“I just sleep with men,” he says, “I wouldn’t date one.”
We sit in my 1999 Mercury Mystique, air chapping our faces from the heater. Snow melts as it meets my warmed windshield. Him: twenty-five, bleached blond, an angular jaw I think about pressing my mouth against. Me: paler than pale, overgrown hair tucked beneath a wool hat, an averted glance. It’s the second week of ignoring our beds in favor of three-hour conversations in the university parking lot. From our night class to the lot, we make no attempt at driving home. Him: persistent about my virginity; me: hoping he’ll persist. My hands tangle into a knot in my lap.
“Yeah, I realized I could never be with a man long term. I want the nuclear family. When I come home, there’ll be a wife, kids, and dinner. Every year, we’ll go on a vacation. There’ll be a dog too.”
I scrutinize my abdomen. Nothing would grow, stomach acid is all I have. A version of me emerges in my mind, an iteration as a woman. My hair, already long, could thread between his fingers. My thighs too thick for a man, finally could serve a purpose. Between my legs, something of value. Yet, I am a man. I know this when irritation churns in my belly. An annoyance that what I want is not mine—an indignation. A university police officer is behind us, he must be wondering why we’re idling at midnight.
Sinking into myself, I nod at his words. Of course, I wasn’t ignorant to this possibility. I thumb the edge of my faux-leather jacket. Dug from my closet, I had worn it to appeal to the counterculture nature of the man beside me. I had imagined his bony fingers peeling it off my shoulders as he laid me across the backseat. The feeling is similar to being the only one to dress for a costume party, I think.
“Something I like is how you listen. You take the time to think things over before ever slipping a word in. That’s usually the type of girl I go for.”
I say nothing, as he’d like me to.
When we meet for the first time, he uses his worn opener, What’s your sign? We discover we are both cancers. To which I suggest that we could spend all our time crying together. Water signs are known for their leaky emotions. He claims he is an infrequent crier. This is a lie. In our first conversation in the car lot, he confides to me how the death of his best friend has left him splintered. A wealth of adolescent parties had paired the two and ultimately separated them once one had drowned in his own bile.
On the last week of the semester, he drops me off early to go home with a girl from our night class. It is the night of final project, so several of us had gone for drinks. In an act of defiance, I dragged a buzzer across my head the night before. Textured with a beard, I had forgone the same treatment for my face. His deflation is momentary before he turns to the drunken girl beside us. My car windows don’t fog up anymore.
An inconspicuous constellation on the ecliptic between Gemini and Leo, noted for the star cluster Praesepe (the Beehive or Manger), and traditionally said to represent the crab crushed under the foot of Hercules; the Crab.
- Oxford English Dictionary
Inconspicuous and crushed underfoot. I find myself a reluctant cancer. I’m represented by a crab, not a fantastical beast nor a tastefully nude woman. Our mascot—a term for pubic louses. We are the namesake of a horrible illness that outranks us in internet searches. But no matter how vague my daily horoscope is, I begin to think it suits me. I have no reason not to think of myself as the crybaby the stars make me out to be.
My evenings are on the deck, the night a mass of violet. Scrolling through my phone, I receive messages from men the age of my father asking me to call them daddy. No response but I save the nude pictures they send me, a reminder of their hunger. Summers become nocturnal. Looking up at the sky, unlit due to streetlights, I feel as if the whole thing could spread its lips and welcome me into its maw. I hate it. Scroll, scroll, scroll. A forty-five-year-old man wants me to wear panties for him. The heat slicks to my skin as a measure of time wasted on proving strangers’ want.
As a cancer, there is one thing to be proud of: the moon. If one of these floating rocks has something to say about me, I’m glad it’s the round-faced mother who has known me since birth. To know that my designated planet (which isn’t really a planet) is the closest option in the sky comforts me. It makes it easier if I can point up to the stars and demand some answers; I can’t imagine this works with the distant specks other signs are given. Proximity grants me the pleasure of assigning the sky as a parent.
Even the loneliest people are free to love the moon.
The natural satellite of the earth; a secondary planet which orbits around the earth, visible especially at night by the light of the sun which it reflects.
- Oxford English Dictionary
My friend receives a degree in mortuary science. I visit her at the funeral parlor on an afternoon in which my time is a burden. She glances at her phone every couple of minutes, anticipating someone to stop prolonging and drop dead. The client is an older man who elects to forgo chemotherapy to save his family the cost and himself aggravation. Potential for a stranger’s death over coffee should strike me as odder than it does. She tells me about her boyfriend’s and her new apartment. They’ll be getting married next August.
