Michael Reid Busk recently received his PhD from the University of Southern California’s Literature and Creative Writing Program, where he was a Merit Fellow, Feuchtwanger Fellow, and Town and Gown Scholar. His fiction is excerpted from 69 Breakups (forthcoming from LitFest Press/Southern Illinois University), a recursive collection in which he retells the same brief story over and over again in a different form or mode each time—a sort of literary Goldberg Variations. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in both fiction and poetry, and work of his
appears or is forthcoming, among other places, in Gettysburg Review, Conjunctions, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Michigan Quarterly Review, Florida Review, and Cincinnati Review.
Speaking Personally (Psychoanalytic)
Personally, I’d never break up with someone while wearing sunglasses, especially in a place as poorly lit as Jocasta & Son, but I guess that goes to show the kind of person Blair is, always hiding behind a façade—her father’s money, her therapy-speak, her useless degrees from elite universities—and while I know she’d say that she wears sunglasses because her dichromatism causes strangers to stare, I would reply that they stare anyway, what with her ibex neck, the monkish clothes, the nebula of hair, the meteorite earrings. At the party where we met, before I introduced myself, yours truly had been staring for half an hour (I’m sure Blair would insert something here about the male gaze), and even before she started talking to me about nurturing the neglected inner child, I thought: Daddy Issues. I had no idea.
What’s more, if it was me, I wouldn’t couch the reasons for the breakup in psychobabble abstractions: borderline personality disorder, dependency, Jonah complex, parentified child, the halo effect, displacement, sexual nomadism, id—she’s talking a whole lot of id. If it was me, I’d say what I mean and mean what I say. I’ll translate her blather: You, Tony Roman, are a moody, boozy, malingering sex fiend who grew up too early, who can’t read me except in bed and whose last birthday present to me was a felony. Last week you gave a breast exam to a co-worker whose idea of a quiet evening is a three-way, and while you were the perfect bartender/raconteur/fuck buddy/painter for my wasted wastrel youth, I’m staring scared down the barrel of thirty, and I need a rich man who owns a watch and a comb and a tie, a man who works only with ugly women, a man with a G6 to fly me through the shitstorm that’s sweeping the world.
Blair’s never been the same since she got back from visiting Violet in Paris, and I suspect the real psychoanalytic term she’s looking for is lesbian. Against my wishes, my girlfriend spent ten sultry July days in an un-air-conditioned Left Bank studio apartment with the world’s horniest Jungian gender studies theorist. A predatory older woman seducing a bi-curious party girl in an apartment too hot to wear anything but underthings: It’s a fantasy until it’s your girlfriend.
You might think it’s compensating for a small bank account that I pay the bill even after she breaks up with me, but I pay because I always paid. Five bucks for a glass of tap water. Thanks Governor Clooney. I’m sure the desalinization plant will work out next time.
Speaking of paying too much for too little, if I was the Jocasta & Son DJ, I wouldn’t lean so heavily on death metal covers of Paul Simon songs: after a certain point, it’s not a cover—it’s patricide. Besides, it’s too early in the morning for death metal.
Since I’m slinging advice anyway: if I was the Imelda Marcos-looking lady with the velvet cape waiting for a table, I’d tell junior to put away the Junior Mints, to put on his gas mask and go outside and play Cops & Cults like a normal kid. The way the kid stares ravenously at Mama Marcos, I’m not sure if he’s thinking Oedipal or Edible. She says, “What should you do if your partner is the one who’s puncturing your emotional bucket?” I roll my eyes as I walk outside. It’s so much easier to think about other people’s faults. Still, if I were the city sanitation department, I would hang my head in shame: ever since the robo-ants went native, not only is the litter worse than ever, but the robo-ants have started herding the homeless people, destination unknown. The poor off-their-Haldol homeless guys used to think tiny mechanized insects were chasing them. Now they actually are. What does it mean when your worst nightmare comes true? Interpret that, Sigmund.
One of them is shuffling at me, chased by a sliding ink-spot of robo-ants. “Tony share!” he yells. “Tony share! Tony share!” How he knows my name I have no idea, but I’m so distracted I bowl into a nearly naked red-haired girl, whose crazed expression makes me think she might need a little Haldol of her own. Now if it was me, I wouldn’t loiter just outside the entrance of a busy restaurant, just like if I was as pale as she is, I wouldn’t go outside in my underthings—with a UV index of 14, you’re just asking for melanoma baring that much skin. But as we crash to the sidewalk, I feel like it’s my masculine obligation to bear the brunt of the fall (so Victorian of me) so I roll her on top of myself and land hard on my back, just as the front window of Jocasta & Son shatters and something whistles overhead. The red-haired girl’s frenzied look now seems apt: the Imelda Marcus-looking lady is shooting up Jocasta & Son. “It’s got a button,” the red-haired girl says, straddling me in a way that would be a turn-on if we weren’t in the middle of a shooting spree. “An automatic crossbow.”
