Chopping

Jennifer Wortman

      My boyfriend, Ray-Ray, doesnít trust me with knives. Once, not long after we first met, I was in the kitchen quartering a green apple and the knife slipped, stabbing me in the webbed skin between my index finger and thumb. Ray-Ray had me press a potholder to the wound until he could find a clean towel, then he drove me to the emergency room. It is the only time in the two years weíve been together that Iíve ended up there, and yet, to see him fret, youíd think I jam sharp objects into my hand as a nightly hobby. He also doesnít trust me to walk down staircases, sit on ledges, cross streets, drive through parking lots, or close car trunks. I get my share of bruises and scrapes, but nothing worth mentioning. Sometimes I canít tell if heís afraid for me or of me. Now he hovers over the counter where I'm chopping a large white onion and a small red bell pepper for a black bean soup. Heís running his fingers through his hair so hard and fast I can hear his nails scratching his scalp. His shoe taps the linoleum.

      "Can I do that?" he asks.

      "Nope," I say.

      "Why donít you let me do that, Liza?"

      "Really," I say. "Iím fine." I slow the knifeís descent into the onion, half as a show of caution to ease his worry, half to prolong his agony. He has called me clumsy, his brows heavy with concern, but he confuses clumsiness with carelessness. I know how to take care, when I so desire. And he knows well of my grace; in bed, I am our main choreographer, a fact he would never admit.

      Ray-Ray opens the refrigerator and just stands there, letting the cold into the kitchen, as if heís watching whatís inside instead of actively looking for something. I know thatís because heís really looking at my hands out of the corner of his eye, to make sure they donít slip, as though he can control things simply by keeping them in view.

      It sounds stupid, but I know how he feels. My first years in Colorado, I panicked every time my dorm room phone gave off the double ring that meant a long-distance call. I thought simply by turning away from my family, I had condemned them to disaster, death. And yet I had made a point of considering only schools west of the Mississippi--I wanted keep a safe distance between myself and my small-town home in Ohio.

   Ray-Ray releases the refrigerator door and it closes with a gentle thud. He comes over beside me, picks up the red bell pepper, which is still whole, and rotates it. He sighs, but says nothing. Since we moved in together, he has begged me, over and over again, to buy green peppers instead: "Theyíre a third of the cost," he always says. Heís not exactly cheap, but heís sensitive to anything remotely resembling a rip-off.

    He starts sorting through the cupboards, arranging cereal boxes, stacking cans. My eyes are tearing from onion odor. I bet his will tear up soon, too. I let the drops slide down my cheeks, fall onto the board. The blade of the knife Iím using is about five inches long, finely serrated, attached to a white handle. Ray-Ray is lucky Iím not much for cooking, or heíd have to hover every day. I donít particularly like cooking; I mostly just like to chop. Normally, I go for the ready-made options, food thatís fast or frozen or raw. I can be as lazy as they come, but thatís not why I like my food to come to me already prepared. Cooking draws attention from the final product to its pieces, a dissection in reverse. By the time Iím through fiddling with a dishís innards, the whole always seems less than the sum of its parts. And yet, if I concentrate on the process of cooking, dismiss concerns about the product, I can experience the pleasure of chopping. Chopping helps me think--it has meditative properties. I like the click the knife makes after each cut when it strikes the hard plastic board, an insistent, definite sound that combines the comfort of repetition with the knowledge that somethingís been divided, changed for good

    Ray-Ray stands on his tiptoes to reach the top shelves. His red shirt rises with his arms, revealing a strip of tawny skin above the waistband of his jeans. I poke him in the side with the flat of the knife and he jumps, drops a can of Campbellís soup, which narrowly misses his bare foot and rolls against the base of the counter. I suddenly feel sad for him. Because Iíve interrupted his stretch, he now seems shrunken. He looks at me with something like amused disgust, which makes me feel a little better. His eyes are moist.

    "Want some raw onion?" I ask. Iím not much of a nurturer.

