Poppies and WD-40, Chloe Moulin
Morning consists of showering the body, donning the clothing, assembling the self. I wrestle into a tee shirt, and oftentimes a collared shirt atop it, a sweater, a jacket. I like things that cover my neck. I like things that have weight, like a quarter-zip or pants that hug a little too tightly. On colder days I cover my head with a beanie and fix it—just right—in front of my mirror. In the summer my knees look knobby under shorts and my breast presses against tee shirts if that’s all I wear. But it is fall now. This is my routine.
My friend Nathan and I were often mistaken for brothers. Lanky, dark hair—we even had moles in the same spot on our chins. Nathan always wore pale, blue jeans and collared shirts when it was cold. I was often in his dorm—a little corner room on the second floor of an old frat house. Nathan was fond of C.S. Lewis, and we discussed nature and God and the universe several times on his couch in front of the old, blue trunk he used as a coffee table.
One November Friday, we were with Maya. Maya was in the class ahead of us, and we were all in ROTC together. That semester, she was our direct superior. During the week, her job was to tell us what to do. But on weekends, she was a person just like everybody else.
“Where are we going?” I asked Nathan as we lurched up the hill toward a development of apartment dorms. The vodka addled my mind and worsened my poor sense of direction. Maya stumbled off the side of the sidewalk. Nathan struggled to keep his balance as he bent down to help her up. She fixed her short, bright pink skirt. She always wore a skirt with knee-high stockings, even in the wintertime. Both Nathan and I pretended not to look.
“Oh god,” she said, trying to sit up. “Fuck me up while you’re at it.” Her humor was always just beyond the pale.
Drunk as we all were, Nathan nearly fell as he pulled her to her feet. “We’re trying to get her back to her dorm, remember?”
We forged our way to the development through the vodka and throngs of raucous weekenders. A line of apartments blocked our path, so we thrust ourselves into a party and bounded from room to room, squeezing between partygoers who smelled of sweat and cheap alcohol. We became separated in the crowd. Someone I didn’t know pulled me into the kitchen and fixed me a shot. Whoever it was stepped away when I downed the drink. I saw Maya leaning heavily against the wall next to the back door. I found Nathan behind me attached to a group who shouted over the music just to talk to him. I pulled him away by the arm. We snagged Maya on our way out the door.
We stepped into the night air. The cold almost snapped us to our senses. Maya’s dorm was just across the grass, so we walked her to the front door and carried her up the stairs to her room.
We lifted her into her bed. “There you go, boss,” Nathan said.
“You guys are actually the best,” yawned Maya. Her eyes were closed before she even hit the bed.
The cold seemed to freeze the sweat to my skin when we walked back to Nathan’s dorm. The stars were invisible somewhere behind the clouds. The moon cast the grey sky aglow. I wasn’t wearing a jacket, but between the claustrophobic party and hauling Maya up the stairs, I had been burning up. Nathan and I tripped over nothing and laughed at each other under the sizzling campus lamplight. We passed herds of students drunker than we were, which fueled our false sense of sobriety. We spoke about how people can be drastically different from one day to the next, about how much time you need to spend around someone to really get to know them. We spoke and we walked, slightly hunched over for warmth, our hands stuffed deep in our pockets.
It was December. Last winter. I was in my own dorm alone with Maya after my roommate left. He was going home for good. Finals had just ended, but I was staying late, and all day I announced to all my friends that I would be drinking that night, finally, thank God.
Maya’s friends had all gone home as well. She had no one to drink with, she said. I had half a bottle of Jack Daniels Honey down. My legs dangled over the side of the bed, and I kicked the bags I had packed for home as I swung my feet. Blankets were strewn around me. One was over my shoulders as I squinted at her laptop, trying to proofread a paper of hers whenever the letters took a pause from dancing. It was something about evaluating oneself—finding one’s weaknesses and being honest about them. I don’t remember who turned the overhead off, but the little string of lights over my bed made the room glow like Christmas Eve. Little stars in a distant sky. I hunched over the computer on my lap, drinking every time I found an error, until the whiskey ran out. Maya hopped onto the bed next to me. She poured vodka with fruit juice into my glass.
I remember the pressure of our hips against one another as we sat side by side. Computer keys clacked and my glass thudded against the coaster on the windowsill, but I do not remember which words were exchanged. Memories were already fading. The blanket on my shoulders was somewhere else. I kept shifting in my seat on the bed. The laptop had closed itself. Maya had moved to my other side, or I had moved. I was looking right at her, and she at me. I think she had said something. “Do you want to have sex?” I do not remember feeling surprise. My head nodded very deeply. “Yes.” I was on my back. My pants were being jerked down my legs toward the foot of the bed. She had removed my sweater.
