Larynx by JoAnna Novak

I met you outside a bookstore, a chain in the mall. Poncey, pedestrian The Grove. I showed you red dogs on posters by Zara. The candy air of butter pretzels. Kiosks selling succulents twisting thirst-less in the sun. 

We’d been planning this for months. Talking whenever you could get wireless at the food court in Alien’s Head, the brutalist shopping centre where you worked. Signing each other up for stoic propaganda. And here you were. You had flown across the Ocean with only a plaid backpack—the least I could do was show you a decent mall. This is my state, I almost blurted. It could be yours. Instead, I said, “Do you like figs?”  

“A+,” you said. “We don’t have fruit where I’m from.”

“My yard is full of them. Your present is in the car.” 

I hurried us through the bookstore’s revolving doors. Online, you were always “A+” or “the tadpole is lurking,” and I was always “eat it up” or “come to California,” even though all I was thinking was, “do you want me?”

Perhaps it was a statement, not a question: Not “do you want me?” but “do what you want to me.” 

Cards and magazines and mugs flooded the first floor of the bookstore; we took the escalator up. It was an exposed secret passageway, the escalator, surrounded by books, as if we were Miss Scarlet and Colonel Mustard, about to investigate a bludgeoning in the library.  

I stood a step above you–you’re taller than me, I like that–glancing down through the prism of my sunglasses. I was still only level with your collar. I saw the triangle your skin, the opening of your hoodie. Your skin, your neck, your arms. Adult. I wanted your arms. Manly arms. 

You can’t really say a word like “manly,” but I said about anything when I thought about you. I chewed words into my pillowcase at night when I admitted how badly I needed to live out my wants. I imagined you roping my hands behind my back then kneeling between my legs. Fucking me outside the daycare by apartment, my cheek mashed against the baby blue bricks, fucking me so hard we’d slip into another dimension. 

Even before you bought your ticket, I’d made a paste of iodine and baking soda to whiten my sneakers, slip-ons, put them in the sun to bake, and they were tight, almost-new. 

Were you looking at my shoes? Seeing crushed figs in the diamond grooves of the soles?

You climbed the last step of the escalator. Now. Now we could stand still and examine a table of board games, drift to the penned-in cafe, drink coffee, eat cheesecake, fling our bodies out a glass window, I wouldn’t care. Now that you were actually here, now that we were in the same time zone, the same country, the same dimension, I might finally tell you, how, when I was still married I’d thrown myself down an escalator at LAX. Or that I’d been listening to a self-help podcast from a spiritualist-astronomer, who explains the innermost moon of Mars is Phobos, it’s shaped like a potato, no moon clings closer to its planet, it’s sticky, distortable–exceptional for that, a fling of microgravity–and slowly being crushed. Scientists speculate this will lead to the red planet getting a ring. The moon disperses, particles amass, particles cohere. A marriage burns out. Divine Design. I thought our solar system would last forever, that the planet would stay private or intact. But no. It has crevices and canyons, like Earth. Pulverize me, make me antimatter, I could’ve said to you. There’s a summit called Humans to Mars.    

“Ehrm?” you said, eyeing an ensemble of Minions. “This is more carnival than biblio.”

We stepped to the side, out of the way, next to a digital billboard flashing NOOK.

“Fiction, fiction …”

“H, for Herbert?”

“D, for Didion?”

“Different,” I said. “Sci-fi has its own section. In this galaxy.”

“We’ll see … ,” you said, looking at me, specially. 

I turned, face hot; I didn’t ask what it was we’d see. I couldn’t, not after hearing you say “we,” when for months it had been lambent in my mind, when you’d been in Cumbernauld and I’d been in California, and all I could taste was a question: where will life go if we don’t do this? We. I had a way to stick it anywhere. Will WE eat black mission figs when you visit? Will WE wander the La Brea Tar Pits? Will WE see if the armrests in the back row of the New Beverly lift? Will WE erupt into perfect, meaningless particles like all the names on this shelf? Yes. I’d almost asked it all. Almost.

Thankfully, a pleasure of bookstores is parting from someone in order to re-find that someone, so I left you. I headed to the corner of the store. On a table outside the restrooms, a sign reminded people to leave unpaid merchandise there OR ELSE. There was a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, a book I knew from my ex-husband’s shelf. 

