Rumpus Original Fiction: A World in a Box

By

 

1.

Saturday is a desert in a motel.

The television becomes an endless quantity of water for the boy. It washes through the day and dampens the boy’s anguish.

Television flicks on like a little surprise. Gazes into the son’s face. He tries to think, but the commercials are very loud and he has just woken from bad sleep.

On the other side of the room the dad and the lover watch a morning talk show. Maybe they have not noticed the boy is awake, but he does not turn to them. He wishes for a door or partition. He wishes for a moment that isn’t like this.

But the boy has the TV, and with the TV the boy is separate. The boy feels closest to himself with the TV. It teaches him how to tell stories about himself and other selves he might be.

We begin with cartoons. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live underground with their rat parent, who is not like them because he is a rat and they are turtles. They subsist on pizza and fast food, which makes them feral and moody. They argue and never make up, but they go on together because they are brothers.

The boy thinks he needs a brother who is like him.

“Happy good morning to you,” the dad says.

The boy does not answer, and the dad does not push for an answer. He patters to the bathroom.

The boy watches the X-Men fight towering robots with laserblast eyes. The mutants hide and charge, block and strike. All this danger and no one dies. No one is thrown off a water tower. No one bleeds on the pavement. But Rogue is Southern and tragic. No one is like her. She withers the power from any body she touches. Maybe no one dies, but she carries death with her. And the profound guilt of taking.

The boy loves her. He would take her hands in his.

The lover thuds across the room and speaks to the dad, but the TV holds the boy so he cannot listen. He forgets the motel room. He forgets he is a boy. The soft blues and warm reds purl up his brain. He can almost see himself in the screen’s glare.

The boy watches Captain Planet’s five lackeys fight against the smoke stacks. Each lackey has a special power for fighting—Earth, Water, Fire, Wind—but the smallest lackey only has Heart, which does nothing but make him sad. Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind are obligated to protect Heart and let him tag along, but when they get the chance they let him fall behind.

 

2.

We pulled into the Kingsport Lodge Motel on fumes.

Dad and Carmila took one side, and I got the other. Dad said, “Well look at that. I guess you get that entire side to yourself.”

Dad brought our TV, so they had theirs and I had the motel’s. Everything else we owned had already been stuffed into a personal storage unit.

Each weekday Dad went to work, and Carmila stayed at the motel and looked after the dog. I trudged to school and kept my head down.

I walked the long way with my intestines corded up at the thought of being spotted. It wasn’t so hard to go unseen because the motel was in a part of town where kids didn’t go. But what would I say if someone saw me? I couldn’t explain why we didn’t live in a house. How do you tell an alien story to the kids with TV lives? In sputters and faults praying for a commercial break?

I knew how to speak in sitcom moments like being packed into the car with the dog on my lap. Dad eager to make good time. Carmila begging to stop for a Coke or to pee. I’d skip the terror of Dad or Carmila being clocked at a backwoods gas station. Or the gears of poverty we ran from. About how I was just tagging along in their story.

Some scenarios are incomprehensible unless you’re in them.

Dad said, “We won’t be here long. This is short-term. We just have to get through this for now, and we’ll be back our normal, happy little lives.”

So we did.

The days passed by, but the weekends were a struggle.

Dad and Carmila pittered by my bed from their side to the bathroom and back. It was our fifth Friday in the motel and Carmila convinced Dad to get made up and go out. Our little black dog, Marie, trotted behind Dad as he got ready. One kind of clothes came off and another kind went on. I kept my eyes on my TV, but pallid skin, dark moles, and ruddy nipples lapped at the banks of my vision.

“Doll, we should probably get a move on,” Carmila nagged. “Are you about ready, little monkey?”

Dad leaned into the vanity mirror above the sink. He stopped and stared at her. He said, “Yes, just about goddamnit.”

He went back to his lipstick. He’d just strapped on his bra and inserts. On his shirt, Betty Boop’s head now tented out over them.

