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Is That Mushroom or Ash

  "I think it's Ash."

            "Oh. I thought it was Mushroom."

            Meek gives me an irritated look. He's right; I'm only disagreeing to provoke him.

            We're on the corner of Hemlock and Harrison; there is a neat row of dark trees dripping yellow leaves onto the sidewalk. I like autumn best, with the sidewalk barely visible and death blossoming into a kind of fleeting bride.

            Ash and Mushroom are Meek's friends from his freshman year of college (his only year at college, as he dropped out due to a budding addiction to heroin—we both did) but we've been dating long enough that they no longer think of me as just his girlfriend. When Meek and I were at our lowest it was Ash who let us sleep on an air mattress in their garage until we got our shit together, and Mushroom who supplied our down payment and first month's rent on a studio apartment just down the street from their house, where he could keep an eye on us.

            "Look, it's Mushroom. I was right."

            Meek bites into my neck hard, comes away with a little ruby smear across his lip.

            "Owwwww, you motherfucker." I swat his grin.

            "Lemme have a taste!" Mushroom demands, coming close enough I can smell his musty grey coat, his unwashed hair. He pulls me into a hug, licks the puncture in my neck.

            "Where's Ash?"

            "Sleeping. He was eating out Desi's ass all night."

            "How do you know?"

            "She was eating out mine." He grins, Meek's mirror.

            We walk down the street a paper chain, my left arm linked through Meek's right, my right through Mushroom's left, their grins parentheses holding me inside them.

 

*

 

            At Mushroom's we sort through piles of empty La Croix cans. We're separating them according to color. Once we get a full box of blue, Mushroom tapes it, labels it, and carries it out to the shed. When the shed is full, we'll start filling the garage.

            "It's not really about consumerism," Mushroom is saying, "but people will infer what they like, and anyway, it doesn't matter—I'm just the one making it. Death of the artist or whatever."

            Meek nods, his forehead a furrowed field. I imagine planting miniature crops in its grooves. I can just see him, walking around with soybeans sprouting above his eyebrows, still somehow managing to look serious and self-important.

            "What if La Croix finds out and comes at you with a lawsuit?" I'm not really curious; I just like to complicate things.

            Mushroom shakes his head, his light brown hair so dirty it appears grey. "They won't. Why would they? It's a testament to how much people like their product."

            "In that case, maybe they'll fund you. Use your art project as merchandising. They'll claim they found you, made you; everything you do for the rest of your life you'll owe to them. What then?"

            "Then I'll be rich." Mushroom says it like it doesn't make any difference to him. I imagine what I could do if I had even a hundred dollars to spend. Then I feel annoyed at Mushroom, who will never know what a hundred dollars is worth, and pull Meek to me, dipping my fingers below the edge of his pants. Mushroom loses interest in his art project, a look of childish anticipation coming over his pale features.

            "Me too?"

            "Just Meek."

            I fuck Meek on the recliner next to the front window while Mushroom sulks in the corner, chewing his lip and masturbating halfheartedly. When Meek gets close, I yell at him to give me a hundred dollars, a thousand, cover me in cash, oh baby, oh baby, and he does.

           

*

 

            Later I'm making origami cranes from printed copies of my resume; I'll leave them in coffee shops, cafes, bars, etc. My work experience is eclectic and open to interpretation. I fold the wings carefully, knowing most employers are looking for someone detail-oriented, regardless of what the the details entail. I start thinking about what it means to be oriented, and to what. When I'm not with Meek I can't picture his face; it's vague, a little blurry, like I don't ever look at it, not with any degree of devotedness. My attention elsewhere. Mushroom masturbating in the corner, or onto my back, or into my hair that one time I said not to, but he didn't hear me. Afterwards I got into the shower and cleaned myself and cried; I was mad as hell but some part of me sensed it would be more humiliating to say I said no and you did it anyway then it was to just pretend he hadn't heard me.

