SUNSHINE

He hated the bus but Laura needed the car to go and see her new therapist.

            He spotted one of his students, Natalie, a girl whose one leg was shorter than the other. She was pretty in a messy-hippie way—long dresses hiding her body. One of her sandals had a lift and you wouldn’t notice it unless you knew about it, which he did know about, thanks Natalie's best friend, Sunshine. 

            (He had not had sex with Sunshine. He would not.)

            He felt very hot suddenly. There were too many people on the bus.

            Outside the window, there were high rises and plazas. As you moved further on, most of the plazas had storefronts that advertised religious services, ministries and prayer centres, and, often, on the same strip, there were, too, spas with curtained windows and neon signs advertising massages.

            God and pussy, Benjamin thought every time he took the bus that drove through these parts.

            Right now, the bus stopped, more people smelling of wetness and heat, got on. It seemed that there was no end to people getting on the bus—everyone was packed tightly, intimately, asses to asses, fronts to backs, or breathing in each other’s faces and yet, more people still managed to get on. Perhaps there was a trap in the back, an opening disposing of those who had suffocated already.

            Benjamin lost sight of Natalie. He was now fully focused on not breathing in the patchouli-scented woman in front of him, whose backpack threatened to knock out his bottom teeth every time the bus stopped or lunged forward. He was about to move his face away when the bus stopped, and the backpack fulfilled its threat, bumping him right under the jaw.

He bit on his lip hard, felt salt.

His phone vibrated. A tiny drop of blood landed on the screen as he managed to wiggle it out of the pocket of his windbreaker. Text from Sunshine: "Nat says ur on the bus. Ew."

*

On the weekend, he was going to a party at his boss's house.

"Walkman Sonnets," Sunshine's text came through. She texted him all the time now and he texted her back all the time now, too. It was so stupid. He was so stupid. 

"Benjamin?" Laura scratched at the bathroom door. His hands shook as he pressed "home" on his phone to disappear Sunshine's text. He had an uncomfortable feeling that Laura had been standing against the door, listening for a while—listening to him squirm as he texted with his student.

"I need to put my eyes in," Laura said as she entered. She reached to the cupboard to get the contact lens case.

His phone vibrated indignantly.

Laura opened the case, lifted the lens, pulled on the lower lid of her left eye and massaged the eyeball with her index finger.

The phone vibrated, again.

"Maybe it's an emergency," Laura said to her eyeball.

"But we're all home," Benjamin said. "Everyone is fine."

"Maybe it's one of your students?" Laura's green eye—the one with the contact in—and her natural-blue eye met his eyes.

“There’s a launch tonight. For Walkman Sonnets.” he said.

“Oh. You could go. After Beverly’s,” Laura looked away and pulled the lower lid of the other eye.

As a surprise, he had booked a hotel room for them, but he suddenly decided not to tell Laura yet. It was a Hot Wire booking but he scored a room in the newest boutique hotel; the photos showed a shower like an aquarium with the king-size bed on the other side of the glass. When he booked it, Benjamin pictured Laura showering while he lay on the bed and watched.

“I don't think I'll go,” he said. He rarely went to his students’ events because he was envious of them. Their youth and their naïve confidence in things working out irritated him. He remember what that was like, to be in your 20s when you didn’t think of death, when—even if you knew it—you couldn’t feel yet how close you were to it.

*

Hector and Beverly lived in a large house in the neighbourhood that made Benjamin nervous. It was Sunshine’s neighbourhood too. But she was at the launch and besides, there was no way he was going to run into her here since no one ever left their beautiful houses here; the sidewalks were empty. Benjamin joked to Sunshine before that this was because the residents were afraid of commoners and she lifted her eyebrow theatrically and said, “But yes, of course it’s because of that.”

Hector and Beverly’s house was overlooking a ravine. Their backyard had been recently landscaped and it featured two koi pods.

Benjamin went out for a beer with Hector a year ago to a hip restaurant that sold animal parts like tails and tongues, and Hector called his wife a “bourgie cunt“ and talked about her “bourgie cunt ponds” that cost him close to five thousand dollars to install and re-install and re-install again.

At the party, Beverly swooped down in a fervently patterned dress like a tent advertising Spring itself, and she held Laura’s waist tightly, "You need to stop isolating so much," she said to Laura.

(Sometimes Laura wouldn't leave the house for weeks.)

