Editor’s note: “Lipless” was selected by Matthew Salesses as the winner of the 2016 New South Writing Contest. Check out Eric’s interview with Assistant Editor Jamey McDermott, and read his prize-winning story below:
What was the genesis of this story? What was your process of turning the initial idea into a full story? Which parts did you find the most challenging?
“Lipless” has several autobiographical sources of inspiration. My wife and I did participate in a Newlywed Study, we did go to the Holland (Michigan) Tulip festival and found most of the tulips already dead (it was while we were dating; not for my proposal, thank god), and I had many college crushes to draw from.
I rarely write so autobiographically. My stories are often fantastic—about Merlin, banshees, lucid dreaming, parallel universes. I find my own life mundane, which is why I like to read and write fiction. Typically, I have an exciting premise, but flat characters. So here I was deliberately trying to reverse that and write a character with my own neuroses to make the conflict more internal. That resulted in an alter-ego-ness to Marcus that made him remarkably easy to write (another rarity).
The most challenging part was dealing with the story’s timeline. Flashbacks destroy narrative drive. Devin is Marcus’s past, Kara’s his present and future; so toggling back and forth between them while escalating the drama wasn’t easy.
Something I find very refreshing about this piece is that it’s very upfront about Marcus’s sexual orientation, and Kara doesn’t seem at all troubled or surprised by it. It’s not really a big deal that he’s bisexual, in other words; the story is about the specific people he’s in love with, one of whom happens to be a man. How did you maintain that feeling of grounded specificity, even while addressing big/socially important topics like, e.g., the Kinsey Scale?
Yes. Some readers told me Kara was too perfect. If only we could all be as progressive as she is and see people as people. Kara feels: Who cares if Marcus is attracted to men? If he’s with her, he’s with her. But it matters to Marcus. His unrequited love for Devin stands as the part of his sexual identity that he’s denied by marrying a woman and living a heteronormative, monogamous lifestyle. His queerness is camouflaged, unfulfilled. And that bothers him, even if he does love his wife.
So the grounded specificity comes through character. Many writers avoid social or political topics because they fear coming off didactic. But if your characters are people (not tropes) who care deeply about a socially important topic (like the Kinsey scale and the spectrum of sexuality) because they have personal stakes in it, they won’t come off as a megaphone on a soapbox.
One of the most interesting things about the story to me is the way it ends. With the present plot left unresolved, approaching what in a more conventionally structured story might have been the climax, the narration jumps back to a key conversation just before Marcus’s marriage proposal to Kara. How did you decide to end with a flashback like this, rather than (for instance) following Marcus and Kara to the wedding?
This was an unconventional move, but it felt like the right one. And that’s because Devin is Marcus’s fantasy. Sure, the wedding would be awkward (Marcus would make it so), but it’s also beside the point. Marcus’s feelings for Devin are real, but they’re also unrealistic. They have nowhere to go. The drama of the story is Marcus’s wrestling with his choice to live a heterosexual lifestyle and having to make peace with that decision. So going back to when that decision was made—i.e. the proposal—reinforces that the key relationship here is between Marcus and Kara. Their marriage is flawed (whose isn’t?), but lucky for Marcus, Kara accepts those flaws. In some ways, she knows Marcus better than he knows himself. She understands he has to go to this wedding to let go of the past and she supports him.
Marcus and Devin are extremely different characters from one another, verging on polar opposites. How did you handle this contrapuntal dynamic without making it feel too much like a one-to-one binary opposition?
This goes back to characters being people, not types. You can certainly label Marcus and Devin as opposites: nerd vs. jock, introvert vs. extrovert. In fact, Marcus does label Devin (“meathead”) and he gets it wrong. People aren’t one thing. They contain multitudes. Devin is a wrestler, but he’s also a musician and a Biochemistry major and a theater nerd. He’s popular, but also shy around girls. He’s this… but also this. He continually surprises Marcus and that’s part of the attraction. The unknowability of a person, the layers you keep peeling back.
And readers misjudge characters just as people do others in life. A writer can use that to her advantage. After all, the reader wants to be wrong. They want the surprise of—oh! maybe I don’t know this character as well as I thought after all…
How did you settle upon “Lipless” as a title for this story?