            This particular crane has a crook in its neck and is a little different from the others, not so elegant, something short of graceful. I look at it for a moment, imagining a potential employer picking it up, laughing at its imperfections, not even bothering to unfold its deliberately concealed contents, tossing it into the trash. I crush it into the palm of my hand. You understand this is the most loving thing I could do?

 

*

 

            I want to do something different with my face, my hair. The self I see in the mirror is so unremarkable I worry if she went missing no one would be able to draw her. A pale smudge with murky hair and round, frenetic eyes. The ghost of needle tracks across my arms like some dark constellation. No one's taken a picture of me in years. My family doesn't know where I live; wouldn't matter if they did. Orientation has to do with a thing's position in relation to other things. In order to know where I am, I have to look around me. But what do piles of dirty clothes reveal? The unmade bed, the pan with scrambled egg sticking to its edges. What does Meek's body, limp on the couch where he fell asleep last night, have to do with my position? I feel like a piece of space trash, drifting, far outside the atmosphere I exited. No hope of returning. No one looking for me. And what I can see is just more of the same—endless vapors. What am I. A whisper without an ear. I press the electric shaver to my head. I watch years fall away. The fuzz of my new head is soft. I can hear the mewl of a kitten being licked clean of its mother's placenta. The fury of breathing for the first time. How quickly the feeling fades.

 

*

 

            Blue. Green. Yellow. Orange. Pink. Purple. White. Mushroom is figuring out the pattern on a legal pad. He scribbles frantically, swears, tears away a page and throws it into the air. The floor is barely visible; the pages like leaves fall haphazardly. Meek is playing a baseball video game. This is the least attractive of his many unattractive qualities. He shouts at the players as if they were real. I look at him and think: I hate sports, I hate video games, I especially hate video games about sports, and yet I love him. But another part of me thinks: you don't love him, you're just used to him. Then a part of me I don't like thinks: is there any difference?

            The front door opens. Ash walks through, his black hair disheveled, his eyes long. I can tell he's been crying. I get up off the floor, buttoning my jeans which had been unbuttoned for comfort, and give him the kind of hug only he is able to elicit.

            "Wanna talk about it?"

            "Not really."

            I glance at Mushroom, who hasn't so much as looked up from his legal pad, and gesture Ash into the kitchen.

            "Want anything?"

            "No."

            I pull out a pink La Croix—Cran-Raspberry—for myself, and sit down at the table. I gesture at the empty seat across from me. Ash sits down, puts his face in his hands. I sip the seltzer water and eventually he lays one hand down on the table, palm up. I lay my pale hand in his dark one. We sit like that for a long time, the silence disrupted only by the sounds of Meek's video game and an occasional frustrated shout from him or Mushroom.

            "You know I know, right?"

            He nods his head. After awhile he drops his other hand, sighs, opens his dark brown eyes, the most beautiful eyes of anyone, like woods lit by cool winter light, and laughs.

            "I love you, bitch."

            "Love you too."

            He squeezes my hand and I feel a flash of hatred for Mushroom, who is at the center of all of us, spinning and spinning like a top turned loose on some cosmic table. We're all dizzy: Ash in love, Meek in admiration, me in some liminal space between fear and confusion.

            "Anyway I told Desi I'm gay."

            "Did you break up?"

            "No."

            "What the hell?"

            "I don't know," Ash says, but the long silence afterwards tells me what I need to know; whatever had been said, it had been said with their bodies, and the body is just a translation: so much gets lost in the telling. I stroke the fuzz on my head absentmindedly.

            "I like it, by the way. Weirdly you look even more feminine than before."

            "I don't give a fuck about looking feminine."

            "Of course you do," Ash says, patting me on the shoulder and then retreating to his bedroom with the godlike silence of certainty. A hard knot materializes in my throat. I chase it down with a swig of La Croix.

 

*

 

            "I don't understand why Desi doesn't leave him." Meek is sitting on the toilet, the door half open. I'm poking around in his side of the closet, trying on his button-downs, watching my tiny breasts all but disappear beneath the excess of fabric. I square my shoulders in front of the mirror. It feels unnatural. I curl inward; my femininity comes flooding back.

