That Sinking Feeling

The catering business didn’t afford me an extravagant stay in a sunken utopia. I wouldn’t stop in Atlantis. I’d have to sink much deeper.

That Sinking Feeling
Photo by Dallas Morgan / Unsplash

by Jaryd Porter

“...if you could swim.”

I switched the tilt. My head listed from the right to the left. I folded my bottom lip under my squared front teeth. The tickle of the soft, serrated calcium against a harsh tuft of dead skin. I wasn’t listening. I was too high for hypotheticals.

“Kazoo?” Leo asked. He asked for me like when we were kids and he’d come to my front door. My mom would answer, because my dad never answered the door. Leo would ask: “Kazoo? He here?”

Your friend’s here! Who? The one without any manners!” I reenacted. I let my head list the other way when I heard my voice echo. I thought that shit out loud.

“You’re spacing, Kazoo. Hard,” Leo told me. His dreadlocks brushed against a taut stomach, able to perform the slightest curl inwards and over his shoulders like a sphynx reaching for his toes. Leo smiled reluctantly–he made it look like a painful exercise.

“Everybody’s a critic,” I told him.

“I said, ‘you’d feel safer in the boat if you could swim’.” Buzzkill Leo couldn’t leave that shit alone.

My legs were tucked in and my arms wrapped around and locked me into position. The paddle boat scuttled along the surface, stoic enough. Leo’s biceps flexed and sweat beaded on his forehead, collected in his closely-shaved beard. Amber eyes split their attention between me and the open water. I felt jealous that he held a similar concern for the body of water around us as for my body in proximity to water.

“The thought that I could tuck in my legs and hold my breath…and drop…to the bottom.”

My body sank like a hollow point round fired through the soft surface of the lake. Heavy-set and anchorous, the voyage to the center of the earth sounded ambitious and proved effortless. I cut through the water, performing the magic trick of distancing myself from the surface world in favor of the nearest La Quinta in Atlantis. I could stay for a week if I sank down into the hotel lobby, but a longer stay would test the depth of my wallet. The catering business didn’t afford me an extravagant stay in a sunken utopia. I wouldn’t stop in Atlantis. I’d have to sink much deeper. I felt the pressure pushing inwards. I turned my head toward the surface and opened my eyes wide: watercolors. The bottom of the rowboat became an umbral speck amid the stunning cyan-dolphinium.

“We go for a romantic boat ride an’ you hit me with that emo shit. Fuck off.”

“You don’t think that was romantic?” I asked. I kept my head held high and opened one eye to scowl down at my snickering boyfriend.

“Sure, in a Poe’s Masque of the Red Death kinda way. Wasn’t cute, though,” Leo told me. He made me feel so stupid. “Mask of the Red Death,” he said.

I met him with my knowledge on the subject. “That a Spiderman villain?”

“Oh, yeah. TB’s a bad mothafucka,” Leo answered. I knew what sarcasm sounded like. Saturated, but sticky to the touch. The sensation of picking your phone off the kitchen counter just to press your pretty paws in a mess of honey. Leo was that fucker. The one who doesn’t wipe down the counter after making his toast–the bougie kind who likes honey on it, too.

I gave it some tilt. The world, I mean. Let my chin point at Leo and my eyes gaze up at the passing clouds…

“You wanna talk about it?” Leo asked.

The clouds were cumulus as fuck. Didn’t read no dead white guy books, but I knew a fluffy white cloud when I saw one. A big cluster of water with the aspiration to rise, without the courage to fall. Kinda a state of denial. Most people lived cumulus lives and died in a low, desperate scud. I scrutinized the shape of a fist in the cloud. A leg kicked from the opposite end as a zygote became a fetus. It lacked an umbilical cord, but it was hardly remiss. The fetus learned to crawl in an instant.

“It’s too easy to catch you spacin’,” Leo snickered. The row boat returned to the dock. The boat banged against the cement structure and created the subtle bob against the surface of the water. Just a little dip to see if the lake was still awake.

“You distracted me, man,” I griped. The cloud above was the stapler from Office Space, now. Out of place and insignificant..

