Rumpus Original Fiction: Sardines

By

There are three couples on vacation: Jessica and Dennis, Hong and Daniel, and Jenny and David. The exact individuals of this group vary year to year—Dennis was steady with another girl three years ago and David seems to find a new one every year—but there are always three couples, and they are all at the age at which the topic of marriage comes up from time to time as a soft lob. It comes up more often for Jessica, Hong, and Jenny than it does for their boyfriends. Each time they are pressed, they say it is complicated. Each time Dennis, Daniel, or David is asked, he says he is not ready.

Dennis, Daniel, and David are college buddies. Every summer, they extricate themselves from their jobs, bring their girls, and drive south for a weekend at Dennis’s family’s beach house. No one talks about getting or not getting married. It is a good time.

 

Jessica, Hong, and Jenny are all of East Asian descent. Before you jump to any conclusions, consider the other variables at play. Consider that it says more about you to call attention to things like this than it does to keep it to yourself.

 

This year, rain pours all weekend, ruining their plans to kill time on the beach. Sheets pummel the windows. Stuck inside, the group has gone through the alcohol and streamed bad horror movies, much faster than they would like to admit. Everyone is plastered. Heads are lolling, breaths loose and heady. Between them they have erected a miniature village of empty craft beer bottles. They sit like giants next to this imaginary village, large and lethargic. Their eyes wander down trails of private thought that taper towards the screen, where sluts and jocks get dragged through lightless halls, infiltrated by demonic forces, and virginal Final Girls drenched in blood scrape for survival by their fingernails.

Dennis, Daniel, and David like the jump scares. They open one arm like a wing to encircle their girlfriends. Jessica, Hong, and Jenny comment: That’s not what blood looks like.

Then, to make things worse, the electricity snaps to failure.

 

It is Hong’s idea to play Sardines.

“That’s ridiculous,” Jessica objects. “It’s a kid’s game.”

“If you have another idea more suitable to your standards, spit it out,” replies Hong.

This upsets Jessica, but it is hard to read her expression in the dark. The candles they have rummaged limit visibility to a tight hemisphere around their bodies.

Hong and Jessica do not get along.

“I’m sure there are other games we all like,” Daniel interjects, rattling off a few. They rouse no interest.

Hong brings the lip of a bottle to her smile and Jessica reaches clumsily over Dennis’s lap for another drink. Her breasts crest the apex of the candlelight. Dennis grabs the bottle opener before she does and raises it over his shoulder. It disappears in the darkness, making Jessica look as though she is grabbing wildly at air.

“Easy there, sweetheart.” Jessica and Dennis are the couple who uses pet names. The yawn and stretch of Jessica’s arm and chest tickles the tongue of the flame.

“I hate it when you patronize me,” hisses Jessica.

 

Because Jessica and Hong do not get along, their boyfriends are collateral damage from their—is it a fight if they only see one another once a year? Is it a competition? What are they competing for? The rules are unclear. Dennis, Daniel, and David (who only knows about the situation because Dennis and Daniel have—against Jessica and Hong’s wishes—consulted the fraternal group text) all agree that the situation is troublesome. Why can’t everyone just get along?

This year, the tacit fallout starts on the drive down, when Jessica asked if anyone needed to use the restroom. No one did. Then, several exit signs later, Jessica said to Dennis, who was driving: “Take the next rest stop. I need to use the bathroom.”

“Why didn’t you say so earlier? Babe, I don’t think there’s another rest station for another thirty miles.”

“That’s fine.”

“Really? Will you be okay?”

“I don’t know what else I can be if I have to wait.”

No one wanted to say anything after that until Dennis replied. Dennis said nothing.

Later, Hong leaned over and tapped Dennis’s shoulder, saying: “Pull over. I’m going to pee.”

Dennis exchanged glances with Daniel in the rearview mirror.

“Can you hold it?” asked Daniel. It was hopelessly dark outside. The procession of cars that had faithfully anchored them in human company—minivans containing fathers behind wheels, children with blank, screen-washed stares—had dropped off one by one, until theirs was the last, lonesome car on the road.

“There’s no one around. I’ll be fine,” said Hong with a challenging stare in the rearview mirror.

Dennis pulled off to the shoulder.

“I’ll come with you,” offered Daniel.

“Don’t,” replied Hong. She turned to Jessica: “Do you want to come?”