            "Same reason everyone else doesn't leave each other," I say absentmindedly. "Starting over sucks."

            Meek doesn't respond. I hear the toilet flush. A moment later his face appears in the mirror next to mine, a frenzy of soybeans sprouting from his forehead.

            "What's that supposed to mean?"

            "What's what supposed to mean?"

            "What about love?"

            "What about love?"

            "Well, do you love me?"

            "We aren't talking about you and me; we're talking about Ash and Desi." I avoid his gaze, turn back to the closet, find another flannel.

            "You look sexy like that," Meek says, his voice a little defeated, and wraps his arms around me. "Like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta."

            "I don't look anything like her."

            "You do from behind."

            He picks me up and carries me to the bed. Under the covers we kiss, tender at first, then not so tender. Mushroom isn't here, but I can still feel him watching me. When I close my eyes, it's his face I picture, his smug grin.

 

            "Are you sure you want to call it that?" Ash is standing in the front yard smoking a blunt. Desi is dangling her feet off the porch into a pile of swept leaves. Meek, Mushroom, and I are lined up on the porch swing, a blanket binding us together.

            "I don't see why not," Mushroom says, his fingers dancing on my right knee. "It's vague enough to invite interpretation."

            "It sounds like it should be a celebration of Queerness," Ash says. "Are you prepared to talk about how it relates to sexual orientation—"

            "I'm not worried," Mushroom cuts him off. Ash shoots him an indecipherable look.

            "The problem with most artists is they overthink things," Meek says, reaching around me to grab Mushroom's shoulder affectionately. "They try too hard to make a statement."

            Mushroom squeezes him back. "You're right. Art happens in the gut or not at all." Beneath the blanket he presses a hand to my abdomen. "Feel it? That's where art lives."

            "Don't you mean here?" Meek says, and presses a hand to my groin. Mushroom moves his hand to rest on top of Meek's. I lean my head back on Meek's shoulder while they build the throbbing in my groin and in my chest. I don't know if this has anything to do with art, but if this is what Mushroom feels when he makes it, no wonder he's so smug all the time.

            We move indoors, a paper chain that tightens and loosens, pleasure and power, Mushroom at the center. Meek pulling my hair, kissing my neck; me sucking on the fingers of Mushroom's left hand while he rubs my crotch with the other; Desi nibbling on Ash's cock while Ash holds tight to Mushroom's, licking Desi's tits absentmindedly while he tries to get Mushroom off. This is the script; though it varies, one thing is always the same: Mushroom gets everything he wants while the rest of us come hard, sigh, roll over, get up and leave the room, something inside of us feeling cheated.

 

*

 

            Ash and I are walking around Powell Butte. He's the only one of us who has a car and sometimes he drives me here and we climb up to where the land levels off into brown grass fields speckled with thistle. It's a beautiful-lonely-windy place and we've had some our best and hardest conversations here. It was here I first admitted my feelings for Meek, and less than a year later, here where Ash held my hand while I confessed Meek and I were both failing out of school; here where he told me sternly he'd do anything in the world for me but he wouldn't watch me waste any more of my life getting loaded. And it is here, now, that I consider telling him something I've not even fully articulated to myself, something of a growing apprehension towards Mushroom, something I am not yet ready to call fear. But before I can summon the sentences that might make Ash understand and therefore render me less alone, Ash begins speaking in a muffled tone that makes me think he's not so much talking to me as he is himself.

            "He knows. I haven't said it to him but he knows. And the worst of it is, I think that's what he gets off on—not just being the third but being the third in some twisted dynamic that's totally dependent on his presence. I can't keep fucking Desi. I told her I'm gay and that it's killing me but she knows Mushroom won't touch me unless she's there, and even though I won't touch her unless Mushroom's there, she's still somehow convinced that deep down inside, 'irrespective of orientation,' I love her, and nothing I say will convince her otherwise. Do you know what a bunch of lunatics we are, Lenny? Everyone acts like madness is this thing that's reserved for people with fucked-up childhoods or chemical imbalances, but we're lunatics, every one of us, for whatever gets us off."

