by Kat Lewin
In the summer, it was always Gatsby and me, tossing around a busted badminton birdie in the backyard – topping throw, old girl, in his fake Oxford accent – him so careful not to crease his soft soft shirts, my elasticized flub buoying up a cushion of humidity between my saggy clothes and the parts of my body nobody else would touch. He was from a movie my mother loved, and all the other actors looked at him like he was a dish of unmelted ice cream on top of the radiator. He fell in love and had a mansion, too, but I didn’t mind that.
Everyone would play with me and Gatsby at first. Kickball, softball, foursquare, you name it. Gatsby was the captain of every team. He’d strip down to his funny old shirtsleeves like everybody’s harmless uncle. After the games, he’d hang back a few paces while we plunged our legs in the pool, searching for the first dark hints of hair on our splayed buglegs.
Someone would run inside for the cordless phone and dial the German exchange student’s number from memory, then we’d drop the receiver giggling, silently scramble for the end-call button. Gatsby would clap all our backs in turn. “Good show,” he’d murmur and the other girls would snort into their cherry sodas.
“You’re doing nicely,” he’d say to me, special. “You’re going to be MVP.” My mother had started pointedly setting out Diet Coke for me when my friends came over; it tasted like aluminum. I’d breathe in Gatsby’s sunbaked linen as I drank so the bubbles burned less.
In the spring, our last big dance before high school, Gatsby hung behind me in the mirror, helped me cinch in my sash until the welts were angry red eels ready to squirm out of my skin. The song that spring was the one about bathing with someone in a mountain, that slow one, and every boy I looked at squirmed to the bathrooms while I swayed alone toward the dixie cups full of pretzels.
“You doing okay?” my science teacher asked, loosening his double-helix tie. “You having fun?” A thin cement of white pretzel dust pushed through the gaps in my teeth. The reflection in his eyes was Gatsby’s face.
“You’re my favorite, old sport.” I tried to work my tongue around the pincushion of pretzels; he finally took off the tie; all around me, couples mashed their hips in dizzy whorls, nobody leaving any room between them for the holy ghost, and for a moment I thought—but Mr. Bennes’s arms were just moving down to put his tie on the table and then he was off to laugh with the PE teacher and Gatsby and I were alone again. His voice came this time from the reflection of the punch bowl. “I’m going to make you co-captain someday.”
We unpacked our lockers at the end of the school years, strolled home to drip cherry popsicle on our yearbooks, slicking the stains into quick hearts in the margins by the best-looking boys. Gatsby suggested matches of marco polo, but fewer and fewer girls heard him. We played outside, we lay supine around the lips of the mall fountain, we picked through the glossiest offerings of Tiger Beat until convenience store managers cawed us away. All summer, the down above our lips glistened with popsicle blood, unmolested until we swiped it away with sweaty forearms.
The summer the very latest of the bloomers sprouted their breasts, I had Gatsby all to myself. In the mall, the girls still draped themselves over the fountain ledge, their bodies newly tensed to launch at passing boys. They’d come back hours later, their lips melted down the sides of their faces, slipping halfway down their necks into bruise-purple pools. My body was too thick to launch itself at anyone. No one would catch me. At home, Gatsby and I would toss around the pigskin in my empty backyard.
“Throw it as hard as you can,” I’d tell him, angling my neck as broad as a barn door. “Hit me with it good.” Purple pools. Purple pools.
“There’ll be time for all that,” Gatsby would tell me, volleying from closer and closer as the shadows drew long.
The October I turned sixteen, Gatsby crept into my bedroom. “It’s you and me, old sport. We need to get serious.” The kickball field was empty. The rest of the girls had taken to sitting in boys’ parents’ cars late at night, laughing at jokes that weren’t funny. Everybody else had crossed themselves off Gatsby’s roster. He and I took up racquetball. It’s a serious game.
“You’re co-captain now,” Gatsby told me. But it was just the two of us, and we were playing on different sides.
Late phone call Thanksgiving night, after people’s parents had given up on pinning them to couches in the den. A friend of a friend picked me up in his parents’ Oldsmobile. Tall and meaty, with pimples like tender little cherry blossoms kissing up out of his collar. Out in the middle of the desert, there were two other cars waiting. There were six guys; all the real girls had been trapped at home, feeding leftover pie to maiden aunts. There was some booze, there was lots of talk about a bonfire but nobody had a lighter. Gatsby had stayed home. Crawled in through the window at sunrise reeking of Jack Daniels and John-Paul Gaultier Classique – everything smells like it now – and Gatsby got into bed with me for the first time.
