One week after Marcus stops talking altogether, we watch Planet Earth, the jungle episode, the one where the fungi infect the Brazilian ants and turn them into cloudy-eyed zombies.
“Like something out of science fiction,” says the soothing, British voiceover.
“That’s fucked up,” I say, shoving a fistful of popcorn into my mouth. Marcus’s head is above mine and when he sighs in agreement, I can smell the garlic chicken breasts we ate for dinner.
Whenever we watch TV, Marcus and I end up looking like Siamese twins. Tonight, my head’s against his chest and my hair’s caught in his beard which I know he hates, but I love. It reminds me of the blackberry brambles that grow on the side of I-80—how I used to run through them sweaty at dusk when my dad pulled over to buy lotto tickets. He was always hoping to win big.
Marcus hasn’t showered in days and his neck is oily, but I move my head from his chest to his throat because I need to hear him breathe.
Marcus and I have been together two years, and when people ask me when Marcus got so quiet, I never know what to say. A meteor didn’t fall and strike him mute in a day. It happened slowly, but it’s easier to bullshit, to say, “He’s always been quiet,” and wave my hands around like I’m a magician trying to make whole the woman who’s been cut apart.
It doesn’t bother me much anymore. I can read his air patterns now. I can tell when he’s just woken up, when he’s aroused, when he’s daydreaming about taking his canoe out to the Artic Sea. I know the way his fast, fast, slow exhales can blend into fast, medium, slow and the meaning behind the change.
Yesterday, during my lunch break at Texas Roadhouse, I sat on the beer crates outside of the kitchen and called him. He always answers on the fourth ring. I told him about my day, about the man at the bar who only ordered Coronas and called me baby girl, but tipped me twenty dollars. I asked him if I should’ve said something, if I was being a bitch and I could tell by the way he breathed that he was saying, “No, no. Of course, you’re not doing anything wrong.”
But tonight, I feel restless and I want to make him laugh. I put my fingers to his lips, try to mold them into a semi-circle.
“I always wanted a life-sized Ken doll,” I say when he doesn’t smile.
It’s true—as a child, I took my Barbie under my bed and dressed and undressed her, marveling at her tiny limbs, the smoothness of her genitals. Even now, I wonder if I wouldn’t prefer that—no gashes, no hanging appendages—just plastic friction.
On the screen, the infected ant bends its skinny brown legs over its thorax, clings to a fern stem with its mandibles. In time-lapse frames, we watch a mushroom burst out of its tiny ant head.
After the episode ends, Marcus yawns and stretches his arms upwards. I scratch his stomach through his plaid shirt. I bite down on his neck gently and taste salt.
At the family barbeque the next day, we stand on the porch while my brother, Jed, struggles to light his cigarette. It’s storming, pouring rain, but my mom won’t let that shit inside the house especially not with the new white couches she bought from some frat boys on Craigslist.
“How’s it going, Marcus?” my brother asks, kicking mud off his work boots. Jed has a philosophy degree, but he works in construction and I constantly find myself wanting to apologize for him.
Marcus shrugs, gives a little smile. He looks cute with his hands shoved in his brown corduroys, watching the rain spill over my mom’s gutters.
“We’re planning a camping trip after Marcus’s graduation,” I say, threading my arm through his.
I explain that Marcus is doing well, swell even. He’s just going through a silent phase before school ends. He’s focusing on fixing up his canoe. We’re still planning on moving to Tennessee, just working on dates. It doesn’t make sense to fly out right away. Marcus is going first. He misses his family.
I shut up when I realize I sound like I’m on Adderall, talking so fast my words are indecipherable. I look to Marcus, hoping he’ll nod or give Jed a thumbs up, but his face is blank and I can’t hear his breathing over the rain.
“Cool,” Jed says, but I can tell he stopped listening after the first sentence.
“Heard from Dad lately?” I ask.
“Jesus, Lydia. You need to stop living in a fantasy world,” says Jed as he blows smoke out of his nose.