It was humid. The backyard was lit up by hundreds of twinkling white lights woven into the trees with their evenly trimmed heads, every leaf in place.  In the middle, there were long tables, set up with food. The koi pad closest to Benjamin was lit up from the bottom, the fish glowing white and orange.

He looked up and met Laura's eyes and she, too was glowing—she looked ethereal in the light or maybe she was lit up from the inside... He decided would tell her about the hotel, that he booked it for them.

He walked over toward the tables: the sushi table—with its absurd puzzles of dead-fish pieces—and the cupcake table in the middle of which there was a human skull made out of chocolate. 

There was a table with cheese, too, chunks of it with nametags on toothpicks. The cheese was melting in the heat. There was a plastic display with a map with red dots on it to mark where cheeses were from. Benjamin thought of hoisting himself onto the table and sitting in that whole putrid, yellow mess.

A man in a white seersucker suit walked into the backyard and many people made happy noises. Benjamin assumed the man had been away.

The man handed Beverly a lump of white wax paper. She unwrapped it and screamed, “Hector, it’s Beaufort D'Ete. Roger brought us Beaufort D’Ete, can you believe it?”

Benjamin said to no one, “I’m going to fucking kill myself.”

He met Laura's eyes across the table and they laughed with their eyes at each other. It was so unexpected, this little exchange between them, he wasn't sure if it had occurred.

He was going to tell her about the hotel now.

“Here’s the address of Umlaut,” Hector handed Benjamin a business card.

It didn’t say anywhere on the business card what Umlaut was. Maybe a restaurant, maybe a furniture store, maybe neither of those things.

“You and Laura should check it out. Anyway, can you believe there’s a donut revival?”

“I’ve been to the new place. Glory Hole. It was good,” Benjamin said, hating himself very much in that moment.

“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” Hector said and they stood with their beers in silence.

Later, Hector introduced him to a man named Victor and the three of them talked about schools in their catchment. Hector’s son was getting sent off to a private school on the outskirts of town, infamous for its many sexual abuse lawsuits.

Benjamin watched Laura walk around the party clutching her cup of ginger ale. She’d stop by various clusters of people but she’d never join in. She looked lost. He kept looking at her. He imagined he was protecting her somehow by anchoring her with his eyes.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said to Hector and Victor who were now talking about the koi ponds. Hector nodded at him. He seemed angry. It was probably the koi pads; Benjamin heard him say “fucking koi pads” to Victor.

“We need to leave here,” Benjamin said to Laura and unclenched her hand from the glass of ginger ale. There was sweat above her upper lip.

“Yes, please,” she said. “Oh, please.”

They walked through the house. It was a house filled with white and plexiglass. There was a painting, three black skulls on white.

It started to rain as they walked through the empty tree-lined street, the leaves ripe green, heavy with summer. Everything smelled of wet, hot earth.

They started running. They held hands as they ran, the streets getting denser with water.  Benjamin laughed and Laura laughed and they ran, laughing. They ran to the end of the street, toward the ravine.

They stopped and stood still in front of the forest, as if waiting for something. Then she was kissing him, her mouth hot and soft.

He felt his body shiver, from heat, from rain, from all of it. He was hard, his whole body felt hard. He was a man-cock; there was wetness all around him.

Once they plunged into the green thickness, the sound of rain was muffled. He pulled her behind him as if he knew where he was going. There was a small clearing in the woods, a patch of green.

Laura lay on the wet grass, the rain everywhere, above them, softening the ground below her. She wriggled out of her underwear.

He lifted her dress, wet slap of it over the thighs. The click of the belt in the swooshing air sounded clean, like a bell.

He opened her thighs, lay on top of her. He felt sharp pain—a tip of a branch pierced his forearm. He ignored it.

He heard a sound that wasn't rain. He looked at Laura. She was looking away from him. She was crying. Even in the rain he could see she was crying.

His forearm pulsed with pain.

*

 “You are soaked wet. And you’re bleeding,” Sunshine said. She appeared at his side, her head covered in glitter, some kind of a headband with silver sparkles in it. 

 “I punched a tree,” he said.

“Did it say something to make you mad?”

“It walked right into me. So I punched it,” he said.

She smiled and cocked her head, “We should leave this stupid party.”