“Sure,” said Jessica, even though she did not actually want to. “Jenny, are you coming?”

Jenny felt both girls’ eyes trained on her and climbed out of the car. Immediately, she regretted it. The night was thick with mosquitoes. They stalked through in steeled silence. Hong cleared the highway railing with a spry jump and waited as Jessica saddled over in her white trousers. Jessica smoothed out her clothes and strode past Hong out of the bounds of the headlights. A steep slope separated them from the foliage. Hong went first. She started to descend when her weight loudly gave way beneath her combat boots. The loosened gravel tumbled into the gaping darkness.

“It’s too dangerous,” yelped Jessica. “Just do it here.”

Hong continued on, the edges of her dissolving into the thick of the night.

“The fuck if she’s actually going,” muttered Jessica.

Jenny remained silent, uncomfortable. Their shadows were barely visible, impaled by the unruly grass. In the silence that passed between them, a knot of doubt snagged against their better reason. How long had it been since they saw Hong? The darkness bristled. Scents of detritus and their corporeal history began to break ground, gather, rise. Insects shrieked—help me! help me!—and the trees crowded around, standing very, very still as though not to attract attention.

“Bitch!” seethed Jessica.

Jenny glanced back towards the car, but the glare of the headlines eclipsed her view of the windows.

As though having been summoned by Jessica’s outburst, Hong reappeared, recognizable first by her nose stud glinting like a cold star. It was not difficult to avoid meeting eyes.

 

Back in the car, Daniel was upset. Of course he would be. Consider the problem from his perspective: You care about your girlfriend. You do your best to be the loving and supportive boyfriend, and not a Shitty Man™ as the Internet makes it so easy to be. Too easy, maybe. You put in effort. You listen to what she wants, but then sometimes she says yes when she means no. It would be reasonable to assume she might be guilty of the inverse as well. You do your best anyway to parse out what she really needs all while avoiding any landmine misunderstandings and accusations. So when she goes out alone in the dark, as if there is no one here who cares for her, it feels—and forgive him for this loaded word—unfair.

“Daniel, are you panicking, man?” teased Dennis

“She’s free to do whatever she wants.”

There was no arguing, not even in jest, at that.

In the past year, Hong has been free to rename herself Hong and get her nose pierced and cut her hair short and Jessica has been free to take a new job in a different state and Jenny has been free to text her exes. These deliberate changes encode something important to Hong, Jessica, and Jenny. Daniel, Dennis, and David respect this, but each worries that these choices deplete the reasons why he fell for her in the first place. None have gotten around to talking about this concern. Instead, they have asked their respective girlfriends whether they might ever leave him, and have been repeatedly reassured that that will not happen.

“It’s admirable how long you two have stayed together,” David said of Daniel and Hong.

“You and Jenny seem good. She’s the longest you’ve had in a while, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, maybe she isn’t just a bit late to realize whatever the rest of my exes realized about me before they left,” replied David As he laughed cynically, Dennis and Daniel exchanged glances in rearview mirror. They did not relay what their girlfriends have opined about David.

“Nah, don’t think about it like that. I remember what it was like with you and Sally. She was difficult as hell.”

“Joy, too. She had you by the balls. The sex was bad, isn’t that what you said?”

“Yeah, by the end of it, we just stopped having any. It was stupid, how that happened. One day, she decided to institute this challenge where we wouldn’t have sex for a month. Like, if I truly loved her, I would be okay with it.”

“That’s not good. Sex is part of a relationship. It’s part of the intimacy. Unless you’re nonsexual or whatever. Then you say it upfront.” All three audibly agreed to this.

“I hate those kinds of games people play. It’s like, you’re in a good relationship. What are you doing?”

“It’s sabotage. They don’t stick around after you don’t hold up to their unrealistic standards. That’s on them.”

A knuckle rapped against Dennis’s window. Jessica, Hong, and Jenny were back. Jessica motioned for Dennis to unlock the doors. She tugged relentlessly at the handle as he fumbled for the keys. He could she was peeved.

“I peed,” announced Hong as the three clamored back in.

“What took so long?” asked Daniel.

“I saw something.”

“Sounds ominous,” said Dennis.

“More like disturbing,” was Hong’s reply. “I stepped on a dead bird.”

“Time to get new shoes,” joked David.

