He had an air gun, a beer box set up to shoot.
We were in a hotel room in Pigeon Forge. He was proud because our room was right by the entrance, the TV had HBO, and from seven to ten every morning there was a continental breakfast. He had the alarm on his phone set for twenty minutes till so we wouldn’t miss it.
I was flipping through a magazine while he messed with his gun, which kept getting jammed. I had a stack of magazines with the covers ripped off: Maxim, Bust, Shambala Sun. I got them free at work, once the new ones came in.
“Do you think you can hit the box?” he said.
I can hit the box, I thought. He handed me the gun and I aimed and pulled the trigger. I hit something and the ball ricocheted.
“Did you hit it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you hit it,” he said.
“This thing is dangerous. You could put an eye out.”
I set his gun on the bed and handed him my glass.
We were drinking his good whiskey because we were on vacation. He was cheap and I felt bad drinking his good whiskey because our relationship was unstable and the things that were his were his and the things that were mine were mine but I didn’t have anything he wanted. He said he only wanted my love but he’d say this after I’d failed, once again, to be what he wanted.
“Lots of ice,” I said. “And some water. Not too much Coke.”
He delivered my drink and then he went out to the balcony to get high.
When he came back, I held out my arms and he walked over and put his tongue in my mouth. I liked the taste of marijuana on him, like barbeque chicken left out overnight. I stuck my finger in the hole in his pajama pants, felt the skin and hair. His shirt had Homer Simpson walking a pig upside down on an invisible roof. SPIDERPIG, it said.
He sat on his side of the bed and turned the television to the History Channel. A group of large women were looking for Big Foot. They wore oversized sweatshirts and hats; they were the kind of women who had no use for men. I had never had any contact with this kind. He went to the bathroom, left the door open so I could watch his back in the mirror while he peed. He cleared his throat, spit into the toilet. His hair was thick and curly. I liked separating the curls into smaller curls. I liked separating the smaller curls into smaller and smaller curls until his hair was enormous and he had to wear a baseball cap to flatten it back down.
“Do you have any lotion?” he called.
“Hold on,” I said. I turned my magazine upside down and then I went in there and opened the tiny hotel bottle of lotion. I dropped it and it spilled. I wiped it up with a tissue. I put a dollop on my finger and rubbed. It was just one of his balls that got dry. I knew which one. It made me think we should stay together forever.
He pulled up his pants and went down the hall to get ice, came back saying the hot tub was hot. Last night, it hadn’t been hot. We’d sat in it while a family of five watched.
Back in bed, he shot into the corners of the room. He shot at the beer box on one side and a donut and bag of chips on the other. They were things he couldn’t eat because he was on Atkins.
“I should throw that donut away,” he said.
“So throw it away.”
“I want to eat it.”
“So eat it then.”
“I shouldn’t eat it.”
“So throw it away.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I want it. It’s a paradox.”
“A real quandary,” I said. I wasn’t sure if it was a paradox. I couldn’t remember what a paradox was. At work I had to write everything down, carry around scraps of paper.
Earlier, we’d driven into Gatlinburg. He bought me a slice of peanut butter fudge and bought himself a gold brick of diabetic fudge and we ate them while walking slowly and looking blankly at the people who were looking at us. We ignored the high-pitched calls of girls in boxes who wanted us to buy timeshares. One of the box-girls asked if we were newlyweds and I called over my shoulder that we were and smiled and swung my hair so she could see how happy I was.
I had a little bit of fudge left. It was in a white bag, behind the ice bucket. I ate it fast before I could think better of it.
“I’m going to have to eat that donut now,” he said, as if it were my fault.
He took a big bite and then he shoved it deep into the trashcan so it couldn’t be salvaged, like I did with my cigarettes sometimes before I went out and bought another pack.
“We should get ready,” he said. “We’re going to be late.”
We were supposed to go to a show his sister had gotten us tickets for. I’d seen the brochure: three middle-aged men in stage outfits and an audience full of old people. His sister was in the travel business. She had access. The room, for example, he’d gotten free. I saw the coupon that awarded them to us like we’d won something. He hadn’t meant for me to see it.
“I don’t want to go,” I said.
“We have to. She’s going to call tomorrow and ask about it.”