    "Youíre an idiot," he says. He brushes off his jeans, as if heís just fallen in dirt.

    "Fuckhead," I say.

    "Crotch," he replies, flicking my arm. "Watch what youíre doing."

    Insults and obscenities are our best terms of endearment. With only an intimate can you hurl profanities in the name of love. Ray-Ray always starts with clean language, though. But Iím not much for reciprocity. I prefer one-upmanship. Even in kindergarten, during playtime, when Jason Morgan, jealous that I had the red building blocks, called me a vagina, I didnít call him a penis, but a motherfucking penis--loudly. On the way to the principalís office, my teacher, Mrs. Cordray, asked me where I learned that word. "From my mom," I said. My mother, at that time, was a fairly well known author of childrenís books. Mrs. Cordray didnít believe me.

    The onion chopping is in its final stages now. Iím fine tuning in my random way, pressing the knife down on the shallow pile of onion pieces, letting it land where it may. I wiggle my hips with each chop and hum a made-up tune. "Hey, Iíll do the pepper," says Ray-Ray, touching my shoulder.

    "Ray-Ray," I say. "Leave." I wonder what new activity heíll come up with as an excuse to hover now, to stay. But instead he stands there, a thoughtful frown in his forehead. He shrugs, turns around, walks out. I hear the television click on, some solemn-voiced babblings about the Dow Jones industrial average. Staring at the space where Ray-Ray, a second ago, had been, I imagine the ironic, expectant expression I still hold on my face, and feel stupid.

    I slide the onion pieces into a cereal bowl, and rinse off the pepper. I carve out its stem, extract the seeds, start slicing it into strips. When I look back to when I first met Ray-Ray, I canít help thinking that context is everything. Back then, he was delivering lunch food to local companies. Every day, sometime between ten and eleven oíclock, heíd arrive at Patton Press with his basket of plastic-wrapped sandwiches, burritos, buttery cookies and fresh-fruit Danishes. With his red hooded sweat jacket, which he wore always, even on cold days under a heavy coat, he reminded me of Little Red Riding Hood.

    If I had noticed Ray-Ray for his Little Red Riding Hood resemblance alone, I would have enjoyed leaving my desk to buy his wares every day, felt a twinge of warmth at his sight, and then forgotten him by the time Iíd stuck my sandwich in the company refrigerator. But he also had the look of a wolf about him, not in a carnivorous, cartoon way, but in the nature poster sense. His graceful but prominent features, his dark, intense eyes, even the soft shagginess of his black hair called to mind a canine, elegant and wild. He wasnít much taller than me, was slight in build, but there was a stealth in his step that suggested strength. Added to all this were his piercings--nose, eyebrow, upper ear, which, combined with the seriousness of his face, seemed more than decorative, almost ritualistic. I had my piercings, too, but I no longer used them. They had long outlasted their purpose. In Midland, Ohio, it was shocking to insert metal all over your skin, but in Boulder, Colorado piercings were practically a sign of respectability, of community spirit. At Patton, though, with the people around me--their cookie-cutter casual professional clothes, their groomed nails and polished shoes, their Boulder Symphony posters and their quick, declarative speech--I soon remembered the value of boring holes in your flesh. Ray-Ray was an ambassador from another world.

    But if I had seen him among the other oddly bejeweled bodies, roaming the Pearl Street Mall, or loafing on the University Hill, I wouldnít have looked at him twice.

    I moved out here thinking all the outlandishness a plus, my westward journeying a family tradition. My mother, at age eighteen, left the Bronx for Ohio University. Her grandparents settled in New York after leaving Eastern Europe. I imagine at one point my motherís forebears lived around the region that is today modern Israel. If I have children and this trend continues, Iím afraid my progeny will eventually wind up in the Pacific Ocean. Either that, or theyíll travel full circle, give birth to Sabras--native Israelis--who will have nowhere left to go.