Now, if I was a cultist bent on massacre, I’d use something a little less phallic than arrows.
Blair says, “Y’know, sometimes...”
I say, “Wha?”
“You have a beautiful neck.”
“So long,” I say.
“So long,” she says. She’s crying from her green eye. “So long.”
“Wha? Is this like...”
“Shit. But what...”
“Awesome?” I smile. My eyes are so dry.
She doesn’t smile.
I say, “Is this about the zebra?”
“Like...you know that party?”
Our food comes. The waitress says, “Here you are.”
“The one where shit got crazy, the one where we met?”
“Yeah. I was like...”
“God, this chorizo is like...”
“I can’t understand you. You’re talking with your mouth full. You’re always talking with your mouth full.”
“I want to have a baby with this chorizo.”
“Violet’s coming to town tomorrow.”
“Wait, are you and Violet...”
She nods. She’s still crying from her green eye, squinting out the window. “It’s like Dawn of the Dead out there.”
“God, this chorizo is so good.”
She stabs a wedge of honeydew. “Sometimes I think we’re just like zombies.”
“The first Dawn of the Dead is better.”
“Violet thinks zombies symbolize heteronormativitiy.”
“You smell different.”
“Or is it that vampires symbolize heteronormativity, and zombies symbolize patriarchy?”
“Like dude-cologne, but also like chick perfume. Were you like stealing spritzes at Macy’s?”
“Sometimes I wish I would just...”
“I think I’m going to get more chorizo.”
“Is it worth...”
An Asian lady scratches her lower back while her kid ogles the pastries.
Through the front window I see a red-haired girl rush past, and then disappear forever.
BRAQUE & SHATTER
A smell is a thing that is not yet done, a hope and a pane. A thousand eggs wait in the darkness. Inside and outside. A dance and a duo and a chorus is not yet sure, it is easy to see and it is so hard to see. Floor angels shiver and slide and go dark. Sugar is not a vegetable.
A split, a blue and a green and a very not black, a not this and a not that. A length and a pulse, and a certainty filters down. The old moaning is a glue, the moaning is sticky. Change is seldom. Bones thrum. Inside underside backside.
A mouth is an inside and an outside. A darkness, a wetness, tubular and tense, lately shrill and not every yesterday. Rows of pearls, rows of knives. So magnanimous in the morning, ache and spoon. Doctor me. Take me in, chew me out. A violent kind of delightfulness I never tired of. It is no question that anyone can answer.
A mansion and a view and a fire and a zebra and an arrow and a tombstone.
A swirling and a shining, graying but not yet gray. An inversion and a repetition. Inside the inside there is only more inside. Hitches bitches riches. Rich bitches hitch.
WOMAN AND CHILD
A woman is a premonition. A child follows. The crackling orbit might revolve, if it is new, or collapse. A piece and two pieces but not more than two pieces. I shadow and O shadow, tremulous and turgid. Doubtful, that stitching. They are not yet there.
A burning and a burnishing, a whiteness if there is sun but never the same. Weather is the rolling of yesterday into today, it is a test and a gauge, and those who oppose it will never know better. A waving of the sky and no blue. Darker pink and lighter pink and many dirty whites. The future is always here, again. The future is a not knowing.
THE RED-HAIRED GIRL
A burned cheek. An unreasonable waist, an inconsequential tapering. Refracting and reflecting. Tender buttons. Tinder buttons. Buttons I do not know. The ignorance of an actor never given a script is better than the ignorance of an actor who refuses to read the script.
The skin warms like nothing else, blank concavities that never touch. Blood is warm too, and such a red.
Blair’s neck across the table is long and white. Because she’s terrified of melanoma—and, I had thought, any parasitic organism that might metastasize within her body—she always massages lifeguard sunscreen into all exposed skin before leaving her apartment. Our table is baking in the heat of a south-facing window, which shows a scorched square of Skid Row, treeless and unshaded and hazy in the smog. I remember when the temperature the day after Christmas wouldn’t rise into triple digits.
“Do you want something to drink?” I ask.
“You mean, besides my chamomile?” Blair says.
“A drink drink.”
Blair looks at me.
“I need a drink.” I call the waitress, who has Spanish eyes and large breasts I try not to stare at.
“Do you have Champagne?” I ask the waitress.
The waitress looks at me. “We have cava. It’s Spanish.”
“Great. We’ll take two—” Blair looks at me. “We’ll take one of those.”