“Fuck, Zoo, I’m…fuck it,” Leo cussed. He stood up in the boat and rocked the hollow metal. It rang like a drum each time it knocked against the cement dock, and sent ripples to all guests and residents. He bent at the waist and stabilized at his calves. I twisted my lips into a tight purse, admiring the fit on those skinny jeans. They looked painted on. His ass bulged at the top–no hiding it. I turned my head and whistled when he shot a glare back at me. His navy blue boxers followed a few inches above the waistline of his jeans, but they were not devoted enough to keep up. Leo pulled his pants up the second he tied up the metal rowboat. He linked a chain to a steel notch on the cement dock, drilled into the coarse surface. He secured the boat the way my dad used to keep the dog in the yard. It seemed restrictive and unkind, yet I didn’t think it hurt the boat’s feelings. The rowboat would be more surprised if we dragged it inside and gave it a seat on the couch…a place at our dinner table…a little bed at the foot of our own.

Leo snapped his fingers at me. He braced himself and took my hand. I had to be three times his weight and a couple inches shorter, yet he leaned back and pulled. It felt as natural as gravity–he lifted me and pulled me up onto the dock. I stepped up and stumbled into his arms. He wrapped them around me, his bare chest against mine. My fro-hawk meshed into his trim beard and tangled a bit.

“You think Uncle Graham expected people like us might come out here…might get married?” I asked. The question wasn’t about Leo’s Uncle Graham, but that’s almost all he heard.

“No. Don’t talk about Uncle Graham. You know, when you say a dead man’s name, you pull him outta his grave for a minute. You ever heard that?”

“Naw…just can’t believe he left it to you. His whole-ass cabin.” Maybe I was coming down, because I closed my eyes in Leo’s arms and secured my belly against his tight stomach, his taut biceps under my rounded shoulders, my tree-trunk arms around his bony back. For all my flexing, here with him was the only place I wanted to be.

“Our whole-ass cabin, Zoo. We can call it ours.”

Five years ago, fresh outta college, none of my friends woulda expected to see me take another man’s hand. Leo hadn’t seemed the type, either. I hate that shit. “Seemed the type” like being gay is a fuckin’ inflection, a way of presenting, a performance. Leo took my hand so gingerly and carefully, like it was a form or style. Beautiful, yet I had a suspicion that he could throw me to the ground with a subtle flick of his wrist. I got butterflies following him up the cement steps to the back door of Uncle Graham’s cabin. We’d been together three years and I still got butterflies when he treated me like…like someone he could sweep off their feet and hold in his arms. He couldn’t. Historically, I was the meathead sweeping him off his feet and cradling him, so I treasured the suggestion that he could do the same for me. I’m gonna say this, but it’s not how I feel: he made me feel like a princess. We don’t have words for what I actually mean, but “like a princess” was good. Royalty wasn’t specific, beautiful lost its meaning when you say it too much, sexy’s the wrong word…loved? Love is a fleeting fuckin’ thing. It’s the catfish that looks at you like you oughta put it back. Love is a sad story. What I felt was anything but.

“After you,” Leo said. He held doors open for me. Here, in public, anywhere. We didn’t perform. That was our promise to one another. I grinned and stepped inside the musky, mildew-carpeted paradise…but that fuckin’ carpet had to go. I stepped around the mildew spots…Uncle Graham cleaned up his puke with buckets of water–old man woulda been happier with concrete floors.

Baron jumped up from the blue couch in the living room. The space was a box of windows to overlook the little lake. The other cabins were all airbnbs and rented out to horny teenagers with too much money, horny middleaged couples with too much time, and sexless liver-spotted couples with all the time in the world. A few cars were parked in their driveways. Baron’s tail perked up, curious at the activity across the lake. Leo wore a face of stone. He jumped onto the floor with Baron, rolling and patting our pitbull’s belly. Baron’s legs kicked and his hefty tail drummed against the dense old carpet.

“Sit down, man. You’re makin’ me nervous,” Leo said, straightfaced as the dog stamped upon his stomach and pinned him to the floor. Baron’s tail wagged slower with a wider arc.

I brushed the palms of my hands with my fingertips, each hand petting itself. He wasn’t the only one who was nervous. I walked to the stained couch Uncle Graham left behind. It smelled like my grandfather’s house–reeked of cigarettes.

There were mushrooms with magical qualities wrapped in a few papertowels in a ziplock bag. That bag spectated us from the little table by the porch door.

“I’m thinking smash burgers tonight. Some carmo-onions, hit that shit with the mixed greens, thin-slice red onion…yeah, Zoo, I see you drooling,” Leo said.

The room started to sink and I fell deeper.

Between the couch cushions, I slipped between crashing waves. The frankenstein-ed, patchwork cushions floated into the sky and dropped me into crashing waves in the darkness below. I felt the black water strike me, bearing heavy on my head and shoulders before submerging me. I closed my eyes and folded my arms over my chest.