    When I consider the forces behind my family trajectory, I know something has gone very wrong. My ancestors were driven by historical, economic, religious inducements. My mom fled home because she couldnít and didnít want to get along with her domineering parents, because she was tired of litter and rude people. She had visions of a dignified life in the country, a la Jane Austen. For her, Ohio, with its fields of dappled cows, its mayonnaise-laden side dishes, its tiny Protestant churches, was the height of exoticism. As for me, I left Midland because I liked to wear my hair in weird colors and shapes, to drink and yell, to solicit the disfavor of peers, neighbors and storekeepers and hate them for it. I used to come home from high school, stand in front of the mirror in our downstairs bathroom, and slowly twist earring posts through any available place in my ear cartilage. I didnít use ice. No one bothered me. My dadís schedule was flexible--he taught sociology at Midland Community College--but he usually spent most of his time at his office. My mother stayed tucked away in her room--the master bedroom, but I think of it as hers--sleeping or reading novels written in England, France, and Russia. Now and then Iíd bleach my hair, dye it Kool-Aid colors. I thought I was expressing my individuality, and received the banalities people tossed at me in the school hallways--freak, lezzie, bitch, whore--with relish, because those insults meant I was not like them, the girls who woke up at four-thirty a.m. to get their large hair and thick make-up perfect before each school day, the boys who strutted though the quiet streets of tiny Midland like they owned the world.

    Looking back, I see I styled myself to obscure, at least as much to express, who I really was. The first time I dyed my hair was in ninth grade. My mother had given me Anne Frankís diary to read. She said it was one of her favorite books, that back in the Bronx people used to always tell her how much she resembled Anne, and she felt a special, heart-breaking connection with her. But I hated Anne Frankís diary, knowing her fate. Somehow it seemed less a record of her life then an artifact of death: when I read the passage where despite the cruelty of the Nazis, she insists on the ultimate goodness of human nature, I wanted to spit. I became obsessed with her photograph on the cover, held it up beside me in the mirror, afraid of finding something of myself in her large, dreamy eyes, her pale skin, her Mona Lisa smile. The photograph, I read in our encyclopedia, had been discovered beside her diary in the attic where her family had hid, and with it, a note: "This is the photo as I would wish to look all the time." The encyclopedia contained another picture of Anne: less mannered, more childish. She looks straight at the camera, wearing a silly grin. I held this photo beside me, too. I thought about when I was in fourth grade and Suzy Woodruff followed me into the coat room before recess, backing me into a corner, singing, "Jewy, Jewy, Jewy," and how, even though I felt my heart pounding in my chest, and hated the closeness of her jeering face, I just laughed, because even in fourth grade I knew enough to understand the stupidity of her insult in both content and form. Looking at Anne Frankís happy picture, though, I wondered if backing into the corner of the coatroom, foolishly laughing, I had looked like her. After spending hours in front of the mirror for many days, I shaved the sides of my head, dyed the remaining hair berry blue.

    In Midland, I have been mistaken for being Italian, Mexican, Iranian, and even half-Japanese. I was often asked, "What are you?" Though my natural hair color and eyes are dark, my skin is fair and in strong sun burns in a matter of minutes: I say this not to assert my Caucasian purity, but to convey how little it took in Midland to be construed as something alien. In a way, my blue hair and punctured skin made me less of a freak, because at least then the nature of my freakishness was obvious, easy to trace.

    That same attention to surfaces is what keeps me in the customer service department at Patton. I have been urged to apply for entry level editorial positions in production and acquisitions, for copywriting jobs in marketing and promotions, but I donít want to involve myself deeply with the content of Pattonís books. I take a perverse pleasure in keeping my knowledge of historical atrocity at the level of commodification; titles typed into computers and printed on invoices, pages held between glossy covers and plunged into bubble envelopes. I know just enough about the subjects we cover to feel disturbed, almost titillated, without actually being sickened. We sell books, mostly to academics and their students, about state-sanctioned cannibalism in Communist China, the Turkish slaughter of Armenian children, outbreaks of violence in the American South. We peddle studies of Franco, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Pinochet, and offer a collection of essays debating whether or not the Holocaust is a unique phenomenon in human history. Our books arrive to our customers in seven to ten working days.