Sunlight reflected off the snow outside my windows. The room was very bright. Maya lay next to me, facing the wall. We were touching under the blankets. I looked over my shoulder and saw two half-filled glasses of vodka and juice on the windowsill. A skirt lay on the rug with undergarments piled atop it, intermixed with multiple tee shirts of mine. All of the clutter on my desk had been knocked to the floor, and several of my drawers were open. Maya shifted her body closer against me. She felt very good. I placed my head back on my pillow and breathed in her hair. It was black and soft and smelled like skin. She pressed herself against me again, as if speaking to me without words.
“What happened last night?” I said gently, in case she was still asleep.
She didn’t move to look at me. “Don’t you remember?”
I thought back to the paper, the little stars, the pressure against my hip. Though it was already late into the morning, I was very tired. Sensations and images seemed to float to me as if out of the ether. The taste of lips, the feeling of a tongue. Lights being turned on, ducking under blankets. Sweat, burning muscles, waking, sleeping, waking again. Pulling things on and then off again. Movement, constant movement.
“Not very clearly,” I said. “I don’t even remember how we started.”
“We were sitting on the bed, and you kept rubbing up against my hip while doing my homework. I saw that you were hard, so I asked if you wanted to have sex.” She shifted against me in a way that felt deliberate and made it very hard to think. “I can also, like, tell you’re really repressed, just by the way you act.”
“Well gee, thanks, how generous.” A chill crept over my neck, so I settled the blanket higher over our shoulders. Maya kept slowly pressing her backside into me, relaxing, then repeating the process. “Maya,” I said, “I’m trying to have a conversation here. How many drinks did we have?”
“I don’t know,” she said. She still moved slightly. “I had maybe two. How many did you have?”
“I really don’t know.” Time didn’t pass. An inner warmth seeped from our bodies and spread out under the blankets—our cocoon.
“Can you believe,” she said quietly, perhaps to herself, “that you’re the second one I’ve had in under 24 hours?”
“No,” I said.
“You probably think I’m some sort of slut, don’t you?”
“No, no.” I was all sense. Warmth, skin, rustle of sheet, one numb arm under her. My thoughts flew away.
Maya finally rolled over to face me. She rested her head just beneath my chin and burrowed her face in my neck. I had looked at her before. Sometimes, I wondered what she was like behind closed doors, but never followed the thought out of respect for our friendship and professional relationship. The blankets slipped a little, and in that moment I could see more of her than I ever had before. I was caught between the urge to look away and the desire to see her exposed. I felt her breath roll down over my chest, and her hand moved to grasp me beneath the blankets. “Would you have said yes if you weren’t drinking?”
“If I weren’t drunk?” My heart drummed inside my chest, as if on her command. I breathed deeply. “No, probably not.”
She stopped, but only for a moment. “Well, you’re not drunk now.”
My stomach seemed to roll. It was like looking over a large precipice. A deep abyss. Icicles perched outside the window behind her, and I could hear nothing except our breathing. “You were like a different person,” she told me. “You were like an animal.” Paces quickened. “Every time I thought we were done you got right back up and kept on going.” She took my hand and moved it against her. The scent of alcohol still hung in the air. My room was its own little corner of the world, where there was no one but me, whoever I was, and Maya. Thoughts came and went like the wind.
“Okay,” I said. “We can do it again.” I pulled away and swung my leg out from under the blanket. “I’ll go find a condom.”
She stopped me. “Remember?” she said. “I told you that you didn’t have to use one.”
Silence scattered around to every corner of the room. I turned back to look at her. The sheets scratched against the mattress like sandpaper. “I don’t remember that.”
She sat up on her elbow. I stared at her, one leg dangling over the edge of the bed. We stayed like that for longer than a moment. “Well it doesn’t matter now, does it?”
My thoughts swept back to me. “I think it does.” The room felt cold. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
It’s difficult to keep myself company. I surround myself with people. They insulate me. My closest friends remark that I know everybody. I strike up conversations with strangers while standing in line. I whisper jokes to people I don’t know during lectures. I suspect that many call me obnoxious when I turn away, but if you throw enough mud at a wall, some of it sticks.