“Lipless” refers to the denuded tulips at the end. Sounds better than “petalless,” “unpetalled,” etc., doesn’t it? And even has the “-lip” of “tulip.” It also suggests something unspoken, unvoiced. Marcus’s love for Devin, of course. And to a larger extent his “non-practicing” bisexuality. Plus, I just like the way it sounds: the alliteration of the ls, the sibilant ss at the end. It’s a sexy word. I hear it whispered when I read it. Lipless.
The invitation came in the mail and his wife said, I didn’t know Devin was getting married, and that’s when he knew—not in the gym that one time, or on their road trip to Boston, not at the wrestling match or even during the ice storm—no, that was the moment, Dev’s name on his wife’s lips, Marcus knew for sure that he was in love with his college roommate and would never tell him. They were standing in the kitchen and Kara had torn into the fancy envelope—this struck him as rude, it being from Devin, although it had been addressed to both of them and she had every right to open it. He didn’t like how illogically possessive he felt of Devin and he didn’t want Kara to notice, so he stuck his head back in the fridge. Rummaged around. The beer already in his hand.
He came out with a bowl of guacamole. He didn’t like guac. Kara was examining their calendar. He put it back.
“Crap,” she said. “We have Newlywed the same weekend.”
Marcus wasn’t sure which trumped the other: his disappointment or relief. Of all the ways he’d imagined seeing Devin again, none of them had involved a church or a bride or an audience of strangers in pews.
“I’ll call Liam,” Kara said. “I’m sure we can re-schedule.”
Her purse was on the counter. She went for her cell.
“Don’t bother,” Marcus said, trying to sound indifferent.
“Are you sure?”
“The study’s more important.”
This was the wrong excuse. Since they began the Newlywed Study at the Florida university where Kara worked, Marcus had found it incredibly dull. He’d been trying to convince her they should drop it since the first session and routinely complained about it every six months when the next one rolled around. They’d signed up less for the money—it only paid a hundred dollars per session, which often took up to four hours, and the surveys that had to be filled out before and after took another three—and more as a favor for Liam, a colleague of Kara’s and the lead on the project.
“Oh, so now you’re into the study?” she said.
“I just don’t like weddings, is all,” Marcus said.
Kara frowned. She knew her husband better than that. Marcus loved dancing, but he was terrible at it. He felt self-conscious in clubs, but weddings were safe places where middle-aged uncles and great aunts did the electric slide, where the flower girl and ring bearer danced the funky chicken, where the Macarena made a sickeningly nostalgic comeback. Weddings were the only place Marcus could dance like the skinny white man he was and not care what anyone else thought.
“What’s going on with you?” Kara said.
“Nothing.” He tried to open his beer and the cap about shredded his hand.
“Those aren’t twist-offs,” she said.
“Obviously.” He sucked the ridges cut into his palm.
Kara opened a drawer and handed him a bottle opener. Something about the way she did that— heaved open the shitty silverware drawer that always stuck, held out the opener to him, and shoved the drawer closed with her hip, all in one startlingly fluid motion— made him feel so immensely his love for this woman, he knew he couldn’t stand to be in the same room as Devin and her. It might kill him. His heart would explode.
“What?” Kara said.
He could feel himself gawking.
“If you don’t want to go to this wedding, just say so. He’s your friend.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Fine. His fiancée has terrible taste anyway. I mean, look at this.”
She held up the invitation. She was talking about the image of a dove inside a heart plastered to the corner, complete with craft feathers and glitter, but Marcus’s eye landed on the name of the bride-to-be.
“Rachel Kennedy!” he said.
“Oh, you know her?”
“Barely.” He popped the cap off his beer and took a swig.
He sensed Kara had more to say about the invitation, perhaps the melodramatic religious phrasing (Devin was Catholic)— Please join us in celebration when, together with their Lord, Rachel and Devin form a union in holy matrimony and the two become one— or the curly-cued font, but she hesitated to say it now that she knew Marcus knew Rachel. She must have felt some gravity in this knowledge and so, instead, she attached the invitation to the fridge with a magnet in the shape of an owl. She stuck this next to the gaudy, bejeweled dove as if to apologize for her earlier mockery. The two birds stared at Marcus with an unwelcome, feathered camaraderie.
“In case you change your mind.”
