in the air again

Submitted into Contest #53 in response to: Write a story about summer love — the quarantine edition.... view prompt

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Romance

Strings of ants crawled on the walls of my seventh-grade French classroom, really a trailer. Our middle school, like most in Georgia, had little money and too many kids. When the classrooms run out of space, they put up trailers. A cluster of them parked outside the gym. It was freezing in the wintertime, scorching in the spring, with bees and hornets visiting class daily, as if we were pioneer children educated on the Western frontier. The French teacher hated children. You could see this wasn’t what she wanted in life. She snuck cigarettes between classes and ended up married to the P.E. coach. 

But I loved French class because Johnny Ramsey was there. He didn’t do anything. He sat hunched, pencil in his mouth, eyes blank. I was in love. All class, I switched between my favorite channels, Johnny Ramsey, then the ants, watching each carefully, gathering every detail of his nose and his back, then when his head turned towards me, it was on to the ants. They had a tag team system. One ant finds something, then comes to another, touches antennae, that ant then relays the message to another. They seemed not individual souls but parts of a network, like neurons snapping electricity in a shapeless brain. 

I hate killing ants. I hate killing anything, it feels like bad karma. And with ants, you have to destroy the whole system. Individual ants are replaceable. If you want them out, you have to be thorough. 

I would order the ant spray online, but I worry about pressurized cans sitting in the heat. The package has so many chances to explode along the route. I would also let the ants live in my house. There’s space. But when I first moved out, my mother had this thin-lipped look, as if I were still a teenager with poor motor skills driving for the first time. She doesn’t consider me competent enough to live alone. The house is already a mess -- I imagine her visiting, frowning at the ant colonies sprawled in my kitchen. She wouldn’t even say anything. She wouldn’t be surprised. 

I used to love grocery shopping. Before the pandemic, I spent hours gliding through the aisles, stopping to look at a new cereal box design, the bug-eyed fish frozen on styrofoam trays. But now, shopping is a tense affair. The mask is on, the clock starts. It’s in and out as quick as possible, minimizing time spent sharing air with other people. 

A new personal record, fifteen minutes. I wait in the checkout line, the can of ant spray shining in my cart. What a thing to buy, what a story it always carries. 

The cashier’s mask covers the lower half of his face. He’s lucky, he’s got nice eyes, good hair, both now emphasized by a lack of other features. That blank stare, it reminds me of the fish still sitting on ice in the freezer section. 

Ah, of course, that’s Johnny Ramsey who’s about to scan my groceries. I remember those eyes, that hair. I spent collective hours committing them to memory. He hasn’t changed in our years of separation. My turn comes and he’s grabbing the ant spray, scanning it, punching in codes for my artichokes. I’m thankful for my mask concealing a stupid little grin. 

He doesn’t know who I am. He never did. He’s a hot boy, and that’s all he’s been. He’s never had to think about things, figure things out for himself. There’s nothing he and I could ever talk about. 

Still, the silly, stupid animal I fight with for control over my body, the little ferret, the weasel, the pure mammal woven of milk and meat, she’s giddy about this. Only her and I know the significance of the cashier handing me my receipt. We giggle together beneath the mask as he tells us to have a good day. 

What a thrill! I sit down in my car, peel off my mask, put my hands over my fluttering belly. I missed this. I missed the intrigues of normal life, the glances, the stares across rooms, simple words whose meaning you spend the rest of the day analyzing. It’s all delicious. It’s usually one-sided, just me finding pleasure in looking and wondering, and it’s ridiculous, the one part of me resisting evolution, set in her schoolgirl ways. But it’s a vital part too, one that needs activation if I am to be excited about life. 

I’m home. I look at the ants crawl, door to kitchen. I hold their death in an aerosol can. It’s too much power to think about, and I decide to wait, to focus instead on this newly unearthed part of myself. How will she be fed now that her hunger is remembered? 

There’s dating websites. They don’t do it for me. I like nuanced rom-coms, where you wonder will-they-won’t-they end up together, and dating websites  pull the tablecloth of suspense from beneath the silverware of conversation, like movies where they tell you the end right at the beginning. I hate being locked in, talking one-on-one when our phone algorithms match us. I much prefer to stare from afar, revelling in the magic of the present moment, of our proximity, drafting all the potential ends this situation has. Where’s the magic in being asked your favorite song for the twelfth time in a day by yet another poor guy just trying to make conversation, just trying to find common ground?  

The French teacher didn’t even know our real names. She gave us French names to use in class. Mine was “Marion,” pronounced Mary-ohn, the last syllable spat like something vile. She sounded disgusted whenever she spoke to me, but maybe that’s just French. 12 year old me offended her sensibilities. I was messy, unkempt, my books fell on the floor with a loud thud every class. These American children, she probably thought. Disgusting. Dégoûtant. Women like her, like my mother, terrified me. I had to prove myself to them, over and over. I always failed. 