When I’m alone, my thoughts weave themselves in deep and intricate nebulas. I often follow a thread to find it firmly tied to its other end. It’s only human. But sometimes I’m struck by the stray clink of a heater or the tumbling of water through pipes between the walls, and I recognize how alone I am. It’s a thought that returns like the flash of a distant star. I become affixed to it. It brings to me the sense that I am only a small piece in an astronomically large system. The planets move without my consent. Clandestine desires sometimes consume me. There are those I want to touch, to hold, to own that I can never reach. People often possess me, for an hour or a week, in ways I could never disclose to anyone, then the feeling burns out. But it’s only human, and we are difficult company.
Maya reached out to me three times following our complicated tryst. Twice, on nights I had been drinking, I consented.
I spent every day of that winter reading. In my room, in the basement, at the library, in the coffee shop under yellow light. I read outside on the porch, when it was warm enough. I read when the house was alive with family. I read when the rooms were empty and I was alone, buried under afghans next to the dog who didn’t pay much attention to me. I slogged through Mrs. Dalloway during a Christmas Eve service and finished Jane Eyre on my 21st birthday. The books kept me somewhere else. Somewhere a hundred years through history. My thoughts were occupied.
Venereal disease. The idea chased me relentlessly. Every moment I imagined it was just a page or two behind me. I feared that, if I stopped, its slick, malformed image would become real and stain the page. It would’ve slunk under my fingernail and entered me, turned my insides black. I feared the worst. I didn’t want to get an exam, to give it a chance to exist. For a month I was plagued by a disease I didn’t know whether or not I had. Dwelling on it broke a cold sweat. If I coughed, I would wait, feel, and listen. I pictured myself as the only one Maya had ever touched, so the others couldn’t touch me. No one else existed. No one else. Only me.
Months passed and it had become a stifling, late summer. The Elizabethtown Fairgrounds were alight: kettle corn cooked in every other stand, cheers erupted like thunder after the clunk-splash of dunk tanks, hordes of people marched through farm show houses and in between the stands, sweat dripped from exposed arms, legs, and bellies. Summer.
Nathan stayed for three days, but we didn’t find anything for us at the fair. We mostly spent our time drinking local microbrews behind my house or driving around to walk the trails along the Susquehanna River. We mounted expeditions through Lancaster City, where the tangling streets and narrow alleys hid corner stores like little gems. We hardly stayed in one place for very long.
On the last night, we hit an Elizabethtown favorite called T.J. Rockwell’s. The restaurant sprawled over the backend of a hill, making for a large interior and a massive backside patio that never seemed to be full. Even at night, the humidity cooked us. We made fine additions to the eclectic trinkets that littered the place: model fish, movie posters, 20th century advertisements, gardening tools. We sat beneath an awning strewn with little, white lights. Nathan wore a pair of old, black jeans and a shirt with the symbol for the Empire from Star Wars printed on it. I wore flip-flops, red cargo shorts, and a collared shirt that displayed fake beer logos all over it. My shirt was open above the third button from the top, and Nathan kept telling me to put my chest hair away.
“It’s hot as nuts out here,” I said as we waited for our meals. I sipped an apple martini, hoping it would cool me down. “How’s your drink taste?”
Nathan plopped an olive into his mouth. “Like five dollars,” he said. Only one other group of people were on the patio with us. Waitresses leaned against a nearby fence and chatted while martinis came and went. Each time our waitress brought our drinks I caught her up in a minute’s conversation. She had just graduated from my old high school. Nathan rolled his eyes at my every small flirtation. I kept asking her for drink recommendations, and she just laughed at me. Eventually our meals came, and we cheered to our health while we gorged ourselves on funnel cake fries and burgers. Old rock tunes quietly danced through the patio from inside. We joked about our summers and how he spent his months sneaking into every building on our school’s campus. I regaled him about my annual training for the National Guard. We joked about our families, our work, our lives at school. Eventually we came to the topic of ROTC, but Nathan stopped laughing. He stared into his martini, and when I asked what he was doing he pushed it over to me.
“You can have it; I think I’m done,” he said.
“What’s the matter? You’ve got that look on your face, like you’ve gotta say something.”
“I do. It’s about Maya.”
“What about Maya?”
Nathan shifted in his seat and seemed to search for words he couldn’t find. He knew what had happened; I told him the month before. But the very day I woke up with Maya he was onto us. He saw us together that morning. He knew she’d been at my place the night before. He was always very inquisitive, and he approached me the very same week. He asked me directly if we’d had sex. I was expecting him to bring it up eventually, but something about hearing the question out loud mortified me. I was pinned like a tiny insect. For fear of reproach, I lied to him.