In the week leading up to their first Newlywed session, Marcus couldn’t help thinking of it as a sex study. A brief unit in an introductory Psych course in college had instilled in him a certain appetite for that kind of thing and one semester he’d devoured the Kinsey reports, the Masters and Johnson research, and the findings of any recent sex studies he could get his hands on. Something about the scientific pursuit of the most primal form of human desire drew him in. Either that, or he was just a horny teenager not getting any at the time.
What else would you ask recently married couples about? Their finances? Probably. Their communication skills? Definitely. He knew these were the more reasonable concerns the Newlywed study would most likely address, but whenever he thought about it in the days leading up to their first session an image sprang to mind of he and Kara fucking on a table—why a table? something about cop-drama interrogation sequences was mixed up in here—with electrodes taped to their temples, chests, and wrists. Wires ensnared their bodies, machines spat out readings, and scientists in white lab coats took notes behind a one-way mirror, impressed by both his form and stamina.
Only in his head was what he and Kara did called “fucking.” This word expressed a violence that did not translate to their actual bedroom. In their married life, they did not “fuck.” And it was nothing so mawkish as “love-making.”
The night before the interview they each had to fill out a survey about the current state of their marriage. There were sex questions on there, but they were mostly about frequency. Marcus put down three times a week and told himself he wasn’t exaggerating, or, at least, not by much. The instructions forbade them to share answers, but they did anyway.
“Three times a week?” Kara scoffed.
“So? What did you put?” Marcus scanned down her list of answers to number 56. “Point five? Point five! What does that even mean? How can you have half a sex?”
“The question posed it weekly. And it’s been about once every other week so…”
“Every other week!” Marcus said.
“I’m just being honest. I can change it to once a week, if you want.”
Marcus shook his head. He trusted her calculation more than his own.
“How could we have fallen so far behind our quota?” he said. “Quick! To the bedroom!”
He was being facetious, of course, but part of him was actually concerned. There was the old coin-jar joke about the first year of marriage, but maybe that actually applied to the first year of a relationship? Kara and he had dated for two years in Ohio and been engaged for one. Had their sex life really leveled off already?
He threw the survey down and scooped Kara out of her chair. Well, his intention was to scoop, but Marcus wasn’t exactly in shape and Kara wasn’t the daintiest of wives, so this masculine show of romance proved to be more of an awkward maneuver—his arms crunched by the backs of her knees, a near elbow to the eye, then, finally, the old heave-ho.
He took two steps with her in his arms and collapsed. Kara checked to see if he was hurt through her laughter.
“Who needs a bed?” She kissed him.
He never loved her more.
After that, the Newlywed session proved anticlimactic.
The interview was held in a spare room at the university labeled “lounge,” but it was about the size of a large walk-in closet and smelled vaguely of urine. Its only furnishings included a small maroon sofa and a coffee table. There wasn’t a one-way mirror or even an interviewer, per se, just a proctor and what looked to be a security camera in the corner near the ceiling. They were handed a series of manila envelopes, numbered one to ten, containing “scenarios” that they were supposed to talk through together at their leisure. Then they were left alone.
Marcus tried to read Kara’s reaction to this experimental design. She was, after all, a sociologist herself, although her research on group hysteria had nothing to do with Liam’s on married couples. If she was unimpressed (as he was), she didn’t show it.
The first card, extracted from its envelope, read: ONE OF YOU WANTS TO HAVE A CHILD, BUT YOUR SPOUSE IS NOT READY. HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THIS?
Their eyes met and he had to look away to keep from laughing. Surely, she wasn’t taking this seriously.
They’d been told to act natural, to speak to each other as they would privately in their home, but clearly this was impossible. As they gave their answers, perched on opposite ends of the couch, addressing the camera more than each other, it became increasingly apparent to Marcus that this study was not meant for them. The questions were designed to locate a couple’s weak spot, but Kara and he were so in sync that these hypothetical conflicts were bogus. They spent the next hour performing what felt like soliloquies from a marital self-help book:
“I would communicate my concerns, but give him enough time to know his own mind better, so we could make a rational decision together.”
“We would sit down and review the credit card statements, then come up with a household budget we could agree upon.”
“Really, when it comes down to it our relationship is founded on friendship. We tell each other everything. We’re best friends. That’s the key.”