Sinking, sinking.

Flat with my feet out ahead of me, I was in a glass casket. The further I plummeted, the darker it got. I sank like the heart was the heaviest part of my body.

“Where’d you go?”

I couldn’t fathom an answer. I’d just been dropping to the bottom of the sea. Where was I?

I sat on a barstool with my sketchbook in front of me and a .15mm Sakura Pigma Micron gently floating between my thumb and my index. The drawing was of a boy in a dress. He looked beautiful with his chubby cheeks and his dreadlocked hair and trim sideburns. Still, he curtsied, and kept his eyes low and sultry. He wasn’t sultry like “sexy”, so I wondered why the word “sultry” bubbled at the top of my dome.

“Was I sayin’ some’n?” I asked. My lips pulled apart and the dead skin stretched and dragged, forcing my question through mumbles and muffles.

Leo could interpret it, after our years together. “No.”

I let the .15mm slide down in my hand and rest against my thumb. The click of graphite in a hollow chamber spoke volumes in a vacuum devoid of volume.

“You…uh…you ever have doubts?” I asked.

He snorted like I’d told a joke. A tight smile and a reply; “No, Kazoo. If I had doubts, I wouldn’t bring you here. We wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be us.”

Leo placed a big blue ceramic plate–blue like shallow water refracting sunlight. The plate was water I would willfully dream of and woefully forget. I would’ve drank the plate if not for the two double-stacked burgers perched on top of it; just the right amount of ketchup and an avalanche of caramelized onions. Steak fries, pan-fried to perfection in shallow cooking oil, wavered and crawled, as they were piled too wildly to keep their mountainous stature.

            “Second thoughts?” he asked me.

Now, that couldn’t be fair. He seduced me with stern, smoldering eyes. Stony, sure, Leo winked, and his smile softened. He brought his own plate around and pulled up a stool next to me. So quick and nimble, he hopped on that stool like he could clear a hurdle on the track–so effortless that the obstacle itself disappeared.

And there was me. I couldn’t even walk a half-mile.

“Nah, dawg. My first thoughts are all I need. I’m serious, man. I-I love you,” I said, “I’m mad in love with your dumb ass, and I’d fall in love with ya all over again. Don’t doubt that.”

“But it crossed your mind?”

“Wasn’t my second thought.”

“But it was a thought. At this point, it was still a thought, though?”

“Nah, man, put that shit out. I mean, burger’s gonna get cold. We don’t gotta do this, right now.”

"I don’t wanna do this later, nigga. It’s okay to have doubts, but you thinkin’ on ‘em. I got that right?” Leo asked. He fully turned sideways and faced me. He musta forgot all about his burger and fries.

I stammered. God, Leo could be tough. He’d lost love many times, but I’d never had love like what we had. I hoped he’d never had love like we’d had, either. The mistake I made was thinking that love had to keep getting bigger, and our love had to be the biggest if it wanted to survive. We had to feed it double-stacked burgers to survive the winter. We had to–.

“You gone full Porky Pig, nigga. Fuck that,” Leo said. He hopped off of his stool and wandered towards the den. He got quiet in there; didn’t sit down. “Find me when you remember what we are. You don’t find me, go ahead and pack yo shit in the mornin’, cuz I’m not a maybe or a thought to be pondered on. I love you. Period, nigga.”

I heard the door slam.

“I love you, too,” I said. My voice echoed. I felt something like a ship in a bottle.

I ate both my burgers, hungry enough for them that I barely breathed between bites. I filled up on the fries and pushed my plate away. He chefed up real good. That empty plate inspired a little fear. The shallow water, the dream–he didn’t create that for me. I made that dream outta nothing.

Leo left his plate, so I scooted it over in front of me and started chowing down. Baron sat close to me, begging for scraps, but before I even finished Leo’s smashburger, Leo’s pitbull raised a paw and put it on my calf.

“You’re right, Baron,” I said through a mouthful of beef and caramelized onions. That dog knew Leo wasn’t coming back to me. Giving up was easy, but that didn’t make it right. I steeled myself like a forest full of monsters waited for me, out there. If Leo went out on his own, he went out on the water.

“You earned this…” I told Baron. I placed the plate of burger and fries on the floor. The reward for getting me off my ass.

He dipped his head low and pushed his nose up against the burger. His tail wagged slowly and slowed to a halt. He sat down and studied me instead of the plate. He only ate it when I told him “good boy,” and headed to the door.