Blair’s tea steams. “How can you be drinking something hot?” I ask.
Blair looks at me. “I always ran cold, you said. You were always the one who ran hot.”
I pick up the menu and look at the specials. One is called the Immaculate Confection. I put the menu down. “Maybe the chorizo,” I say. “Or we could split the lamb shank poutine.”
Blair makes a face. “I haven’t been able to keep anything down for days.”
The waitress brings my cava. I drink it and Blair says, “They say your breasts get bigger.”
“I like your breasts,” I say. “They’re...” I look for the right word. “Sleek.”
“Sleek,” she says.
“You’re so sleek,” I say, touching her hand. “Sleek all over.”
“I like what the priest said about Joseph,” she says, laying her hand on mine. Since the death of Blair’s father, Blair’s mother has rediscovered the Catholicism of her youth. Yesterday we went to Christmas mass at the cathedral, which is sleek and pale and contemporary and grand—like Blair.
I nod. I do not remember what the priest said. I had other things on my mind.
“Joseph was brave,” Blair says.
“It wasn’t even his kid.”
The cava is so cold it makes my throat clench. I call the waitress over. Blair looks at me. It might be my imagination, but the waitress appears to have unbuttoned the top button of her blouse.
I order another cava. The waitress is not wearing a wedding ring.
Blair says, “How far did he say it was from Nazareth to Bethlehem?”
That I remember for some reason. “Sixty-nine miles.”
“Sixty-nine,” she says, shaking her head. “If only.” She shakes her head again. “God, I could use a drink.”
“This cava is delicious,” I say. “Try some.”
She looks at me. “Don’t tempt me.” She shakes her head and laughs. “Don’t tempt me. Ha.”
I look down, and when I see Immaculate Confection I turn the menu over. “It’s a pill,” I whisper to Blair. “Just a pill.” I look up. Her green eye is shiny. Her blue eye is dry.
“And then after?” she says.
“After it’ll be just like it was before.”
“Not like it is now?”
“How is it now?”
“I’m not agitated.”
She looks at my hand. My knuckles are white in my fists.
“Maybe I’m a little agitated. It’s just because you’re scared. I don’t want you to be scared.”
“It’s okay to be scared sometimes.”
I finish my cava and call the waitress over. Pale gray discs have appeared under the arms of her blouse. “Another,” I say, examining her, “And the chorizo hash.”
Blair doesn’t even look at me. “Does she remind you of Destiny?”
“Destiny did it,” I say slowly.
“You mean Destiny did you?”
“I mean Destiny did it.”
“And now she’s fine.”
“‘Fine’ is not the first word I’d use when describing Destiny.”
“You know friends who’ve done it.”
She rolls her eyes. “Friends who are adjuncting at Cal State LA. Friends who aren’t with the guy.”
“I’m with you,” I say.
A homeless person shuffles past the window. “It’s just, this isn’t the sort of world I want to bring a...”
“A what? A what? You can’t even say it.”
When the waitress comes over with my chorizo, Blair covers her face with her hands. The waitress mouths, Is she okay?
I shrug. The waitress leaves.
Finally, Blair looks up. “I need to be with someone who supports me.”
“I’m going to go check the meter,” I say. “I think it’s about to expire.”
On my way out I pass a fat Asian boy and his mother, who scowls at me as she rummages her purse.
Outside the air is blistering and noxious. Under the awning of And & But, a young man and woman are slumped in the shade.
“Hey mister,” the young man says. He’s younger than I first thought, with sharp little eyes, stringy hair, a weak beard. “We’re trying to get to Redlands. Iona’s pregnant.” I look at the girl. Her belly is as big as a half-globe under a green dress. Her eyes are bloodshot, her face is puffy, and her curly red hair is matted. Still, I can imagine the beauty lurking under there, the allure that got them into this mess. She doesn’t look me in the eye. “We’re trying to get to Redlands,” he says again. I wonder how far it is to Redlands. He smiles at me. His teeth are gapped and stained.
“We’re so excited about the baby,” he says. “It’s our first.”
The girl looks up and laughs a little. The guy’s cheeks redden and he looks down at his graying sneakers and bites his lip.
My favorite part of the Christmas story has always been the wise men. I pull two twenties out of my wallet and give them to the young man. “Thanks, mister,” says the young man.
The red-haired girl looks at me for the first time. “Merry Christmas,” she says.
“Merry Christmas,” I say.
I feel eyes on me and through the window of And & But I see the Asian lady stop scowling, then take her hand out of her purse. She smiles at me. I smile back.
Before I walk back inside, I take out my phone. “Siri, who’s the best midwife in Malibu?”