I never knew what words to use during these in-betweens. So I tried not to speak at all. My heart sputtered out the memory of calling her Dad in public. I sunk into the TV.

Tonight on Unsolved Mysteries, we investigate a tale of an insidious nurse in Louisiana who coerced young women to give up their children so she could sell them for profit, Robert Stack said.

Tonight, you might be able to help solve a mystery, the TV told me.

Mom was Mom now. I was pretty sure. But I stayed shut up. She finished her make-up and said, “There, goddamn it. Let me put some real clothes on my ass.”

In a corner of their side, she flayed her fingers through the neck of the Betty Boop T to protect her face. She checked me and I got my eyes on the TV screen.

Robert stack said, These young children still to this day suffer in anguish, never having the closure of knowing their young mothers forced to give them away. They’ve grown up always feeling apart.

The other television went quiet and Carmila shifted impatiently.

“Justin!”

I fell back on my bed and stared at my upside-down mother. Her wig was on. She wore a black sundress printed with sunflowers. Under the spaghetti straps her shoulders were thin, but slouched.

“I said there’s money for pizza on the table,” Mom said.

“Sure, I promise not to starve to death,” I said.

“Hey, I just don’t want you to feel like you’re getting a screwjob.”

“Just go.”

“Okay then, shall we?” Carmila said.

Carmila stood and her face blanched. She reached for her crotch and said, “Oh for heaven’s sakes.”

“What? What is it now?” Mom asked.

“Oh, I’ve just go to…”—Carmila glanced at me—”fix myself. I’ve just got to use more tape. Otherwise it never stays,” she said and scurried to the bathroom.

These children, now adults, have unwillingly dedicated their lives in search of an answer to the question, who am I. What is my real identity? Robert Stack recounted.

“Justin, honey, are you sure you don’t need anything?” Mom asked.

“Da—Yeah, I’m fine. Seriously, don’t worry about me.”

Her foundation was pancaked and her eye shadow overdone, but she was happy and that made her pretty.

The whir of the bathroom fan and the mysterious TV tones were so soft between us then.

“I like that dress,” I said.

Her eyes flickered up and for a moment they didn’t trust me. Then they absorbed all the light and shone slick like sweet surprise.

“Well, thank you, Justin. You’re not fucking with me, right?”

“Jesus, Mom, No,” I spat.

“Hey, I’m just checking,” she said and held her hand to her face.

Carmila returned and smiled. Mom and I stared, confounded by each other.

“Are we ready now, dearest?” Mom asked.

Carmila touched Mom’s arm, patted her cheek. Carmila said, “You’re so lucky with yours. This thing of mine is an absolute monster.”

Mom straightened. “Oh, so I’m lucky to have a small dick?” she asked.

“Aw, monkey, I didn’t say that.”

“But that’s what you meant,” Mom said. She turned away. She touched her dress. She rubbed the fabric between her fingers. She checked her lipstick with a compact, the way women do on TV.

Carmila set down her purse, wrapped herself around Mom. Her hands smoothed her belly. “Babe, you’re fine. More, you’re wonderful. My little powder monkey.”

“Little monkey with a little dick,” Mom said.

Carmila drew back her hand to stifle a laugh.

“Oh yeah, just laugh it up.”

“I’m not laughing at you, dear one. You’re just so adorable.”

My ears whooshed like the cave of a seashell. The TV was all color and shape. The bodies—the grown kids, Robert Stack—were amorphous noise. I shook myself against the bed until my brain clicked off.

“It’s done me just fine,” Mom pouted.

Carmila’s big body enveloped Mom. Mom’s breathing muffled against Carmila’s shoulder.

“Oh, babe, I think you are the most perfect monkey a Carmila could ask for. I love you how you are. Well how you want to be. Or, anyway you are, I love you like that. Now, let’s get the hell out of this room for a night.”

Mom said something into Carmila’s body and Carmila laughed.

I pretended I was furniture.