The waitress came back to our table to ask if everything was okay. I just asked her for the check. When I didn’t try to hold her there, she hesitated for a moment before hurrying inside.
“I wanted to tell you this when you told me what happened, but I didn’t think it was the right time,” said Nathan. “She did that to you right before winter break, but, at the beginning of the semester, she did the same thing to me.” The party behind us got up to leave. The patio became very silent. “A bunch of us had been hanging out and drinking at my dorm. When they all left, she stayed behind and asked me if I wanted to have sex.” He searched me for a reaction. “You know I wasn’t in a good place then. I was very drunk too. I didn’t think much of it after that, but since you told me that she did the same to you—well, now I think you ought to know.”
The news was akin to pulling off a band-aid. I was open again. It had taken time and distance to accept what had happened. Someone I knew very closely had exploited me in a vulnerable moment, and months had gone by before I came to terms with the fact that I enjoyed it—to the extent that I returned to her twice after it happened. I had accepted that, when drinking, I violate the things I promise myself while sober. I learned to avoid placing myself in the same situation—to protect myself, even around my friends— and I vowed not to do it again.
I slouched in my seat and sipped my martini. Nathan waited. He looked past me and patiently bobbed his head, as if already agreeing with what I was about to say. I felt very aware. “Nate,” I said, looking sidelong at him, “the only saving grace I took from that first night was that it was me she wanted.” I paused, explaining the entire story to myself. “And now I know that I was no more than an opportunity.” The waitress came and silently distributed our checks. A bead of sweat trailed down my side under my arm.
“She didn’t give one fuck about me.”
I go stargazing with a class of mine. We stand outside, just beyond the edge of a soccer field, seeking stars drowned out by a bright and blinding moon. I never knew how much the moon could obscure the black nothing of the night sky. My classmates count the stars of Ursa Major. The teacher points to a speck and calls it Lyra. The sounds from campus are too far off, and I hear nothing aside from our hushed voices, as if we could wake the night. A girl whose name I can’t remember shivers. I see her under the reflected light of a rock 238,900 miles away, and I offer her my jacket. She accepts. Our classmates coo like we’re in love. I imagine she blushes, but I can’t see the color in her cheeks. I am simply learning to live without a jacket.
After Rockwell’s, on the way home, Nathan and I stopped alongside a backroad atop a hill and turned the car lights off. Tall stalks of corn surrounded us, but when we leaned out the windows and looked up, we saw the open sky sprawled out above us. The Big Dipper shone with a fierce light, and we could almost discern the rest of Ursa Major stalking the horizon. It had cooled nominally, but a welcome breeze crept through my window and swept the heat off our laps. It filled the inside of my shirt and gently rustled the folds. Invisible crickets and cicadas chirped in all directions. Toads croaked to one another in the dark further down the road.
The night enveloped us, enclosing us in the ineffable vastness that is known to everyone. I thought about Maya and how the worst part of my experience was that I probably meant nothing to her. If she was predator, I was prey, but I didn’t know if she was. The things I want often come to me in ways that make me sick of myself, but that’s how it must be, I imagine, for everybody. The wind made the cornstalks shift against each other, and Nathan stretched his neck to stare up at the sky. “Thank you for telling me,” I said. “I mean it.”
“I had to,” he said, “but you’re welcome.”
We stayed there for awhile and spoke about how small we were, and how little we knew about ourselves, let alone the people around us. I didn’t know what I would say to Maya the next time I saw her, but I thought I had made one step closer to knowing who she actually was. No cars drove by us, and I was grateful we could still find a corner of the world where no one would disturb us, if only for a moment. I breathed in the thick country air. The musk of corn and earth was heavy. The tepid humidity still weighed upon me, and I felt secure, though I knew it would only last there by the roadside. We waited, watching the sky. A breeze drove a chill through me. I pulled the collar of my shirt over my neck, and we drove home.
About the Author
Daniel Sellers · Susquehanna University
Daniel Sellers is a senior Creative Writing and Publishing and Editing major at Susquehanna University. He is also a cadet in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. This piece was originally published in Essay. Daniel’s work has also been featured in Sanctuary.
About the Artist
Chloe Moulin · University of Vermont
Chloe is a senior undergraduate student at the University of Vermont. After graduating and earning my BS this May, she will be attending the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine to pursue her PhD in biomedical science. She will also be continuing her artwork, and continuing to explore the fusion of art and science. This piece first appeared in The Gist.