Marcus knew it wasn’t a competition, but as they walked to the car afterward, he couldn’t help feeling like they’d crushed it. He imagined Liam going over the recording later, sorting through hours of bickering couples, analyzing passive-aggressive body language, shaking his head as subjects tore into each other, and then coming across his and Kara’s session and their flawless execution.
“Can you believe that?” Marcus said once they were in the car and the spell of the study had broken.
“They’re not accounting for observational bias,” Kara said. “The presence of the camera skews all their results.”
“Yeah, but we totally crushed it.”
Kara stared ahead. She’d yet to turn on the car and it was stuffy inside. Finally, the dimple Marcus loved formed in her chin and her reserve slipped.
“Smash, crush,” she agreed and drove them home.
Devin and Marcus were college roommates in Kentucky, but they weren’t friends for the longest time. This was Marcus’s fault. He’d felt there was something desperate about being friends with your randomly-assigned roommate. Like letting the university housing department determine your social status. And so he resisted the friendship Devin extended to him—invitations to the dorm cafeteria, the campus gym, a movie marathon in the lounge—until Devin stopped asking.
Devin was a wrestler majoring in Bioengineering. He was short, pale, and redheaded. His sculpted arms and shoulders lent him a simian build. And every inch of his skin was covered in freckles. Marcus later wrote a poem about those freckles—how he wanted to trace his finger through them, like a thin film of dust, and write his name.
Long before that poem, he’d written Devin off as a jock. The amount of time Devin spent weightlifting seemed to confirm this. His side of the room was covered with empty bottles of protein shakes, sweaty towels, and banana peels. He weighed himself every morning on a scale he kept in his closet. He hardly wore anything but basketball shorts; the first time Marcus saw him in a pair of jeans he almost didn’t recognize him.
Halfway through their Freshman year, they had formed a routine in which they revolved around each other without ever colliding. Marcus preferred it that way.
But then he would walk into the dorm common room and there’d be Devin playing a guitar—where had he been hiding that thing? he didn’t remember seeing a case in their room— and singing an Iron & Wine song without a hint of self-consciousness. Or he’d go by the tutoring center for help on his Calculus and Devin would be at the next table, teaching a girl how to balance her Chemistry equations. Or in the campus Starbucks on a Saturday, Marcus would catch Devin hanging out not with his wrestler friends, but members of the theater club, paint splattering his shirt from helping out with set construction.
This unnerved Marcus, how wrong he’d been about Devin. He felt he’d been tricked. His aloofness had cost him and he didn’t know how to take it back.
Early spring, he found a roommate request form on Devin’s desk filled out for the following year. It wasn’t his name. He shouldn’t have been hurt or surprised by this, but somehow he felt both. Something about this betrayal—how could Devin have not meant for him to see this? it was right on the desk!—drove Marcus mad.
He began noticing things about Devin he hadn’t before. Things he would miss if they weren’t roommates next year. The gel he brushed through his hair with his fingers, how he wiped his hands on a towel so the minty scent lingered. That Shins song he played on repeat. How he kept quarters in a Star Trek mug and never cared if Marcus borrowed some for laundry.
One day, between classes, Marcus discovered an open bottle of protein shake next to this mug and without thinking he took a sip. It was chocolate flavor and tasted gritty.
“You know you have to lift for that to do anything,” Devin said from the doorway. He was supposed to be in Organic. His lab must have been canceled.
“Oh, sorry, I—” Marcus wiped frantically at his lip.
“I know it’s not your thing,” Devin said. “But I could show you if you wanted.”
For a moment Marcus saw himself through Devin’s eyes: a scrawny, virginal recluse who might never get laid. Devin had a picture of his high school girlfriend—her name was Savannah and she was blonde and petite and they’d probably done it on prom night or in the backseat of Devin’s car at a drive-in movie or in some other cliché all-American way—pinned to the corkboard over his desk. Later, Marcus liked to pretend that Devin had ripped this picture out of a magazine (she was posed in a bathing suit on a diving board, almost too perfectly) and made Savannah up to make him jealous, as nonsensical as this was.
Marcus never had a high school girlfriend. His nickname in those cruel days had been Icky. Not as in “gross”—although it obviously carried that connotation—but as a truncated version of Ichabod Crane. That was his body type. Gangly. He’d never thought of it as a choice. Lifting weights had always seemed like a meathead thing to do.