This room was furnished with a boy watching a television.

I could not be a person standing at the edge of this distant intimacy.

“Okay, punkin. We’re going to leave now. I could order the pizza for you if you want,” Mom said.

Maybe, during their conversation, I hadn’t been there at all, I thought.

“I can do it myself,” I said.

“It could be on its way, hot and fresh, right now, just for you.”

“I’m okay. Okay?”

“Limited time offer! Ending soon!”

“Jesus, I’m twelve years old. I know how to use a phone. I think I can order a pizza.”

“Steph, he wants to do it himself. Justin says, I can order my own G-D pizza, isn’t that right?” Carmila said.

“Fine. Fine. I am only trying to help. Just doing the best I know how. So be careful and we’ll be back in a few hours.”

“Have fun out there,” I said.

“Thanks sweetie,” Carmila said and closed the door.

The little black dog whined. She pawed at the threshold.

“They’ll be back. You’re stuck with me tonight,” I said and patted the bed.

“You were supposed to be my dog anyway,” I told her.

The last Unsolved Mystery was a blonde woman’s body found mutilated in a Georgia motel room. The woman’s lover had vanished and left only the abused body. Robert Stack said the family hoped that anyone with any information would call the number on the screen.

I called the pizza place.

When the delivery man came, I kept the door chained. He left the pizza and coke on the ground. Once he was gone, I opened the door.

Marie tilted her head.

“Shut up,” I said. “I’m not opening the door for some psycho pizza driver.”

I threw a slice on the floor and we ate together.

I drank cans of coke until my bladder ached. In the bathroom my thing hung over the commode. My urine was dark amber, but didn’t stink. I pinched off the stream. I pinched harder and the round pain went sharp. The pee burned inside me. I bullied my own body to show I didn’t care. These things were all anyone ever cared about. Dad’s was the worst thing that ever happened to him.

He didn’t want it, but he was ashamed it was too small. He wanted it bigger and wished it would vanish. My brain was a sticky, sad fog.

I let go and it rushed out.

If it was so small wasn’t that proof it wasn’t supposed to be there? Maybe his body never wanted to grow one in the first place. But he wanted it big. Or bigger. I remembered peeing with him. How huge he had seemed then.

Carmila had always been Carmila to me. I never thought of her penis. She was taller and thicker than Dad. And her penis was bigger. And it was a burden.

I laid down on the bed. Under my pants, my thing lay on its side. This was the body I had. This was the body Dad gave me. He needed to change his, and I needed to not care about mine.

And mine was smaller than his. But it would grow into a thing like his, something he hated for existing and hated for being too small. If it made him less a man, wasn’t that a comfort?

I tugged at the thing until it hurt but it didn’t get any bigger. Could I be a man if my father wasn’t?

I tucked it between my legs. The little blank patch shone back. I rubbed the smooth skin. It was gone. Was this how Carmila lived? Was this what Dad was doing right now?

Marie leapt onto the bed and licked my bare thigh. I shoved her off with my foot. She circled and coiled herself on the floor.

The dog never thought about her body. She bounded around. She sniffed and followed her senses to what she wanted. Her efficient little legs. Her endless stomach. The dog didn’t care that we lived in a motel. The dog didn’t know what a motel was.

I pulled up my pants and slid to the floor. I pressed my face against the rough carpet. My eyes lined up with Marie’s. Her tongue whipped out and lapped my face. I pushed out mine and licked her snout.

I tried to curl my body like hers, but I could only curl like a baby. We stared until she fell asleep. Her little lids lazed down, unaware. Her breath evened. I kept my eyes wide. If I fell asleep, Dad and Carmila would find me. They’d laugh and ask just what I was doing down there like a dog.

 

3.

The dad lights another cigarette. The boy would maybe like going outside, but there is only parking lot and road. And the covers swaddle him to the bed. And he feels the colossal inertia of stuckness.