    One day I bought a cherry Danish from Ray-Ray and he smiled at me. Though smiles tend to constrict most peopleís eyes, his widened. He looked like a different person. Normally he just pulled some bills and coins from a green pouch, counted out change, and nodded his thanks. I felt heartened by his friendliness, so I decide to play an inside joke.

    "You're very striking," I said. "Whatís your ethnicity?"

    He looked around the room, like maybe I was talking to someone else. "Uh, thanks." he said. "Iím sorry, whatís the question?"

    "Your ethnicity," I said. "What are you?"

    "Oh," he said. "Heinz 57, I guess. A little bit of everything-- French, Mexican, Italian, German, I think maybe some Russian mixed in somewhere. Why?"

    I almost answered with, "youíre cute," but there was an earnestness on his face that made me tell him the truth. "People always used to ask me that question. It annoyed me. I wanted to see what youíd do."

    "Ah," he said. "A mad scientist."

    "No," I said. "Just a mad customer service representative. Do you have a cure for madness?"

    "If I did, I wouldnít give it to you," he said, all seriousness. "You seem okay as is."

    My relationship with Ray-Ray is the longest Iíve ever had, the first guy in my life since Iíve graduated college. In high school I thought every guy with spiked hair and a taste for Black Flag must be my soul mate, and when they dispensed with me I made a point of being friendly because I didnít want them to know Iíd cared. Half the people I hooked up with in college I was attracted to but didnít like; I could then take the double pleasure of seducing and rejecting them. By senior year I couldnít tell if I was more disgusted with myself or the people I slept with, and until Ray-Ray, I quit men altogether. My mom ran her romance life in defiance of her parents. She wasnít allowed to date non-Jews, so after school sheíd sneak off to vacant lots, or behind delivery trucks or dumpsters, with some neighborhood Irish or Italian boy, tell her parents she was with friends. I didnít want to know these things about my mother, but sheíd call me into her bedroom and actually sit up to talk to me, so I felt like I had to listen. "There are two lessons here," sheíd say. "Just because your parents hate a boy for stupid reasons doesnít mean heís any good. I canít tell you how many bad situations I put myself in. The other lesson is, love whoever suits you. I donít care if he worships the man in the moon or tree trunks, if heís purple or polka-dotted. Marry a woman! Be who you want to be. Iíll never stand in your way." She would sway when saying this to me, and stare at the foot of the bed, like she was praying.

    She met my father in a sociology class her senior year, where he taught as a graduate assistant. My father, even in middle age, has movie star looks: Newman eyes, Redford hair, a Gene Kelly grin. Back then he must have been dazzling. My mother, I imagine, was intrigued by his combination of bookish asceticism and physical beauty. When she married my father, her parents refused to attend the wedding. Despite their rebellious, romantic beginning, my mother and father seemed to lead entirely different lives. Practically all I ever heard my father say to her was, "How are you feeling today?" in a tone that sounded like it belonged to a doctor instead of a husband. To me, heíd say, "Take care of her. Sheís not well." My father hid away in his office like she had something contagious, when we all knew otherwise, that my mother stayed in bed only because she liked it there better than anywhere else. Every few months, she would leave her bed to follow him through the house in her nightgown, yelling, calling him names, saying her parents were smart, that marrying him was a mistake. "Helen," heíd say. "You need your rest." I know their troubles had their effects on me, my relationships; in a way, my mother runs my love life after all.

