Joyland

The West |

James Perse

by Aaron Sunshine

edited by Kate Folk

Josiah was never really that attracted to anyone, at least not in the way that he imagined “being really attracted to someone” felt. He imagined that it was a magnetic state, where an overpowering force gripped you and dragged you towards another person. He thought that being really attracted to someone would be like being carried.

When attraction did appear—as an ache that ran from his upper spine to his crotch—it was accompanied by fantasies of what could go wrong if he were to fuck somebody. He imagined fucking them, and then having to piss while fucking them, so he would have to excuse himself and go to the bathroom. Once when this did happen to him, he just stopped in the middle and said he was bored of fucking, put on his clothes and left.

The last time he’d almost had sex was six weeks before he met Audrey. Josiah and Rachel had met several times, but this time, at Lia’s birthday party, there was a vibe between them. They made out at the bar, and when the forces that hold a party together started to dissipate, Josiah and Rachel drove to her place. He fantasized about dropping her off and saying well it was great and rolling away. As soon as they entered her apartment, Josiah pushed her against the door and kissed her. She laughed, squirmed and settled. For a moment Josiah felt like this might be all right.

“I have to pee,” Rachel whispered and walked away. Josiah sat on her couch. He imagined the next hour. Maybe they would make out more, maybe they would drink wine and then at some point she would say let’s go to bed. He’d take off his shirt, and then like getting hit by a rock, he was struck by the thought that she would look at his naked body, peer down at this stomach and say:

“Look at your potato stomach, it looks just like a huge potato!” The thought repeated itself. He clutched his stomach, and pushed it down, as if he could shove it into his hips.

When Rachel returned, he stood up and said “Hey my stomach, it’s really upset. I need to go. I’m sorry.”

Late that night, pretending to watch Seinfeld, he replayed the thought of her saying that over and over again. Rachel texted him asking if he was okay, and he responded that he was fine. He wanted to tell her that he knew it wasn’t right to leave, but also that it wasn’t possible for him to stay. That felt too complicated to explain, so instead he never texted her again.

Most of the sex he actually had—as opposed to the sex he imagined—was drunk, and since he didn’t know how to act in bed, he would imitate what he imagined a man’s way of having sex was. He would groan, and grab the person’s wrists. He would ask them if they liked that, if they loved his cock, “Yeah take it, you’re gonna take it.” When he did this, he would feel like he was watching it from a corner of the room.

#

The Life Vibes reading had just ended. Audrey and Josiah were arguing when Audrey screamed: “Well fucking slap me!”

He belted her across the face. Audrey was wobbly drunk, and fell down on contact. The crowd streaming around them towards the exit glared at Josiah. Josiah felt great. Audrey started laughing and reached her hand up and people stopped paying attention. Audrey was dressed in a black crewneck pocked with holes, and olive green cargo pants. She was wearing scuffed Chelsea boots, the sole in early separation. Josiah thought she looked homeless, and was attracted to her. He imagined her being disgusted by his nose hairs, staring at them in the way that he stared at himself in the mirror, tugging on them and then saying that it wasn’t gonna happen. As he pulled her from the ground, he thought about letting go of her hand or even pushing her back down. He imagined her hitting her pelvis and crying out “Why did you do that?” and he felt a frisson of guilt.

Back on her feet, Audrey said, “Well thanks,” and walked off.

“Hey!” Josiah yelled. Audrey ambled toward the door. People were crowding between them like bad clouds.

“Hey!” Josiah yelled again, louder, moving towards the door.

What?” Audrey said, turning.

“You uh, you want to hang out sometime?”

“Sure,” Audrey said. He looked to the side as he pulled out his phone. Looking to the side was something he’d learned was cool—as if he wasn’t managing his hands, as if they acted on their own volition and that he was unconcerned with whatever they were doing. She put her number in his phone.

“Cool. See you later.” Audrey was caught in the flow of people, and disappeared.

#

Sometimes Josiah could get into the performance; when he did, it felt like his biceps were thick as tree trunks and his hands had unlimited strength. In these moments, he would spend money freely, looking to the side as he did so, imagining a trail of smoke coming out of his mouth, though he didn’t smoke and thought it was gross that Audrey did.

