31 Days of Stories 2009, Days 15 & 16: “Snails” by Emily Schultz

August 15, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

This weekend, at the halfway mark in TSR’s month-long short-story extravaganza, we put the theory into practice. Thanks to the generosity of the venerable Emily Schultz, author of the recently published novel Heaven Is Small and the brains behind Joyland: A Hub for Short Fiction, TSR is able to present an original piece of short fiction for your enjoyment and edification.

The story “Snails” first appeared in the spring/summer issue of Black Warrior Review, Vol. 35, No. 2., but this is its online debut. “Snails” is an elliptical, and ultimately vaguely creepy, story of an insecure woman whose psychic obsessions find a rather bizarre physical manifestation. TSR is delighted to be able to host it.

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3571411382_1881092d4c_b-400x300SNAILS

by Emily Schultz

While Sylvie slept, snails found a way onto her skin. Sylvie discovered the first snail on Tuesday shortly after waking. She had dreamt of her workplace. She was filing documents. When she woke, she retained the sheen of sweat, and a vague sense of discomfort. Sylvie was on her way into the shower when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. A fat brown freckle clung to one buttock, and Sylvie stopped sleepily, peered into the glass, and then turned to examine herself.

The speck came away between Sylvie’s fingers. It was neither some newly formed mole nor a fleck of filth, but the coiled shell of a snail. The creature itself remained hidden, but its spiraled back was the size of a pearl earring. An insect would have sent Sylvie jumping, but the snail fascinated her, and she stood gazing down at the shape between her index finger and her thumbnail. Slightly transparent and brown, it felt thin, hollow as a bead. She looked inside the mouth of the hole and saw nothing. She set the snail upon the sink, and stepped into the shower.

Throughout the day, she thought periodically of the snail. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell one of her co-workers, but she did not, afraid they would gossip, find her at fault, unkempt. Like the co-worker who admits to having cockroaches, mice, an infestation of ants, bed bugs. The one whose house is in disrepair. She thought of the crack in the plaster beneath the window, how close it was to her bed. Her bedroom was on the second floor of an old tenement she thought of as sea-weary, the way she thought of so many of the older, less cute houses in San Francisco. When she had arrived she’d wanted a room in one of the painted ladies going up the hill above Delores, but hadn’t been able to afford it. Were snails prevalent here? she wondered, but didn’t ask.

Even as much as a storey below her, she imagined them, a garden of snails, mucous-coloured feelers erect, searching for housing for winter, the smallest sent forth as a scout. She hadn’t noticed a specific draft – the whole place was a draft – but was it possible the snail could have snuck in that way? What had attracted it, first, to her home, and then, to her skin?

***

She had dreamt of her workplace. She was filing documents. Inside one of the drawers, a diorama of a bedroom with a doily bedspread stood between two manila folders. On the little bed, Sylvie watched herself coupling with a plastic doll. She, in all her smallness, was real, the doll definitely plastic and inanimate. Immediately she felt herself displaced, at once experiencing the frictional pleasure of a form beside her, and the distance of viewing. The large Sylvie hung, somewhat aghast, above the scene, her hair falling over the edges of the drawer like a canopy as she continued to watch.

***

When Sylvie was back at home, waiting for Simon, she opened a folder on her computer desktop. At one time, the folder, a dull brown icon, had been named Eros and tucked inside a second folder tagged Research. Sylvie had found this too obvious however, and had changed Eros to read Miscellany. Since the computer did not have the human capability of memory, there was no record of this change, except that Sylvie silently whispered “eros” sometimes when she clicked the new Miscellany folder.

Miscellany was a word Sylvie had long admired. At the age of thirteen, it had disappointed her to learn that it meant simply a random collection. Assorted, indiscriminate, jumbled, manifold, many, mingled, mixed, motley, promiscuous, sundry, varied, various. Since naming her brown folder Miscellany several months ago, Sylvie felt she had reclaimed the word and instilled it with the elusive grandeur it deserved. Miscellany. It sounded like something wrapped in clean, delicate tissue.