    Iím done with the pepper, but Iím not through with the knife. I take a garlic bunch from the refrigerator, tear off and peel four cloves. We have a garlic press somewhere, but I want to stand here some more, slice the garlic paper-thin, see if Ray-Ray will come back in. I hear the theme from Jeopardy playing on the tube. Ray-Ray hates game shows--he doesnít like to watch people get their hopes up and lose. I peek into the living room. Heís sitting the length of the couch, scribbling in a notebook on his lap. It occurs to me that in the two years weíve been together, Iíve never seen him write anything down, except maybe a grocery list or an endorsement on his paycheck. He leans into his writing with an intensity that makes me feel almost jealous of the paper.

    I return to the garlic. I have memories of my mother writing her childrenís books when I was very young. She sat at the kitchen table gripping her pen, her face set hard in thought. Most of the time she kept still in this pose, then suddenly sheíd lower her head, loosen her jaw, and race her pen across the page for a couple minutes or so. Even then, I could tell she was at her happiest this way. Her occasional unfocused smiles away from the table lacked the vitality her face contained when locked in thought, writing books about a ferret named Fanny: Fanny Ferret Climbs Mount Everest; Fanny Ferret Fights Street Crime; Fanny Ferret Saves the Dinosaurs; Fanny Ferret Reads Minds.

    When I was five I remember her rising from the table to answer the phone. I could tell something was wrong-- her voice sounded too polite, strained. When she hung up, without looking at me, she went upstairs, climbing the steps like she had lead in her shoes. She left her pen lying across a half-filled page in her notebook. My father came home from the office, and explained my mom would be going away for a few days; her mother had died.

    The notebook remained on the kitchen table until my mother's return. She dropped her suitcase as soon as she saw it, picked it up by its wire coil, letting the pen roll to the floor, and dropped it in the trash.

    She always denied regrets about eliminating Fanny. "To be honest, Iíve always hated animals," she said. "Theyíre boring and unpredictable, the worst combination, like the street thugs back home. At least your father is predictable. Iíll give him that."

    But I never forgot that writing brought my mother closer to happiness than Iíd ever seen. In college, whenever I wrote, though, no matter how I tried, my story always ended in pornography. I began stories with eighty-year-old grandmothers, three-year-old boys, but somehow all my writing led to some nubile adult happily lying naked and prostrate on a cold floor. Perhaps I had received more of a legacy from the Fanny stories than I knew; she was the same sort of serial character you find in adult films: Debbie Does Dallas, Debbie Does Dada, Debbie Does Demerol, Debbie Does Depression, etc. Instead of having an adult serial character, though, my stories had adult serial endings. I couldnít show them to anyone.

    I stopped writing around the same time I returned to my real hair color, which meant staggering, hungover, to a drug store for a box of Nice and Easy shade 121, Natural Deep Brown. The night before I had downed a good half a bottle of one hundred proof Smirnoff vodka. I woke up on a pile of dirty clothes in the corner of my bedroom, a Swiss army knife beside me--not mine--and small cuts, arranged like tally marks, on my inner left arm. They werenít very deep, but the skin next to each incision was puffy and pink, surrounding lines of blood that had dried but still looked a little sticky. That whole area of my arm throbbed and burned. Pulling myself onto my bed, I thought, I need some real enemies so I can stop destroying myself.

    That same morning I lay in bed imagining that by some twist of fate, Anne Frankís ancestors had migrated to America. Anne grows up, say, in Baltimore. She keeps a diary, gets married, has children, a full life. She doesnít much like to cook, but occasionally she produces a phenomenal spinach lasagna, and every Hanukah, she fries up delicious latkes. Anne and her husband, Eli, parody Wagner operas in their living room: Anne makes a hat for herself with paper horns. Every Sunday, Anne, Eli, and the kids leap around to Stravinskyís Rite of Spring. When the kids move out and arthritis sets in, Anne and Eli bounce gently to the music in their firm-backed chairs. Anne is insightful, mischievous, loving, liberal-minded: her children trust her with their secrets. Maybe she is still living. If she has died, her children find her diary. Her daughter takes it to her home in Iowa, reads it while shedding bittersweet tears, stores it in her attic. Say her daughter has a daughter in school in California. There is no guarantee that Anne Frankís granddaughter will not have green hair, drink too much, or mutilate herself. Maybe she complains of feeling empty, wishes she had more friends, better boyfriends, smaller hips, a talent for the guitar instead of math. She downs a bottle of sleeping pills. What is the lesson here?