Our dad walked out ten years ago and lives in Jersey City now—drinking, playing the slots, and sleeping with a woman who waitresses at the casino. He still sends me a postcard of the strip on my birthday even though he’s lived in the same apartment, at the same address, since 2005.
In our silence, I hear the porch creak even though none of us are moving. Ma was supposed to redo it years ago, but kept putting it off. She told us she was saving her money for something bigger, better, in the newer part of town. Now I wonder if she secretly prefers the rotting wood and peeling paint and hive nests, if it makes her feel put together in comparison.
“You should really clean out the gutters,” I say to no one in particular.
During dinner, we sit cross-legged in front of my mom’s white couch with platefuls of mac and cheese and pulled pork. Marcus fills his plate high as if chewing can be his contribution to the conversation.
“You see that new building going up on fifth?”
Ma sits above us on the red velvet loveseat with her legs crossed. She smacks her lips when she eats.
“No,” I say.
“Jed’s working on it. Says it’s gonna be delayed at least a month.”
“Too many different types of soil. Can’t build on it,” Jed says from the rocking chair and I nod like I know exactly what he means.
“How’s work?” my mom asks.
“I’m not going to be there forever,” I say, moving my green bean from one prong of the fork to the other. “We’re moving to Tennessee and I’m going to go back to school.”
Jed snorts and some beer fizzles out of the corner of his mouth.
After dinner, I dry dishes as my mom washes, her hands submerged in dirty water, her jean shirt rolled up to the elbows.
“You know, I never liked him,” she says. “Even before he stopped talking.”
“He’s not dead,” I say, leaning against the fridge. I watch Marcus through the window, shivering a little in the backyard in his white t-shirt, taking a drag of one of Jed’s cigarettes.
“Might as well be,” she says. “No way this lasts past Easter.”
I don’t know if she’s talking about Marcus’s silence or our relationship, but I want to argue. I want to ask her what the hell she knows anyway. This woman with her dyed red hair and fat thighs, standing in her crumbling kitchen like it’s all she’s ever wanted.
But she starts to hum Johnny Cash and I don’t say anything. I watch the steam from the hot water rise and fog up the kitchen window.
Tonight, we’re watching caves covered with bats and massive piles of cockroaches feeding on bat shit.
“Ma doesn’t know what to make of us anymore,” I say, looking at Marcus’s profile. There are red bumps on his neck from shaving and red bumps on his arms from where he picks at his skin when he can’t sleep.
Marcus shrugs. His hands are on my arm, making figure eights. I shrug back at him. It doesn’t really matter what my family thinks. They don’t know me like Marcus does.
Our first date was at Red Lobster, him wearing a plaid shirt and jeans ripped at the kneecaps. He shoved his hands into his pockets like he didn’t know where else they would fit.
“I don’t like people, but I like you,” he said when we’d finished dinner.
“Yeah, fuck people,” I said and we smiled over our half-eaten cheesy biscuits and lobster tails. We’d been very pleased with each other.
The last thing Marcus told me was about his dead dog, Buddy. We’d been watching a commercial for dog food.
He told me how the snow was mostly melted when they first got him, but Buddy ran straight into the only patch left and for the life of him, couldn’t figure out how to get out. He just stood there, shivering, picking up his feet and lowering them. He looked up at Marcus with these big sad eyes, and Marcus had finally picked him up and carried the dumb dog into the grass.
Marcus was smiling when he told me this and his hands were in my hair. When I woke up the next day, Marcus didn’t tell me good morning.
After we’ve finished watching a wave of cockroaches submerge a fallen bat, when we’re lying in bed and Marcus is snoring softly beside me and the crickets are chirping through the crack in our window, I realize I’m getting tired of the sound of my own voice.
At work, peanut shells are scattered everywhere, the brown strands continually getting caught in my sneakers, and today someone’s requested every single Toby Keith song on the jukebox.
In the kitchen, I hear Miguel calling out an order: “Rattlesnake Bites, Road Kill, Chicken Critters.” When I first started working there, I told Marcus the names and we laughed, but now it’s not funny anymore.