            I try to think of something to say. "I didn't know it was that bad."

            "It wasn't always. I mean, I knew I was in love with him before I started dating Desi. You know she was his girlfriend first, right? It's always been that way...he dates someone, gets tired of them...eventually he invited me to join them. It wasn't the first time we did that. But then somehow he shifted her onto me. We were a thing and he knew it and Des knew it and I was the last to understand it, but by then we were all fucking regularly and I couldn't say no. I can't say no to him..."

            Ash trails off and when I look at him again he is crying. I put my hand on his shoulder.

            "You know you have to though, right?"

            He doesn't respond, but I can see the struggle playing out beneath the surface of his skin.

            "Just tell him the truth. He has to choose." I wait a moment, then say, "And you have to be prepared to walk away."

            We sit in silence for a few minutes. The breeze picks up. My scalp tingles from exposure.

            "I've got to pee," Ash says, then gets up and walks into the sun. I stare at the black smalling shape that is my friend and think how easy it is to give advice. It's the easiest thing in the world, telling someone else what they should do.

            I turn my gaze to the blue-grey sky scattered with clouds. A lone bird is flying against the wind; it flaps furiously without moving, caught in an imaginary cage. I feel a wave of frustration that directs itself toward this stubborn, stupid bird: all it has to do is change direction, fly from the wind rather than into it. What a waste of energy. I wonder what will happen when the wind exhausts it. Will it tuck into the current and be carried away, or will its tiny beating heart simply burst in its chest. The struggle finished; the bird dead.

            Ash returns, sits down next to me, puts an arm around me. I look at his beautiful profile, his dark hair, his somber lips. Lost in thought, in longing. A hard pinch somewhere precious. My dear friend, my sweet Ash. Turn around. Turn around before you can't.

 

*

 

            Maybe it's solidarity with Ash, or maybe it's just my own budding desire for boundaries, but I haven't said yes to Mushroom in over a month. Meek still wants to fuck in front of him, even though I've expressed on multiple occasions that I'd rather go home and be alone, and he doesn't understand why I'm pushing Mushroom away.

            "Look, it's not like we're in a relationship with Mushroom," I say one night, hot and cranky at the stove where I'm making us dinner. "Last time I checked I'm still technically in a monogamous relationship. With you," I say, pointing a spatula at Meek.

            "Yeah, but it's never been a problem before."

            "That was before things started getting weird."

            "What do you mean, weird?"

            "I'm just not so sure I'm comfortable with Mushroom."

            "You seemed comfortable enough with him last time we fucked."

            "I don't have to explain myself to you," I say, but I feel defensive. "If you need Mushroom there in order to fuck me, then maybe we should reexamine our relationship."

            "I don't need Mushroom there. What the fuck? I thought we were having fun."

            We go a couple of days without talking to each other much, and in an effort to patch things up, I invite Mushroom to come sit with us one night while we're at his place. Ash is in his bedroom, watching television. He's been less than talkative since our afternoon at the Butte. Meek is pleased with my effort, and we kiss for several minutes, slow, reconciliatory. Mushroom knows better than to ask after this past month, but he waits for an invitation. It's Meek who finally says, "Lenny? Do you want Mushroom to join?"

            I shake my head mid-kiss and he pulls away. "What then?"

            "He can watch tonight, but no touching."

            "Okay."

            We all know the drill. Mushroom moves to the floor. Meek pulls off his clothes, lays down on the couch. I climb on top of him. I'm studying his face, trying to memorize it, trying to understand why it's so slippery an image when we're not together. I kiss his eyelids, his nose, his lips. What eyes, what nose, what lips? Even here in front of me, they blur. Who are you, I think. Who are you to me.

            I become aware of Mushroom's hand on my thigh. I push it away.

            "Come on," Meek says, "let him in."

            "I said no touching, not tonight."

            "It's been a month. Come on. Relax."

