national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011

Sissyboy Bullshit and All of the Above

Peter Twal  • 
Louisiana State University

He’s an Architect and That’s Plenty Noble

Samih loses the words to say he’s scared of heights somewhere in the backstreets and alleys of the tiny towns in his chest, so instead he starts taking too many pictures. I’m drawing self-portraits on my palm, thinking about Alyson and how there’s a letter saying I’m so sorry folded up really small in between the little gap of her front teeth. Samih asks if anything is the matter. I shrug, but leaning in close to a little ear belonging to a little boy in a stroller in front of me, I whisper to him about how I’ll come back because I want someone to know but really, I just need someone to keep a secret.

Halfway up the mountain, Samih confesses his fear of tsunamis. He counts houses and buildings on the mountainside and asks me how many I think would go down if the ocean started feeling territorial. I don’t know how to answer, so I let the sound of traffic do the talking. Samih keeps on telling me he’ll build some of those houses someday, with all of their bricks and windows and faces inside, but he’ll never cross their doors because they wouldn’t be his. They’d be the ocean’s, he swears to me: the doorknobs, the family photos, the light bulbs, the paper walls. They’d all be hers. And the way his lips sort of shake more than normal, I believe him. Our cart rumbles the rest of the way up, and I don’t say much, but it’s hard to notice because if you let it, traffic will talk for a long long time.

 

The Sad Thing Is

It’s almost like Alyson is dancing in the background of every painting in the museum this evening. To keep my eyes off of her, I turn and talk to the sculptures when Samih isn’t looking. I promise them things. I whisper, I’ll bring you a newspaper in the morning. I’ll bring you coffee.

 

right away it feels like drowning but not in a dramatic way

no it’s the quiet to yourself sort of drowning like you never wanted arms in the first place it’s like standing in front of a pool and waiting for the ants to push you in she’s nothing but little ants brown like her eyes you repeat this to help forget you have arms or fingers your fingers are the same as her fingers but yours are always too quick to apologize don’t listen to them they are radios nothing but radios with broken knobs and dials playing the same song over and over again don’t listen to them you swear to yourself you don’t have arms she’s turning into ants everyone is trying to talk to you now but as long as it’s not about wanting you to use your arms it’s fine they’re all ants too no they’re more like caterpillars you wish you could be a butterfly a very dramatic butterfly for a moment you say it out loud I am a very dramatic butterfly with no arms and the water rushing into your mouth never tasted so good

 

There is No Such Thing as Too Much Wine

In a bar the size of a cluttered bedroom, Samih tells me, maybe you should just have sex with someone. He tells me, it’s like doing the waltz. I say, I’m still learning that one. Samih looks over my shoulder and pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose just a little when he says to me, it’s all in the hips. He says, trust me.

 

I Want to Eat Ice Cream But I Shouldn’t Because I’m Lactose Intolerant

I’m in a little food market staring at a freezer. The frost on the glass door is light and reminds me of the time when Alyson and I played in the snow and a few flakes fell on her glasses and how I breathed on them to make the flakes melt and how they slid down onto her cheeks like tears.

 

Until It’s a Lot Like Falling Off a Building

At night, I press my face against the windowpane for so long. I hope to slide through the glass. Outside is a clock, a street with enough faces to make my hands sweat, and another clock. Samih watches me from the kitchen and stirs his coffee. He asks me for the time, but I feel afraid to pick a clock, and then I feel afraid of trusting either clock so I close my eyes. Twelve forty-eight, I guess out loud. Samih leaves his coffee and walks out of the room. The sound of his footsteps reminds me too much of Alyson’s freckles.

On the coffee table behind me is my favorite book, and all of a sudden, I feel like I need it. I reach for the book, but I don’t take my face off the glass. I am just reaching and Samih must be coming back about now, but I just let my arm keep reaching and reaching for the book on the table, thick like a photo album, the quotes inside like faces of people I wish I knew really well.