And Saved by the Bell is the only thing on worth watching. The clean California teens work through their problems in a burger joint where no one pays for anything. Everyone lives in a house, and no one moves away. No one says, “Fuck,” or fucks. The TV shows that some problems are lessons, that not all problems are cosmic. Some inheritances are not crushing. The boy can’t tell if he’s supposed to like Zach Morris, who refused to see anything but his own stardom. Morris reminds him of Dad’s cigarettes. But Zach Morris would never smoke.

The show ends and everyone is happy. The show ends and the dad and the lover shift on their bed. They stare into their own TV. The boy wonders if they can see themselves in that TV. He wonders if because they have each other, they don’t think about these little lives playing out before them.

The show ends and the showcase presentation, Ladybugs, comes on. Jonathon Brandis is already beautiful and blonde. He pantomimes ungainliness but glides across the soccer field in a wig and skirt. All the girls love him as a girl. He gropes his nerf breasts. He learns the complexities of girlhood. He becomes aware of his own boyhood. Gender is complicated in his furrowed brow. Of course Jonathon Brandis is too beautiful to be hated when he is undressed. No one spits at him. No one calls him “It” or “he-she” or “faggot.” No one kills him.

The boy wishes this movie were his life. The boy wishes it were him who dressed up for a simple, temporary reason. He wishes he were better at soccer, or on a team. But his entire universe exists in this motel room.

 

4.

Carmila helped me with my Halloween costume.

She collected her compacts and eye shadows. She cleared off the round motel table and set down her caboodle. It laddered open in layers of color and magic. She squared the two chairs, took one, and patted the other for me.

“Ye old beauty shop is open for business,” she said.

I took the chair and Marie took the warm spot on my bed. Carmila studied my face.

“There’s never enough damned light in this room,” she said

She reached back and slung open the drapes. The late afternoon was grey.

“So you want to be the fellow from the film?” she asked.

“Yeah. The Crow,” I said.

“He’s made up like one of the drama masks, right?”

“Uh, it’s like black lips with spikes at the corners and black eyes with spikes up and down. And a really white face. Like really, really white. Whiter than yours.”

Carmila laughed and covered her lips with her fingertips.

“I don’t want my freckles to show,” I said.

“Oh, but your freckles are darling. Especially with those dimples,” she said.

“I hate them.”

“Oh, no. You shouldn’t. But we’ll make sure they don’t show through.”

Carmila leaned in and started with the panstik. Streaks of sun pricked between the cracks in the clouds and into our room. A susurrus of television hung in the air with filaments of dust and dead skin.

Carmila’s unfaded rose lipstick twisted as she worked. Even up close her foundation was smooth and clean. She never went anywhere, but she woke and put on her face to see us off to work and school. Why put in the effort if she wasn’t going out? Who was she getting dolled up for? What did it matter how you looked if you were trapped in here?

Her big lungs pushed warm breath over me. Her hand enveloped my cheek to test the base layer. I closed my eyes and felt. This person close to me, touching my skin, helping me. Her other hand rested on my leg, for balance, with no pressure. A soft puff patted my eyelids, my cheeks. Powder filled my nostrils, and I held it in my lungs with Carmila’s breath. This weight of proximity like elastic ready to snap. I didn’t know what to say, but the puff powdered over my mouth.

Carmila slapped her leg, and I jumped.

“I sure do need something to drink. Would you like something, Justin?” Carmila’s eyes gleamed.

“Uh, yeah. Yes, please,” I said.

“Well, let’s have it then,” Carmila said and walked over to the mini-fridge. She took out a Coke and a diet Coke.

We opened the cans and drank. She considered the lipstick stuck on hers. “Is it okay?” she asked.

“It’s great,” I said, but I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Carmila nodded. She picked up an eyeliner pencil and told me to look up.

The white stucco ceiling was speckled with brown as if someone’s Coke had exploded.

“So you’re going back to Knoxville for the night. What are you and your buddies getting up to?”