#

“It’s my treat,” he said as they sat at the bar of the Yerba Buena. The bartender dropped off two Irish coffees. Josiah paid with a twenty. He took the change without leaving a tip, reconsidered and left a dollar.

“What do you think?”

“It’s good,” Audrey said. “I think my dad would like this place.”

“Hey so your poetry, it’s really good.”

“Thanks. That stuff you heard, like I’m just doing bimbo stuff now. Just saying whatever, you know?”

“I don’t think it’s bimbo stuff. It’s really smart.”

“What’s wrong if it’s bimbo stuff? What, you think poetry should always be brilliant or something?”

“Shouldn’t poetry be good or—”

“You think brilliant is good?”

“That’s what people say, ‘oh it’s brilliant,’ you know?

“Your poetry is really good,” Audrey said. She licked a dangling piece of whipped cream off the side of her cup. “It’s really confused. I really like it.”

#

Forty minutes later they were driving past the Marina Safeway towards the Richmond. Audrey caressed the leather of the glovebox.

“Your car is really nice,” Audrey said. Josiah drove a Land Rover.

“Thanks. Yeah it’s all . . .” he paused but wasn’t sure why, “. . . right.” He tapped the dashboard. “It’s great.”

“It’s really comfortable.”

“Thanks.” He wasn’t sure why she was talking about his car. What was she fishing for? “It was a gift from my dad,” Josiah blurted.

“Oh cool, nice gift.” Fuck, he thought, why did I even say that?

“Want to get some beer?” he said, to change the subject.

“Yeah. I want to smoke.”

#

They took a walk in Golden Gate Park, and in front of the pond with the plastic dinosaur head rising, they made out. Josiah hated the ash taste, but liked how she closed her mouth at the end of a kiss. He pushed her up against a skinny tree. She cried out theatrically and laughed.

“What?” Josiah said in his guttural voice. He mentally checked through all the things that she could be laughing at.

“Nothing, this is fun.”

Later, they agreed to go to Josiah’s apartment in Corte Madera. Josiah felt pumped, like his skin was stretching and on the edge of shedding. Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, which he had done thousands of times, felt glamorous in a way it hadn’t before. He glanced around; all the objects were in place—the girl, the receding lights of nighttime San Francisco, the car humming along. He pressed his foot on the accelerator, the car responding to him in just the way he imagined Audrey would. His mind raced through a circuit of sexual scenarios—blowjob, doggy, cumming on Audrey’s face, a second of her voice saying oh yeah. Another part of his mind noticed that he was running through these scenarios, and then noticed that he was into it. He felt a new interior glow at this, and he enjoyed watching himself be into the idea of having sex. This made him feel more powerful.

#

In Josiah’s apartment:

“Ummm,” Audrey said.

“Uh huh,” Josiah said. He put his hands on her hips and turned her.

“What? What do you want?” Audrey said.

“You’ve got great tits. I want to see your tits.” She was wearing the same black shirt and the same green pants. He wondered if she ever washed them. An itching disgust waved through his head. He scrunched his face and shook his head to dispel it.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” He dug his hands into the collar of her shirt and tore. The shirt stretched and then refused to go farther. He relaxed his hands and tried a second time. The shirt gave and tore. Audrey’s chest was exposed. He grabbed the fabric dangling down her back and dropped it to the floor. He pushed her against the wall.

#

They lay side by side in Josiah’s bed.

“That was so hot when you tore off my shirt,” Audrey said.

“Yeah, thanks,” Josiah said. She placed her hand on his stomach. He drew his stomach back and hardened his abs.

“So hey, this might sound weird, but . . . can you replace the shirt? I only have like, two, so I really need that one. It’s a James Perse, they have a store in the city.”

“Sure . . . baby,” he said. He licked the back of his teeth and swallowed. “Baby” had felt so strange to say.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.” He shrugged her hand off of his stomach. She put her hand back on his stomach. He moved away from her, taking her hand in his, clenching it.

#

Audrey borrowed a white shirt of his. He hated looking at her in his shirt. Her pants were too big, he thought, and the t-shirt was oversized.

A few days later, they set up another date.

You get my shirt?

Not yet

Well bring it tonight. I won’t wear anything else.

OK cool cool I’ll see you tonight.

Josiah drove to the James Perse store on Fillmore street. As soon as he walked into the shop, torn shirt in hand, he had a bad feeling. He looked around, found a shirt and touched it—it felt like a soft t-shirt, he thought—and then looked at the tag. $108.