The photograph was in black and white. Two backs faced the viewer. Both were male. One was slightly taller than the other, one slightly thinner. Their buttocks were quietly clenched. Their bodies tapered off into the hair of their legs. There was nothing particularly attractive about them. Their faces could not be seen, nor was there anything distinctive about the backs of their heads. Their ages were unknown and unknowable. Their feelings were unknown and unknowable. Hooked, rather faintly, around each of their bodies was a set of smooth, feminine legs. When one looked closely, one could see the white outlines of hips, just beyond the men, either already engaged in, or possibly awaiting, the act of entry. It was severe as stone. Two women lying beside one another, open. Two men standing, naked. Nothing could be seen, yet everything was known. It made Sylvie feel intensely dirty.

She had never spoken of it, nor shown the photograph to anyone. She had never attempted to stimulate herself before, after, or while viewing it. She simply clicked it open periodically, and then clicked it closed again. Today, the length of time the image remained open in Viewer was longer than other times. She clicked it closed, and put the computer to sleep. She walked into the kitchen and set the kettle on the stove. She opened the refrigerator door and began rearranging things. Crusty mustard bottles and three-quarter-filled jars of pesto and jam. She threw away a yellowing head of broccoli. The kettle shrieked. She closed the refrigerator door and sat down at the table with her mug. The spoon, which enclosed the loose-leaf in a small metal basket, seeped blunt red trails of blackberry inside the white ceramic. She gazed blankly at the door at the top of the stairs, through which Simon would walk.

He had been coming by more and more frequently lately and Sylvie wasn’t sure if they were getting back together or not. She knew he was dating, because he told her about each in meticulous detail, and yet he kept stopping in after work, sometimes for a meal. They would walk down 16th to Valencia for burritos, eat cheap take-out together like two bachelor friends. Except Sylvie was neither a bachelor, nor Simon’s friend. She took the spoon out of the cup, let the water run through its holes. She set it down on the Formica. She wrapped her hands around the mug, trying to absorb some warmth from it. Since December had hit, she constantly felt like she was on a beach. There was a dampness that gripped her and wouldn’t let loose. “Maybe I’ll just tell him to go away,” she said to the spoon as if its freckled surface could hear.

***

After a chaste kiss, and talk about their workdays, Sylvie took Simon over to the crack in the wall and showed it to him, trailing its line with her finger. “Could they come in here, do you think, the snails?”

He bent down to examine it. He made the face he often made when Sylvie had asked him a question – a blank face, and she knew if she asked him again he still wouldn’t answer. There was nothing to do but wait until his thoughts caught up. After a couple of minutes he straightened up from his crouch. He peered out the window to the flowerbed below, which was only 7 x 4, perhaps the size of a single mattress, a few loose bricks placed around its perimeter. Sylvie looked too, but what she saw were the laundry lines and backs of dwellings in pastel blues and pinks against the green hill. Simon sat down on Sylvie’s green comforter, as if the matter had already been decided.

After another minute, he said, “I don’t see how.” He patted the bed beside him. “I think it’s safe.”

***

The next night, Sylvie couldn’t sleep. She felt every crease in the sheets. Every time she turned over, she was sure she felt some small hard object attaching itself to her leg. Eventually she got up. She logged onto her computer and checked her e-mail. She checked her work e-mail address too. She had moved there to work in Circulation for a general interest magazine, and couldn’t fathom how something “general interest” could be so completely disinteresting. The top corner counted 3:16 a.m. She clicked open a spreadsheet and began to work out some numbers for the next day that she had been putting off since the previous Friday. Then she clicked it closed, and yanked the phone cord and the power cord from the laptop, carried it to her bed cradled on her elbow. She hesitated before she lay it down on the mattress, looking into its glowing face as if it were a person.

Miscellany.

She opened a video file of two women kissing. She moved the cursor to the top of her screen, and pulled down the menu. She gave the instruction: Loop. They were outdoors, a white farmhouse behind them, milky sky, clouds. Against the colourless backdrop, their pale skin lent the play a feeling of austerity, as if their kisses were the only kisses in the world. These women were less preoccupied than ones she’d witnessed in other clips within the file. They explored each other with a sense of focus, not quite as if they were lovers, but as if they’d understood at the time that the moment would air again and again.