            I can feel myself growing rigid and part of me wants to get up and walk away. Meek looks at me hopefully and I instead mutter Ok. Mushroom massages my ass while I grind against Meek. His moans fill the room. He cums, then something wordless happens. He slides out from under me, turns me onto my back. He kisses my neck, bites my shoulder. I close my eyes, I breath heavy. When he enters me, something is different. I open my eyes.

            Mushroom is above me. Mushroom's body is inside my body. I immediately try to push him away. Meek is sitting next to us on the floor, whispers, it's ok, it's ok, strokes my hair. Mushroom is inside me and he's never been inside me: I don't want him like this—intercourse has never been on the table, we've never talked about it but an unspoken rule is still a rule—and I want to say no but also I don't know how to because Meek didn't ask, neither of them asked and it's happening anyway, and again that little voice inside of me which says better to just let it happen than to risk humiliation, or worse yet...worse yet, what? I didn't hear you say no. Am I scared my no won't matter? If I say no and they continue...

            Yes, better to let it happen. I close my eyes, close my feeling. I'm in a field of waving grass. A bird throws itself against wind and goes nowhere.  

 

*

 

            You have to be prepared to walk away. It's so easy when it's not you.

 

*

 

            Weeks pass. I don't have the words to tell Meek what's wrong, or I do but I don't know if they'll be heard, or I do and I don't, because somewhere along the line my self began to divide like a cell, and now there are many of me, as many me's as there are moments in a day, and each me tends to the specificity of its tiny task without communicating with the others: here I am washing my hair; here I am avoiding my reflection; here I am taking pills for the UTI I've been fighting off for days; here I am not eating; here I am answering calls at work; here I am kissing Meek perfunctorily on the cheek; here I am; here I am; here here and still here; one moment rolls into the next; it's almost like forgetting except I haven't forgotten.

            This particular me is carrying boxes into an empty warehouse. Meek and Ash and Desi are helping too; Mushroom pulls the strings and we dance. Meek is oblivious to my mitosis. Mushroom isn't, but he's sly and has been giving me space—a feigned respect. Ash has been quieter than ever; there's a me that's worried about him but it's too close to a me that's worried about myself, so I haven't gone near it. Desi is louder than usual, as if to make up for Ash's silence. It's her voice that carries through the warehouse as we stack boxes.

            "I thought you were going to do this in a field. Aren't mazes usually in fields?"

            "It's not a maze, it's a labyrinth," Meek says.

            "What's the difference?"

            Meek shrugs.

            "I was going to do it in the field behind Tony's house," Mushroom says, "but something came up. I'm getting the warehouse for a decent price."

            "It seems bleak. Doesn't it seem bleak," she asks Ash. Ash says nothing.

            "No, not bleak," Meek says, thoughtful. "Moody. It seems less like a celebration and more like an interrogation."

            "An interrogation?" Ash looks like a fox catching wind of a mouse.

            "You know, an examination."

            "I know what an interrogation is. An interrogation of what?"

            "I don't know. I was just thinking out loud."

            "You mean you were talking out loud. Don't get the two confused."

            "What," Meek says, surprised, "is your problem?"

            Ash looks at the boxes, his features now seemingly cut from stone, and says, "Why are you doing this?" By the tone of his voice we are all aware that he's not addressing Meek anymore. "I mean, what are you getting out of it?"

            All eyes are on Mushroom. He flushes. "What are you talking about?"

            "Like, if you were going to write an artist's statement, what would you even say? Who is this for? What are you doing?"

            "I've told you before, it's not my place—"

            "Yeah, yeah, death of the artist. Horse shit."

            Meek interrupts, scratching his head. "It's not horse shit! How else do we separate the life of the work from the life of the artist, product from intention?"

            "We're not in a classroom," Ash says, "and this isn't an interview. There's no one here but us. I want to know what the fuck this means to Mushroom. I'm not asking for the quote-unquote meaning. I'm asking him what the fuck he thinks he's doing. I mean, are you fucking kidding me? What do you think you're doing? Do you know? Do you?"

