The Minus World
Maria’s hair flitted across Luz’s sunburned cheek as they whispered conspiratorially on the deck of the fiberglass sloop. A steady westward wind whistled through birch trees, gained speed over the lake, then mingled the sisters’ hairs into an ephemeral brown burlap before streaming on to Georgia. Maria craned her neck to peer down at their husbands over the bow of the S.S. Saint Vincent Ferrer, so named by their plumber father for his trade’s patron saint. These husbands, Gene and Francis, were rigging up a preposterous slingshot which they planned to use to rocket cans of beer over vast stretches of cloudy blue water. Canned beer floats, for a while, Gene had told them. The women had been discussing skinny-dipping for the better part of an hour — Luz a strong advocate, Maria staunchly opposed. Maria shook her head left to right. Luz nodded more emphatically up, down, up, down.
Again, Maria protested. “I’ll concede the point but it’s, it’s just not proper.”
“Frank’s my husband,” Luz stated with the rolling voice of an orator, “and I officially grant you permission to show him your scandalous tits.”
“Please don’t, don’t,” Maria implored as Luz gripped an aluminum stanchion and pulled herself up.
Luz turned. “The clock’s ticking and our world’s finished in like three hours, little sister. I’m going to skinny-dip one last time before the fireball sweeps things clean and I hope you’ve got the nerve to join me.”
Maria took a deep breath, then nodded.
Luz unceremoniously stripped off her green bikini, stepped back for a running start, and cannonballed into the cool lake. The splash diverted Gene and Francis’s attention from their slingshot. They noted Luz’s absence, and Maria looking worriedly at the momentary dimple in the water’s surface. “Luz’s gone skinny-dipping,” she told them, “I’m sorry.” The men looked at each other; both shrugged their shoulders.
Luz resurfaced off the starboard side of the boat. The men and Maria observed as her face broke through the water, then her chest, then her steadily kicking legs. She floated on her back, grinning up at her audience.
“My wife’s skinny-dipping, Gene, and she is a fiery and fine-looking woman,” Francis observed.
“So she is, Frank,” Gene agreed quietly, then, noting that Maria was privy to their conversation, continued with added volume, “just like my wife, who shouldn’t be so modest and should join her sister for one last swim.” Gene smiled at Maria, whose face flushed red as she turned away from the men.
Gene returned to the project at hand. “Back to work?”
“Let’s get this tubing sorted, then I think we’ll be ready for a test launch.”
Francis switched on the radio and began finessing the slingshot’s tendons as Gene scribbled projectile trajectories on a paper towel. The announcer reminded them that he’d be keeping them company until the fireball sped him off the air; three hours until the shock wave would speed its way around the world to dear old South Carolina. Every time she heard the countdown, it hit Maria like a brick to the head. She stood akimbo, watching her impetuous sister glide through the peaceful water and considering the knots holding her own black bikini.
The brothers-in-law half-listened to the radio, contentedly finishing their beer-slinging contraption, shaking hands when they were satisfied.
“It is ready,” assessed Gene.
“It is ready, and it is good,” added Francis. At some unseen moment after their initial six-pack of test launches but before completion of final adjustments, Maria had joined her sister naked in the lake. Neither of the men had noticed when she’d lowered herself into the water, but they noticed now. Their wives were treading water a good twenty yards out, waving at them to send two cans of ammunition their way. The men launched eight, then swam out to meet them.
Maria gave Gene a kiss, clutched his hand, took a breath, then dove away beneath the surface as deep and fast as she could muster. When she touched bottom she righted herself and looked at her loved ones paddling above. Luz pushed her face into the water for a moment and waved one last time. It’d be happening any instant now, she knew, and Maria wanted to hold on to every millisecond of life she could.
She felt the shock wave shake the water and watched the three of them fly away. The blue sky turned ashen. It’s not fair, she told herself as the lake began evaporating away from her.
Illustration by John LEE.