When Sylvie woke Thursday morning, she turned over, jostling the computer beside her; its face came to life. The two women were still kissing. One looked up at the other while continuing in her devotion to her right breast. Sylvie felt an immediate sadness at their being still caught in this moment. She hadn’t slept long enough for the battery to run down. She hadn’t slept long enough to dream. Her head felt as matted as her hair. Her sleep had been unbending, like falling onto a rock from a great height. The air felt wet and it hurt her to have to throw the covers back and step into it. In the bathroom, Sylvie examined herself. Another small snail clung to her, this time her shoulder.

***

At the office that Friday morning, there were two free passes to a film tacked up on the bulletin board. “What are these?” Sylvie asked, thumbing their edge as Sonja filled the basket of the coffee maker.

“Some media company dropped them off. Promotion. Swag,” Sonja emphasized the word as though she enjoyed saying it. She was the art director, and in Sylvie’s opinion she looked like an art director. She was tall and well-styled even though she was a little plump. She wore spike heels every day, short dresses with large patterns, copper eye shadow, and beads on her wrists that looked like teeth. She often talked non-stop, particularly about how much she wanted to get married and have children, how little time was left, and then what would she do. This obsession of Sonja’s befuddled Sylvie, since there didn’t appear to be any shortage of male interest in her, around the office and otherwise.

“Who are they for?”

“Whomever.”

Sylvie held her breath. She couldn’t tell if she’d just been corrected. “Local,” Sylvie said, peering at the copy, advertising the screening for the following Friday night. “The theatre’s near my place.”

“Take them,” Sonja encouraged.

Sylvie untacked them and held them in her hand. It felt like stealing. She put them back. She leaned against the corkboard and stared into space. “Do you ever dream about work? At night, I mean …”

Sonja turned around, ka-thunking violet, diamond-patterned buttocks against the cupboards. “Oh gawd,” she drawled, and it occurred to Sylvie that she wasn’t from there either. No one seemed to be. Sonja declared, “I once dreamt I was trapped inside the walk-in refrigerator at the convenience store where I worked as a teenager. And it was ten years after the fact when I dreamt it.” She visibly shuddered. “Another time, I dreamt that I was checking my e-mail, just all night, pressing Get Mail and then deleting the junk. Get mail. Delete. Get mail. Delete.” She snapped her fingers and reached for Sylvie’s mug, which Sylvie extended with some hesitation, unsure if it was what Sonja wanted. “First one’s yours, my poor girl,” Sonja stated, although Sylvie was only three years her junior.

***

Wednesday afternoon the tickets were still pinned to the bulletin board. Sylvie scrubbed her mug thoroughly with a very old sponge. She was thinking again about last week’s snails. The second was larger than the first, though not as large as she normally imagined when she thought of snails. As a kid, she and her classmates had caught them, pulled them out of the hedges at school, put them in jars. The shells, as big as her thumbs. This was more like the eraser at the end of her pencil. Baby snails.

Dell came into the kitchen area. In the six months they had been co-workers she’d never seen him dress in anything other than khakis and a blue button-up shirt. All of his shirts were varying shades of blue or blue stripe. She had noticed the few times when he had left the top button undone that he wore a white Hanes beneath his Oxford, and beneath that, every once in a while crept out a knotted black cord with four brown beads on it. She wondered who had given it to him. She wondered if he was there for the tickets. He walked past them without a glance, went to the mini fridge and put something back in.

“Dell …”

He was tall, blond, and clean-shaven. She stopped when he looked at her. She didn’t really understand blond men; she found their fairness feminine and strange. Height also concerned her. He waited and when she didn’t go on he seemed to become impatient.

“Do you – do you know …” she stammered. “Who had my computer before me?” Immediately after the words had left her mouth she was aware they sounded like a blurt.

“Is there a problem with it?”

She shook her head. His hand lingered on the fridge door. She noticed he had thumbs as large as her toes. His nails were close-cropped, somewhat beneath the ridge of skin, which banked above them pinkly.

“Oh, well, that’s going back a ways.” They stood in the kitchen together and Sylvie could hear computers falling to sleep and being shut down in the silence between them. “It could have been Felicia,” Dell pondered. “Or maybe Chris.”

“Chris the man, or Kris the woman?”

“Chris with a C, Chris the man.”

“Chris the man,” she repeated.

“Why?” Dell had eyes that squinted when he smiled, so much so that they almost closed. Only a small green glimpse of iris showed through.