“Dad’s coming home early just to take me! We mostly just walk around. You know, it’s trick-or-treating,” I said.

“Do you all pull any tricks? TP anyone’s house?”

“I don’t think people do that anymore.”

Carmila laughed. “Well, we sure did when I was your age—which wasn’t that long ago. There was this mean old couple, and we’d always give them a good fucking with.”

I giggled and she winked. Carmila never swore.

She said, “This one Halloween me and my buddies found a nice big dog turd and put it in a paper bag…”

I pictured a little girl with pigtails and overalls trotting up a doorstep, a dog shit-filled bag in her hand, pinky stuck out.

“What did you go as?” I blurted.

Carmila stared into her box of makeup. “Oh, jeez, I don’t remember…” She trailed off.

Carmila had not gotten to be a little girl. It was easy to forget, but I’d forgotten. My brain swelled with the sting.

“Anyway, I think your eyes are done. Go check ’em out,” she said.

In the vanity my eyes sparkled from black trenches. Pikes jutted up my forehead and down my cheeks. My skin was perfect—no freckles. The contoured makeup exaggerated the bones under my face. This was me? This face was soft and pretty. A saline joy sloshed up like heat, and my cheeks flushed. I grinned and my gapped teeth showed. My nose was still crooked. But if I kept my mouth closed and angled my face, I was a shimmer.

“Is that good?” Carmila asked.

“It’s radical,” I said.

“I went a little Alice Cooper.”

“I like him,” I shouted.

“Ha! You listen to Alice Cooper? I would have thought you’d be too young.”

“I stole his greatest hits from Dad’s car,” I said and smiled at her in the mirror.

“Of course you did.”

She put her hand on my shoulder. The giant woman and the boy with black eyes stared at us from the mirror.

We sat down and she laid the sweet brush to my lips. We were quiet. My breath blew over her hand. I worried it was too heavy, too close. In my family, we kept our distance between hello and goodbye hugs, so it was strange to be this near another person. But Carmila was so close I could reach out and lick her finger. I wanted to lay on her lap, curl at her feet. But she didn’t want that. She was doing this favor for me because she was with Dad and all I could do was be weird.

“You’re excited,” she said.

“Wha?” I stammered with slack lips.

“About the gobs and gobs of candy?”

“Oh, yeah, the candy. Yeah, excited.”

“But you really shouldn’t eat any of it before you check it. I mean it. There are some real sickos out there. I saw on the news today about people hiding sewing needles in Snickers bars. You can’t even tell unless you break them open. So maybe just wait until you’re in the light so you can see what you’re shoveling into your mouth.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Sure, Carmila. Whatever you say. Well, regardless, your face is all done.”

My black lips extended into barbs pointed at my dimples.

“I look just like him,” I gasped.

“I did a pretty darned good job if I say so myself.”

The boy in the mirror thanked Carmila. He gushed at her. He was someone special and grateful. His eye shone like minerals in a cold stream, and he weighed nothing at all.

“I’m glad to be of use for once,” Carmila said.

No one would buy me leather pants, so Carmila gave me a pair of Dad’s tights. They sucked at my thighs and dug into my belly. I cupped my hands over the crotch. Oily sweat tickled my skin.

Carmila told me not to worry about the fit. She said it’ll be dark outside and I could just shift myself to the inside of my thigh, like Prince Albert.

I didn’t know who Prince Albert was, but I nodded.

I flayed my fingers through the neck of the new black sweatshirt to protect my makeup, the same way Dad did.

The sweatshirt was ruinously large. It hung over my crotch. When I pushed up the sleeves, they bunched like kiddy swimmers. I threw my hands down and the sleeves dropped over them.

Carmila laughed. “Well, that fixes the tights problem,” she said.

I fell onto bed. “I look stupid. I look like a blob with legs,” I said.

“Oh no. I quite like it. Stand up.”