“Then a huge crow swooped in. I could tell from the rush of its wings and its beady eyes. It was hard for my eyes to adjust at first, but I saw it hop towards me, towards the dead bird at my feet, until it was on top of it. It looked like it was going to eat it. But then I realized it was actually screwing the carcass.”

“That’s fucked up,” cackled Dennis.

“Just pounding away at it.”

“It’s so strange how these things only ever happen to you,” commented Jessica, and when no one responded, she turned to Dennis: “Isn’t it strange?”

 

Sardines: Jenny speaks up and says “We should play.” The newest member to the group, Jenny has, for most of the trip, refrained from expressing anything to the larger group that could be interpreted as disagreeable. This leaves her with low-stakes conversational topics like people’s current Netflix favorites and commentary on Southern stereotypes.

“Look, the neighbors have a confederate flag.”

“Oh, an NRA poster.”

Anything that breaches more personal topics, she worries, might give away her unease. The addition of her, she is aware, makes three. Three Asian girls. Is anyone else bothered by this?

She, of course, has dated many white boys. But that is different. White boys are so incredibly available to her in the circles in which she has been raised and still runs. It makes sense, statistically speaking, for her to date white boys. There are individual cases. Then there are patterns.

Jenny wants to give David the benefit of the doubt. He never told her, prior to the trip, about his friends’ girlfriends. He told her there would be other girls, yes, as though that might somehow guarantee their getting along, but not any more than that. Perhaps it is possible, from his perspective, to have not considered her and the other girls’ ethnicities. Perhaps it ought not to matter anyway.

On the other hand, he must have at least thought about it in passing. And if he held his tongue, then he tried to hide it from her. And if he has avoided the topic, then he also knows there is something wrong about this.

Until she can wrangle truth from paranoia, Jenny cannot bear to be alone with David. Neither can she bear watching Dennis and Jessica wrestle one another for the bottle opener: Jessica’s other arm planted between Dennis’s legs, Dennis’s fingers swallowed in Jessica’s hair.

That Jessica’s hair is tied in a ponytail aggravates both Jenny and Hong. It wags in tight circles, long and thin to grab in one fist and yank like reins. This is not an idea Jenny and Hong have entertained before and so it alarms them when they do. They never would’ve thought to compare Jenny’s hair to something as specific and suggestive as black leather straps on their own. The image invades their minds’ eyes, takes residence in their shame.

Jenny becomes acutely aware of David fingering the tail of her shirt. She shifts away from him, reclaiming inches from the darkness. She adds: “It’d be a shame for us to turn in early.”

 

Unbeknownst to Dennis, Daniel, and David, their girlfriends have each begun to read the shapes and movements of surrounding sexual impulses. Their minds tune to sex the way a seismograph tunes to the earth’s tremors. It happened to each at different times and different places: off the side of the highway, past the billboard for a church advocating WOMEN ARE GOD’S FINEST CREATION, and the one that immediately followed, FINE WOMEN WAITING FOR YOU, with lowlights yellowing the model’s skin. It started with a passing thought that gathered into something more demanding. Each felt herself doubled through others’ touch, sight, and thought. Gradually, they were no longer suspicious, but certain of sprouting erections, leaking desires at certain moments, puncturing the surface of the mundane.

They find that they cannot control this mechanism. At the most inconvenient of times, it makes out seedy speculations in a passing glance of a gas station attendant, the corporeal longing prowling at the back of others’ minds. Worst of all is having to confront everyone despite this vague knowledge. All weekend, they have unwillingly glimpsed individual curiosities, kinks, and fetishes among their group: bodice-ripping scenarios, kitchen sex, bathing suits, ponytails.

Jessica, Hong, and Jenny each keeps this sudden and newfound ability to herself. It is not unlike when they were young and would cry publicly, seized by apocalyptic fears that strangers would impart with a dark glance. Back then, they were girls with overactive imaginations. Now they are paranoid women. They know that more often than not, the leers, the whistles, the comments, the expounded hypotheticals, the demand for conversation mean nothing; people think things, cast them away, then continue being among others, unperturbed. They are the unknown keepers. Each retains a brief history of fleeting desires in a tight interlock of her own shame.

 

Dennis, Daniel, and David agree to play because they are easy-going, because they see no reason not to. Sardines is only one of many games they have played in their boyhoods. They have hid, they have pushed, they have shoved. They have unaccounted histories of actions unfettered by no reasons not to.

“I want to hide first,” says Dennis. “I know the house. All its nooks and crannies.”