I snagged the ziplock bag of magic mushrooms from the side table by the door. Afraid to go alone, I popped a few of the trippy caps in my mouth. The rubberous dirt ground squeakily between my teeth, tumbling into fibrous strings, and finally into me. I tenderly placed the ziplock onto the center of its pedestal. I wouldn’t disturb the relic, again. I could’ve been a fool for fuckin’ with it the first time. The strength of fungal idols wrought a man who could make the odyssey to the king of lions–my sweet Leo.

I swallowed down spit, phlegm, and pride. My hand found the door’s handle. Through those double-doors, Leo departed. If I didn’t follow, I’d be giving up on us. The round handle felt cold to the touch. Not just cold, but wet.

The doors blasted open, and water filled the cabin. I kept my footing. It wasn’t like before. I chose not to sink, but I didn’t know how to swim. I stepped against the current. I moon-walked underwater like the bad guys in Pirates of the Caribbean, each step labored and long. A whole world submerged by the element which meant to give life.

I held my breath. I resisted, but I’d drown soon. No air left. No breath. Death.

Egregious reaches stretched on ahead of me. Planet Earth had taken on water. The engine block got waterlogged, and sent up its final air bubbles as an SOS for any celestial bodies listening, out there.

“My word. What are you babbling about, you loon?” Baron trotted ahead of me without resistance. He stepped and trotted a circle around me.

“How are you doing that?” I asked. Breath came easy, now.

“You are perplexed by the simplest of concepts. Is that why you invent such cosmic, comic catastrophes? Fear of being bested by simplicity?” Baron asked. He breathed in the endless ocean without limitation. The white-hair pitbull glanced up at me with a single eye bespectacled–a monocle floated in front of his left eye.

Baron stepped through the doorway, and I followed.

The screened-in porch had its navy blue paint peeled away by time’s tenacity. Mesh screens waved, and aimed to take flight. A few stubborn staples held the material steady, unable and unwilling to let go.

“You see, you buffooning fop, all is not lost,” Baron said. He raised a paw, as if performing a “shake.” Leo trained him to point with his nose, but he showed me the way with his whole paw.

I faced the rear porch exit. A short stone path down to the dock. Through the meshed prison, on a lake under the ocean, Leo worked the oars of a rowboat, floating into the distance. His figure surrendered to the murky depths and distance, but I knew him. Some part of him wanted me to fail, some part of him wanted me to prove it.

“Thanks, Baron,” I said. My hand ran up and down the back of his neck.

He turned his head upwards and smiled like a dog–eyes closed with glee. “T’was nothing less that should be traded for the great reward bestowed upon me. Go to him. Show him that you will not leave him.”

“Baron…I gave you half a burger, man.”

“And the debt has been paid. Now, go, fool!” Baron said. He taught me how to breathe again, showed me that I could place steps at the bottom of the sea–he went inside to snarf down that burger.

I pushed aside empty chairs, set around a little picnic table, more than ready to bulldoze a thousand ghosts to get out the screen door and down to the dock. Each drop in the stone steps might as well have been a fall from the perch of a gothic gargoyle.

I came down the stairs. The weed smoke poured around me like a fog machine. My big sister stood at the base of the stairs with a funny smile on her face. Fat-soluble, weed hit my sister and I like a shopping cart loaded up with bricks, cinderblocks, and Acme anvils. She giggled and leaned against a wobbly banister.

“You might fly higher than a kite cut stringless, Kazoo,” Taezey said. She struggled to keep her eyes open, her left eye bugged and her right tried to fall shut. The bannister threatened to come down, too.

“We ain’t built to fly, Taezey,” I said.

“Boy, I’m too fat to fly and so is you,” Taezey said, “grab me somma that jungle juice while you up.” She didn’t wait on me a second. She found the living room couch next to a drunk guy, half-asleep. When she planted herself next to him, she almost sent him into the air with how she shook that couch.

I went after that jungle juice. Wrangling a solo cup was as easy as filling a snake with hot air. I fumbled the red cup a few times, before the guy next to me laughed. This nigga stood there laughing at me….

“Got red solo cups like hot potatoes,” I said.

“If you’re gonna wrestle an empty cup, good luck with that ladle, nigga. Good fuckin’ luck, man,” the punchbowl sentinel said.

“Your girlfriend tell you to stand there and act wise?”

“Did yours send you to get punch?”