Santo D’Alessandro Tags Himself
It’s 2am and I’m creeping on my own Facebook profile. I click through my various albums and tagged photographs. I judge myself. I check myself out. I like how I look. I like how others see me. I look fantastic with a different woman under each arm — the wives of close friends, my cousin Sofia, even my mother-in-law. It’s obvious that I have a lot to offer the world, much more than a photogenic smile and full head of wavy hair (I won’t even mention my broad shoulders). These photographs hasten a secret urge of mine. I want to impregnate a different woman on all five continents. I am a realist however. I would relinquish Antarctica and settle on Asia, Europe, and the two Americas.
On Facebook, I appear to live a terrific life, hipster theme parties and trendy art openings. More often than not, I’m the best looking guy in the frame. I can’t say the same for my wife. She’s always in the top three at least. She’s just a quality person, the coolest woman I’ve ever met, as evident by the pictures of me pulling into huge tubes at Puerto Escondido and La Nord. I’ve surfed some of the best waves that Europe and both Americas have to offer. My wife was always right there with me, taking photographs from the beach by day and denying me intercourse by night on account of TD and/or jetlag. Hotel mattresses gross her out. We’ve never been to Asia.
After tallying the ratio of my being the handsomest amongst three hundred and forty-seven tagged photographs, I arrive at the following proportion: I am the best-looking in all but three of them. In two of the photographs, I am outdone by the same Calvin Klein model posing as the live subject of some masturbatory conceptual piece at the Gagosian. In the third photograph, I am posed next to David Bowie on the corners of Lexington and 50th. Not sure if he’s actually better looking than me, but he’s David Bowie, one of the coolest men in the world, proven by his willingness to stop and take a picture with me, Santo D’Alessandro, a minor video artist. In regards to beauty, a tie always goes to the gracious superstar. Regardless, I am more than happy with the ratio. I live in New York, which isn’t Los Angeles in terms of gorgeous people, but a far cry from some Midwestern suburb. My tragic flaw is that I’m better-looking than my art. Is there a worse shortcoming?
I log out off Facebook to avoid over-thinking the question. I get up from the couch and shuffle towards the bedroom. Halfway there, I pause in front of the window to check on my plastic shopping bag. It’s still there, glowing under the streetlight. It’s been stuck in the same dogwood branch since Groundhog Day. Today is the first of spring. Every morning at exactly 7am, I shoot the plastic bag with my hi-def camcorder for ten seconds. I’ve been doing this for a month, rain or shine. When the bag finally disappears, I’m going to splice the videos together into a series of three-second fades, from bare branches to buds, to blossoms, to leaves, to foliage, and then back to bare branches. Hopefully the bag will stay put for that long. It’s a good twenty feet off the ground, safe from environmentalists and young NBA hopefuls trying to test their vertical leap. It would be something if I could capture the bag through the seasons. It would really be something if I captured the actual moment it blows free. That would make for something lovelier than even my face.
In the bedroom, my wife is sitting up against the headboard typing on her laptop. It’s a novel about me. In it, I’m average-looking and single. She’s died and left me with two daughters. We’re trying to cope without her. I begin dating an attractive gallery owner and my career finally blossoms only now I’m an insufferable asshole and alcoholic. I drown while surfing Rockaway Beach during a nor’easter. Our daughters live happily ever after as a result of my posthumous fortune.
My wife’s prose is considerably prettier than her face, and therefore might be good enough for publication, which would theoretically make it better looking than my face. She’s the true artist, and I somewhat resent her for it. I pray that her book never grows a spine. Not sure I could live with myself.
She doesn’t look up from the screen as I slip under the blankets. I lie facing the wall so the computer glare won’t keep me awake. I reach behind myself and give her a goodnight pat on the thigh. She’s too engrossed for a response.