Carmila sat down and lit one of her foreign cigarettes. Dad had to buy them at a special store. They tasted the same as Marlboros, but the pack was thinner, prettier.

“Yes, very European. Very slouchy and sexy,” she said.

“Really?” I asked without raising my head. “But I’m supposed to be scary.”

“Well, if I remember from the film, that fellow was actually more sexy than scary. He fought off those bad guys with style.”

Carmila leaned back, her elbow cocked on the table. Smoke coiled around her face.

“You’re just blowing smoke,” I said.

“Nope, I think you’re going to be the coolest looking kid in the neighborhood,” she said.

I didn’t believe her, but she was helping. Dad would have just yelled and blamed himself.

“Just look in the mirror,” she said.

There I was. A story of a boy staring back at me. The boy had huge eyes with flecks of gold like dried grass. His shoulders hung up the sweatshirt. The tights contoured his leg muscles. The boy was a thing he’d imagined. The boy was a revelation that felt like a forgotten memory. The boy smiled and his dimples drew. His nose was crooked from fighting, but the boy didn’t fight anymore. This is how the boy should be.

A warm feeling like worn muscle grew in my stomach, a finally unclenched thing. I moved my hand to touch it, and the boy moved his hand, too. This was me. I laughed and he laughed because the thought was so dumb. It was me, but I was finally watching myself. And I…

“See?” Carmila prodded.

I nodded slowly. I wanted to ask her if she thought I looked sexy, but I was too shy.

Carmila clasped her hands on my shoulders and I flinched.

“Didn’t mean to scare you,” she said. “I guess we’re done.”

I said, “Yeah,” but no louder than a breath.

And it was over. I wanted to scream, “Come back, there was something here, almost.” But Carmila sat down on her bed and flicked on her TV and the something switched off. I abandoned the mirror and stared into my TV.

Hollow afternoon sitcoms turned into serious evening news with images of parents waiting and children scampering up driveways. No motels in sight. No little boys growing up to be big women. No quiet boys ignited by fleeting glimpses of themselves.

My face sweat and I smelled makeup.

“Carmila, shouldn’t Dad be home by now?” I asked without looking.

“Oh, I’m sure he just needed to stop off for something,” she said to her TV.

The light faded from the window. I needed to get back home and be seen by my friends. I needed to be in that scene of kids running in the streets. My clenched teeth clicked like a clock. And I waited.

From behind this motel door, we all waited for life to start. Carmila waited for her surgery. Dad waited to live as a woman full-time. We all waited to move into a normal place. I just wanted to get back to Knoxville for a night. Dad said this would all pass soon enough, but the days ground down uneven and rubbed us raw. And we blamed each other for stealing our time.

Finally, Dad pushed open the door. Marie bounced around his legs. Carmila said, “Oh the little monkey is home.” She jumped up to hug him. Everyone was so happy to see him.

“Yes, yes. I am home. Everyone just give me a goddamn minute. Here, I brought chickens so we will not starve,” Dad announced. He held up a red and white bucket like he was a hero.

“Oh, wonderful. Little darling brought home some good fried chicken. Let’s break out the fine china.”

Carmila set paper plates in front of each chair and one on the edge nearest their bed. She tore off a paper towel for each setting. Dad dropped the bucket in the center of the table.

“There, dinner is served,” he said. “But first I need a smoke and a Coke.”

I watched from my bed, my arms folded up.

Dad waved at me. “Hi, punkin,” he said.

“Yeah, hi,” I said.

“You’re just itching to go aren’t you?”

“Yeah, you said you’d be home early. I’m ready! It’s nearly dark.”

“I see that, but we’ve got to eat. That’s why I stopped and got us some tasty chicken.”

“Everything’s gonna be over by the time we get there. Besides, I’m not even hungry.”

“Well, I am.”

“Can’t you eat in the car?”

“Well, I guess I fucking can. I’ll just throw a fucking thigh on a plate, your highness. I won’t even take my coat off! Is that fast enough for you?”