“I don’t want to, though.”
“I can’t lie and say we went.”
“You don’t have to lie.”
“I’ll have to come up with a good reason,” he said.
“Nobody ever believes your reasons,” I said. He looked offended so I added, “Not yours in particular, just anybody’s,” and I reached across the bed and put a hand on his shoulder. The bed was king-sized. I moved my stack of magazines to the floor and scooted next to him. It was dark out, and cold, and I didn’t feel like putting on my jeans, which would be too tight because they’d just been washed.
“I don’t really feel like going, either,” he said.
“Tell her I was too drunk or feeling mentally unstable. Those are the only things people believe, anyway.”
“I’m not telling my sister that.”
His gun jammed again and he cussed it. It was settled, we weren’t going. I fixed myself another drink and got back in bed and rested my head on his chest between sips.
I asked if we’d get married and he said we would. I asked if I could have his baby and he said I could. After that all I could think to ask was when.
“Soon,” he said.
“How soon is soon?”
“I don’t know how soon soon is. When do you want it to be?”
“Okay,” he said, and I was relieved, knowing his willingness was all that I required of him.
We kissed for a while but we couldn’t have sex because I was on my period and blood on his penis disturbed him.
“Suck my dick,” he said.
I pawed at his jeans but I couldn’t make myself do anything but yank at them so he made himself available. He pressed my head down and I gagged. He had watched a lot of porn. Once we watched it together but he said I ruined it because I kept talking about the women, wondering what their lives were like and how much they were getting paid, commenting on whether they were enjoying themselves. When my jaw began to ache, I varied my movements and pace but I knew I was only prolonging things.
Finally he was finished. I watched his body convulse without interest, and then, because I was feeling mean, called attention to a raw spot on his ball.
“Don’t look at it,” he said. “It’s ugly.”
I was the only person who really knew him, he’d told me, but after six months he still felt brand new. I knew enough facts that I could present a decent-length paper, a timeline of major events, but when he put his hands around my neck, I couldn’t say for sure he wouldn’t kill me. No one knew the real me, either—all of my relationships had been the kind where they think they’re seeing the worst of you but it’s only a distraction. I had successfully hidden myself from everyone I’d ever known.
We went to the bathroom and cleaned up, got back in bed and watched a program about UFOs that come out of the water, USOs, they called them. They convinced me easily: Big Foot, women who didn’t need men, USO’s.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he said.
“Let’s get in the hot tub.”
He put on a pair of shorts because he’d forgotten his swimsuit, which reminded me of the boyfriend before him who was so poor he didn’t even own a swimsuit, who lived off me and ate my food and drank my beer and I’d kept him around for months because he’d been imported from Canada and neither of us had the money to send him back there. It was a bad time. I’d gotten rid of everything I had and replaced it with less.
The pool area was empty, the concrete wet where people had recently been. The hot tub wasn’t hot but it was hotter than it had been last night. I sat in his lap and floated to the top when he wasn’t holding me down. I stuck a leg out and turned it this way and that so he could admire me.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
“You’re beautiful to me.”
I wanted to tell him I was beautiful to a lot of people, that half the boys at work were in love with me. “I’m better-looking than your exes,” I said. I’d met one of them at a party the weekend before. Thick with not-quite-blonde hair, she’d watched the rest of us play poker.
“Angela used to have a body on her,” he said.
“It’s not just her body. It’s her face.”
“What’s wrong with her face?”
“Her skin is the color of under-eye circles.”
He said I was being overly critical. It was an accusation we passed back and forth. I’d have to wait for him to say something terrible about someone so I could give it back to him.
He got out and dove into the pool, emerged below the no diving sign. “It’s fucking freezing,” he said. He got back in the hot tub, saying the hot tub was hot now. If I was cold I should get in the pool and then come back and it’d be hot.
“I’m tired,” I said.
A family came in. Loud and heavy-footed, they probably still threw trash out their car windows. My boyfriend said hey and they said hey back. I looked the other way. I didn’t like to talk to people, had nothing to say to them. They arranged their chairs in a circle and we sat there a while longer so it wouldn’t look like they’d run us off and then we got out and dried off and went back to our room.