I glanced back at Taezey and she straddled the drunk on the couch, pinning him with her stomach poured across him like a waterfall. Her dress was pulled up and bunched up in the guy’s hands. I looked away. She wasn’t exactly thirsty for punch.

“I don’t have a girlfriend, nigga. That’s my sis,” I said.

“That’s cute,” he said.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t even figure out if he meant Taezey, me getting punch for her, or me. What was cute?

“Something’s cute?” I asked. He was cute.

The smile had gone away from him, but he had a sorrowful look. His dreadlocks fell over his face when he tilted his head at me. He nodded. His chin came to a nearly perfect point, his nose sat flat and wide, and his nostrils moved slightly when he took cool breaths. The tight, solid black t-shirt hugged his trim waist and showed me every slight curve to his pear shape. In figure-drawing class, he’d be the kinda model all the old ladies would whistle and lick their lips over. I’d keep a stone-face, too afraid to show that thirst on the surface.

“You…you gettin’ that punch for your sis. Parties like this; good to have someone watchin’ out,” he said.

I held the cup steady. He took the ladle and filled it with the too-strong-punch. My hand might’ve been shaky, because he grabbed my hand and the cup. He poured. We stared into each other’s eyes.

“Nigga, you dreamin’ on me?” Leo asked. He showed some cowardice.

I took the initiative. “You got eyes…I could drown in.”

His face lit up with a smile and dimples like sundogs. He tipped his head back to get a better look at me through his jungle of azure dreads.

I got used to niggas throwing hands if I said corny stuff like that. I’d go home and tell Mama and Taezey that I got in a fight, got called a mean name or some shit.

This time, I wouldn’t have to.

“Don’t worry. I’ll keep you afloat,” Leo said.

I came down the uneven cement steps. The steep decline could’ve shaved a big guy like me off planet Earth, but I plotted each step carefully and breathed between bouncing bounds. I felt my literal stomach rise and fall, gravity doing its work with high hopes for a Christmas bonus.

Without a plan, I stepped down on the dock. My bare feet slapped the flat surface.

It rained under water. The skies above darkened and invisible droplets struck me like little bullets. The ripples on the lake announced the storm. I stood, folding my arms behind my head to catch my breath. Underwater clouds stirred above–a thunderstorm under an ocean, over a lake, all around me, within me. I thought those mushrooms might not have been the courage I’d been looking for.

Leo wasn’t out on the water anymore. His rowboat gonged against the cement dock on the opposite end of the lake, chained to the dock across the way.

Bubbles formed at the surface, rising as if something deep within had been unearthed. A massive ripple at the end of the dock. I stepped back, as a shiny cranium emerged from the deep. I saw the top of his head when he began to address me,

“I’ll never understand you. That boy coulda had any girl, but he found you,” Uncle Graham said, rising from the water in front of me. I’d only seen pictures of him. He died a few years before I met Leo. Graham stood rigid as a board and he floated an inch above the lake’s surface–he hung in the air like a cow carcass from a meathook. Glassy eyes stared through me, blued by cataracts. Unlike most oldtimers, he had no turkey neck–it almost appeared to be as narrow as his wrists. Most of his weight was worn at his waist, but his body had shrunk down to its skeleton, elsewhere.

I rested my hand over my chest. The sight of the ghoul made my body ache. I felt sick, for real. Leo had warned me about uttering a dead man’s name. “This a long-ass minute,” I said.

Uncle Graham’s lips parted as naturally as an arm ripped itself from its socket, “Straight and narrow.” He kept floating there, acting all effortless. Little air bubbles exited his lips and soared upwards to the skies above.

“You never met your nephew if you thought anything about him is straight. He’s gayer than me, and…and I’m the one lookin’ for a dress,” I said. When I was a snotnose, Mama told me humor could slay demons and monsters in the dark.

Graham’s dour, cracked frown managed the slightest smirk. “Does he know that? No.”

I turned around. I couldn’t look at him or listen to him.

Baron stood at the top of the winding stone steps, slowly trotting down to meet me. He stopped on the second to last step.

“And what precisely shall be put on display, should you flee?” Baron asked.

I turned and shut my eyes tight. I ran across the cement and took a deep breath. My feet slapped the wet cement. I slipped a step, and the next step sent me plunging face-forward over the edge of the dock.