Dad’s face contorted and he spat out a “goddamnit.”

“You’re the one who said you’d do it. I just want you to do what you said!” I yelled.

“You’re fucking right. I can’t do a goddamn thing right. That’s why we’re living in a fucking motel!”

Shame frothed from his mouth. He grimaced and shook his head. He waited for me to tell him he was right and my throat crumpled.

Carmila stepped into the middle of the room, and I knew I’d lost.

She said, “May I make a suggestion?”

I glared at her. Dad said, “By all means.”

“I think Justin is eager to get out of this claustrophobic motel room and see his friends, which I know I think is understandable. Don’t you think he looks so radical? Just like the guy in the movie?”

Dad’s lips thinned. He said,” Yeah, it’s good. You do that yourself, punkin?”

“No, Carmila. She’s the one who’s good at makeup.”

“And I gave him a pair of your tights,” she said.

“You did, did you? Well that’s something you did, isn’t it,” Dad said. His eyes flicked up and he sucked at his cheek.

Carmila turned to me and said, “Believe me, I know you want to get the hell out of here, but your dad’s been working all day long. We can all sit down to a nice relaxing supper, and then I’ll touch up your face. It won’t take long at all.”

“Sure, fine. Let’s have dinner,” I sighed.

“You two sit at the table, and I’ll take the bed,” Carmila instructed.

Dad dug through the chicken parts. “Here it is, a nice big breast for the boy. I know you’re a breast man.” Dad winked.

“This is going to ruin my lips,” I said.

“Honey, if you pick it apart and pop it in your mouth, it isn’t that bad,” Carmila said.

“We still friends?” Dad asked.

Underneath his slight smile was perpetual worry. Fear and fear of shortcoming simmered out like faint whiffs like cigarette smoke. We sat, a dad, a step-mom, a son, around a dinner. But we were none of those things. None of us knew how to be those things. Dad needed me to tell him everything was okay. That his best was good enough for all of us to live on for another day.

“Don’t be dumb,” I said. This was our show of forgiveness.

Carmila giggled and beamed like a bright lamp in a dark room.

 

5.

The treacly TV light is warm in the warm motel room. The day is nearly over.

The dad and the lover and the boy have barely moved, barely talked. The dad has shown the boy love through leftover pizza and cans of Coke. The lover has shown frustration by pacing the room and walking the dog more often than usual.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer plays over the boy’s eyes. Kristy Swanson does not want to live the life she is given. She is trapped by birth. She wants to go to prom. She wants Luke Perry to make her a frail, gossamer thing. But he cannot because that is not what she is. Buffy finds moments of pleasure while she hides her identity and dusts non-normative bodies. She still worries about prom. She still worries Luke Perry will not like her enough. And that he will become something she must kill.

The dad interrupts: “Is that Puke Larry?”

This is funny, but the son does not laugh. The boy envies Luke Perry’s relaxed shittiness. The boy would like to be a man who never considers anything or anyone. The boy thinks he is a Buffy without a purpose.

“Anyway, it’s just about pizza o’clock,” the dad says.

“Oooh, can we get some mushrooms on that pie,” the lover asks.

The boy scoots closer to the screen. Willy the orca whale is Jesse’s only friend. The black and white behemoth and the preteen delinquent. The delinquent opens himself to Willy because every moment the whale does not kill him is an affirmation of love. Jason James Richter is grateful for nothing he has. He breaks what he’s given. He steals from people who love him. But no one beats his ass, and but no one gives up on him People come closer to him the more he pushes them away. Jason James Richter tells the whale he feels trapped. Willy circles his tank. He swims to the bottom, to the top. He circles the tank again. When the boy falls in the tank, the whale does not eat him.

***

Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.


Justin Burnell is a queer poet from Appalachia. Currently, he's writing a book about growing up with his trans mom, from which this piece is excerpted. His work has appeared in Guernica, Arkana Mag, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Hotel. He tweets @jmburnell. More from this author →