Still, Devin’s offer was an opening Marcus hadn’t expected. One that hadn’t been available to him for a while now. And so he said yes. Devin was surprised, but he didn’t back down, like Marcus thought he might, if the offer had been merely out of politeness. He knew what this was, of course. Charity. But he was willing to take Devin up on it.
On Saturday morning, they went to the campus gym. They entered together through the sliding glass doors. Marcus’s feet sunk into the welcome mat emblazoned with the college mascot: a wildcat in a blue oval. They swiped their student membership cards and passed through the locker room, Devin leading the way.
The weight room was constructed almost entirely of mirrored walls, and Marcus had difficulty finding a non-reflective surface to focus on. The place reeked of deodorant. The guys moving around him had arms the girth of his waist. He watched them squat beneath bars, heft boulders, drag chains. He tried to disregard the purple veins popping in their necks, the grunting and huffing, the sheer mass of their shoulders and calves. He stared at the contraptions that stood sporadically about the room like torture devices on display in a prison museum.
“All right,” Devin said, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s see how much you can bench.”
He said they’d start easy, so Marcus could get a feel for the bar. He slid ten-pound weights on either side. Marcus hesitated before lying down.
“Don’t worry. I’ll spot you.”
The metal grips cut into his palms. When Devin lifted it from the racks, Marcus’s arms dropped beneath the weight, the bar thunking into his chest.
“Ow,” Marcus said. “That’s gonna bruise.”
Devin laughed. “Sorry. I should have helped lower it. Okay, now press it overhead.”
Marcus tried. He did. He could feel the blood rushing to his face as he strained. He got it up over his chest for a second and immediately dropped it back.
“Try not to let it all the way down. The point is to keep it suspended at all times. Come on. Let’s see if we can do ten of them.”
Marcus couldn’t make it past six. Each time he dropped it. His chest felt more than a little bruised.
“Maybe we should try some with just the bar,” Devin said. He lifted it back into the rack and removed the weights.
The bar alone was better. Marcus made it successfully through ten reps, only dropping it on his chest the last three times. He sat up and Devin handed him a water bottle.
“Good. I’ll show you the pull-up bars next.”
It was a weird experience. Marcus hated every bit of the exercise—the dumbbell curls, the medicine ball, squats, sit-ups, all of it—it was painful and exhausting and made him nauseous and why the hell would anyone enjoy putting their body through this? But every so often Devin would pat him on the back or speak an encouraging word or say something nice like, “Oh man, the ladies will be lining up at our door,” and Marcus’s heart would pound a little harder, and he’d push himself a little further.
They ended with a cool-down on the treadmills. By the end, Marcus was feeling light-headed. He’d been burping up last night’s lasagna and when they returned to the locker rooms, he knew more was coming up.
Devin was talking about breakfast. “What you’ve got to eat after a workout like that is a big ole omelet. Egg whites only. Trust me. That’s the best protein.”
Marcus ducked into a stall and vomited mostly water. He slipped down to the cold blue floor, a muscle twitching in his back.
“Hey,” Devin called. “You okay?”
Marcus thought he was going to pass out, but then didn’t. He stared up at the multitude of cocks Sharpied onto the stall’s flimsy metal walls. He listened to the showers running, the clatter of voices on tile—Molly is such a bitch, So hung-over right now, Did you fucking do it or not?
“Marc?” Devin said.
He rubbed at the bruise on his chest, thinking how good it felt when, pinned to the bench, Devin lifted the bar for him and, suddenly, miraculously, he could breathe again.
When Marcus first told Kara he was a non-practicing bisexual, she frowned, clicked her chopsticks at him, and said—no such thing. They’d been dating for nearly a year. They were studying and eating Chinese at his apartment in Ohio, which had essentially become her apartment, too. Evidenced by the bra on the bathroom floor, the soy milk in the fridge, the vase of slooping tulips on the bookcase.
“It’s like saying you’re an omnivore, but you don’t eat meat,” Kara said, slurping her noodles. “When really you mean you’re just plain vegetarian.”
He didn’t know for sure why this upset him so much. Maybe it was because he’d been working up the nerve to tell her this for days— weeks!— and now she was shrugging it off.
“I’m telling you I’m attracted to men,” he said.
