Joseph Anthony is a twenty-six-year-old writer from New Jersey. In May of 2012, he graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in English & Psychology. Anthony is the author of two books, "An Uneaten Breakfast: Collected Stories and Poems," and "The Alphabet of Dating," (both available at www.diamondmillpress.com and on Amazon). His work has been featured in The Yellow Chair Review, Danse Macabre, Eleventh Transmission, Lavender Review, Five 2 One, Samsara Magazine, and The Corner Club Press, among others. Anthony's new book, "Some College Somewhere," stories chronicling the life of a self-destructive college student, is set to release October, 2016. The story "I Really Wish You Weren't," first published here by Scarlet Leaf Review, is a piece from that collection. When he's not busy writing, Anthony works with second and third grade autistic students.
I Really Wish You Weren’t
“Looks like I’m late,” Courtney said to me.
"It’s okay,” I said.
“I’m really sorry, baby.”
“Don’t be. People are late every day.”
It was spring and The University was alive. Girls who had been inside studying all winter made their way outside to reward themselves for months of hard work with a few hours of sunbathing. Guys who had been inside playing video games put the controllers down long enough to come outside, take their shirts off, and throw footballs around so the girls could watch.
Courtney had long brown hair, athletic legs, straight teeth, and a round button nose. Her skin was so white that the sun forced me to squint when it hit her at a certain angle. Sliding her feet out of her sandals to rub my legs, she reached out, taking one of my hands between both of hers. We were seated on the hill overlooking the common courtyard of the Main Street dorms, she with her back against a tree and I with my back against her chest. As she wrapped her legs around me I turned my head back and looked into her eyes. They were watery, glossy mixtures of fear and happiness.
“People are late every day,” I repeated. “We’re here now…together…that’s all that matters.”
The girl that made my adolescent life a living hell sat across from me in Sunday school.
The devil works in mysterious ways.
She used to smile at me from across the circle and I would smile back, as a priest-in-training sat in the middle singing songs about God and playing the guitar. That was as far as anything ever went until eighth grade.
Alex, short for Alexandra,—way too good of a name for her—had misleading green eyes and fire red-hair. She was tall, had a long nose, and too many teeth in the front of her mouth that turned every smile into a sneer. When I met her in second grade CCD, I was too stupid to run and oblivious to the fact that she liked me. During the eighth grade winter dance, her friend Gurt came up to me while I stood along the padded walls of the gymnasium with a group of friends and asked me point-blank, “Matthew, do you like Alex?”
Gurt smiled at me the way a magician does before the prestige. She was chubby. Not just fat—I’m talking big bones on a big body. Her face was ugly—demonic. Feeling pressure from all eyes to answer, and ignorant of the true meaning of the question, I said, “Yes.”
I meant that I liked her as a friend.
Sometimes all the devil needs is a misunderstanding to carry out a plan.
Later that night, my phone rang. It was Alex, over at Gurt’s house with a group of girlfriends that were huddled up around her while we talked. She kept me on the phone for almost three hours, listening to the dry air through the phone lines, talking about nothing.
“So…well, it was nice talking to you,” she said.
“It was nice talking to you, too.”
I knew what was expected of me. “Alex.”
I felt as if I had no other choice. “Will you be my girlfriend?”
We both hung up the phone, she feeling giddy—as victors do after they have pursued and conquered something—and I feeling deceived, suffering a loss too faint to pinpoint in my heart, overwhelmed with apprehension.
Breathing through our noses, Courtney and I sat there together without saying much, getting high on the scent of the trees that smelled like sex.
“Finished,” she said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.
Lost in the moment, I hadn’t even realized that she had been drawing on my hand.
“What do they mean?” I asked, wiggling my fingers.
She had drawn a different symbol above the nail on each, just below where the third knuckles bent. They were simple, miniature reminders of monumental things.
“This arrow,” which was drawn on my index finger, “is so when you point to something you want, you know that it’s okay to go after it and follow your dreams.”
I flexed the finger, pointed toward the sky.
“The middle finger has a peace sign, to remind you to always be peaceful.”