A woman in her thirties with square framed glasses is seated in my section. She’s eating alone, a newspaper stuffed in her purse.
“Are you ready to order or do you need more time?” I ask, pen and paper in hand.
She says nothing, but looks down at the menu. She takes off her glasses and then puts them on again like she’s testing her vision.
Outside, the parking lot has emptied. It’s four in the afternoon, too late for lunch, too early for dinner.
“Are the chicken free-range?” she asks finally.
“Yes,” I say without blinking.
She holds my gaze before nodding and pointing to Chicken Critters on the menu. Her finger is unsteady, shifting up and down restlessly.
I walk back to the kitchen quickly, my face red. I want to call Marcus and ask what he thinks it’s like to be a free-range chicken. One of the lucky ones that gets to peck and cluck on uneven ground. We’d laugh about how pathetic this lady is, settling for a lie she must recognize. But instead of going out to the alley to call him, I stay in the kitchen and watch Miguel flip burgers.
Sunday afternoon, Marcus and I sit on a park bench in silence. It was my idea to get some fresh air. I dragged him outside, pulled on his arms till I thought I risked dislocating them, but now that we’re in public I’m not sure what to do with him.
The boys on the swings are throwing woodchips at the girls jumping rope on the sidewalk but they’re too far away to hit them.
Above us, a plane moves across the cloudless sky leaving behind puffs of smoke. The first word starts with “M” and for a moment I’m terrified it stands for Marcus, but instead it spells out “Marriott Hotel.”
As I watch the sky, Marcus draws in the dirt, abstracts shapes using sticks of different widths to make precise lines. His body looks slim in the full sunlight, his fingernails bitten all to hell, his hair oily and slicked back.
Soon, the skywriting fades until it’s just the last letters like the ticker that moves across the bottom of a newscast. I fantasize that my life is nothing more than a televised event that at any second could be interrupted for a breaking news update.
Marcus drops his stick, sighs, and spits in the middle of his drawing. The bubbly liquid trickles into the indentations. He’s breathing quickly. I get up, take his hand, and we walk home.
That night I feel lonely so I call my dad.
“Can’t talk long, sweetheart,” he says.
In the background, I can hear Aerosmith playing. I picture him in a smoky bar, cigarette between his index and middle finger, legs stretched out in front of him.
“That’s okay,” I say.
I’m in the alley behind Texas Roadhouse, watching the bartender and the busboys chain smoke.
“You should come visit soon, Lydie. I’ve been on a roll and I need you to see your old man hit the jackpot. Lots of cash to be made if you know the right people. Gotta know the right people.”
When I was seven and couldn’t sleep, my dad used to take me in the old Volkswagen and drive us to the outskirts of town, right to the edge, where the buildings give way to corn fields.
“Carla’s been great. Still working at casino, taking computer classes online. Smart cookie and, boy, she knows how to let loose.”
His laugh sounds like an asthma attack.
“Okay, I have to run sweetheart, but have fun. Don’t let that bitch rag on you, you hear? Take care.”
After work, I walk across the street to a dive bar called Lion’s Den.
“Hey darling,” says the bartender. He’s wearing a cowboy hat and a t-shirt that reads, “Kowabunga” in bubble letters.
“Rum and coke,” I say.
I push my five dollar bill across the table and my sleeve catches on mustard remnants.
“You’re pretty,” he says.
“I know,” I say because Ma taught me that nothing turns a man off like over-confidence. But this man just tips his hat and smiles at me slow. His teeth are very white. He sets my drink on a paper napkin and I sip quickly from the two little straws.
“Tell me something about yourself,” I say, wanting to prolong the moment of pretend. A cartoon is playing on the TV in the left corner of the room. I am the only person in the bar, but I can smell fries cooking in the kitchen.
“Not much to tell,” he says, leaning his elbows on the bar. “Been working here for years. Nothing much else to do.”
I nod and open my mouth to reply, but realize I don’t have any words.
When I get back to the apartment, Marcus is already asleep, his body spread out on the full-sized bed like a starfish.