Going into the restroom triggered a raspberry pff. I stared in the mirror, that’s all I thought I needed: to steel my eyes and command my heart to stay in its cage of a chest. 

I was wrong, that wasn’t enough. I opened my purse, smeared on lipstick, wiped it off. I put my hands around my neck and, gently, thumbed down my pulse.  

A toilet flushed, and I unclenched my neck. I hovered my hands under the faucet and got hot water. I tried to picture you holding a hardcover, reading a paragraph, a person who could pull a book off the shelf and settle into one of the common armchairs, read a chapter, read a novel, slip it back among the untouched others. You could be doing that, or you could be thinking of me peeing. Unattractive, probably? When I was only his girlfriend, my husband had told me he liked that, to watch a woman pee. He’d seen it in porn, always wanted it in real life, and he’d asked me to sit on a toilet and let his skinny fingers wait below my labia. It was a test, would I let him? Would I tell no one? Fine. I liked how I looked knock-kneed on the blue toilet in his apartment, and I opened my legs, I let him, all right, though my body had balked, really nothing happened, even though I thought I wouldn’t have minded, it seemed normal enough, I knew couples who wanted to see more. But you’re not my husband, these days my husband isn’t even my husband, and I did not want you to think of me peeing, even if naturally you knew that I peed, I was human. I was driving you to a hotel after this. My car smelled of figs. My body smelled of them, too.

The woman who’d flushed hadn’t joined me at the sink; she was taking her time. Meanwhile, the water was getting warmer, my fingers red. Warmer became hot and hot became scalding and I counted to three before I pulled out my hands. 

Then there it was. Like that, the impulse burned in my skin, perhaps like the spiritualist-astronomer said, by Divine Design. I would tell you what I wanted.

I left, altered. Harried, hurried, overwrought. Slow down, I whispered to myself. Then I said it louder, to the water fountain, there was no one around. 

I paused at Gray’s Anatomy. It was still on that table with the sign, waiting like a black bible. It was a newer edition than what my husband had had. This book was bonded leather, and the red and blue diagram of a heart on the cover looked vaguely patriotic. 

I opened at random and dove under the header Larynx. Though surprisingly imagistic, Gray’s prose is kind of frigid. “The epiglottis (cartilago epiglottica) is a thin lamella of fibrocartillage of a yellowish color, shaped like a leaf, and projecting obliquely upward behind the root of the tongue.” On the opposite page, a drawing of corniculate cartilage resembled a pair of inky wishbones.

I closed the book and there you were, holding a copy of Play As It Lays.

“When in California, eh,” you said, and I knew it was a gift, because I’d told you I loved your accent. 


You set the book beside Gray’s Anatomy, author photo up. Joan Didion smoldered, doing impossible things to a short-sleeved sweater. 

“I think I want to head back,” you said. “Time change and all.” 


I led you to my car. The mall was asking me when. When would I say it, when would I speak. The rainbow swirl lollipops at Dylan’s Candy Bar wanted to know, the gobstopper Goldbergian chutes, the camembert wheels at Monsieur Marcel, a putty-faced guard at TopShop. The complimentary trolley, ding-dinging. The gleamed-up display McLaren, fountains spuming blue. The eye shadow majesties at Sephora, the driftwood dress racks at Anthropologie, where my husband had liked to smell candles. In skirts, holding dolls, flanked by moms, baby girls, daughters beseeched me from American Girl. Kiosk of hair straighteners, kiosk of Korean facemasks, kiosk of cellphone cases and cheap sunglasses and bucket hats embroidered LIFE IS GOOD.

“Why are we hurrying?” you said.

“Are we?”

“We are.”

“Should we slow down?”

We were already at the parking lot. The Coffee Bean was behind us, World Market, the Spanish shoe store that sold mostly clogs. A giant red dog made of roses stood on a float beneath a clock tower. We were a week late for the parade.

“I didn’t want to believe this, but the palm trees really make it heaven here,” you said. “I miss driving.” 

“Rats nest in them,” I said. “Rats and all their babies.”