I use “Marion,” not my real name on the dating website. If I must date digitally, I will still inject mystery, like Juliet wearing a mask the first time Romeo sees her. In five minutes of scrolling, I learn the pandemic has densely populated the dating websites. No one can go outside, but everyone wants love. 

It’s embarrassing, being so reliant on computers. They’re electronic butlers we once used to fetch the slippers but now control us fully, holding our memories, our schedules, our work, our friendships in their wired fingers, personal assistants you can’t fire because you’ve forgotten how to function otherwise. And they’re matchmakers now too, processing our wet, slobbery human desires into code, linking through signals and electricity desperate hearts of blood and yearning. 

That’s the thing, it’s hard to imagine the pixels on my screen as real people. There’s Mark, there’s Bradley, smiling faces holding beer cans and fish, profile after profile. They have flesh and dreams, desires, personal histories of blind, radiant joy and needle-pricking pain, but to me, they’re no more than flat, singular images, no more defined and alive than a magazine ad. And I’m the same to them. What does the computer know about human connection? What does it know about the delicacy, the fine spider’s web woven from words and glances when two people first meet?

Johnny Ramsey’s profile comes up. In his pictures, he looks like every other boy, strong, smiling but not grinning, not too happy to be here. It takes long, but I swipe “no” on him. No need to drag old mud into my new house. 

The computer hurts my eyes. I shut it off. I ought to clean said new house -- it’s horribly messy. But first a snack. 

I make coffee and grab some chocolates. As the coffee brews, I remember French class again, one day when we had a substitute teacher. She was young, still excited to be with children. We made a collaged mural of a farm, labeling the animals, le cheval, la vache. We worked in groups, and I was paired with Johnny Ramsey. 

For those forty-five minutes, I hated him. He was stupid and lazy. His tongue sat heavy in his mouth, his French pronunciations stretched and condensed like kneaded dough. I ended up doing the drawings and the labels for both of us.  

The next day, our regular teacher returned. No more group work. Johnny Ramey sat silent and ublinking and I was once again in love with him. 

My coffee is done, my hands are sticky with melted chocolate. I return to my bedroom. My mother never let me eat in my room -- she said I’d get ants. Now, I don’t eat in my room, and I still have ants. Might as well indulge now. I take my clothes off too, a living-single privilege I forget I have. My sheets are crumpled, my pillowcase needs washing. My chocolatey fingers leave a smudge on the mattress and as I sip coffee, a few drops scald my bare chest then leap to the blanket. It’s all disgusting. 

I love it. I love this, I love me, my body, my every room, the ants in the kitchen, the bitter coffe-taste staining my teeth. It’s all an ugly truth, something perverse and revolting but it’s honest. If I cleaned, it wouldn’t be for myself -- it would be for an imaginary, invisible pair of judging eyes. There are no eyes here but my own, and they find no fault in chaos. Really, I don’t want any other eyes. Men who consider themselves romantics think their duty is orchestrating something grand, spectacular, flowers and grand pianos and diamonds-on-a-string. But what man could predict that I this is what I like, with my coffee lukewarm and my chocolate half-melted, my books to be in lopsided stacks around the bed, my jackets splayed just so over the cabinets and chairs? Only I make myself happy. I am in love with me for it. And the supposed objects of my affection, Johnny Ramsey and every other boy before and since, they are best treated as marble statues, silent, beautiful, untouchable. The second they open their mouths, fill that lovely, uncertain empty space between us with their hot breath, the love evaporates. 

Once the coffee is warming my stomach, I go back to the kitchen. The horrible task must be done. I crouch, still naked, holding the spray can as far as I can from my bare body. The ants run panicked from the toxic droplets, acid rain coating their little insect lungs. I whisper I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It isn’t fair. This isn’t what I want.

I finish spraying, toss the can. I really don’t know what I want. I’m standing wide-legged, hands grabbing the fat around my hips, and I don’t know what the next move is. Really, I wish someone would tell me. I wish there was someone else to move the air around, break the ever-solidifying stillness. I want no more coffee, no more chocolate. I don’t want to get dressed and I don’t want to clean. What else is there? 

I sigh, go back to my room, open the laptop back up. More profiles have loaded, more smiling men. Maybe one of them will be understanding and bring me only lukewarm cups of coffee when we both awaken on my messy sheets each morning. 

August 05, 2020 02:06

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5 comments

01:54 Aug 11, 2020

I read this while sitting in my messy room and making a dating app profile, so I felt both seen and called out at the same time. A unique take on the prompt, and also maybe the most realistic!

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Masha Kurbatova
15:36 Aug 11, 2020

haha im glad you could relate!

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Aditya Pillai
03:49 Aug 10, 2020

Such a great read! I love the narrator's voice and thoughts, so relatable. Great job, this was an engaging story. Would love to hear your thoughts on my latest!

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Jessalin Lee
15:26 Aug 09, 2020

Oh nice! This had a bittersweet feel to it and I love how you made the story feel so grounded. On a side note, I too, hate killing ants :( they're so cool!

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Masha Kurbatova
15:46 Aug 09, 2020

thank you and im glad you could relate!

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