            He's yelling now, crying, and none of us are ashamed enough to look away. Desi reaches for him, tells him to calm down. Ash pushes her away roughly, and Desi looks surprised, then hurt.

            "Look man," Mushroom begins, but Ash can hear the veneer coating his words, we all can, and he just shakes his head and repeats:

            "I want to know what the fuck you think you're doing."

            After a moment of silence, Mushroom's face slackens, and he shrugs his shoulders. "I don't know. I don't know what I'm doing."

            Tears are falling out of Ash's long brown eyes; his bottom lip is a child's, tremulous. I hate Mushroom for this. My hate feels far away.

            "I love you. I love you."

            "I know."

            "You know and you do it anyway."

            "Yes."

            "You're such a fuck. You know that? And I'm no better. I follow you around and do whatever you want no matter who it hurts."

            Desi's crying now too. I should feel as sorry for her as I do for Ash, but I don't, I hate her for her part in hurting Ash, even though Ash has a choice, even though Ash hurts her back. "Ash," she whispers, "can we talk about this in private? I don't think you mean—"

            "No," Ash says, not even looking at her. "I'm done. You and me. Enough."

            Desi turns and runs out the door. Meek leans into me, whispers, "We should follow her."

            "Do what you like," I say, and he does.

            Ash looks at me briefly, as if for strength. Then he steps toward Mushroom, his body poised in supplication, his palms forward, his whole lean frame trembling.

            "Mushroom—you have to choose. You can't have me like this. You have to choose."

            "I'm sorry," Mushroom says. "I don't want you that way."

            "What way then? What have we been doing this whole time?"

            Mushroom says the cruel thing: "I don't know. It was fun. I didn't overthink it."

            "That's it?"

            "I'm sorry."

            "The fuck you are."

            Then I am alone in the warehouse with Mushroom, and despite all the emptiness, it feels crowded. Mushroom looks at me and the me that looks back at him sees for the first time that he looks a lot like Meek. They could almost be brothers.

 

*

 

            The difference between a maze and a labyrinth is that a maze is a puzzle; you can go the wrong way, get lost, backtrack, start over, and the whole time the objective is to find a way out of the maze. There are many choices and the choices you make determine when and where you will exit the maze, and there are many exits. A maze tests intelligence and spacial awareness. It may be used in earnest as when testing the memory of rats or in play as in children running through a corn maze at a festival. A game. A puzzle.

            A labyrinth isn't a puzzle. There are no wrong moves because the only objective is to move ever closer to the center; there is only one path and the only choice is whether you will follow it. If you follow it (and why wouldn't you? it's why you entered, after all), eventually you reach the center, whereupon you face what you find, then turn back. There's no chance of getting lost in a labyrinth but there's a considerable chance of never coming back out because what you find may stop your heart, or change you, and either way, the you that exits the labyrinth will not be the you that entered it.

            So when Desi asked the distinction between a maze and a labyrinth, and Meek shrugged in response, was it indifference or ignorance that moved his shoulders? Long after everyone had left the warehouse and Mushroom had locked up behind us and we'd gone our separate ways, I find myself wandering down streets lit by the last glow of evening light, still hung up on that shrug. And what an ugly word: shrug. The immovability, the disinterest of a rug embodied in the noncommittal surrender of the shoulders. A gesture that speaks: take it, I don't want it. The responsibility, that is. You want me to care enough to keep looking, but I don't want what I saw. So I shrug. I deflect ownership. What will be will be, let me remain innocent.

            But I am tired of Meek's innocence and Mushroom's plans and Ash throwing himself against wind and the minced pieces of myself and this town and years of excuses and now the rain starts, and I yell into the rain (you have to tell the truth when it's raining) and in my yelling are no words, only vibrations. Immense pressure. Shifting tectonic plates. The earth rearranges herself. The sky falls into my mouth. I walk home with a new look on my face. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

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This story was published online in Issue 13.1 of Pacifica Literary Review.