“No – no reason.”

He looked at her as if he didn’t believe her, but they left it at that.

As she exited the area, Chris the man arrived. Sylvie felt a wave of paranoia clench her insides as they passed. She wound her way back to her work station, sure she heard Dell’s voice drop, utter, “She’s rather like a penguin, isn’t she?”

A penguin. He couldn’t have said that. As she gathered up her things for the night, she asked herself, What sounds like “penguin”?

She rode the BART home, standing with her ankles together while holding the pole. Staring at a fast food advertisement placed strangely near the sign that forbade eating and drinking on the train, she continued to contemplate what he might have said. Sometimes a great deal rolls in with the fog, the ad proclaimed. She watched the poster like a television, without really seeing it. The best near-rhyme she could come up with was sanguine, but she wasn’t sure what it meant. She was fairly certain it wasn’t a noun, and he had definitely said “like a” so she knew the word had to be a thing not a quality. The worst she’d come up with by the time she exited were pigeon, gringo, Jenga, pantomime, and concubine. Concubine didn’t even sound like penguin and she couldn’t say how it had come to her as a possible fit.

At home, she had penciled out an alphabet chart when Simon dropped by, all the possible consonant combinations on a sheet of paper. She felt like she ought to have it pretty much covered, but Simon came up with Peking, sequin, and begin off the top of his head, all of which seemed closer to penguin and more likely to fall into a conversation.

Like a sequin? Can a person be like a sequin?” Sylvie queried as she poured hot water into a cup Simon hadn’t requested.

He examined her chart. “What’s this for, Duck?” he asked, using his nickname for her – Odd Duck.

“Nothing,” she said, turning her back quickly. “Nothing.”

A few minutes later, partway through his explanation of his evening plans, which involved a woman named Crystal, Sylvie said, “Do you happen to know what sanguine means?”

“Penguin/sanguine? That’s what you’re thinking? Come on, what’s this all about?” But he had his blank face on even as he asked. He pulled her laptop toward him, tapped in the address of an online dictionary, misspelled the word, but came up with a definition anyway. “1: Bloodred; 2: consisting of or relating to blood, bloodthirsty; 3: having blood as the predominating bodily humour; also: having the bodily conformation and temperament held characteristic of such predominance and marked by sturdiness, high colour, and cheerfulness.”

“Really? That just doesn’t suit me. That won’t work at all,” Sylvie sighed, and she snatched both their cups, dumped the remainder down the sink and rinsed them, without noticing that Simon hadn’t had a chance to touch a drop. Was she like a penguin? she asked herself. Maybe she was. She was on the short side, and rather dark.

“It can also mean confident and optimistic …” Simon tried, but Sylvie shook her head dejectedly.

“How are your snails?” he asked before he left.

“I can’t talk about it,” Sylvie said. She closed the door and turned the lock behind him.

***

On a white sofa, the blonde woman and her Asian friend were draped across one another. Their boyfriend was very busy. As he turned his attentions to the woman with the bleached ponytail, she threw her head back in a laugh-wince. Her friend’s face took on a look of concern and she began to caress the collarbone of the climaxing woman as if attempting to comfort her. She held this look of concern even after it became apparent that the blonde’s mouth was open in joy, brows scrunching, a silent ecstatic scream issued forth since Sylvie had muted her computer’s speakers long ago.

The happy woman and the worried woman. Sylvie closed her eyes, imagined Chris’s fingers hovering over the keypad, finding them in the online murk. Then she pictured Felicia’s. Unbidden, Dell’s nail-bitten thumb climbed onto the cursor. Sylvie opened her eyes and clicked the video file shut.

***

That night she dreamt it was morning. She awoke and went into the bathroom. When she flicked on the light, she saw in the mirror that snails had gripped her entire body. She even had two, sitting atop her eyelids, their feelers waving, winking at her in the mirror. She put a red dress on, pulling it quickly overtop of the invertebrates, and went in to work. There, she found her computer tower and monitor had been traded for her own personal laptop, and on its face, someone had opened as many windows as possible, each playing a miniature sordid show. Sylvie went searching around the office, asking if anyone had seen her computer and was someone playing a joke on her to perform such a swap?