4:43 PM, my friend and I drive over to the deceased’s home. I guarantee her I’ll wait in the passenger seat; a morbid curiosity prods me to see the process. The home is tucked within the wealthier part of our town on the hilltop. My friend greets the family—half of her work is grief reception. There’s nothing to see from the hearse, so I tug out my phone. Swiping through an app, I try to land a hilltop guy to buy me some property. With a garden as big as the dead man’s, my useless crying could at least water the marigold beds. No bites. I sneak out to meander around the edge of the property. The deceased’s son ushers his mother onto the porch to handle business with my friend. My job is to remain in the periphery.
While my friend and the son load the body into the hearse, the widow wanders over to me. I try to blend in with the manicured garden, but I am discovered. The widow is somewhere in her eighties from a look. Despite the circumstance, she is still done up in stockings and a pencil skirt. My grandmother does the same thing. When my grandfather passed, she was still meticulous in her routine. We exchange tight-lipped smiles then look off in unison at the commotion funneling into the car.
She speaks first, offering introductions. She leads the conversation, her voice clear and unaffected. “You know, my husband was tough until the end. Of course, he’d have to be. They don’t make men like they used to.”
I shift from foot to foot. “I probably couldn’t do half the things your husband did.”
When I say this, I’m unsure what I mean. I didn’t know the man but imagine him more capable. I’m reclusive by nature and prone to hoarding problems under the carpet. My response to death would never be to face it but to allow those around me to prop me up until I gave out. Life is annoying but dying sounds worse. That must mean I love myself enough to hate being repurposed into energy throughout the universe. If lucky, I might end up recycled into a cluster of stars. Would that mean I’d be like the cancer crab, made immortal as a constellation? That could be why I’m looking to be crushed underfoot by men these days.
The widow offers me a grin. “Every great man needs a great woman, right? I’m sure you’ll figure it out when you’re married.”
“Of course.” I laugh for some reason.
By this point the dead man has been filed away and I return to my friend. The widow must think we’re sleeping together.
Malignant neoplastic disease, in which there is an uncontrolled proliferation of cells, typically with invasion and destruction of adjacent normal tissue, and often with metastatic spread to distant parts of the body via lymphatics or blood vessels; an instance of this, a malignant tumour.
- Oxford English Dictionary
One of my coworkers tells me he loves to have sex in public. Exhibitionism: his mode of love. In high school, he abused his reputation as a good kid to sneak into empty classrooms with his girlfriends. He finishes his story as it reverberates about the staircase. At the top, we push through a set of double doors to the roof of the science building. Dragging me by my wrist, he shows me the stretches of the school campus. My hands are braced against the guardrail. Below, a few students shuffle to their classes. Caging me between his arms, he makes a mold of his teeth on my neck. He moves in and out of me, spurring whines past my lips. I look between the sky and ground as sweat slides down my brow. From where I am, I’m neither made a star or a stepping stone.
To move or behave listlessly or aimlessly.
- Oxford English Dictionary
When I’m born, my grandfather thanks god for his blessings. I’m the only son of my father who is the only son of his father. No one else in my family carries my last name but the men. No one will carry it after me. All I have is a stomach full of acid that feels like a hardened weight. Like an abnormal swelling of tissue—malignant. The thing about men who love men is that we are interim in our existence. We take our names and never return them.
My grandfather dies when I am fourteen. It is my first experience of grief, but I handle it better than expected. We’re Irish, so there is a wake before the funeral. All my family is gathered in a parlor with my grandfather’s body. There isn’t much to do but succumb to melancholy. I’m not used to seeing my family cry. Not used to crying in front of my family. It’s time to be the man of the family, I think. Or at least, a man in general. I get on my knees and pray, pray, pray until I’m something worth my last name.
All of this coalesces at the perfect time. Me: hormonal, scared of boys who smell like sulfur. Jesus: the man to make a man out of me. Sundays are spent trying to avoid and focus on the muscled statue of a tortured savior at the front of the hall. Martyrdom ought to be the epitome of masculinity. Better to die for others than to die for yourself. Is there anything more noble? When you can’t find a man to sip death out of you, place god on your tongue and feel it dissolve.
I am moonless.
To feel the absence of any form of intrinsic purpose. As if your life can no longer be guided by the stars or predicted by the moon.
- Something I’ve been defining.
Christian J. Buckley is a graduate of the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing. His work has previously appeared in The Minnesota Review, Bridge, and Long River Review.
Originally published in the FALL 2018 edition of the Helix.