The door opens and Samih comes back in, says I just need my coffee, and I can’t help but confess, do you remember what I told you about being a butterfly? And he says, yeah, you mean, about the ants and the drowning? And I say back, yeah I’m sorry, it’s not like drowning. I promise, it’s really not like drowning at all.

For about a minute we don’t look at each other, which is easy for me because I’m still trying to find the words to politely tell the clock faces to stop staring. I know Samih is still behind me. I know Samih well enough to be sure he has no idea what to say so I ask what kind of coffee and he says a Jordanian blend and I say huh, that’s interesting, and he asks if I am going to keep my face on the glass all night and I say most likely, yes, and then he takes his coffee and walks off, his last words something like the way Alyson used to ask me to pass the salt.

 

There Isn’t an Orange Out There Not Looking for a Nice Guy

Outside the café, Samih sits down in the chair beside me. A petite waitress a few steps from our table makes a face like she doesn’t feel beautiful enough and fiddles with her necklace. Samih sees her and pushes his thick-framed glasses up his nose, smiles at her. When she finally notices, her short legs hurry her over. She stops in front of me, and she is beautiful. I make a face like I want to tell her, but I look away. Samih reaches for the sketchbook in his bag, opens to a page with a drawing of a boat sinking in the Seine, and orders coffee. The waitress nods quickly and looks over at me. My gaze sort of bumps into hers, and for a moment, we are both trying desperately to hide something. I promise, l’eau, s’il vous plait. She nods more slowly this time, then walks away. Samih is looking at me hard. I make a face like I’m not homesick.

Samih opens to a new page in his sketchbook and says, what should I sketch? I say, my shoelaces. Samih digs around his bag for a charcoal piece and looks over at me. He already knows the answer when he asks me, so why didn’t you tell her she was pretty? I’m sad when I lie, I mean, I don’t know how to say that in French. I reach into my bag to avoid eye contact. My hand brushes an old letter from Alyson, but instead I pull out an orange. I almost start to peel it, hoping if it all comes off in one piece, it will be a good day. Samih stops me right before I sink a finger in and takes the fruit. He draws a mustache first, then some eyes across its body and hands it back to me. He says, his name is Carson, and he is your psychiatrist until we get back home. He says, you must have a lot to say by now. I hesitate a moment with Carson in my hand then put him back in the bag and try to make a face like I’m only kidding when I say sure, later. I don’t tell Samih, but when I slip Carson back in my bag, I already know it will be weeks before I work up the courage to throw him away.

 

Slow, Slow, Quick Quick

In my head, I’m dancing the foxtrot. I’m counting footsteps and thinking of trees falling with every forward slide. Samih is halfway through his second cup of coffee and third sketch of my untied shoelaces when he says to me, what about Alyson? I’m hearing birds flying away and trying to remember whether the next step is a quarter turn left or right when I say back, I don’t want to talk about her. Samih closes his sketchbook. There are couples at other tables saying words I’m relieved I don’t know.

Samih notices this and then writes across a napkin how he wants a change, so I tell him to grow a beard. He asks me what I’ve done to change anything since February, and I want to tell him that I started carrying a match in my back pocket in case it ever felt like the perfect moment to strike one across the side of my shoe. I want to say that’s debonair, you know, but I don’t. Instead, I rehearse the promenade, the grapevine inside my head. The foxtrot, a light lavender smell. Frustrated, I yell. Samih doesn’t know it was just an accident but I don’t take the time to say I’m sorry.

 

Samih Probably Should Have Learned French Before Trying to Convince the Girl at the Train Stop He Was French and He Only Carried the Train Schedule to Attract a Mademoiselle Like Herself

Samih is drinking. He is ironing his clothes at four in the morning and drinking. I joke with him, say you should never drink and iron at the same time. I say you’ll either miss spots or make them. Samih lets the iron sit on his shirt for a while. The steam floats up, like the way fires start in movies, and then he looks up and says to me, maybe I should learn to dance the tango like you. He says, would you just teach me the tango? Other than the iron, the only sound in the room is my blinking. Samih looks away, I think because he is coming really close to crying, and runs the iron over his shirt again. I tell him the bus to the train is in eleven minutes. The burn mark on his shirt is as big as my head. I walk out of the room and he yells behind me, please tell me there are cute girls there who’ll marry me.