I sat at the table with Leo. Dad sat at one end and Mom sat at the other. They hadn’t shared an end of the table, a bed, or more than a few words in years. Taezey and Harissa were opposite from me and Leo. Dad said his grace, Mom kept her eyes closed and uttered “oh, yes, Lawd” and “mm-hmm” between praises and thanks, Harissa played games on her phone at maximum volume, and Taezey reached across the table and took heavy spoons of mashed potatoes and forkfuls of chicken. Leo and I were even less present; he beaded with sweat and held my right hand under the table. His fingers massaged my hand. The words I’d practiced in the mirror were gone. I felt like I was falling, but held in suspension. If I spoke those simple words, I’d hit the ground and crash through anything with less resistance than concrete.

“You good, ‘Zoo?” Leo asked. Last time Mom saw Leo, he was a mean kid who couldn’t stop talking about Hot Wheels. We’d break little sticks in the yard and pretend they were racecars, together. Mom smacked him around like he was her kid. His manners were bad, and she couldn’t help but smile when she told me that he was moving somewhere far away–all the way across Kansas. Some place that I thought she’d made up–”Tonganoxie.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

Taezey smacked her lips and took handfuls of rolls and big tabs of butter. She chewed with her mouth open, pronouncing every bite and swallow to anyone with ears. Absolutely enormous, she exercised her narcissism with the occasional “so good!” or “oh my God!” The chair beneath her creaked at the slightest motion, its back rocking back and forth and left and right like an ocean storm.

Harissa sat stick-thin, looking like a kid from a different family. A family less fond of butter, bread, salt, and sugar. She’d just dropped out of high school to become “an influencer.” She was a head taller than Taezey, but a sixth of her width and a sixth of my weight. She got these extensions in her hair that draped across the table like a giant fucking squid. Her hair entangled feathers, beads, and metal charms. She clicked her tongue for every five-dollar mobile game purchase, but not a single word came outta her. When she quit high school, she also quit talking. She hadn’t spoken a word to our family for weeks. She’d slipped up that afternoon to tell me that I “looked nice.”

“Amen,” Dad said, mercy-killing the prayer. Stout, broad, fat, and bald, statues of Confederate officers got more animated than him–I stole that one from Leo. Dad smacked his lips quietly, looking over the certifiable feast to celebrate his thirty-first anniversary with Mom.

“Amen,” Mom said. There wouldn’t be another word across the two of them. She’d do the talking.

“Would you pass the salad?” Dad asked, knowing what he would be permitted to eat. He straightened his tie, as if he still interviewed for the position of husband and father.

Mom stood up with a grunt. Her hair greyed and body widened and shortened. Half-a-Taezey, she did her slow shuffle in her red-brown dress with those little red-framed glasses sitting on her short, rounded nose. Mom moved with surprising grace, but she shuffled so slowly that Taezey already refilled her plate for seconds by the time Mom set that salad bowl in front of Dad.

“Dad, so yummy! Mmm!” Taezey belched out, taunting our father. He’d always been on her about her weight, but those days were dead and gone with his new diet. Mom and Dad wouldn’t eat a damn thing that wasn’t green as grass–they smeared it with dressings and cheese, though. Taezey thought she’d won some big battle, but they’d stopped caring.

“I’ll pray for you, girl. I’ll pray you find God and soon. ‘Fore it’s too late. Yes, sir,” Dad said.

Harissa shook her head. As much as she pretended that she could breathe in a vacuum, she fell back into our family’s orbit for air, every so often. Her eyes danced left and right, unable to ignore Taezey’s gluttony, Dad’s pride, or Mom’s quiet, cold wrath–wrath like leaves of mixed greens. What did that leave me with? Sloth, envy, greed, or lust?

I felt like I was in orbit, and I wasn’t even high. I came sober for a sober conversation. It was time for me to say something, but I couldn’t do it. Which of the Seven is most like cowardice?

“You gonna say somethin’, ‘Zoo?” Leo asked.

We must’a hit a black hole, because time got all distorted on me. My plate was full of pulled pork, mashed potatoes, gravy, and mac and cheese. Leo handed me a couple of biscuits and passed the butter. His eyes were big and expecting. He didn’t ask quietly, because everyone in the room glanced at me and Leo.

“Something about what, Leo? You can address the table,” Mom said. She cut her salad with a steak knife. Mom’s eyes were the swiftest things in our whole family. She shot Leo three looks before he could get a word in–one to the head, two to the body. Clean execution.

Dad held his fork between his thumb and index finger with a single piece of spinach hanging on. He didn’t fully turn his head, yet he stared with low eyelids. His thumb nail went purple from the grip.