No, no, he thought to himself. That was too much. It was ridiculous. Suddenly he heard a clomping coming in his direction. He wondered if he was sweating or if he stank.

“Can I help you find anything?” the salesgirl said. She was shorter than him, with black hair, bangs, a black turtleneck and jeans that seemed to have an internal luminescence.

“No.” He clenched the torn shirt. “Actually, I was looking to replace this.” He handed her the shirt. He wondered if his palms had dampened it.

“Okay,” she said, unraveling the shirt. She peered at the tag. “That should be no problem. We definitely have these in stock.”

“How much does it cost?” Josiah said.

“For this, it’s around $108 plus tax.”

“God,” he said, shaking his head. “Do you have anything on sale? Anything like this, but you know, less?”

“Well uhh . . .” she said, looking around. She handed the torn shirt back to Josiah. “Over there, we have some sale shirts. You can look and see. I don’t think we have anything exactly like this.”

“How much would a sale shirt be?” Josiah said.

“I don’t really know, the ones we have are about 20% off, so around $80? But they won’t be like that one. They’ll be different.”

“That’s okay, that’s still a lot for you know, a t-shirt. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome?” the sales girl said.

“Actually wait—where could I get a shirt like this?” Josiah was sweating; he felt his whole body tense. He couldn’t believe he was doing it, but it felt like throwing up, like he had to say it: “A shirt like, this but you know—cheaper.”

“Uhhhh . . .” The sales girl looked around, like she was seeking help. “Well, I guess American Apparel has shirts like this.”

“Ok, thanks, thanks.” Josiah walked out.

#

Josiah twisted the torn shirt like a wet towel. This fucking shirt. Why didn’t she say something, like “this is a $100 shirt”? Why’d she just let him do it? $100, fuck he couldn’t spend that on a shirt, it was ridiculous. He followed his feet into a bakery, his mind looping around the shirt. He ordered two pieces of carrot cake and a black coffee, and by the time he finished eating them and throwing them up, he decided that she’d get a shirt from American Apparel, and she’d be fine with it. What was she even doing with a shirt like that? Given how she dressed, any shirt would look fine on her. What was her problem?

He drove to the Haight and spent ten minutes finding parking, yelling and smacking the wheel every time he saw a spot that was red or yellow or too small or otherwise not quite right. He was shaking now, and his throat felt raw. He felt like he might cry, but didn’t, which frustrated him even more, but he was also glad to be spared the humiliation of crying. Or maybe he wasn’t sure; the idea of crying felt tempting to him, and then it became another thing he couldn’t do, like how he couldn’t un-tear the shirt.

He walked up Haight Street, looking at the ground. People moved out of his way. When he bumped shoulders with someone, he didn’t apologize. He felt nauseous, and re-tasted the bile and coffee.

American Apparel was pure assault: the lights were too bright, and there were clothes everywhere. Not on the floor; Josiah recognized the clothes were hung up and neatly organized, but they were also everywhere. He twirled the torn shirt like a whip. There were so many t-shirts in this store: V-neck, crew neck, deep V, 50/50, 25/25/50, box t’s.

Josiah twirled around slowly, taking in the space. He had no idea which direction to go in. Suddenly a voice cut in over the blare of feelings:

“Can I help you?” Josiah looked up. A pretty guy, with long bleached hair and sleepy eyes, was looking at him. He had a scattering of facial hair, like dark flecks tossed carelessly by a painter. Josiah loved looking at people like this, but if later he had described this guy to someone else, he would’ve said he was someone so pretty that he never had any problems.

“Yeah, uh, this . . .” He handed him the torn shirt. The guy took the shirt with the tips of his fingers and let the fabric drop.

“What do you want me to do with this?” the guy said. Josiah was annoyed by his voice. He’d wanted the guy’s voice to be stoned and slow and deep. Instead it was sharp and high-pitched.

“I need to replace this shirt.”

“It’s James Perse,” the guy said.

“Yeah, I know.”

The guy held the shirt in front of Josiah. “We don’t have these.”

“I need something like it. C’mon, just like whatever, a shirt like this.”

“Okay, here, can you take this back?” He pushed the torn shirt forward.

“Sure, yeah.” Josiah took it back.