I leaned back to kiss her cheek. “The heart on the ring finger, to remember to love?”
She nodded. “And the smiley face on your pinky is to remind you to smile. And so you always have a friend.”
I took the pen from her lap and replicated each picture on her fingers, adding a small “” on her thumb.
“What’s this one?”
“A cross to remind you to have faith that things will work out for the best, no matter how bad they seem.”
Courtney grabbed my bangs, pulled my head back, and slid her tongue into my mouth. She found my thumb and held it still so that she could blindly draw the cross on it. The wind blew hard and a loose leaf fell. Strange, every flower was blooming.
She pressed her ear to my back, pulling me tight, and I could tell that she could hear my heartbeat because her fingers tapped my abdomen synchronically with every thump.
Alex was as emo as they came. She wore her hair short and spikey, or low over her eyes. Her nails were always painted black, and her lipstick shifted from shades of red and pink to blacks and grays as she progressed through grade school. She wore baggy black nylon pants with chains on them, and the entire first week after we started going out, I avoided her like the plague. We didn’t have any classes together—she wasn’t smart enough to get into honors classes—but she always found me at lunch. Day after day, she would sit on my lap, crushing my nuts while I ate, feeling much heavier than she looked. Every day before going to the cafeteria, I would come up with a list of possible things that we could talk about: the weather that day, my trip to the Grand Canyon the previous summer, school, the forecasted weather for tomorrow—anything to make the awkward silences less suffocating.
“Can’t believe how hot it is out today.”
She’d nod her head and say, “Uh, huh.”
Without fail, I burned through my list of conversation topics to get me through to the bell, sweet merciful release, when Earth Science would come to my rescue. She just sat there, watching me eat, crushing me beneath her startling weight and horrible personality.
She began hanging out with my friends and me after school, finding any excuse she could to piss all over whatever it was that we were doing, forcing all of us to sit on the curb in front of my house, staring at each other because she was boring as fuck.
“You want to play truth or dare?” Trevor suggested one day.
I shot him an angry look and he smiled back at me, intending to have his fun no matter what it meant for me.
“Yeah, let’s do that,” everyone agreed.
“No, that’s lame,” I said, but it was too late. It had already been decided.
I knew what they were going to dare me to do before the game even started.
“Matt, I dare you to kiss Alex.”
She brought her face close to mine and forced her tongue down my throat. It was all I could do to keep from gagging. I could feel her teeth on my tongue as she opened and closed her mouth on mine.
The fact is she repulsed me. I made up an excuse a few minutes later, claiming that I needed to get ready to go out to dinner with my mom’s friends from work, and when I went inside, I went straight for my toothbrush. I scrapped my tongue with the rough bristles until it bled, swirled mouthwash through my teeth, rinsing and spitting over and over until my mouth ran dry.
It didn’t matter though, I still felt violated.
The more I relived it, the more nauseous I grew until I was dry heaving in the bathroom sink. After composing myself enough to get up to my room, I lay on the floor, hugging my knees to my chest, pulling myself into a tight ball, coping with the mind-rape the best that I could.
Two weeks later it was Halloween, the last Halloween where I planned to go trick-or-treating because I knew I was getting too old for it.
“Let’s go,” I said to Alex.
“I don’t feel like going.”
“Why not? Let’s just go up and down the street real fast. I really want to.”
“I’m not going.” She crossed her arms over her chest on Trevor’s basement couch.
“I guess we’ll just stay in and watch TV,” Trevor said.
So we sat there for two hours, doing nothing on one of the last nights I knew I could still feel like a kid.
“I’m going trick-or-treating,” I said.
I got up and left. The guys in the group followed. The girls trailed a hundred feet behind us as we walked down the middle of the dim side street. From behind, I could hear Alex bitching.
“I don’t want to go. I don’t know why I’m going. Why are we walking out here?”
“Because I want to go and I’m tired of being miserable with you.”
She gave me a how dare you look. “If you want to go trick-or-treating so badly, fine, but walk away and you’re walking away from us.”