I looked around the parking lot, as though my ex-husband would see. The spiritualist-astronomer explained that the biggest mistake people make is believing soul mates are forever. After death, she liked to say, the spirit keeps evolving, growing emboldened, louder, louder and louder. Maybe loudness is a frequency that attracts other spirits. It is possible that you could leave your soul mate in living life and the two of you would be shouting at each other in the death life, which I hated. I pictured me and my ex-husband as tailless comets, blaring, yellow-hearted light. I didn’t want that.

“Here,” I said, giving you my keys. “Drive.” 

Was that guardless enough? Did you know my code? 

I wasn’t sure, sitting in the passenger seat, arms folded. I’d bought nothing, you’d bought nothing, and the car was treacled with figs, a whole flat of them on the backseat, covered with a tea towel, now sharing the space with your backpack. 

“Turn left,” I said at Melrose. “Turn right.”

A jag of shoppers in the crosswalk. The blurry red lipstick of a mouth that’s been kissed, ponytails and overalls and then a man in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt with a stroller dashed in front of us just when the street seemed clear. He stopped and bent over the canopy, beaming. 

“What a turnip,” you said. “Move along.” 

I’ll admit it: I cringed. You sounded so parochial. Even as the Mickey Mouse man dawdled, you were glaring at him, tapping your hands on the wheel, and I turned my face. I pictured the baby that had been inside me when I flung myself down the escalator at LAX. Because I could. Because I was hearing my husband’s threats—if I went through with the abortion I could never say anything. And even circumventing that I’d been told to be quiet, really, this is ours, between us, and why didn’t I want a family, did I want to die alone, and I hated that, and I would never stop hating that, and I didn’t regret the escalator, I liked a little that I had been bold enough to do something, to bash my face against the metal landing near baggage claim, impress the zipper teeth of the escalator upon my cheek, I liked remembering the hard punch and thud of pitching forward, crushing my stomach.

“Come up,” you said, in front of your hotel. “Hang out.”

Where else did I have to go? You found parking on the street, and I watched the way your hands gripped the wheel. I felt lecherous, looking. You can develop a muscle, you can’t change bones. Your fingers are short. For now, I don’t care. 

You grabbed your backpack and I grabbed the figs. 

It was so nice not to explain myself. So nice to keep secrets. A raw, self-loving instinct that marriage hadn’t destroyed in me, you wouldn’t destroy in me—but pregnancy? Close. I could imagine that child that had lived inside me, its silver voice, a single pure note that didn’t have words, just lift and light, something my spirit might one day be impelled toward, when I wasn’t following a new man up Melrose, biceps smarting because I was holding out my arms, wide, the span of a box of figs.

You’d already checked in; your room was on the fifth floor. 

“Pretty basic,” you said, giving me the tour. Low bed, birch headboard; a sunk tub with a removable showerhead behind a sheer white curtain. 

I put the figs down on the foot of the bed. 

“If we do this,” I said, “we have to be gentle.”

“That’s the plan,” you said. 

I looked at you. I couldn’t tell you about Mars. I couldn’t tell you about my husband or the baby or the future. I imagined myself saying Divine Design and almost laughed.

I took the tea towel off the figs. There they were, a sea of black organs, and two paring knives. 

“Here,” I said. 

I gave you the knife and sat on the bed, my shoes dangling white. 

“Like this.” 

I slipped the tip of my knife into the top of a fig, where the thick twig forms a handle. I dragged the knife through the black-purple flesh and twisted the fruit. It split, revealing the glut of seeds, smaller than periods, embedded in that wet rose gush.

“All those are bugs,” I said. “The seeds.” 

You picked up a new fig. “Rats and bugs. Where did you bring me, Novak?” I considered the fruit. “Halved? Or quartered.” 

“What are we doing this for?” you asked. 

There was only one answer. 

Eventually, my face was pressed against the glass: there was a window, a view onto House of Intuition. How many candles I would light to make everything nothing inside me. How much peridot I would swallow. Even inedible fruit: Capri figs, Watkins figs, smyrna figs, religious figs. Desert figs. Stranglers.

JoAnna Novak is the author of the novel I Must Have You (2017), the book-length poem Noirmania (2018), and the poetry collection Abeyance, North America (2020). Her work has appeared in publications including The Paris Review, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Guernica, and BOMB. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.