“So like, what kind of shirt is it? What size?”

“It had that round neck. I dunno, medium maybe? It’s not mine. I tore it.”

“Okay, well. Here, come on.” They walked over to a rack against the wall. T-shirts were folded neatly into plastic bags, and arranged by color.

“Here, I think.” The sales guy pulled a bag off the wall. The shirt the model wore on the front image looked like the one Audrey had been wearing. Josiah flipped the bag around and found the price. $22. For a second, that felt okay, and then the burning anxiety like he had been conned started to churn again.

“Do you have something cheaper? Like maybe $10?” Josiah wasn’t sure why, but there was no way he could buy this. It was too much; it was like Audrey was stealing money from him.

“$10 for a t-shirt? No, we don’t. Maybe you could get a tank top for like, $18.”

“No, that’s too much. Do you know anywhere around here I can get something cheaper?”

“Man, I dunno.” The guy rubbed his palm across across his face. Josiah felt ashamed.

“Are you gonna help me or not?” Josiah said.

“What the fuck? I am helping you.”

“Tell me where to go,” Josiah said.

“There’s a Goodwill down the street. Maybe they’d have something, but there’s nothing here, okay?”

“Thanks,” Josiah said.

#

At Goodwill, Josiah paged through the t-shirts until he found a black one without a graphic. He couldn’t tell if it was the right size; he held it the torn shirt up next to it, and decided they were the same size, or close enough. The tag said it was a medium, and didn’t that fit most people? The fabric felt strangely stiff and too slick. It was $3. When he paid, it felt like something awful was happening to him, but he just did it.

#

He folded the new shirt up into a neat square, and then folded it in half again so that he could carry it in one hand. Audrey was outside Tempest texting and smoking. She was wearing a gray sweatshirt and those same olive green pants. Josiah was nervous and excited to see her. She’s a good thing, he thought to himself. This is fun, he thought.

“Hey,” he said, approaching. She raised an eyebrow, threw her cigarette on the ground and tapped her phone a few more times.

“Hey,” she said, turning to him, leaning her head forward and extending her lips. He kissed her.

“How are you?” Josiah asked.

“I’m okay. How are you? How was your day?”

“Oh, it was good. I just you know, ran around, hung out.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah it was nice,” Josiah said. “Just a day out in the city.”

“Is that my shirt?”

“Oh yeah, yeah it is.” Josiah smiled, and handed the shirt over. Audrey smiled at him.

Audrey unfolded the shirt and held it in front of her. She ran her fingers over the fabric of the sleeve. She looked at the label.

“What is this?”

“It’s a shirt,” Josiah said. “The one I got for you.”

“Right, it’s not the same though. It’s not a James Perse shirt.”

“Oh, I couldn’t find one there. But this should be good.”

“Like, what they didn’t have any black t-shirts in stock?”

“I just couldn’t find it, so I got you this.”

“Where did you even find this? I mean . . .” Audrey looked at the label. “It’s not even cotton.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. I got you a shirt.”

Audrey held her lighter to the bottom hem of the shirt. “Look, it melts.” The shirt’s fabric turned molten and tiny pieces flicked off on the wind. “This is just totally wrong. If you can’t find it, you can just pay for it and I’ll go get it.”

“Look, I’m not giving you $100 for a t-shirt. It’s ridiculous, okay? Like, I tore a shirt, I got you a shirt. That’s it. What do you even need a $100 shirt for?”

“That doesn’t really matter and like, you tore it and I need to replace it, I have like two t-shirts.”

“Maybe you’d have more t-shirts if you didn’t spend $100 on each one.” Josiah was shaking. He clenched his fists and felt his long nails digging into his palms.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“You should’ve told me it was so expensive! Why didn’t you fucking tell me? It had holes in it! You were treating it like garbage. How was I supposed to know?” Josiah was barely able to hear himself. He started heaving. “Supposed to know supposed to know you dress like that and then suddenly the shirt is $100 dollars, what are those pants $1,000 dollars? Huh? Huh?”

He moved closer to her. She backed up a step. She put a hand onto his arm.

“Hey, hey, let's talk about this later. You didn’t know, I get it. I guess you were really shocked. Okay? Are you okay?”

Josiah found her voice soothing. He twitched.