“Swap? Do you mean swag?” Sonja said, as Sylvie backed out of the kitchen, trailing snail mucous behind her like a royal wedding veil.

***

Sylvie awoke, jerking her foot halfway up the bed. She’d felt it. When she threw back the green comforter, there it was. One beige snail, round as the remnant left behind by a paper punch. Sylvie showered longer than usual. She let the steam wrap its breath around her, and waited for the transparent window to become opaque. She used her pinky finger, attempted to draw an anatomical heart in the fog. It looked blobby, a Halloween ghost.

***

The tickets were still on the board. Chris was in the kitchen, drinking from a black mug bearing the word Ilford. By conventional standards, Sylvie knew he was the most beautiful man there. He had rock star hair, a beard, and ironic T-shirts. Even the bubble-lettered “I Heart Beer” seemed a smart statement when it clung to his tight chest. It was both easy and unbearable to think of him cruising all the sites necessary to download what was now tucked into Miscellany at home.

“Nice,” he said about the coffee.

She stirred her own very slowly while looking at his shoes. At a work party that past summer, she’d brought Simon, who had scoffed at Sonja’s elaborate fashion sense behind her back. Chris had been standing near, part of the conversation. Sylvie had blanched; he and Sonja were involved at the time. Chris had nodded slightly, stared straight ahead, kept the information hidden, said nothing in Sonja’s defence. Sylvie remembered now that Dell had been there too: she and he had shared embarrassed glances. Dell had raised an eyebrow, as if the two of them understood both wrongs that were occurring at their elbows – Simon’s statement and Chris’s silence. She had been with Simon then, so she hadn’t given it another thought, that look of allegiance.

“Are you – planning to take these?” Sylvie stammered, gesturing to the comp tickets.

“What?” Chris leaned forward, peered at them from a distance that ensured he still couldn’t see what they said. “No,” he said shortly, as if she had offered him day-old bread. He bent his face into the Ilford and sipped at its contents with a concentrated look of contentment.

Sylvie turned her back to him, put one fingernail beneath the tack, and slowly freed them.

***

She took in the back of Dell, his blue shirt through the black mesh of his office chair, the way his head bent, not suspecting her gaze. Looking at a person from behind was an intimate thing, Sylvie decided.

“Would you be interested in this sort of thing?”

He jumped, and it struck her as funny to see a large man jump, though of course, she felt immediately bad for causing his surprise.

He turned in his chair and waited for her to come nearer, which she did reluctantly, stepping to his side, and dropping her hand, which contained the movie tickets. She released them to him.

“It’s close to me – ” she began.

“You should go then.” His shirt was open a button today and in addition to the four wooden beads she could see several wisps of hair fighting for order around the dip at the base of his throat.

“I was – I was thinking that I would, but …” she glanced at his computer screen as if she might find something there. “Are you sure you aren’t interested? I mean, maybe you would like it – ?” Her voice rose in a manner that, to her ear, sounded pleading.

Dell passed the tickets back. “No, go ahead. It’s really not my thing.”

“Oh.” She stared down at them in her hand. When she glanced at Dell again, a look of recognition crossed his face. He opened his mouth as if he would say something, but then he closed it again, and gave a smile that seemed appallingly apologetic, so she left.

***

That night, when Sylvie let Simon in, she asked him for his key.

“I just think it’s time,” she said.

“What brought this on?”

“Glass vase.” He stared at her. She tried again: “Champagne flute. Fruit bowl.”

“Crystal.” Simon sank down onto one of the kitchen chairs and reached into his back pocket.

“Crystal, Dawn, Allison, Laurie …” The names of women she’d never met made her tongue feel swollen.

“Duck – ” he said, but all the while he was working the key off the cramped ring.

“It – it would be different if we had broken up and there were someone … someone.” Her voice hitched a little, leaving the emphasis on the last syllable without intending to. “How do these ‘dates’ happen anyway? How do people wind up realizing they both feel the same and then getting together?”

“Duck,” he sighed again. “If I knew …” He suddenly looked much older to her than thirty-five, tired. “That’s one of the great human mysteries.”

“I moved here for you.”

“Your idea. Didn’t make any promises.” He smiled tightly, and set the key down on the table. Then he reached across it and took her hand. He traced the outlines of her fingertips, all the way around and down into the V’s, which tickled in that way she liked.