Us. That bothered me more than being force-fed her tongue. I kept walking ahead with my friends.
Before we turned the corner, I looked over my shoulder at her and said, “I’d rather die than be with you.”
“Oh, you’ll be fucking sorry,” she said.
“Maybe we should get a puppy.” I suggested to Courtney.
“My friend Melissa works with The University raising Seeing Eye dogs. I could ask her where they get their puppies from. Or maybe they know a breeder who could sell us one.”
She and I had been living together since the end of junior year. The night she moved her stuff in, we took a shower together, christening one another while a bottle of Montrachet chilled in a bucket of melting ice in the bedroom. We drank it, both of us still soaking wet, wrapped together in one large towel, as the water took its time evaporating from our bodies. Strings of her hair stuck together in clumps, forming thick strands. I touched them, breaking them between my fingers.
With my hand resting on her shoulder, I drew closer and lowered my head, taking in the smell of her shampoo. She exhaled and I could smell the expensive wine on her breath. Something inside me ached for her. I grabbed her hip as her lips found my neck over and over. We collapsed into one another, pressing our bodies into the hardwood floor ravenous, unhindered by pain tempered by passion.
All of a sudden she stopped moving. Her eyes on my face, pupils dilating—unblinking with concentration—she placed her hand on my cheek and began running her fingertips up and down my long diagonal scar.
I must have winced. She asked, “Am I hurting you?”
My face began to burn where our skin met. I liked that it hurt. It felt as if she were healing it—healing it with her magic fingers.
“Blink,” she said. And when I did, my cheeks were wet and my vision blurred.
Rays of gold and orange poured through the blinds, mixing with limb and skin in a fleeting, picturesque moment as the sun went down and we turned into one grey ball in the wake of dusk. Please don’t stop was all I could think. Please never stop.
“A puppy would be fun.” she said.
“Good practice, too.”
The week after I broke up with Alex, an openly gay kid at school asked me out. I let him down as easy as I could, but he seemed surprised when I said, “No.” I should have put things together when that happened, but ignorance once again hindered my ability to make an important connection. It took something a little more blunt, more painful, to realize what was going on.
“I always knew you were a fag,” this kid Frank said to me. He was someone I’d been friends with until he decided I was full of myself and began giving me a hard time. “All goody-goodies are fags. I knew you had to be one.”
Caught off guard, a hard blush indicated guilt and gave him confidence as I stared, not knowing what to do.
“You checking me out, little bitch? You want some of this? I’ll give you some.”
“I get girls all the time.” A lie, but it was the only thing I could think of and something needed to be said.
“Oh yeah? Like who, puss?”
The truth was Alex was my first girlfriend. Hers was the only name I had to throw at him.
“You hooked up with Alex Brandt. Now I’ve lost all respect for you.”
The fist he was about to hit me with dropped to his hip and I understood why. The thought of me kissing Alex Brandt was pathetic. Admitting it was painful enough and Frank knew that. As he walked away, I like to think that he realized I was suffering much more than anyone knew, and that I felt every bit as pathetic as I must have looked, standing there with my ironic defense.
It wasn’t long before I felt like the whole school was watching me. Friends I’d had my whole life stopped talking to me. I felt like melting into myself, like crying my eyes out in someone’s arms, but there was no one there for me. Every fiber in my body desired to stay home, to hide, to avoid the cruelty of others. But I dragged myself out of bed and went back to school each day. I pretended that I was okay. This bravery was rewarded in time. Most people soon realized that it was nothing more than a rumor. Some of my friends even began talking to me again, all of them in silent, mutual agreement never to bring the situation up. But the devil had done her damage.
The cruel thing about self-confidence is that it can take a lifetime to rebuild, yet a second to destroy.
Courtney’s friend Mellissa gave us the name of a breeder thirty miles south of campus that had a reputation for turning out well-behaved, intelligent dogs.
“Might be a bit expensive,” she told us.
“Money’s not an issue.”
“Well, then that’s the place to go. Ask to speak with Rico when you get down there. Tell them Melissa Zhan sent you.”