“Nigga, come on…” Leo said. He stood up from his chair and rested both fists on the tabletop, “Mr. and Mrs. Hedge, I’m in love with your son. We been dating for ten months.”

Harissa smiled like she wanted to laugh. She crossed her arms and sulked in her chair. “That’s cute.”

Taezey wiggled in her seat and clapped her hands together. “I knew it! I fuckin’ knew it! Get it!” she shouted through a mouth full of mashed potatoes, spewing gravy.

Dad didn’t move.

Mom set down her steak knife and expelled air from her mouth in protest–a series of groans and grunts before she said it. “Boys… who date boys…are… they’re gay,” she shared. “You’re not gay, Kazoo,” she decided.

“We’ll discuss this later. Sit down, Leo,” Dad said. That later discussion got put off for at least a year, because we never had it.

I flailed against the surface, so I sputtered and spit up what I swallowed. I didn’t sink like I’d imagined, but I couldn’t maintain my kicking or the useless punches I threw. In water, submerged in water, drowning and breathing it and drinking it and fighting it, the world folded in on me. Planet Earth wrapped its arms around me, yet I couldn’t find the patience or courage to embrace it. Soaked in and out, within and without, I cried out to the sky.

“I’m drowning!”

Leo leaned on my arm. Blood from his right cheek pooled against my left shoulder. His lips trembled against my neck. My left arm wrapped around his narrow waist, as we hobbled down the street together.

“You shouldn’t’ve hit him, crazy fucker,” I said. What he should’ve done bubbled at the surface of my mind, rather than why he did what he did.

“What that fuckin’ bitch called you? I know you’d do the same, if he’d said that shit about me,” Leo said. He couldn’t’ve known it, because it wasn’t true. I’d been appalled by how fast his knuckles went into the broadside of the skinhead’s nose the moment the white boy said the word “lardass” at me. If there hadn’t’a been a half a dozen white boys, I think the offender might’ve been stomped out. A spark on wet grass.

I held him up, and mistook myself for his rock. At the time, I thought I saved his ass. He knew I could fight, but he didn’t say a word about me playing the pacifist that night. I’d been afraid that one of those white boys would pull a gun. No, that shit’s not true. Something else scared me.

“I’m gonna get you on ice, man. Sew you up. I got some good thread for it an’ some vodka for the pain…man, why you gotta act so tough?” I said.

“We are tough, nigga. If we weren’t tough, we’d never make it. Not together, anyway.”

I fumbled for the keys and let him lean against the apartment door. We were lucky to be situated on the first floor. I doubted I could carry his dead weight up the stairs.


The water didn’t feel heavy. I kinda floated in it, as I kicked and flailed. Flailing turned into paddling, and I kept my head above the murky surface.

Baron swam ahead of me, his nose bobbing up and down. His mouth gaped excitedly. “To tread water will not avail itself to you. You must persevere, Kazoo. You must dog paddle.”

So I did. I followed Baron across the lake, splashing and choking the whole way. I went beyond tired, too. A lotta work is what it was.

When I reached the cement dock on the other side of the lake, I crawled up along the weed-covered slope next to it. I didn’t have the upper body strength to pull myself up on the dock. Anyone who could lift one of me might be the Hulk. Shallow cuts from unkind brush and thorned shrubs adorned me. I bled in trickles and emerged from the trees, guided by a hand. The clean, rough palm plunged into the forever forest after me and plucked me from it like a Forbidden Fruit from a tree.

“Nigga, please,” Leo begged.

Leo’s knee touched the tight carpet. He brought his muscular shoulders up around his slender neck. His dreadlocks hung low, like they were reaching down towards the toes of Leo’s red-and-blue, size-fifteen bowling shoes.

Kel, a friend of Leo’s, had his hands planted on his knees, leaning forward in his seat. He had the biggest whitest smile, and he was the skinniest, slimmest guy. He picked up one hand and ran it through his shaggy high-top, licked his lips, and clamped it back down with a shake of his head. Out of respect, Kelvin kept quiet and danced his feet in place.

Taezey’s eyes bugged, but she shoveled down the coney she was eating even faster, almost eating louder to compensate for the silence. She leaned back in her chairs, making a total mess of her little white tanktop with the spilling over of chili and ketchup. She snorted and burped before going for her bucket of chicken wings.