He draws out the last word like it is a damp rag, twisting it under his command.

Now it is only Jessica who has not agreed to play. Dennis’s nose, pale with one bright pimple gleaming off a nostril, hovers over her ear. Jessica drinks as though she does not notice his massaging the rope of her ponytail, considering its sway on the rest of her body.

“Fine.” Jessica assents.

 

It feels too late for Jessica, Hong, or Jenny to tell their respective boyfriends now the unpleasant experience this trip has been for her. If any of them were to start an argument, she would lose. It is too difficult to exact the right combination of words that make her grievances indisputable. To have them occupy her mind, shuttled between outrage and self-doubt, is tiresome enough.

 

Dennis’s family’s beach house is rife with hiding places for someone looking to hide things. Dennis’s great grandfather had the house built himself at a time when anyone could put down stakes anywhere so long as no one else had laid claim first. There is a trapdoor to a storage unit. There are needless corners and halls out of the lights’ reach. The master bedroom has a shaft for the dumbwaiter—this is the kind of house Dennis’s family owns.

Dennis’s great grandfather had many extramarital affairs during his time. Behind a mirror in the master bedroom, there is a secret passageway that tunnels around the children’s nursery and into a secret room where the other women slept. By the time Dennis’s family discovered their patriarch’s secret in the blueprints, he was well past the age for blame. The room remained a windowless pocket of time, cloistered from renovations. The jewelry, the lingerie, the skin-colored silk stockings still hang on a garment rack in costume combinations, willfully ignored, fabric like-new, hovering above the floor.

Dennis snuffs out his candle and hides beneath bed. The perfumes of the many women who have slept above linger in the frame, amalgamating as the air in the room receives its first source of human breath in decades. Their combined scent gives Dennis vertigo. He feels the others’ footsteps upset the old floorboards as though they are treading through his own mind. Grievances, like dust, stir from their resting place. Past arguments, annoyances, cold shoulders cloud his buzz. They reach down on his body, agitating him in a way he had never been agitated before. He feels himself harden and constrict until he is, in the freedom of darkness, a bullet, fast and straight, breaking through the bullshit. Through cold shoulders, though passive aggressive one-liners. Through children’s games.

In the master bedroom, someone slides aside the mirror and enters the passageway without concealing it again.

 

Daniel and David play by the book—no reason not to—but Hong is aiming to search as far from Daniel as possible and Jenny makes careful calculation of her effort. Because she is the new girl, she neither wants to be the first to join Dennis alone nor can she be the last one searching. Meanwhile, Jessica’s first order of concern is the room where she and Dennis slept last night, tidying the odds and ends of their private lives should anyone come in to investigate.

This house knows no privacy. Each body’s movement registers in the hallways. Orbs of candlelight shift across eyes frozen in portraiture. All last night, everyone could hear Jessica and Dennis arguing. In the other bedrooms, Hong and Daniel and Jenny and David were having sex. Sex does not bother them. To be clear, they are not prudes. They have watched people on their screens from time to time, but this time it was not so much watching as it was knowing, not so much knowing as it was thinking, and not so much thinking as it was dreading the similarities between other couples’ sexual scripts and their own. The thrum of multiple desires—unfurling, grazing—swarmed any excitement each might have had with new uncertainty over their bodies, a sticky layer of self-doubt.

“They’re sleeping,” Dennis, Daniel, and David pleaded to their respective girlfriends. “It’s just you and me.”

But it’s never just the two of them, Jessica, Hong, and Jenny intuited. They made the mistake of disclosing this to their respective boyfriends.

“What do you mean ‘never’? What is it?” Dennis, Daniel, and David asked.

“Something bigger at play.” Jessica, Hong, and Jenny were only able to explain in vague terms because they didn’t know where or how to begin without being swept into a storm of unfinished arguments.

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.” They became defensive at the hint of their boyfriends’ impatience. “Just, something.

 

On one hand, Jessica, Hong, and Jenny trust Dennis, Daniel, and David’s attractions to their respective girlfriends. Jessica, Hong, and Jenny can see versions of themselves, dressed up and down, staged in their sexual fantasies, contorted to want. Their boyfriends’ tastes are predictable. They like flimsy clothing. They like lipstick blowjobs. This is not entirely disagreeable with how Jessica, Hong, and Jenny enjoy sex. They still recognize themselves in their boyfriends’ imaginations, but they wonder whether past girlfriends have fooled themselves into thinking that they, too, were uniquely desired.