The next day, we woke to his alarm. I didn’t want to get out of bed. He prodded me.
“No,” I said, “uh uh.”
He brushed his teeth and slipped on his house shoes.
“Would you get me a bagel?” I asked.
“I need both sets of hands,” he said, holding his set up. He reminded me how well it had worked yesterday, when he got the plates and I got the drinks. I pretended to go back to sleep and he left. I lay there and thought about toasting his wheat bread and pouring Splenda in his coffee, how happy it would make him, and how the thought of his happiness didn’t particularly please me. He was gone a long time.
He kicked the door and I went and let him in. He had a tray with two plates and two coffees on it.
After we ate, he got high and then we went to the knife store. It was enormous. I followed him around offering comments, asking questions.
There were some handmade purses and jewelry along one wall. I stopped and he kept walking, touching everything he passed. The purses were Indian-patterned with snap closures. I liked a zipper closure but I tried to talk myself into one because I wanted to buy something. I liked to watch the money in my account dwindle. So far, there had always been enough and I anxiously awaited the day when there wouldn’t.
I asked the lady to show me different worthless things from her case and decided on a pair of tiny sterling silver lizard earrings. I liked the elephants better but my mother had warned me to avoid all animals associated with bigness: hippos and pigs and elephants, in particular. They were only four dollars. After that I looked at Rebel flag t-shirts and thought terrible things about the people who vacationed in Pigeon Forge and then I found my boyfriend and he walked me around the store showing me the things he wanted: a cane with an eight ball on top that unscrewed to reveal a poker; a set of three swords in small, medium, and large; a pocket knife that had a picture of a man’s face and the name of a bourbon he liked. He said he had to think about them, though, he wasn’t ready to make a purchase, so I made him drive me to the Gap outlet where I tried on a pair of khaki pants I could wear to work. He offered to buy them but I declined. In his head, if not on paper, there was a column with my name on it and how much I had cost him to date. There was the question of my worth—a complex equation involving my weight and breast size and hair length along with my willingness to engage in oral sex and my domestic abilities, of which I had none. I was okay on the others but I didn’t know how long my body would consent to staying the size I had forced it into. It was the x in the equation.
We ate at a pancake house and then he stopped at BP, parked and ran inside to take a hit off his hitter, came back reeking. I didn’t like him to smoke in the car. I didn’t like him to smoke around me period but what I would and wouldn’t allow changed and expanded.
“You probably stunk the whole place up,” I said.
“I’m sure nobody noticed,” he said, circling the station. His theory was that everyone was too busy worrying about themselves to notice anyone else, which was easy for him to believe since he had no sense of smell. Cocaine had taken it. Sometimes I forgot what it was he’d lost, imagined him blind or deaf or unable to feel my skin.
After that there was nothing to do so we drove back into Gatlinburg, through the town full of motels and fudge shops and box-girls, and stopped at a trailhead. We were all bundled up. We stood before a plaque that said a farmer used to live there and the trail was easy. I followed him in, watching my feet. I saw myself slipping and going down, my mouth bloody and the teeth I loved so much loose, as if in a dream. It’d be dark in an hour. Every time I found myself in the woods it was the case.
The trail wasn’t easy. We were okay, we told each other, but we felt bad for the old women and children who had been misled. I picked up an icicle and slammed it into a rock. It shattered like glass. He stopped and looked at me and I smiled.
We came upon the man’s house, a structure too big for the two rooms it housed. We went inside one room and walked the perimeter. There was a fireplace on one side and a window on the other. A few people had left their marks. The wind whistled through the logs. We walked over to the other room and it was the same thing backwards. He took my gloved hand in his and we went out to the porch, stood there looking at the side of a mountain. “What’d this guy farm?” he asked me. A rhetorical question, I thought. We kept moving, round and round until we were back at the car. Then we drove back down the mountain and through Gatlinburg and into Pigeon Forge, to our hotel dressed up like an antebellum home.
Our room had been tidied while we were away: a fresh set of towels and the toilet paper folded into an arrow.
I went down the hall to get ice. He liked a lot of ice, couldn’t even drink cold things without it. When I got back, he was shirtless and in bed, watching the weather blow across the country.
“Looks like we might get snowed in,” he said.