 

Carson

Samih is asleep. Carson is sitting a little funny in the train seat right next to me this morning. He’s smiling. He’s always smiling.

 

Catching the 6:54 to Our Next Stop

In the train station, there are people with faces everywhere. Carson is in my bag. I want to take him out, but I don’t because Samih might see. A train goes by, and a million people trade places. Samih starts tapping his foot awful fast. I try to count out a foxtrot but just can’t. I look at Samih’s fingers, the tips black and dusty from the charcoal he’s fiddling with, and it makes me nervous so I start to twirl my tie between my fingers like a rope. I say, please stop, Samih. I reach into my bag and squeeze Carson and my hands start to sweat a lot like how polyester makes my hands sweat. Samih’s feet haven’t stopped. I try to look for a waltz in the clatter but it’s not there. I turn my tie over and read the tag on the back. The black of Samih’s fingers is worse and worse. A million people in a million trains are dancing the jitterbug right now. Samih’s feet tap faster and faster. I can’t help it. I say, Samih there’s polyester in my tie. I beg, please stop.

He does. He stares right ahead and holds the charcoal still, and over the not-quite music of the passing train, Samih yells, I’m almost out of paper. He yells, my sketchbook is almost done. Just then in my stomach I feel it, so I say I’m sorry. The people sort of fade with the trains and my hands aren’t sweating much now but they shake a little when I say I’m so sorry. I take off my tie, put it in my bag next to Carson. I turn and say, draw on my shirt. Samih is quiet, and I know he feels far away so I say it’s okay, I mean draw on my shirt. After a minute, the slow and soft pressure of the charcoal falls on my back, but I don’t mind.

 

Quality Time Together

It’s pretending to be light out. The streets are waking up and rubbing their eyes all little kid-like. Samih is at the park, so I’m carrying Carson in my hands. I roll him around with my fingers and smile at all the streetlamps. I walk so long, I hope the smell makes a home in the lines of my palms.

 

People Watching

Outside feels like the sort of cold I like to just be in. I decide to go for a walk because I want to watch people be alive. From the other room, I hear Samih looking for something. My hand on the doorknob, I stop and say, Samih, I’m heading out for food. I ask, you want anything? I mostly hear riffling then he says, had something small earlier. Thanks though. And with that, I walk out the door.

 

It Was Never About the Quiet, Part One

On a park bench, everything sounds far away. It’s cold outside and I should have brought a sweater. I take a sip from my thermos of coffee. Samih pulls out his sketchbook, turns to one of the last pages. Behind us, we sort of hear a girl on the phone. She is finishing a conversation with someone. Samih says, I bet I can draw her without looking. I say, just from her voice? He says, yeah. He says, I bet I can. Samih’s ears look like they shrink a little. He listens for the sound of the girl’s voice and starts sketching.

I look over at him and he is squinting and listening really hard. The sound of charcoal on paper is almost louder than the girl’s voice. I start worrying I am being too loud so I breathe a little slower. Her voice sounds farther and farther away now. I can’t understand how Samih still hears it enough. I hold my breath for a second then whisper, Samih, can you still hear her? Really quick he says without looking, yeah, can’t you hear her brown hair? The charcoal draws out a few more lines, and Samih asks me with a smile, can’t you hear her little nose? In my head, I only see Alyson when he says these things so I reach into my bag to pull out Carson. He’s not there. I can’t help but think out loud, where’s Carson? Samih asks, the orange? And a little nervous I say, Carson, yeah. Samih waits a second and I want there to be noise but there isn’t, then, not too bothered, he says, I ate it this morning.

