Jessica Alexander

The Courtly Lover

Tom says you asked him, instead of me, dear Susan. And it’s a good thing. Tom says if you’d asked me, I’d grow faint and fever­ish. Tom says I’d bury my face in the folds of your gown. His laugh. A force­ful spout. A hol­low thing. I hear him laugh­ing. Over lunch you asked him. Tom is a sen­si­ble man. He was eat­ing peanut but­ter and jel­ly. He swal­lowed before answer­ing. He said, “Let me think about it.”

And you, equal­ly sen­si­ble Susan, said, “That sounds rea­son­able.”

I, on the oth­er hand, am unrea­son­able. My legs are two dil­dos, my body is a water bal­loon, and my sick­ness drib­bles. Yesterday, a school bus struck me and I burst, Susan. My entrails spat­tered the vis­age of so many tod­dlers, and the tod­dlers shrieked with glee as if I were a hydrant or con­fet­ti pop­per. Needless to say I stuffed my entrails in my coat and hob­bled home.

-

On Market Street, I saw you and Tom in a court­yard, shar­ing a coke.

Tom told you, “It won’t change any­thing.”

No,” you assured him, “noth­ing will change.”

Well,” Tom said and he light­ly touched your knee, “if it won’t change any­thing, then how rea­son­able is doing it?”

Perhaps it will change things,” you said. You closed your lips around a straw and gen­tly, ever so gen­tly, sipped your soda. “A ship in port is safe,” you said.

But,” Tom said and raised one fin­ger to your lips, “that’s not what ships are built for.”

-

Susan, I am noth­ing like a ship. I am ground beef and my cas­ing has been dam­aged unspeak­ably. I have an infec­tion. My entrails are winc­ing in this heat.

-

Defeated, I drop my bow­els at the entrance and fall van­quished to the floor. Crying, my dear, is not a sprin­kling of tears, but a moan that shakes the mag­gots from my innards. And like some­thing fished up from a pool of waste, a drowned louse flung again­st the kitchen sink, lungs flayed and stink­ing, ven­ti­lat­ing like a nursling, I com­mence the dish­es.

-

On Saturday, I called Tom to see if you’d men­tioned me. That’s when Tom likened my per­son to an unvi­able fetus.

Susan is not a uterus,” said Tom. “She will not bring you to term. She is clothed in strength and dig­ni­ty. She laughs with­out fear of the future. Her emo­tion­al spec­trum has vacan­cies. Our objec­tive is to fill them.”

I said, “I don’t believe you.” I said, “Susan wants to grind her spec­trum and its mod­er­ate plea­sures into the bleed­ing eye-sock­et of a for­sak­en god. Isn’t that what every­body wants?”

No,” Tom told me. “Susan and I want to stop wait­ing for the storm to pass, and dance in the rain.”

Under duress, I suc­cumb, Susan, to dry skin. It peels and scales and emits a pun­gent odor. It’s not uncom­mon for the slain to imag­ine they’re still liv­ing, like­wise with my der­mis, my fal­l­en rind. Not uncom­mon for the chip off the old block, my prodi­gal pelt, to slink across the phone pad and come trem­bling back to dear old dad. I was reach­ing for the hatch­et, when Tom assured me that out of our great­est rejec­tion comes our great­est—. And I smashed it.

Susan, I’d be an ani­mal, but the ani­mals are all exhaust­ed now, bushed by so much blood-gorged air, sim­ply spent. My legs are pud­dles of vom­it and my arms are two piñatas. I’m call­ing from a pay­phone because you can’t turn back the clock, Susan, but you can wipe it up again. My head! My head is a meat­loaf sack, pink slime. So, tired the puke-smeared asphalt is an exten­sion of myself. I’m call­ing from a pay­phone. You seemed calm and then you raised your glass. Your hands shook. Coke stained your blouse. Mistakes are proof you’re try­ing, Susan. You had been so ten­der in the court­yard. I had not known you could be so ten­der, Susan. A smile is the pret­ti­est thing you wear. My hands? My hands are spaghet­ti strain­ers, clogged with chick­en skin. I must hold all the­se things with me. Susan, the world has tak­en great lib­er­ties.

~

Jessica Alexander is a can­di­date for the PhD in cre­ative writ­ing at the University of Utah. Her work has appeared in The Collagist, Fence, Denver Quarterly, PANK, and DIAGRAM, among oth­er places. She is cur­rent­ly a fic­tion edi­tor at Quarterly West.