    The scarring is very light now, hardly discernable to the naked eye. Iíve never told Ray-Ray about what I did, but sometimes I think he sort of knows anyway: Ray-Ray the Russian Reads Minds. Iíll be doing something innocuous, watching a courtroom drama on TV, or reading an interview with a sixties icon in a music magazine, and heíll suddenly turn to me with such force that I feel his gaze before I even register its origin. Heíll look astonished, like heís just been slapped or hugged by a complete stranger. "Youíre a piece of work," heíll say. I used to find this behavior flattering, but lately Iíve been wondering what he thinks he has on me.

    I have two cloves left. When I am through slicing them, I will slice the slices. There is an event in my motherís life that I look to as a moment of pure clarity. I heard about it, of course, at her bedside. Later, when Iíd asked her questions, sheíd refuse to discuss it, like it was some big secret I had sneakily obtained: she did this when I tried to talk about anything she had told me. Her moment of clarity--my phrase, not hers--occurred when she was fourteen, waiting for the Bronx Crosstown Express with some kids from her neighborhood. She was smoking a Camel cigarette. One of the kids, Tony Torelli, started singing a song. She heard him sing the word "Jews," and before she knew it, she had extinguished her cigarette against his forearm. It turned out he had been singing a jingle about orange juice.

    In retrospect, my motherís moment of clarity led to something shameful. She had committed violence against someone because of a foolish misunderstanding. But I have always been jealous of my motherís moment. When she crushed that cigarette into Tony Torelliís flesh, she had merged with forces of history; she knew exactly who she was and what to do about it.

    My mother, for many reasons, never had much use for organized Judaism. We could have traveled to Columbus for High Holy Days services--my father sometimes offered to drive, drop us off, but she always refused. She hated Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Each year sheíd rise from her bed and open her door long enough to announce that she had nothing to atone for. But for all her irreverence, sometimes Iíd come upon her reading the Bible, following the words with the same concentration on her face she had when she used to write. Before I left for college, she called me into her room. She sat up, her blue comforter wrapping her legs like a mermaid tail. She waved an open Bible at me. "Godís a bad-ass. One mean motherfucker," she said. "Not some great hippie in the sky. You remember that."

    "I already know," I told her.

    I once repeated my momís words to Ray-Ray. I expected him to give some soft-spoken, thoughtful response, drawing on Buddhist perspectives of the divine. Instead, he said, very quietly, "Your momís a mess. Donít ever go back there."

    "Iím not planning to anytime soon," I said, surprised. A part of me wanted to defend her; another part was touched by Ray-Rayís protectiveness.

    After I finished college, I actually returned home for a week. My first day back my father bought two pounds of shrimp to celebrate, and stayed home from the office. My mother showered, blow-dried her hair with a styling brush, put on a purple linen pantsuit and a string of pearls, and came down from her room. She and my father sat at the kitchen table with me and we peeled the shrimp, dipping them into a sauce my father had made from ketchup, horseradish, and Worcestershire sauce.

    "You missed a leg," my mom said to me as I lifted a shrimp to my mouth.

    "Theyíre not legs," said my dad, laughing. I yanked off the offending piece.

    "Not legs!" said my mother, feigning shock. "Deluded for all these years. What are they then?"

    "Oh, I donít know," said my father. "Letís call them zeepzers."

    "Zeepzers! I love it," cried my mom, gleefully. She turned to me, her eyes shining. "See, honey, Iím not the only one around here with a creative spirit."

    My dad grinned cheerfully, and blew my mom a kiss across the table.

    "Am I in the right house?" I asked. They both looked at me as if I were the alien, as if the eighteen years Iíd spent with them were my own fabrication.