My eyes stare into my empty bag and Samih is still sketching like normal. I reach into my bag blindly, and my hand comes out with Alyson’s letter. I quietly unfold it, imagine Alyson’s voice reading it to me. Samih says just listen to all of those freckles. He says, just listen. I hear Alyson say things softly. She says, I hope you’re doing well. Her nose wrinkles and she looks something a lot like genuine when she says, I wish I didn’t scare you so much. My breathing is getting too loud again. So I hold it and close my eyes while Alyson says I’m sorry, you know that.

I turn to Samih and he looks awful busy but I still ask, can we go? I promise, we should go. Samih says, wait, I just need to hear how big her eyes are. They sound brown, don’t they? I still haven’t opened my own eyes. Carson’s were black. I say, please Samih. He says, look, just wait. Carson’s eyes were black. I say God damn it Samih please. He doesn’t say anything for a bit then with a grin says, just one more thing, her cheeks. I bet they’re round. He laughs, I know it. And I’m breathing I’m not breathing I’m breathing. My hands are shaking so much, the words of the letter are dancing the jive. I say softly into the letter, just draw a fucking orange. I mean, we’re all just fucking oranges. You know? None of us can talk to people on a train or remember stories later or ride a bicycle because we’re all just fucking oranges, okay?

 

It Was Never About the Quiet, Part Two

Samih stops sketching. He’s really quiet. Somewhere a few seconds ago, I began crying. The girl is gone now. I don’t try to hide anything for a little and Samih without looking at me says, I’m sorry, you know that. I wipe the tears and say, don’t say it like that. I bring the letter really close to my nose, push it really close to my lips. In my head, Alyson is there. She’s sitting on a bench really far away but I still hear her. She asks, has the hair grown on that spot on your knee yet? The one from that time you fell off your bicycle? I whisper into the paper away from Samih, no. I swallow and whisper against her words, the hair still doesn’t grow there. Just then I feel Samih’s arm on my back, and I confess into the cold air, but I’m trying so hard to make it grow. I mean, I’m trying so God damn hard, Alyson.

 

Because I’m Mostly Looking at the Ground When I Walk

I start to notice the way everyone stands.

 

Forgetting How to Ride a Bicycle

I’m so afraid to look, I keep my face buried in the pillow. It doesn’t smell like Alyson’s hair used to. I’m nervous. It must be the morning by now because from the bathroom, I hear her asking me morning things like is it windy enough to wear a scarf and look like someone from a black and white movie? I think that maybe if I don’t say anything too loud, she’ll assume I said yes, but instead, I don’t say anything at all. I hear a towel fall to the ground, the sound of lace sliding up legs. There’s absolutely no reason to scream so I don’t. I hear footsteps. I mumble into the pillow, Alyson, please not now. She asks, you want to go on a tandem bicycle ride? I hesitate then say, I needed twelve years to learn to ride a bicycle.

She says I didn’t know that about you and I say don’t say that and she says don’t say what and I say don’t say that but this time I lift my face from the pillow and the light doesn’t hurt my eyes as much as her olive skin and ginger hair falling over to shade her face, making her look like someone from a black and white movie. She’s smiling. Alyson was always smiling. She lies down on top of me and kisses my ear. Just then I notice her eyes are the sort of tree-trunk brown that doesn’t want you to know where anything is. She whispers to me, what else don’t I know about you? Her hair is falling all over my lips and her breasts are warm, like breasts are supposed to be. I’m twelve again, falling off my bicycle onto the pavement, rolling over to the grass and my voice shakes honestly when I say out loud, I never liked wearing a helmet. Her hair slides off of my face. She says, you’ve never done this before? And I say I’m sorry. She asks if I still want to go for that bicycle ride, and I say I never learned to ride a bicycle. She asks me if I want to leave and I say, okay.

 

I Tell Samih the Truth About Carson

He says you’re lying and I say back no I’m not.