“I know,” Kara said. “And I’m telling you not to worry about it.”
“It doesn’t bother you that I’m attracted to men?”
“Does it bother you that I am?” Kara said.
Marcus laughed, then realized she wasn’t joking. She was making a point. God, he loved her. She was so fucking brilliant. He’d never win an argument against her.
He should be relieved she didn’t care. But the vegetarian metaphor rankled him.
“It’s not like that,” he said. “It’s more like… a priest is celibate, but it doesn’t mean he’s not a sexual being.”
“I’m not saying you’re asexual,” Kara grinned. “I’d think that was obvious. I’m just saying, what’s the difference? We’re committed to each other no matter who we’re attracted to.”
“But I’m attracted to twice as many people as you,” Marcus said.
“Why are you making such a big deal about this?”
“Does it make me seem less masculine to you?”
“A lot of gay guys are more masculine than straight ones.” Kara clicked her chopsticks at him again. “So no. If you want to know the truth, I think I already knew.”
“I don’t know. I guess you have a way about you.”
“Like a gay way? But you just said—”
“Yeah, I know. Can we just drop it? All I’m saying is, I don’t think I could ever be with a guy who wasn’t sensitive in the way you are. It’s a compliment, really.”
Marcus stared down at his orange chicken. He felt like there was more to say, but he didn’t know what. Kara went back to her book on Tulipomania. Her Ph.D dissertation was on mass hysteria and took a sociohistorical approach. Documents on the seventeenth-century Dutch tulip craze were a primary source for her analysis. Marcus was getting a masters in poetry and was currently re-reading Frank O’Hara.
They were silent with their books for the next half hour.
Kara looked up. “Is that why you always get so upset when they split the bill…?”
“Yes!” Marcus said.
She was referring to how on dates, just the two of them, their waiter always split their bill without asking and Marcus (or Kara, if it was her turn) ended up paying for both anyway.
“They think I’m your gay best friend!” Marcus said.
“So?” Kara shrugged. “Aren’t you?”
“Do you ever wonder where you are on the Kinsey scale?” Marcus asked.
“What’s that?” Devin said.
They were in the dorm room, Marcus sprawled out on his bed, reading a psychology book, Devin strumming his guitar to a Cat Stevens’ song. They were supposed to be studying for finals.
Marcus explained the scale: zero to six, with zero being exclusively heterosexual and six homosexual. He knew he could trust Devin to be open-minded and answer honestly, so he was surprised when he said, without hesitation, “Zero. Definitely zero.”
Something had happened between them since that day at the gym. Marcus never worked-out with Devin again, but they began eating dinner together and studied side-by-side at the library. When Dev came back from Spring Break and told Marcus he’d found out Savannah had been cheating on him, Marcus knew he and Devin were officially friends.
“You know what she said?” Devin said. “She said, I assumed you were experimenting, too. I mean, it is college. Can you believe that?”
Marcus felt the phantom bruise on his chest—long healed—throb.
He assumed Devin would have a new girlfriend by the end of the week. Weirdly, he didn’t. For all his popularity, Devin was strangely shy around girls. He confided in Marcus that Savannah had been his only experience. They’d dated since the sixth grade and never once broke up. He was depressed for a while, but this only solidified his friendship with Marcus. It became a nightly habit of theirs, before they fell asleep, to volley back and forth the names of girls they secretly liked— Cloe Wright. Sarah Finney. Jamie Harding-Smith.
The girls Marcus crushed on were often bookish, artistic types. Sometimes they carried cameras and took pictures of cigarette butts. Or had streaks of purple in their hair. Always they paled in comparison to how he felt about Devin.
Marcus barely knew any of the girls who belonged to the names Devin spoke with such reverence. When he looked them up online, he discovered Devin certainly had a type and it was conventionally beautiful in a Disney-princess way. Marcus could easily label these girls, based on hair color alone: Ariel. Belle. Cinderella.
Devin never actually made a move on any of these girls. They were interchangeable, more safely admired from a distance. That was, until a girl from his Bio class began hanging around their dorm room. Her name was Rachel Kennedy (she was a Belle, but a bit on the chubby side) and she had a mad crush on Devin. She showed up at all his wrestling matches, hung around the common room, waiting for Dev to emerge with his guitar, and knocked on their door to invite him to dinner.
