in a way that made her (me) stiffen. He talked about how beautiful his wife was, about how she (I) looked a little like she did when they met. 

“I hate him,” I said.

“Same. He’s too old to wear Converse.”

We watched the scene for another minute. It was as though we were both waiting for something inexcusable to happen, for the height of my pulse to be justified. I considered asking for one of the samosas on your plate until I remembered you were a hallucination, a figment of whatever part of my amygdala was regrowing around the space you left. But he just kept talking. I could see myself sinking into the wall, paralyzed by what he was offering me, and the uncertainty of what I would allow myself to take. 

“I miss you.”

Before you could respond, Iris screamed and I found myself jolted back into my own body. You may wonder how I knew it was her from a dim corridor on a different floor where this man was holding court, but that’s just the superpower of listening to a “dicks”-year-old with only one consonant sound in her toolbox talk for three years. I didn’t know whether the French doors would open but they gave easily and from up there I could tell you exactly what had happened. Iris stood in front of the window shrieking that she “danted do dlay daby” and what would a six-year-old with an unmoored mother complex love more than a pliable, sun-warmed drunk squirrel to cuddle? And what would a recently awakened and violently hungover squirrel hate more than a six-year-old’s sticky, too-warm arms squeezing it? And from that far away, as everyone in the church made their decision as to whether they were going to gape at the six-year-old with a squirrel hanging from her cheek by its teeth, or at the rumpled babysitter whose name they couldn’t remember standing on a balcony that may not have been weight bearing with a male shadow behind her, I saw only Bruce, proud and sure of his choice to do exactly this. 

Ayla Zuraw-Friedland is a literary agent in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in GAY the Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Cape Cod Poetry Review.

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