When he had finished one hand and begun the other, she said, “I asked someone out today.” Simon immediately stopped what he was doing. “For tomorrow.”

“I see,” he said, and he placed her palm on the table. “Who?”

“Dell. From work.”

“The tall one,” he said derisively, as if exposing a fault. “So, you do know how these things ‘happen.’” He slid the key to her, and quickly, quietly left.

After he’d gone she contemplated the half-lie. The invitation had been there. The implied yes was the only flubbed thing.

***

She went online to the newsweekly and clicked on the personals link. She didn’t even know how she would describe herself. What type of situation was she looking for? Long-term, friendship, intimate encounters … People had posted photos of themselves. Women had photographed their own breasts, sometimes clenched in their hands; couples looking for thirds had posted pictures of one another engaged in oral sex; there were pierced penises aplenty. Random body parts, seemingly severed from the head and shoulders. Sylvie couldn’t imagine ever taking a photograph of herself this way, let alone posting it for anyone to happen upon. Was she repressed, a prude? To prove to herself that she wasn’t, she took off her clothes and walked naked through the narrow apartment. In the kitchen, she came across the key Simon had left.

She put one finger on it and slid it across the table until it reached the edge. It fell into her other hand and when she felt its shape, and how cold it was, she began to cry. Even as she made them, the sobs sounded to her own ears like something being stepped on. The thought made her cry even more.

She walked down the hall to the bedroom with it, where she opened the window – a blast of night air – and let the key fall into the back garden with the snails. Once it was gone, it was nothing but a memory of a silver arc through the air.

***

Sylvie woke to find the largest yet on her bedside table. It looked like a doll’s eye. Like the others, its shell was empty. She showered and dressed without trying to recall her dream, which felt to her like nothing more than a smear of brown. She put on an unwashed pair of tights, a static-clinging skirt, a horrid T-shirt, and over it a rancid sweater and the corduroy blazer that was missing a button. As she walked through the streets of the Mission, she took solace in the fact that she looked like everyone around her. The palms on Market Street were sashed with red ribbons. The bright bands burned her eyes, made her sick for home.

Dell was waiting for her. Either she had left her computer on the night before, or he’d started it for her. Sylvie touched her hair when she saw him and, even though she knew there was no reason to, inventoried the computer’s glowing desktop with a glance.

He said he’d been thinking about that free movie, he’d read something about it on the way to work. Maybe he’d like to go if she could still spare one of the tickets.

“Of course,” she said, removing the wretched jacket and stowing it under her desk as quickly as possible. “Would it – would it be inconvenient if we went together?”

***

They drank at the Casanova, where everyone was extremely beautiful in a nonchalant way. Either that or Sylvie was feeling much more self-conscious than the last time she’d come to the bar. She consumed two drinks in the span of time she meant to sip one, and when she set the drained second glass on the bar she said firmly to Dell without looking him, “How am I like a penguin?”

“A penguin?”

Sylvie nodded. He stared up at the ceiling where a hanging lamp was moulded in the shape of a bunch of grapes, each bulbous nub illuminated. He seemed to think it was a riddle. He took a moment. Eventually he exclaimed, “A phantom!”

“Like a phantom? Phantom/penguin, penguin/phantom …” she let the words slide around on her tongue. “No, that doesn’t work,” Sylvie insisted. “Phantom, really?”

Dell tipped back the rest of his drink. He looked pleased with himself, she was pretty sure. “You float.”

She protested.

“There’s also that thing you do …” He paused for her to ask “what thing?” which she did. “… Where you walk through the office witnessing everything, yet no one really sees you.”

“Oh – ” Sylvie said, suddenly swallowing the ice cube she’d been nibbling. She put two fingers on her throat to help it go down. “That is me.” When she looked around the bar, everyone had gotten rather blurry. She excused herself, and found the women’s bathroom. She removed a Kleenex from her purse. It was balled up and tucked into a side pocket. She took it out carefully, unfolded it, and dumped its contents into her hand. She used the Kleenex to wipe her eyes, then returned to Dell. Without looking him in the eye, she plucked the small objects one by one from her hand and set them down on the bar in front of him.

