I am mid-moan—it’s a sound I practice, not something I ever emit alone, but I do it over and over, record it on my phone and play it back, perfect the high-pitched rise at the end, layer in my creaky voice, my freaky voice—when he asks to stop.
“I’m just not feeling it anymore,” he says, rolling out of the bed.
I don’t think I was, either—something about the bedspring beneath me that popped every time I moved, plus the fairy lights hanging above us, framing us, and definitely the playlist thumping from his computer, the one he titled “Sexy.”
“Oh,” I say. He pulls on a pair of blue mesh athletic shorts I had slid down his thighs a few minutes earlier. “Sorry.”
I know, of course, why I wasn’t feeling it, but I wonder why he wanted to stop. Maybe the moan was too artificial, like a canned laugh on a sitcom. Maybe he just realized I was ugly—there’s something off about my face, I’ve come to realize, after many hours of reflecting in the age-darkened mirror I bought at an antique store, something about the way my eyes line up and the way my jawline evaporates into my chin. Or maybe he caught on that I’m slowly turning into dirt, cobbled-together clods of clay that collapse if I’m squeezed too hard. He might have caught a whiff of it, that earthen smell that lingers on my edges like an aura, or he got tipped off when I refused to let him undress me.
“Don’t worry about it. Not your fault,” he says, but he isn’t facing me—a willful, purposeful looking away. He makes the music stop.
I roll out of bed—a longer, ridiculous roll than his since I’m on the far side of the mattress, against the wall, and I’m like a kid careening down a hill, but without the giggling—and check behind me for little lumps of earth that may have broken off in the process. But the sheets are clean.
“Can you show me to the bathroom?” I ask. “I just want to wash my hands.”
He nods and leads me toward it, down a hallway and past a kitchen. He still won’t look at me, angles himself away as I pass.
I am desperate for hand soap these days; the hotel I’ve been staying in the last two weeks doesn’t have any in the bathroom, which means my hands smell like skin and dirt all the time, my natural scent, my real odor. I’m paranoid about it, and I sniff my fingertips constantly. Does the rest of me smell this way, too?
There’s a tiny pump bottle of green soap—apple blossom, or some kind of tropical flower, if I had to guess on color alone—on the edge of the porcelain, and greedily I squirt one, two, three shots of it into my palm and rub furiously, spreading it like a salve across my joints and between my fingers, scraping my fingernails on the backs of my hands to get it underneath them, too.
Turning into dirt is tricky, I find, because every time I wash, little bits of me fall away—it’s a neat weight loss trick to be sure, something I’ve wished for more than once, to have my body slowly disappear, fall away to reveal if not my skeleton than at least a beautiful foundation, like someone stripping an old home to its first wallpaper. It’s a bit discomfiting to see chunks of myself swirl the hotel’s very cloggable drain, though.
But I’m dirt now, so if I’m not a little wet, I’m dried out, dusty, easily disintegrated. Once, I didn’t shower for three days, too put off by the idea that I would obliterate myself in the name of cleanliness—it felt futile to fight, since it’s impossible to clean chunks of earth, the very things you try to wash off the bottom of your shoes or food you picked from your garden—and desertified my body. I bumped into the doorway of my hotel room on that third day and a big chunk of my shoulder crumbled away, bleu cheese scattered on a salad, back when I was trying to eat a lot of salads.
So now I have to keep myself moist—not muddy and sloppy, just wet enough to hold all my particles together. Once the soap is just a thick froth of bubbles at the bottom of his sink, I distribute some of the water across my forehead and cheeks. I sneak a quick sniff of my hands; it wasn’t fruity or floral, like I guessed, but musky. Earthy. I scowl and examine the label; some kind of hippie soap, all-natural and made from the earth, “Dusky Wilderness” it’s called.
“Sorry again,” I say, as I breeze past him, slip my shoes on, and head for the door.
I don’t even get three steps from the door when he’s closed and locked it. I’m alone now under the sodium lamp that illuminates the gravel parking lot. What would it be like to be made of gravel? Tougher, more solid, but without integrity, I realize—each stone crunches against the others as I step, and some even go flying. There’s nothing to hold them together.
As I near my car, I start my hookup post-mortem—was my technique bad? Should I have played with his nipples a little less? Would it have made a difference if I made him tug on my hair more? I pull out my keys and run my thumb over the unlock button on the fob. My finger hovers, ready to press down, when I notice a squirrel a few feet away.