    They then took turns asking questions about my future. My mom slid her chair next to my father and held his shoulder. I had to leave the table. I can forgive my father his distance, my mother her bitterness, but I will never forgive them for not improving themselves earlier, when it would have meant the most. Like I told Ray-Ray, I will not go back there anytime soon.

    I steal another peek at Ray-Ray. Heís still on the couch, writing away. I wonder if this is going to be a new development, if Ray-Ray now keeps a diary. If so, Iíll never sneak a look at it, not because of high morals, but because Iím afraid of what I might find. Ray-Ray is my host nation; I donít want to know what he really thinks of me.

    Iíve chopped the garlic so finely it looks almost crushed. But Iím not done yet. The knife has been through a lot this evening: by now itís very slippery. I could take another clove from the refrigerator. Itís difficult to slice something that small. Maybe Iíll lose hold of the knife, nick my hand just enough to cry out. Ray-Ray will drop his notebook, run into the kitchen. Heíll examine my hand, exert pressure on the cut with a clean cloth. Shaken, heíll tell me to be more careful. "Please," heíll beg.

    But I donít take out another clove. Instead, I squirt soap on a sponge, wash the knife, set it in the dish rack. I still have time to improve myself. I put everything Iíve chopped into zip-loc bags, seal them. "Hey, Ray-Ray," I call. "I really donít feel like cooking anymore. Letís order pizza."

    "Youíre crazy," says Ray-Ray distractedly, sounding like heís still immersed in his writing. I go into the living room. He cups the contents of the notebook with his hand, and keeps writing.

    "What do you want on it? Onion, tomato, pineapple, mushroom? Red, green, hot peppers? Black olives?"

    "You choose. I donít care." He doesnít even look up.

    "Meat eaterís special," I say. Ray-Rayís a vegetarian. "Pig, cow, bird, fish."

    "Come on, Liza."

    "Ears, fingers, toes, scalp." He sighs, shakes his head. "Tongue, liver, heart, brains."

    His pen moves across the page, making rodent-like scratching sounds. Why is he shielding his words from me?

    "Your writingís your business," I say. "You know I donít care."

    "What?" he says absently. I point to his cupped hand. "Oh, sorry," he says. "Just an old habit. From grade school." But he keeps his hand as is.

    "Take your hand away," I say. "I wonít look."

    "Itís no big deal," he said. "Iím just comfortable this way."

    "If itís no big deal, then take it away."

    "No," he says. We stare at each other. Ragged red circles spread across his cheeks.

    He sighs, then sighs again. He drops his hand onto his notebook. "Look, I'm sorry," he says. "I'm just trying to think."

    "I know, no big deal" I say, smiling gently. "Sometimes I overreact. You go back to your special project." I prepare to leave the room, call for the pizza, but something comes over me, and I leap to the couch, grab the notebook. I pull it from beneath his hands and throw it to the floor, closing my eyes so I see nothing.

    "Open your eyes," he says. Heís standing in the middle of the room, holding up the page heíd been working on. Itís a giant black ink lopsided heart, half-valentine, half-biological. "It was for you."

    "I didnít know you drew," I say. I feel foolish. "You should use drawing paper, instead of a notebook."

    "Whatís the difference?" he says, tossing the notebook back on the floor."Mushroom and black olive, is that good?"

    "Perfect," I say.

    Some things donít change. That night, in our bedroom, I put on a short red dress, scent my skin, light four blue candles. I strip Ray-Ray, straddle him, pinch his shoulder, bite his neck. I hold his chin with one hand, press my thumb into his throat, and feel my eyes opening wide, as if they could swallow him whole. He murmurs my name. "Quiet," I whisper. He parts his lips, his hair scattered sideways across the pillow like a dark frozen flame. The ring in his brow sticks out like a tiny handle. I nibble it, release it, rise. In his eyes is something like awe, something like fear, and something else, unnameable and new. Now he knows I am his knife, and I know he will leave me soon.

©Copyright Jennifer Wortman