He lowered his head and peered at them from different angles. He picked up the largest and turned it round between both thumbs and forefingers.

“I have an infestation.”

“Four is hardly an infestation.”

“It’s because of the – the porn,” she managed.

Sylvie snuck a glance at her watch. She knew they were going to miss the film. Dell signaled the bartender, and Sylvie attempted to explain how it had been there, on the computer at work when she’d inherited it, a folder of it. Mortified, her first thought had been to erase it, but then she had become terrified that someone would find her erasing it and assume it was hers. She’d waited until the coast was clear – three days later, after work – and by that point something had overcome her. Curiosity, Dell put in, and she agreed. She’d copied it to her personal laptop before trashing the files.

“So now it really is yours.”

She supposed so. “I am a woman who owns pornography,” she said slowly, nodding her head, as if it had only just dawned on her.

“And since then, the snails?”

“No … Actually, they’ve only been coming the past week or two.”

When he asked what had changed, she found she couldn’t say. She wondered aloud who was responsible for the files – could a person just do that right there, at work? Dell smile-squinted and asked her what the files contained.

“Huh,” he said, after she’d bumbled through a description of the tamest, the one of the women kissing. “I think I maybe know this one.”

A sensation glided along her backs of her arms, an ecstatic chill, which she told herself was just the San Francisco damp. She couldn’t decide if he was joking or not, but he was already gathering up her snails and giving them back to her.

“I want to see them,” he said.

They walked slowly up 17th toward Guerrero and the old sign of the 500 Club. Its illuminated champagne glass filled with neon sparkles above the street. It had been Sylvie’s landmark when she’d first moved, and every time she saw it she knew she was home. Tonight, she watched it come closer through the pooled December air. Each light felt like a breath. Sylvie became very nervous and tried to explain that she couldn’t ask him in.

“Are you afraid the snails’ll get on me?” Dell smirked, gripped her from behind, boogeyman-style.

She held up a finger. “Don’t even joke – ”

“Maybe I could keep watch for you.”

“That’s kind, but …” Too soon they had come to her stoop. She stood at the bottom of it, shuffling her feet and transferring her key from one hand to the other. “You can’t kiss me,” she said fiercely.
Dell made an exaggerated hands-off gesture.

“It – it makes me feel removed. Like in Annie Hall. If you kiss me, I’ll be here but I’ll also be standing up there watching.” Sylvie gestured to the top of her stairs. “That’s what I do,” she said with resignation.

“Let’s go up there then,” Dell suggested. They climbed the dark stairs together. “Better?”

***

He had told her he would keep watch, but in the middle of the night, Sylvie awoke to find Dell dozing. She nudged him, but he barely stirred. She turned onto her side, away from him, but that was worse. She could feel him stretched out behind her, the lot of him, the way his arms fell together in front of his chest, which was naked and strange, the expanse of his thighs, which were hairy beneath his khakis, she was sure of it. And more than that. She nudged him again, this time less lightly, with her elbow. He moved against her, curling into her. His hair brushed her cheek. She whipped around. His eyes opened.

“I can feel them,” she whispered.

“You can?”

“Yes. Check me, make sure none have gotten on me.”

“Now?” He yawned and stretched.

“Yes,” she insisted, throwing back the cover. “Yes!”

He was very diligent in his checking. He peeled her T-shirt off and inspected her torso; to be sure he traced her collarbone and lifted each breast; he put his thumb in the divot where her throat met her chest, and then dunked it into her mouth; he turned her over and checked her back; he came so close to the nape of her neck as he examined her that she could feel his breath moving the baby hairs behind her ears; he ducked a pinky finger gently into each; he pulled off her skirt and her tights and checked between each toe, and up one leg and down the other; he parted her buttocks and looked between them. “It’s okay,” he said finally. “You’re clean.”

“There’s one inside me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes – ?” she shrugged down in the dark, wriggling. “Yes,” she said again, more certain. “I just felt it. I can feel it right now. Look inside me. I’m – I’m sure it’s there.”

Dell shimmied half off the bed and hunched, weight on his elbows. He parted her thighs, brought his face up in between them, and even in the dark, she knew he could see.

“Is it terrible?” she called.

He didn’t reply, only gripped her tighter.

(Author photo by Julie Wilson.)

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