I coo to myself—squirrels are so cute, their little paws and big, fluffy tails—but I stop mid-“ooh.” Something is happening: first, it’s past midnight, and when have I ever seen a squirrel out this late? More importantly, the squirrel is doing something I’ve never seen a squirrel do. It’s bouncing, over and over, two and three and four inches off the ground.
I make a loud noise to startle it, make it realize I’m here, so it will scurry off and go back to being normal. Perhaps this is the squirrel equivalent of singing in the shower, something it would be horrified to do if it knew someone else was there. But the squirrel doesn’t even notice me clap or stamp my foot. It just keeps jumping, higher and higher. I wonder if maybe I’m being pranked—perhaps it’s a fake squirrel connected to some fishing line, and someone is crouched in a nearby shrub with a camera, tugging on it and filming my reaction.
“Hello?” I call out, but as soon as it comes out of my mouth I realize it’s a stupid thing to think—it’s a secluded, private parking lot for this apartment complex and it’s late at night, a terrible place to set up an entire prank to trick one or two passersby. I look around just to be sure, then refocus my attention on the squirrel.
It jumps a few more times, tiny paws shifting the small gray rocks—almost the same color as its fur—before it splays itself against the ground, limbs outstretched. I swear its head is turned toward me, one black eye glittering under the yellow light. Its left hand—paw—is reaching out to me for help, or that’s what I think for a moment.
Its body starts to bounce again, its muscles snapping from lax to tense like the elastic waistband on that guy’s shorts as I slid them off seven, eight minutes ago. I’ve been standing for a minute, maybe two, just watching as the squirrel leaps up over and over, like a yo-yo, like a perpetual motion machine.
A mating ritual, then. I’d seen squirrels chase each other, scurry up and around trees like stripes on a barber pole, but maybe this was some secret part.
No. The squirrel’s bounce quickens, faster than I thought would be possible, higher than I would have believed it could jump. I almost want to egg it on—keep jumping, leave this earth, be free! And then mid-air, its limbs stiffen—instant rigor mortis—and it falls to the ground on its side.
I know when I get home I’ll google what just happened—“squirrel seizure,” “squirrel rabies,” “squirrel dying”—just as I googled what happened to me. “Skin to dirt,” “becoming a dirt person,” “am I made of clay,” searches that someone must have been tracking, since afterward I got call after call from doctors asking if I wanted to be part of a study, telling me I needed to schedule an appointment in their office, begging me to let them cure me, until I disconnected my phone, switched the number.
I stare at the squirrel for a few more seconds, afraid or hopeful it might jump back up and scurry away, before I walk to my car. Perhaps the squirrel had had a terrible life, kept getting hunted by someone’s mangy cat; perhaps death was easier for the squirrel, so it ran in front of the car, or stuffed its face into a stash of poison pellets meant for rats. It’s not the first time I’m jealous of someone else for dying, for negotiating and ceasefire with misery.
I try to continue my sexual post-mortem—it’s the fourth failure I’ve had this week, the fourth time I had to leave without anyone bodily satisfied, with no one exhausted and emptied. My mind flickers to when I kissed this guy, pinned his arms up behind him against the wall and pressed my lips into his neck, hard but not too hard or I’d leave a mark, like lipstick, but a smudgy, dirty brown. I get into the car, close the door behind me. Maybe he tasted the dirt when his tongue probed my mouth, felt the grit of it along my gums and between my teeth.
I keep thinking about the squirrel. Should I go knock on his apartment door and tell him so he’s not surprised when he goes to his car tomorrow morning? Should I kick it closer to the bushes? But then I feel the sting—not the sting of one scorn, but the sting of many, repeated, prolonged, a bumblebee that won’t leave me alone and won’t die after one stab—and a tear wells up. My water table is too close to the surface, or maybe I’m filled with an underground stream. Perhaps I just absorbed too much moisture from the humidity outside, left a me-sized hole in the air as I watched the squirrel bounce.
I try to dry my eyes carefully—it’s erosion I’m worried about, water erasing rocks and canyons and cliffs like a smudgy artist’s sketch done in pencil—but I keep leaking, so I turn the air conditioning up, all the way up, lean my face in close, let the cold blow and dry me out, and I feel myself start to crackle and break, fragment into tiny particles of dust and sand and blow away, but I don’t turn it down, don’t pull away. I keep disappearing, atom by atom. All I can think about is the squirrel jumping. Dying. Floating. Escaping.
—Jonathan Wlodarski is a fiction student in the Northeast Ohio MFA. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flapperhouse and the Eureka Literary Magazine (ELM), among other venues. He is fascinated (in a horrified way) of Russia’s past and present and can often be found chewing ice, mourning the inevitable loss of winter in the face of climate change.