“Could you tell her I’m not here?” Devin pleaded, and Marcus felt a perverse pleasure in lying to Rachel’s face through the cracked door.
“You must really not like her,” he said.
“Too clingy,” Devin said. But Marcus had a feeling it had more to do with her weight.
By the end of the semester, their friendship was undeniable. There was one final test:
“Any idea who you’re gonna room with next year?” Marcus asked off-handedly.
“Uh, duh,” Devin said. “Did you have someone else in mind?”
“No,” Marcus said. “Just checking.”
“What about you?” Devin asked, about the Kinsey scale. “Zero to six?”
How this question tormented Marcus! He’d tried to convince himself he wanted to be Devin, that it was a crush of idolization—Dev’s grades, his musical talent, his ability to navigate any social situation—but who was he kidding? Devin would walk around with just a towel around his waist and Marcus could feel his body temperature rise. He knew deep down, that his crush was more than intellectual. Reading the Kinsey study, Marcus longed to participate in a sexuality test that might determine once and for all his true attraction. He envisioned a Clockwork Orange set-up, his eyelids clamped open, pornography—gay and straight—projected in front of him, an EKG machine reading the state of his arousal, assigning him a definitive number: Three. Four?
“Oh, yeah. Zero.”
“I mean, how can you be half gay?” Devin said. “I thought it was an either/or.”
“Yeah,” Marcus said. He never hated himself more.
The week leading up to his and Kara’s final Newlywed session and Devin and Rachel’s wedding tormented Marcus. The dove and the owl haunted him from the fridge. He was having difficulty filling out the required survey. Every time he sat down to answer the questions, the answers that came to him dealt not with his marriage, but with Devin:
Q: Have you ever felt any jealousy toward a person your spouse has a close relationship with (i.e. co-worker, close friend, neighbor)? If so, please describe the nature of the situation.
A: Going to Devin’s wrestling matches, watching him tumble on the mat with his opponent, gripping him in a headlock, then pinning him one, two, three.
Q: Do you or your spouse ever have difficulty sleeping in the same bed?
A: On their road trip to Boston to see Coldplay, sharing a hotel room, a queen bed, listening to him breathe in the dark, thinking: if I extended my leg and reached my foot out just a little…
Q: Have you and your spouse recently taken up any new hobbies?
A: That freak ice storm when they broke branches from the trees, marched across campus, hacking away at icicles, flinging snowballs at each other, how red his lips got.
Q: Have there been any new stresses on your relationship?
A: Walking in on them—Dev in his desk chair, Rachel on her knees.
“But you don’t even like her,” Marcus said later.
“Now I do.”
Q: How often do you tell your spouse you love them?
A: Standing up at the wedding ceremony.
Oh god. Could he do that? No. Never. Devin was straight and getting married and Marcus was married and in love with Kara. It was absurd.
Then why did he keep seeing it? Dev in a suit at an altar, turning his head away from his bride to the audience, to where Marcus stood with something important to say.
He abandoned the survey and went to find Kara. She was at her desk, typing. He needed to tell her.
“Did you finish?” she said, about the survey.
“Are you in love with Liam?”
Kara looked up from her email. “Where’d that come from?”
“I don’t know,” Marcus said. “He’s a good-looking guy. You see him at work every day. I just thought. I mean, I wouldn’t be mad.”
“You know,” Kara said, considering. “I never really thought about it.”
“I’m serious. I mean, Liam’s with Shellie and I’m with you.”
“But that doesn’t mean you’re not attracted to him.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“Not even a little?”
“Seriously, Marcus? You think I’m cheating on you? Because I’m not. And I’m a little offended you’d think it.”
That wasn’t what he’d meant. It wasn’t an accusation. He trusted Kara more than anyone. Sometimes he was scared of how much she loved him. He tried not to look at the tulip poem he’d written for their wedding, which she’d framed and hung over her desk.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just, don’t you ever crush on anyone?”
“Sure,” Kara said. “You.”
How could she be so steadfast? Marcus had crushes all the time. The cute mailman told him to have a nice day and he was infatuated for a week.
“Is this about Rachel Kennedy?” Kara smirked.
“I don’t care who your crushes are,” Kara said. She turned back to her laptop. She’d thought she’d figured him out. “So long as at the end of the day, you’re with me.”