“Like it’s too much, too much for a shirt. I can’t just spend $100 on a t-shirt,” he whimpered.

“It’s okay.”

Josiah felt like he was going to cry. He had an urge to walk to an ATM, to cry, to get $1,000—no, $500—no, $100—okay, $100 out and give it to her, but instead he followed her into the bar and she ordered two whiskey sodas.

#

As he got drunker, the ATMs became like baleful, accusatory faces. Josiah noticed they were everywhere—every bar they went to, every corner store they bought cigarettes and candy and beer and water in.

“I’m so sorry about the shirt,” he said around 1:00 a.m.

“I mean, it’s fucked up.” Audrey looked so hateful, Josiah thought.

“Yeah, well I’m sorry.”

“Okay,” Audrey said.

He expected to feel better by apologizing, but he felt worse. Why was Audrey being such a bitch about this, he thought.

“You look tired,” Josiah said.

“Yeah, I’m pretty fucked up,” she replied. “Let’s go back to my place.”

She lived two blocks off of Divisadero in a second floor unit. Parking was a total hassle, and Josiah suspected that there was something illegal about the spot he ended up with, even though he couldn’t find evidence that it was, but he knew Audrey was wrong and that he would get a ticket.

Her apartment had a long hallway flanked by doors. It’s disgusting, he thought. There were pizza boxes on the coffee table, a full sink of dishes. In her room, the ashtray overflowed, and there were beer cans and books and papers covering her floor. The bed was unmade, the sheet coming off.

“So how many people live here?”

“Four including me,” Audrey said. She lit a cigarette, and blew the smoke away from Josiah.

“That’s, yeah, that’s a lot of people.”

“Yeah, it’s fine, you know, I’m not here that much.” She leaned over and kissed him. He wanted to wrench away. She grabbed his arms, and pushed him onto a dish that was under a sheet. He spasmed away.

“Oh sorry, haha,” Audrey said. She pulled the crumb-covered dish from under the sheet. There was a fork on it. “I guess I should I clear off the bed.” He stood up and watched her as she tore off the sheets and removed a bowl and a book from the bare mattress. She tossed the sheet back over the mattress and then put the blanket on top.

“I’ll be right back, I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. She left.

Josiah looked around the room, and it seemed to get messier with every glance. He wondered how long the dishes had been there, what was under the layer of paper in the wastebasket, if any of the laundry on the floor was clean or exactly how in need of washing it was. He looked at the bed. There were dark spots on it, and he wondered if Audrey had bed bugs. His arms and back started itching: maybe he had already caught them. He started examining the bed, lifting the folds at the corner, examining pieces of lint and crumbs and ink stains. He noticed the shirt he had bought her tossed to the edge of the bed, next to her jacket.

Audrey came back.

“Hey,” she said, and took off her shirt.

“Can you turn off the light?” Josiah said.

“Sure.” Audrey turned slowly and flicked it off. Grimly, Josiah took his shirt off, but then wondered where he could put it, and wished the lights were on so he could know where it would be safe to lay it down. Before he could say anything, Audrey was on him. She was a squirming animal, he thought. Her tongue licked the side of his face. He wanted to shove her, and instead stood still. She pushed him towards the bed and straddled him. He kissed her, hoping something would happen. He climbed backwards onto the bed and took off his pants. She stripped down and climbed on top of him.

“Hey, hey stop, hold on,” he said. Audrey rolled off of him.

“Is everything okay?” Audrey asked.

“Yeah, of course, of course. I just need—we need to talk about something. About protection.”

“I’ve got condoms.”

“It’s not that,” Josiah said.

“What?”

“So like, first have you been tested lately?”

“Yeah?”

“And you were clean?”

“Yeah . . . ?”

“Okay cool cool, good. Me too.” Josiah hadn’t had an STD test since he was eighteen, but he was pretty sure he was okay.

“So what?”

“So here’s the thing like, I just hate condoms and like, honestly I just can’t really use them, like it’s just not even worth it if I need to wear one.”

“Well, like, no, but we can do other stuff if you don’t want to fu—”

“I’m really good at pulling out . . .”

“It’s not about that.”

“To be honest, it’s just really boring for me if I have to wear a condom. It’s just really how I feel.”

“Okay well, maybe we should just go to sleep.”

“Sorry. Hey, sorry, it’s not you or anything, you’re really hot.”