They know better than to ask outright. Nothing sours a relationship faster than a guy who believes his innocence is compromised. When they first started dating, Jessica, Hong, and Jenny each exercised the usual caution of scrolling through Dennis, Daniel, and David’s Facebook pages, but found no red flags. For every Chinese, Vietnamese, or Korean girl they share a picture with, there are white girls, too. Besides, they’ve read online about girls like themselves who manage to deal with it: girls who serve up their foreign names during sex, girls who wear sailor suits and chinoiserie, girls who pretend their feet are bound in role-play. Anonymously shared encounters punctuated by  LOLs and laughing-crying emojis : Isn’t that strange? As though it is the possession of these preferences that deserve pity. Isn’t that funny? They say it is not so bad, like a boy who does his laundry less often than you might like. If his domestic habits cannot be expected to be ideal, then neither can his sexual idiosyncrasies.

With what other fantasies to which Jessica, Hong, and Jenny have been privy, their boyfriends’ are considered benign. At least it is not like one instance or another they have read about. Thanks to the Internet, they are aware that the worst of it is a bottomless pit.

 

On the other hand, can Jessica, Hong, or Jenny trust her own attraction to Dennis, Daniel, or David? What about the times they wanted to say no but said yes anyway? And the things they cannot stand but have tolerated, have even said, at times, that they liked? They walk their convictions across a tightrope of contradictions. They search the house having come but not wanted to come on this trip. They find and form a tight pack beneath the bed, first Daniel then David then Hong then Jenny, having not wanted to really play but getting down on all fours. They crawl and fold themselves into the mass of black heat.

Perhaps this was a facile task when they were children who made game out of how tightly they could puzzle their bodies together. An elbow in the stomach, a foot on the shoulder—these are matters of consequence now. They disrupt the fragile peace between skin. They make the air too crowded for all of their breaths and thoughts. They give tells for restrained impulses, imparting partially imagined bodies, grammars of desire. They are microchips of sensory secrets meant to be impenetrable, belonging to the tight intertwining of body and mind. Please do not let them be leaked or exposed or worse, decoded. Please.

 

Some lingering factors that you may take or leave while considering the group’s waxing discomfort:

Decades earlier, Dennis’s great grandmother’s skin broke into goosebumps whenever she was in the vicinity of a young woman who had slept with her husband.

Hong’s grandmother had one eye that looked into the future and saw looming, big-bellied shadows in the wake her country’s famine.

Jenny’s mother was told by a black dog that her first husband would kill her if she stayed.

Dennis, Daniel, David, Jessica, Hong, and Jenny all have nodes in their lineages that rest upon a trace of the supernatural. The sixth sense is honed and fixed by familial success, survived by the living generations. Its vestiges surface in different contexts, but the experience of it is always the same. It mounts the body like fact, feeds on disregard, and makes you small. It begins as though you are being followed while walking alone in the dark, and only stops once you break into a sprint.

 

Jessica knows she is the last one. The stillness of her conceivable surroundings strikes small fears against better reason and imbues her body with precariousness. She decides she does not want to play anymore. She crawls atop one of the beds and curls up, willing the game to pass. She falls asleep pretending to fall asleep. Her candle sits nested on a quilted square by her nose. The house, for the first time this weekend, is quiet.

 

Beneath his great grandfather’s second bed, Dennis squeezed next to Daniel curled beside Hong pressed against Jenny flattened beside David—all waiting to be found. Sweat and body odor make viscous what little space they have to share. They instinctively tense the soft parts of their bodies when touched; apologies abound. Partial features magnified by sour breaths, dark swathes of limbs have a dizzying effect—in this prolonged proximity, it is hard to say who has accidentally touched someone’s thigh and who is thinking about accidentally touching someone’s thigh. Hong and Jenny hold a tight leash over the thoughts when something else stalks towards the forefront of their consciousness. In their minds’ eyes, the silhouette of a woman germinates, lays prostrate atop the mattress. Which one of them is it? To whose desire does she belong? Is it only a coincidence that she looks like Jessica? Or Hong? Or Jenny?

***

Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.


Joan Li is a Northeastern native transplanted in the Midwest. Her work can be found in The Seventh Wave, CARVE, New England Review, and elsewhere. Follow her @Joan_J_Li. More from this author →