I have failed her so many times, in so many ways, that she has come to ask only one thing of me. No farting in the bedroom. It’s a shabby bedroom. Our bed rests on cinderblocks. Our dresser drawers are missing knobs. There are piles of books in every corner. Some piles taller than her. It’s been like this for ten years. We aren’t making any kids in here either. We aren’t even trying. It’s been like that for two years.
I don’t know why I can’t grant her the one small propriety of not passing gas. She has sacrificed everything to be with me. The only payoff is my looks. As a partner, I’m a financial liability. As a companion, I’m too self-involved. If nothing else, my wife deserves to breathe clean air. I can’t even grant her that. Perhaps it’s my way of dropping hints. She smells it almost immediately. She closes her laptop and punches me in the small of the back. I sit up and look around like I haven’t a clue.
“I don’t ask for much! Why do you insist on ruining my life?” She takes a deep breath and pinches her nose.
“I’m giving you more material for the novel.”
The computer glare renders her face in a favorable light despite the fact that she’s scowling at me.
“I can’t believe that someone of your vanity would be so foul. You complain that we never have sex yet you come in our bedroom and let one rip. Is that supposed to set the mood? Are you trying to tell me something?”
“I want to impregnate a different woman on all five continents.”
She slaps my face in a manner that is more matter-of-fact than angry.
“Just leave,” she says, breathing out of her mouth.
“Like leave leave or just leave the bedroom?”
“You decide! It’s obvious that you don’t want to be here. You’re depressed about it. I can’t deal with you anymore. Go flirt with yourself on Facebook! Just leave!”
Who am I to say no? Having already denied her so much, I roll out of bed and return to the living room. I click through my profile photos. They no longer look the same. I look superfluous, my arm around women I’ll never love. I have no business looking so ridiculously pleased with myself. My wife is right. I am depressed. I want to leave. I want to stay. Neither more than the other. Perhaps I ask for too much. Somebody has to die thoroughly disappointed. Most of us in fact. At the end of the day, how else would David Bowie feel so good about himself? I’ll always lose. I will never have a mortgage or pension. I will never have collateral. I’m not worth a single cent of alimony. I’m all debt. My only potential is outside fluttering from a dogwood branch.
I get up from the couch to check on it. It’s still there. My bag is going nowhere. The prickly buds will hold it in place until leaves fill in around it. I’ve thought of tying the bag to the branch, but that would be cheating. It would cheapen my theme of form triumphing over the aleatory perils of Time. Not that my viewers would ever know, but really, what’s the likelihood of the plastic bag remaining in the dogwood throughout the various nor’easters of October and November? Slim to none. If it does triumph by either luck or its own determination, who will believe that I didn’t have a hand in it? I’m too handsome to believe. I look like the kind of guy who would try passing pornography off as chance, as if the bored housewife just so happened to be getting out of the shower when the plumber knocked.
Just then, my wife calls me into the bedroom. “I just farted,” she says. “Come take a whiff. It smells awful.”
How I wish it were true. Nothing would please me more. In ten years, she’s never even yawned in front of me without covering her mouth. She’s too good to break her own rules. It’s a trick. One that I taught her. I often call her into the living room as if there’s something on TV that she can’t miss, a white puppy napping on a pile of freshly bleached sheets or David Bowie being interview by Charlie Rose. She’ll come sprinting in but the content never lives up to the hype in my voice. I’ve set a trap. While she’s standing in the room disappointed, I’ll ask her to pass me the remote control or carry my dirty dinner plate into the kitchen. How can she say no? She’s standing right there.
Now she’s trying the plot on me. My guess is that she wants me to crawl under the bed and look for her lip balm or perhaps set the alarm clock. The Santo D’Alessandro of her novel wouldn’t take part in such a contrivance, but I’m not that guy. I haven’t drowned yet. I’ve got a million selves and we’re all strong swimmers. She’s my best shot at land. Sink or swim, she will paint me in the best possible light, better than I look on Facebook. I’ll do whatever it takes. Even tie myself to the branch so to speak. I storm into the bedroom pretending to snort up an enthusiastic breath of stink.