“Okay. Do you mind if I turn on the light?” Audrey said.

“No. I had a really good time tonight.” Audrey was looking around for her sleep clothes. She picked up a pair of shorts and a torn nightgown. Josiah waited for her to respond and then said:

“Did you?”

“Do you care if I turn out the light?” Audrey said. Josiah started to wonder if he’d made the wrong choice. Maybe he should’ve just fucked her.

“No, I mean, hey are things okay?”

Audrey looked at him. He couldn’t tell what her face meant. “They’re fine. Everything’s fine.”

“Okay cool cool, good. Hey I’m sorry, but actually I’m kind of sobering up, do you mind if I go? I just think I would feel better if I slept at my own place tonight.”

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

He put on his clothes while Audrey sat in the bed.

“Hey, thanks for the great night.” He bent down and kissed her on the lips. “I’ll see you later.”

#

Josiah pumped his shoulders and audibly exhaled on the street. He shook his head back and forth, saying “Uh huh uh huh yeah” over and over as he sat in his car. He looked out the window as if at a camera, and slowly licked his lips. He felt light, and was relieved that he didn’t feel bad, that really everything was okay, absolutely okay. What was it his therapist had said? That he didn’t need to always have opinions about everything? He thought to himself, I don’t need to have an opinion about this right now. The look of disgust she’d had when he asked if things were okay flashed across his mind, and he smiled to himself in the car, shoved the thought away. Why do I need to interpret her face? She was probably just fucked up.

He started driving towards the bridge. His body felt like it was filled with a lifting gas, like his skin was expanding, and like anything could blow him up. I feel great, he thought, really great, I went on a date, it was fine. Also maybe Audrey isn’t mad, I could talk to her if I wanted—that thought didn’t have much power, Josiah couldn’t believe it enough to use it to feel anything, and he dismissed it.

At the next stoplight, he texted her:

I had a great time with you tonight. As soon as he put the phone down he felt a nervous anticipation about her texting back. He couldn’t imagine sleeping or doing anything if she didn’t text back. At the next stoplight he looked at the phone, clicked out of the text menu and then back in to confirm that she hadn’t responded. She could at least respond with a “me too” or a smiley face.

Josiah felt a craving for carrot cake. It wasn’t hunger: he had eaten earlier, and was bloated from the beer. He turned away from the path to the Golden Gate, entered the Marina and went to Safeway. He charged into the store, pushing the shopping cart before him, phone clutched in hand so that he would know the instant she texted. He followed a path to the bakery department, knowing exactly where it was. He circled, looking for the island where the carrot cakes were stocked. On the third pass he found them, four cakes haphazardly stacked in pairs. Josiah felt anxiety, and then a second later it mutated into cool determination. He took the four cakes.

He trawled through the aisles until he found a worker. He was middle-aged, his hair consisting of black and silver bristles, with creases in his forehead. He wore black cargo pants, a beige polo and a Safeway apron, and was restocking the canned soups from a wooden palette. Torn cardboard boxes covered the ground. Josiah imagined how heavy the palette was, imagined it crushing his foot, how helpless he would be if it fell on him. He kept the shopping cart between him and the worker and the worker’s pallet of soup.

“Excuse me,” Josiah said, using his reasonable we’re all just people voice, and then before the worker could respond repeated “excuse me” in his why are you making me wait what did I do to you voice.

“Yes?” the worker said.

“Hey so I need more carrot cake, do you have more carrot cake?”

The worker pointed: “The carrot cake is in the bakery department.”

“I know that. I already got all of the ones you have out. Do you have more?”

“More carrot cakes?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know. How many more do you need?”

The question upset Josiah. “I don’t know how many more I need. More than just four. Like a lot more. Can you please check how many you have?”

“Okay, no problem. I’ll be right back.” He stood up and stopped. “Excuse me.”

“Okay, sorry.” Josiah rolled the shopping cart back into the canned beans, disordering the arrangement. “Sorry, sorry,” he said. The worker walked past him, then turned.

“How many would you want if we have them?”

“Two,” Josiah said, thinking that two more cakes sounded reasonable, “Actually, uhh, four, no six. Get me six. Yeah, gotta live a little you know?” he said and smiled at the worker. The worker walked off. Josiah turned to the beans and slowly rearranged the cans back into order. It felt good, he thought, to arrange them into lines. It was satisfying.