Benjamin watched the author of Walkman Sonnets give an interview to a woman with eyes hidden in thick bangs and a t-shirt that read RAVER. The author’s hair was piled into a high bun; he wore big boots, Brooklyn regulation black-frame glasses. He spoke showing off his bottom teeth, the lower lip hanging there as the questions were asked.

“Yes we should,” Benjamin said and they left.

*

He watched her take a shower as he lay on the iceberg-sized bed. Exactly how he wanted it to be, except it wasn’t her in the original fantasy but now that they were here, it seemed to be exactly as it should’ve been.

She was bigger than Laura: fleshy thighs and breasts and a little round belly. The sort of body that if he were to pin her arms above her had it would be a mutual agreement, not an actual show of his strength and dominance.

Laura was all bones and paleness with skin that bruised easily. Her skin was delicate; you could see vessels through it. She treated her body badly, underfeeding it and neglecting it when she was depressed. He dreamt of women like Sunshine... or he dreamt of bodies like hers at least, where there was abundance and pride in flesh that curved and lay over bones, not letting them poke through and remind Benjamin of mortality, the way he was reminded every time he hugged his wife.
            Sunshine came out of the steamy aquarium, “Move over.”

He scooted to the other end of the bed.

“Did you enjoy the show?” Sunshine lay on her front.

He tried not to stare at her ass.

No! He was here precisely so that he could stare at her ass. So he stared at her ass, hard, “It was a very good show.”

“Oh, I’m glad. Hey, is this helping out?”

“Is what helping out? Helping out with what?” Benjamin said and tried not to panic as she turned around and faced him in her splendid nakedness. What was he supposed to do? Could he reach for it, for her? Should he?

“Helping out with whatever is going on,” she said and looked down at his hand stroking the tattoo of a lion—or was it a tiger?—on her thigh. He didn’t like tattoos. Was it a lion or a tiger? Exactly. Except that he didn’t feel hostile toward tattoos any more. Because he knew from now on, he would think of this tiger or lion and feel himself stiffening.  He said, “I think it’s helping out, yes.”

“So what’s the story?”

His hand stopped stroking her thigh, “What do you mean?”

“There’s something going on, maybe you had a fight tonight, like you said, but there’s something else, something underlying all that. There always is. I've heard rumours.”

“Rumours.”

“I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m just asking because I know guys sometimes like to talk about this stuff and why not, I can play the role and ask you questions and you can tell me whatever you want,” Sunshine said and pulled his hand and placed it between her legs. It was warm and furry in there but he was too distracted by her, by what she was saying to him. So she didn’t care. And who were “guys?”

“Who are ‘guys?'" His hand lay between her legs too shy to move, uninvolved like a small diaper.

“Guys like you. What? You think this is some kind of a tragic crush? Don’t make that face. I’m not crazy, I promise you. This is not like a thing that I have, teachers. Or maybe it is,” she laughed.

He pulled his hand out, tried to do it so that she wouldn’t somehow notice. Tried not to be too rude about it.

“Did I hurt your feelings? Ben. It’s no big deal, really. Listen, I can tell you’re not one of those profs that teaches to meet girls.”

She was right, he was not.  Benjamin pulled the sheet over his pelvis.

“How old are you? Thirty-eight? Forty?” she said.

“Forty-two.”

“Forty-two. We’re like 20 years apart. I’m not going to try to have a relationship with you. I like older men because you know what you’re doing in bed but I date guys my age. I’m not that complicated, this is not a trap and don’t think too much and put your hand back in there,” she said the last part purring almost, and she gently put his hand back between her legs.

She was right. He shouldn’t think too much.

He moved his hand and felt her wetness open easily as he rubbed her. She moaned loudly, so unlike Laura who was quiet and troubled by the noises she was making, clamping her mouth shut when she would come, when she used to come, when they used to have sex. 

*

He woke up alone, early in the morning; the light outside was murky. He lay lost in the tumult of fresh hotel sheets, not moving: trying to lie himself into unconsciousness like that of dreams, into not caring. But he cared as soon as his eyes opened and he had a headache from drinking and he could smell Sunshine all over himself.

He felt sick—the anxiety and hangover rising up in his throat.

He moved, the pillows like waves coming at him—so many, pillows—who ever did need that many pillows and for what?—and sat up before picking up his phone to see the time.

"thx 4 fun nitedelete this text C U ltr"

            He fell back onto the white pillow pile, dramatically, as if someone was watching.