“Capital,” he told me. “Aces.” My grandmother had died the month before and I was in the habit of wearing long Victorian bedthings, my own strange mourning. “I’ll show you something, old sport,” Gatsby said and the hair at the back of my neck soaked with sweat, drew a canopy of whiskey perfume around us.
He lifted the covers but not the dress (Gatsby’s like that) and reached a hand into the bottom of my rib cage, the other into my unruly pubic nest, and pulled out a long tense spring. When it broke through my surface, it thrummed like a guitar string, one of the thick ones.
“You’re wired up all wrong,” Gatsby told me. His voice smells like money. “It’s not your fault, darling. I can fix it.”
He unlatched the spring at my ribs and twisted it the wrong way, resetting the spring’s coils, turning so fast I couldn’t see his hand and my hair was wet and my shoulders were wet and the sheets clung to a layer of sweat as shallow as my breaths while the velvet blanket of perfume folded us inside and inside. When he was done he relatched it, quick, cool as ever, and lay down beside me on top of the covers while the desert breeze from the open window freeze-dried my damp skin.
The pressure was incredible. Everything was wrong. I could have frog-kicked into the sky, landed straight on top of the meaty acne boy, kissed the tiny white crests of all his pimples then bitten straight into his neck like an apple. I didn’t. The next week, I pushed my new reverse-coil hips into him at a party and he felt their vibrato through all my padding – “Come find me,” I breathed in a whiskey fog, then in the garage hoisted myself on the washing machine and wrapped my legs around him.
“Yeah, we could,” he told me. “My girlfriend’s on her period. She won’t.”
“I’m on my period too.”
“We’ll have to shower afterwards.” I angled myself against his thick arms, pushed my spring-loaded belly against his hand like a cat, forcing him to pet me. “Separately.”
It went on like that for a few years.
Gatsby was unbearable, after that first time. We gave up the racquetball and he started reading me Whitman, he braided himself into my hair and licked the droplets of sweat off my neck, he’d hover over my hips at night and reach down into my darkness, find that re-coiled spring and play arrhythmic melodies on it, the notes rippling up through my skin like screaming underwater. “You have to want something,” Gatsby would sing to me. “You have to be a hurricane of want.”
I never sat on top of another washing machine, but every time I kissed the boy, my face would go numb, and stay numb until he talked to me again, sometimes days later, sometimes weeks, and I followed him out to California after one night of gin and pineapple juice. He got me pregnant, a little, and Gatsby was there inside the fetus, face blown up like a globe, whispering into all the murky waters that run inside a woman. “Is this what you want, old sport?”
But like I said, it was only a little pregnant, and afterwards Gatsby was there in the blood too. He filtered the drops through his exquisite silk shirts. “Was this the baby? Was it this one? Which one of these contains the thing you want?” Oh I was a hurricane all right. No one tells you how much iron is in blood, or else mine was polluted by the rusty spring. Everything tasted like metal for a year.
Afterwards I saw the boy naked one more time. I tore off his shirt and used my foxteeth to nip the tops off those pimples, trying to drink out what’s inside of him, Gatsby’s face carnival-reflected in every squelch of pus. “I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” he said. It was either Gatsby or the boy. I find it harder and harder to tell voices apart.
I moved three thousand miles away and paid electric bills and worked as a receptionist and spent the lurches in my morning commute watching tiny urban mice running between the subway rails. I adopted a dog, a rescued Doberman, the exact color of a melted milk dud, and named him Gatsby. He weighs down the mattress in the night, makes me slide toward him in my sleep. First thing in the morning, I feel so protected I don’t want anyone else around. It is too hot in me to hold another person.
My spring is still rewired and rusty and I ache with want but we can never let anyone else into our bed. We’d rip his throat out, me and Gatsby. We’d rip his throat out and we’d play catch with it and then it would just be us again, a team of two.
KAT LEWIN is in the late experimental phases of trying to mate her Roomba with a typewriter. For science, mostly. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in journals including PANK Magazine, Per Contra, and Twelve Stories. Her alleged poetry has appeared in Word Riot, nibble magazine, and Breadcrumb Scabs. She is a Fiction Editor for Mixed Fruit Magazine, and starting in fall 2011, she’ll be an MFA candidate in Fiction at UC Irvine.