“I have to go to work on Tuesday.”
“Well I do too,” he said, like he had been accused.
I fixed him a drink, got a beer from the little refrigerator for myself. He said he was hungry so I made us a couple of sandwiches from the stuff he’d packed: chicken, bacon, double fiber wheat bread, cheese, mayonnaise. He liked meats, especially, and creamy things, the way they felt on his tongue. This works, he told me. He’d make the food and I’d put it together. Then he took it back because it wasn’t a fair trade. I’d be getting off too easy.
I read an article about loneliness in a Jesus magazine while I ate. None of my coworkers believed in Jesus. We made fun of the earnest and plain-looking women who congregated in the religious section, one of them offering advice while the other protested mildly, their quilted Bible covers in paisley prints. Sometimes I got the urge to join them. It wasn’t because there was something missing. The something missing was the plight of humanity—any idiot knew that—it couldn’t be filled with food or alcohol or drawing blood from skin. I just missed having friends.
When he was finished, he moved to the couch and extracted his guitar from its case. He tuned it and made up a song about drinking, the same few chords over and over, his voice straining. All his songs were about fast trains, people running themselves out. Next door, I heard a baby cry and a woman’s angry voice and I recalled the footsteps of the couple who lived in the apartment above me. I’d grown attached to the flushing of their toilet and the fights they had, the way the woman was always proclaiming herself done.
I got another beer and put on my jacket to go outside. He slipped on his house shoes.
He sat in one plastic chair and I sat in the other and he took hits off his hitter while I smoked my cigarette. Then we went back in and laid down, my head in his armpit, the TV off, like we were waiting for something. His phone rang. It was his sister, wanting to know how we’d liked the show. I could hear her saying we should have gone, we missed out on the best show in town, she didn’t know why she went to the trouble. I’d met her at Christmas. She had given me a nightgown that was too big, and I hadn’t written her a thank you note yet, was waiting to find out if it had been required.
He hung up and said, “See?”
“See what?” I said.
I got in the shower. He got in with me and we took turns standing under the water while the other complained that they were cold and chicken-skinned. When we were clean, we stood sideways so we could share the hot water for a minute. Then we got back in bed, and he sat in front of me while I brushed his hair. There was a comedian on TV. The audience laughed at every little thing because the man was already famous. I wanted to laugh, repeated the funnier things out loud to try and convince myself.
“Your hair’s long enough for a ponytail now,” I said.
“The front’s still too short,” he said, holding up a piece of it. I didn’t know how it had become layered. He only cut it once every five years, and that was to shave it all off. He kept the hair in a box in his closet, tucked away like a child’s lost teeth or a dead man’s handkerchiefs. I’d met him one year into the cycle, while he still looked normal. It was a long-term project, he said, and one day he would donate all the hair to Locks of Love and before they gave it to the cancer children they would display it at a museum as a timeline of one man’s life. A timeline of all of the chemicals you’ve ingested, I’d said, when he told me, and then I got mad because he wasn’t going to change. I had been able to change the other men I’d been with, or at least they let me believe I could.
I opened another beer. There were only four left and the bottle of whiskey was almost done. I went and stood at the window. My car had a thick layer of ice on the back windshield.
“I’m getting drunk,” I said.
“You’re on vacation,” he said. He stood and put on his jacket.
“You’ve been high this whole time.”
“I just take a couple of hits.” He went out and came back a minute later saying he’d only brought the equivalent of two joints and he still had some left. I was bent over the sink, washing what was left of the makeup off my face, when he shot me.
“Ow,” I said. “That hurt.”
“I shot myself in the foot twice and didn’t feel a thing,” he said. To demonstrate, he shot himself in the leg. There was a small pause while he made his assessment, and then he said, “That stings pretty good.” He concluded that the feet didn’t hurt but the leg and the ass hurt because they weren’t as bony. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Do you forgive me?”
“Yes,” I said, and he went and sat on the couch like he believed me. He played his song—whiskey in the morning and beer in the afternoon, fast train clipping along—while I cried without making a sound. I wanted him to hear me but I was quiet, so quiet he wasn’t going to find me out.
This story comes from Mary Miller’s fantastic short story collection Big World (Short Flight/Long Drive Books).