Courtney and I took West End Avenue down to the train station, passing by empty shops with For Rent signs in the windows and some abandoned, run-down frat houses that kids used to enjoy sneaking into. Tiny grass blades peaked out of every crack in the empty parking lots we passed. On the front porch of one of the houses was a group of kids sitting in a semi-circle, cross-legged—their fingertips stained yellow, smoke betraying their breaths. Avoiding eye contact, I flipped my hood up and put my arm around Courtney as we walked.
On the train, we watched strangers come out of nowhere, stare at nothing, get off at their stop, and fade back into oblivion. A young man, no older than either of us, sat in the seat across the aisle, playing with his pocket watch.
“I’ve never actually seen someone with a pocket watch before,” Courtney whispered.
“I know, right?”
I leaned across the aisle, extending my head into the neutral space. “Hey buddy, what time is it?”
His eyes brightened. Fumbling with the watch, forgetting how it worked while under pressure, he looked from us to the watch to make sure we didn’t disappear before he could answer. Finally opening it, he said, “Two-thirty.”
“Nice watch,” Courtney said.
“Thanks. My dad gave it to me.”
He seemed happy that we’d given him a chance to use it. Roused from whatever he had been thinking about, it was like he’d just drank a large cup of coffee. As the three of us traded small talk, I got such positive vibes from him that it made me sad. I hoped he had someone to love him. I turned away, stared out the window, watching the graffiti on buildings go by as fast as life. When we reached our stop, Courtney and I got off, two strangers to the other passengers fading into our own oblivion.
“We’d like to speak to Rico please,” Courtney said when we got to the breeder’s lobby. The receptionist at the desk began to say something but was cut off by a thin, lanky man in a gray tuxedo. He had wispy grey hair that matched his shoes.
“Rico’s not in, but I’m more than capable of helping you. I’m Maxwell. Co-owner. I’ve been running this business with Rico for over twenty years.”
Courtney looked at me, asking What should we do? with her eyes. I nodded.
“That’s fine, Maxwell. What kinds of dogs do you have?” I asked.
“All kinds, sir. Labrador retrievers, beagles, terriers, basset hounds, Danes, Dobermans, Rottweiler, Siberian huskies, pugs, poodles, retrievers, dachshund, collies. Anything in particular you’re looking for?”
I began to see why we’d been told to ask for Rico.
Courtney looked over at me, smiling. “That’s quite an impressive selection.”
“How about we start with Labs?” I asked.
“Yes, excellent choice, sir. Labradors are our most popular. Very intelligent. Very loyal. Excellent temperament. Very smart. Damn near almost human.”
He walked us through long, well-lit hallways that resembled a hospital’s. We passed rooms full of older dogs housed in what looked like plastic cubbies—no cages, no bars.
“Here we are,” he said, “the lab room. Feel free to watch them play, see how they interact. Observe their demeanor. Interact with them yourself, if you’d like.”
The room was sectioned off into six square cube-pens that separated the puppies by litter. Maxwell watched us as if we were the puppies. His razor slash lips peaked slightly upward at the corners, pleased with what he saw. When we felt like we’d placated him enough, Courtney reached down and picked up a puppy. He was a yellow Lab with a strange brown tip to his tail, as if it had been dipped in chocolate on the day he was born and it had remained, a tattoo.
“You hold him,” she said, extending her arms, passing the pup to me like he was a priceless vase.
Everything about him was miniature. A complete, healthy dog, only everything was tiny. He had kind, thoughtful eyes. He was calm, studying the world from his perch in my hands. I massaged his paws, which were a few sizes too big for him. After pressing my nose to his, he licked my upper lip with a small sandpaper tongue. His breath smelt new.
“I lovvvve him,” Courtney beamed, giddy, making fists with her hands, raising them to her chest, shaking them with all the excitement of a child on Christmas morning who has received what she wanted.
I ran my hand up and down the puppy’s forearm as if to say, You’re ours now, and when I did, I was surprised when his du-claws scratched me.