He looked around and blinked his eyes at the lights. Why did they light it up like this? Did it have to be this bright? He remembered his phone, and about his text to Audrey. He had forgotten about it, and it felt like a curse to remember. He checked and saw that she hadn’t texted him.

He wished that he had never sent the text. It was stupid, he should’ve just waited, been cool. Wait a few days, let her text him. But what if she didn’t? Or what if she forgot about him, like just didn’t remember he existed at all? It seemed silly, but it also seemed totally possible, that he could just pass out of her memory. I wouldn’t be feeling like this, he thought, if I had just waited.

The worker came back into view, pushing a cart. As it got closer, Josiah could make out the cake containers. He felt a satisfaction come over him as the cart approached and he could count all six of them there.

“Do you want any more?” the worker said. “We have plenty.”

“No, this is perfect, thank you.” Josiah put them into his cart. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome,” the worker said, turning back to the palette.

Josiah ambled back through the Safeway, taking a scenic route through the produce department. The sprinklers were on over the lettuce and he stopped and pushed his face into the mist. He inhaled. It smelled like what he imagined a cool rainforest smelled like—a mossy, earthy scent. He felt safe looking at the ten carrot cakes. He looked at the produce offerings, thinking, this place is so abundant.

#

He took two trips to bring the cakes in, carrying them in stacks of five. Any more than that would be perilous. He took them to his bedroom, and put them on the night table. He grabbed a towel, a fork, a knife and a plate, and then adjusted the dimmer in his room until the light was perfect, just bright enough so that the TV wouldn’t be a hostile glare. He paused for a moment and enjoyed his breathing, the inhales and the exhales.

He laid out the towel carefully. With the knife he sliced the paper that held the first box shut, took off the lid and tossed it to the floor. He sunk the fork into the cake and lifted a hunk off. He grunted as if he was transported by pleasure, and then thought, my timing is off, I’m supposed to grunt later. He put it into his mouth, consciously extending these moments, and rolled the frosting-covered piece around his mouth, letting the sugar and the cinnamon and the nutmeg and the vanilla all appear. Then he noticed something unwelcome, a bitter undertone. He tried to ignore it, and focused on the sweetness. He swallowed it and said, “Delicious. Goddamn. MMMMM.”

He took another bite. His tongue had become accustomed to the sweetness and so it wasn’t as shocking. The bitterness lingered, mixing in with all the other flavors. The third bite lacked bitterness, and Josiah thought that maybe it had just been an error, like something his tongue needed to taste while it warmed up and now was done with. He eagerly took the fourth bite, and the bitterness returned. His body tensed; he had an urge to smash the cake. Instead he took another bite, a big one, and swallowed it rapidly, and still noticed the bitter flavor, whatever it was. Maybe I should just throw all the cakes away, he thought. This is really bullshit, why am I even doing this, it doesn’t feel good. He took another bite, this one free from bitterness, but as he chewed it he intensely searched for any hint of the off flavor.

#

Three cakes later, his phone chimed. He’d only been thinking about Audrey in the most automatic manner, his mind cycling through fantasies where he did something different, but it was without power. He hardly paid attention to the fantasies, like they were a TV show on in the background.

The message was from Audrey. It was long. He flipped the phone over. He took a few more bites, but the spell had been broken. He looked at the remaining cakes with dread, like they were a pile of work that had to be completed. He put the current one aside, and picked up the phone. He opened the message, intentionally blurring his eyes so he couldn’t read any of it on the lockscreen.

I just want to make sure there’s no ambiguity, I definitely don’t think we should see each other again. I did not have a good time tonight, and I think you were really disrespectful to me. I also can see that you have some things you’re working through, and I’m not unsympathetic to that, but I don’t have space to help you with whatever it is. I’m sure we’ll see each other around given small city, poetry etc etc and I promise I will be cordial to you and I hope you will also be cordial to me. I hope you have a good night.

Josiah typed back:

I don’t see how I was disrespectful, through the whole night I tried—

He deleted it. He typed again:

I’m sorry to hear that, I think that we had different ideas about—

He stopped, and said out loud: “What am I even trying to say?” He deleted it and thought, I don’t need to respond. He picked up the cake, took a bite, and paused.