Kara told him to meet her at the university at ten for their final Newlywed session. She’d gone to campus early to research in the library and Marcus was at home grading horribly redundant AP Lit papers on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. It was Saturday. The day of Devin’s wedding. T-minus eleven hours.
He didn’t know he was going to do it until he was in his car and he went straight through the light that was his turn to the university. Then he was taking the on-ramp to the interstate and he was heading north and he thought he was pretending. He was telling himself, I’ll take the next exit and go back. Okay, the next. The next.
A half hour later his phone was buzzing and he shut it in the glove compartment. If he took Kara’s call—or even checked a text— he knew he’d lose his nerve and would never make it to Kentucky. It was a ten-hour drive. No way was he going to make it to the ceremony, which was scheduled for seven. But if he only took two bathroom breaks, he’d arrive in plenty of time for the reception.
He was going to dance with Devin if it killed him. He was going to dance with the man he loved and say goodbye.
He made it two hours away before having a panic attack, stopping, and calling his wife. His hands shook as he pressed the buttons.
“Marcus,” Kara said. “Are you all right?”
“I thought I was in love with Devin,” he said. Or tried to. He rubbed at his chest. He was having difficulty breathing. “But I don’t think I am anymore.”
“Where are you?” she asked.
“At a rest stop in Georgia.”
“The one outside Albany?”
“Great. Don’t move.”
Twenty minutes later her Camry pulled up. She rolled down the window. She looked tired
and pissed and he was never happier to see her.
“Get in. Your suit’s in the back.”
Marcus shouldn’t have been surprised. She always knew his mind before he did.
The old man who sold them their tickets to the tulip garden informed them that only 15% of the flowers were still in bloom—15% and they still had to pay the exorbitant $40 entry fee, no refunds. Despite this warning, Marcus did not feel they had been adequately prepared for the disappointment that awaited them on the other side.
They swept through the dinky little turnstile, first she, then he, and out onto a brick path leading up to a trellised archway. There was a dramatic bend after they crossed under this opening that revealed the entire garden from atop a miniature rise in the landscaping; it would have been quite a sight—it reminded him of the sensation Dorothy experienced upon arrival in Munchkinland, stepping out of the bleak tornado-displaced house and into a world of outrageous color—had they come but two weeks earlier. Instead, they were greeted by a not-unpleasant looking backyard: a weeping willow, a koi pond, beds of green. But, as they drew closer, the wreckage of the cold front that had drifted through Holland (Michigan—it was the closest he could get to the real thing) made itself known in the stalks of millions of poor denuded tulips, a few measly petals shriveling away on every hundredth flower.
As they loped down the path to the first empty bed—the red parrot tulip, according to the sign—the severity of his miscalculation devastated him again and again. Everything—everything!— had been planned to a tee: the hotel suite, the white suit coat, the sapphire ring in his pocket. They’d wandered the craft fair, listened to banjo music, watched a performance of a traditional Dutch dance—children in caps and frills and wooden clogs—and all that was left was the tulips, the main event. But he hadn’t thought to call ahead about the blooming. From the pictures on the Tulip Festival website, he’d assumed the timing of the weekend… but obviously the town couldn’t control the weather.
Kara was making the best of it.
“There are still some with petals,” she said, taking his hand. “Over here.”
She knew, of course. He was standing in a tulip garden—or what was a tulip garden— wearing a white dinner jacket! They’d driven from their apartment in Ohio for five hours to see hundreds of species of her favorite flower. How could she not know?
As they strolled through the lipless fields, Marcus didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. In his jacket pocket, he was clutching the ring-box in his fist. If he couldn’t even get a proposal right, how could he a marriage? He stopped and Kara looked at him with concern.
He was telling himself that even the most beautiful things were flawed. How a ruined proposal made for a better story. He felt a poem forming somewhere.
“Don’t,” she said.
“Don’t you dare turn this into a metaphor.”
He smiled. “No, never.”
Eric Schlich is a PhD candidate in fiction and Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State University. He is the Nonfiction and Production Editor for The Southeast Review. He earned his MFA at Bowling Green State University, where he was the Assistant Fiction Editor for Mid-American Review. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature, Nimrod, Redivider, and other publications.
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