“I lovvvvve him, Matt. We could call him Split because he looks like a banana split!”
“Split,” I said to him.
Split licked his nose, unaware of what was happening.
“Yes, then, very good. I must say, I love working with younger people. They always fall in love with the first thing they see. It’s quite precious. Makes me love my job.”
Maxwell took Split from me and walked out of the room to get him ready. As soon as he was gone, Courtney jumped me with kisses.
“You’re pretty when you smile. You should do it more often.” She took my head between her hands. "I’m gonna fix you, Matthew.”
There are multiple lies to every truth, injustices for every good deed. Maybe someone somewhere was benefitting from my suffering. Maybe I was paying my dues early, so that one day I would know what I had in Courtney. Either way, trouble is always easier to find than it is to lose.
Six weeks after she realized that Plan A had failed, Alex turned to Plan B: telling everyone at school that I had gotten her pregnant.
“I can’t believe you fucked her!” Frank yelled at me in front of everyone in the cafeteria.
“I didn’t do it.”
Turning to the kids around him, with his arms out past his shoulders, he said, “Yeah right. Did you see the size of her stomach?”
Alex really was pregnant.
“Her stomach’s ballooning up already. You sick fuck. What are we, 13? That kid’s going to come out retarded!”
Right after I broke up with her, Alex started dating a high school man-child named Damon. Damon had flat-topped black hair that was so short you could see every blemish on his scalp. Trevor pointed to the picture in his older sister’s high-school yearbook after we followed Alex home one day after school. We watched her get into Damon’s black coupe. Saw him drive away, swerving, as Alex’s head bobbed up and down in his lap. Row after row of grinning, youthful faces came to a crashing halt at Damon’s stoic mug in the yearbook. Like a man with a secret that he was prepared to take to the grave, his mouth was flat, his face expressionless. A five o’clock shadow gave his cheeks a leathery look, like an animal’s. They made a perfect match and would make perfect demon babies together that would grow up to torment the world, to hurt innocent people and smile while they did it.
“I didn’t sleep with her” became my motto.
I offered these same five words to all the kids that stared at me. Relationships I’d worked on for years were decimated beyond repair. Teachers questioned me, grilled me as if I were a hardened criminal. The school called my mom, dragged her into it, even though she was weak and ill. I stole a handle of Absolut vodka from the liquor cabinet—considered killing myself with it. Would that even make Alex sorry for what she’d done? I doubted it. While Frank was shouting at me that day at lunch, I saw Alex across the cafeteria, smiling from ear to ear, laughing at me and pointing with that same friend who’d tricked me into saying that I liked her. My life was a game to her.
I returned the bottle before anyone ever noticed, but I liked knowing that it was there. In the midst of it all, I felt like I’d won something when I came to grips with the fact that I was a loser.
Tiny blinking lights of distant boats betrayed the horizon in the dark.
“Take my shirt.”
The three of us had spent the day at the beach together. The warmth of the sun was replaced by the coldness of the moon. I handed her my t-shirt and she slid it over her black tank top. “Thanks.”
Split bounced from her lap to mine. Courtney’s hip brushed against my hand and goosebumps blanketed my body. My nipples got hard as she traced an arrowed-finger in circles over the left one. Our puppy nuzzled my chest with his head, doing his best to warm me.
“I really wish you weren’t just late,” I said.
Courtney gave a full belly sigh before lying on her back, offering, “Me, too” toward the stars.
I leaned back next to her on the sand, both of us staring up at the infinite sky, considering all that might have been.
While Courtney thought of baby names, I thought of how one morning, after waking up too many days unhappy with my life, I had decided to change it. The day I made a conscious decision to stop giving a fuck about other people freed me from their malice. And somehow, through interpersonal disconnect, despite my justifiable bitterness, Courtney had found me.
It had been years since I had thought about the future with such hope. A baby would have given life meaning.
Split had fallen asleep between us, his head resting on Courtney’s breast, a well-proportioned pillow. Through closed eyes we imagined an unfocused, hazy life together. The world spun us. We extended our outer arms and together made an angel in the sand.