Harissa got anything but quiet. “Fuckin’ what! You gonna say yes or what, boy? Tay! Taezey! Shut your chili-hole! Let ‘em talk!” She had her phone extended at arm’s length, committing every excruciating, beautiful second to her Instagram story. All of the cute little cartoon characters dangled from her phone and quietly clattered against one another. A bigheaded Bugs Bunny thudded softly against an equally disproportionate Marvin the Martian. My little sister turned into all teeth, inhaling and exhaling loudly between exclamations. Between the two sisters, not a single sound would be picked up by her phone’s audio.

The diamond on the ring wasn’t all that big, but it was something mythical. A diamond ring for me was as real as the stork, snipes, or lizard people, but there it was. I did some accounting to decide whether or not I believed in fairies and leprechauns. Not yet, but we were getting there.

My ring sat tenderly in a purple velvet box, waiting patiently for my answer.

“It’s ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘Zoo. Will you marry me?” Leo asked.

A single ball landed in its lane. Everyone else must’ve been watching us, because that rolling down the lane made the most sound in the room–more than Harissa or Taezey.

“Yes, Leo! I’ll marry the fuck outta you!” I promised. I grabbed him by his arm and pulled him to his feet. I reached my arms around him and grabbed his ass in each hand and drove my face into his. I was lost in that man.

The pins went flying in that single lane. It sounded like a strike.

Everyone got the biggest grins on. We played another game, even after Leo fit the diamond ring around my left ring finger. I stared at it all night.

Kel almost lived at that bowling alley, so his score teetered on the edge of three hundred. He threw out a jolly kick with every strike he scored–the guy was straight-edge after an incident a few years before. It might’ve been better for his sobriety to be around other people, but he enjoyed our company too much. He drank from our happiness like I drank from Leo’s flask.

Harissa bowled like a grandma and moved like she was in the middle of a minefield. Unless she was TikTok dancing or playing video games, awkward strangeness just poured outta her. She kneeled down and threw the little pink bowling ball down the lane. It bounced several times and fell promptly into the gutter. Harissa cursed like a sailor, “cunt! Cunt!”

Taezey mostly ate and drank and smoked, but she got up for her turn one outta three times. Otherwise, she made Harissa bowl for her. Every step sounded like something torturous and horrible–wheezes, moans, whimpers, even with the help of her walker. She weakly accepted the pink bowling ball from Harissa and yelped half-a-heart-attack when it fell from her hands and clattered immediately into the gutter.

“What made you propose?” I asked, shielded from the input of my sisters and Kel by the spectacle of Taezey’s waddling.

“What?” Leo asked. He fuckin’ scoffed at me.

“I mean, I could’a proposed. I could’a been the one to buy the ring. What made you do it?” I asked.

He shrugged hard, like he braced for harsh winds. “Kazoo, baby, I knew you weren’t gonna.”

Rain came in soft. It tickled my shoulders, as Leo pulled me from the jungle.

“Nigga, how high are you?” Leo asked.

“I-I ate a buncha those mushrooms, man. I-baby, I’m seein’ double,” I said, but the exhaustion had me seeing double.

“I’m sorry,” Leo said, resting his hands on my shoulders.

What didn’t need to be said: a guy like me gets winded in the supermarket or climbing the staircase at Mom’s house. The little triathlon I’d run didn’t belong in my portfolio, but there it was. Weird swirls outta the corners of my eyes, soared behind Leo. They cast off bubbles like little eels in the water.

“I’m not having second thoughts about you, Leo. They’re about me. I wanna know how I can be better for you. I gotta be better for you.”

He sighed and held me closer, his arms secure around my back. “Our wedding is tomorrow, Zoo. Will you be there with me?”

I sobbed. Heat beneath my nostrils.

“I feel like…I feel like we’re at the bottom of the ocean, man,” I said.

“No,” Leo said.

I looked up at him, but he wasn’t looking back at me. He stared off into the distance when he spoke. His eyes glimmered. He could see something in the distance, and I caught a glimpse in the whites of his eyes.

“We’re gonna get in the water together. Tomorrow, I can teach you how to swim,” Leo said.

Jaryd Porter is a second-year Master of Fine Arts student studying Creative Writing Fiction at Wichita State University. He loves reading and writing fiction, drawing, film, art, martial arts, cooking, and animals. He is married and lives in Wichita, Kansas with his wife Licia and his dog Chief. Relatively new to submitting short fiction, he has been published by Fleas on the Dog in Issue 13. His story “Obama Black” encompasses themes of intersectional identity, lateral violence, internalized and externalized trauma, and otherness. He has two other accepted works in poetry with The Rabble Review and fiction with Wordrunner eChapbooks, to be published in 2024.