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Unterberg Poetry Center

Getting fucked up on Robitussin and picking up random guys at children’s birthday parties was not something Essy was in the habit of doing. Random guys—maybe—lately there had been more of them than she cared to admit, but whatever. This one—Roger, Row-ZHEH, like the French say it (he was French, with a Brooklyn accent kind of French)—was still sleeping with his face buried in the pillow, so still and shamefully pale that he might be dead. His top leg, bent at the knee revealed the contrast of animal darkness between the cheeks and the soft flesh of his milky white ass. Why should a bisexual French cellist be any different from any man? Essy had not noticed the shape of Roger’s shaved head, but now she saw that there was something grotesque about it—the crease of skin, the lumpy occipital bone, almost primitive—an amateur’s attempt at papier-mâché over chicken wire. The scalp was the raw pinkish of a freshly plucked turkey. These were things Essy imagined Roger was unaware of, and she felt a slight resentment towards him for that. 

This was his bedroom, something Essy was glad of. It was easier to leave their apartments, rush off to work, Grandma’s funeral, or wherever. In the bathroom, which was apparently last cleaned in the 19 fucking 80s, Essy hovered over a toilet seat, its white surface worn through in spots. As her thighs trembled, she peeled her heels one foot at a time off the floor in case they became permanently stuck. Through an open window, she could hear Roger’s neighbors having sex in the next building. Essy lost focus, she sighed and lowered herself onto the seat, bringing her head to her hands. Who was she kidding? She had her face in this toilet last night, if it survived that, her ass would. For a moment Essy thought she would cry and she made a crying face but she didn’t cry. Instead she ran her fingers through her hair, sifting it of puke bits and tried to recall what she had eaten. The girl next door was close now, and Essy knew the kind of slut she was by how much pleasure she pretended to take in the sex. She stood and flushed with her toe, then opened Roger’s medicine cabinet. She was looking for Tylenol. This was a habit of hers—looking through people’s medicine cabinets, not so much the Tylenol. Essy knew a thing or two about how to make the most of what’s in the average medicine cabinet—extracting DXM from Robitussin was just for fun. The real magic was pilfered from medicine cabinets in the brownstones in Park Slope, where Essy was often hired to demonstrate bullshit science experiments for screaming little shits. Amazing bubbling potions and popping rockets was Essy’s latest career.

In Roger’s cabinet there was Clubman’s mustache wax and a miniature comb, which Essy picked up, and thought of combing a doll’s hair, and how she’d wasted her whole life doing meaningless shit. 

The man next door called out, “Poppy seed or Everything?”

“Plain,” the girl’s voice said. 

And he repeated, “Plain.” Obviously, not her usual. Essy went to the window and lifted it. She was sure the girl was a fat bitch. She wondered how often they did this, sex and bagels thing. But the window became stuck in a position where all she could see was a dank brick wall two feet away and that hidden place between buildings where rusted pipes drip. Part of Essy thought she wanted that kind of life: the choice to have Poppy seed or whatever, but screw that.

There was also shaving cream for sensitive skin in the cabinet, aftershave for sensitive skin, and balm for sensitive skin. Essy guessed Roger had sensitive skin and somehow that made her wish that she liked him more. Maybe she could fake it with a guy that played the cello and had sensitive skin. But it was never that simple, they come on a fucking hoverboard, pulling their cello behind like a sad little man with no arms or legs, to play classical Disney for a bunch of weird rich kids. 
 
Essy picked up a tube of hemorrhoid cooling gel and suddenly didn’t want to be in his cabinet anymore. She threw the gel into the cabinet knocking everything else out. She attempted to catch the contents, and briefly juggled a small jar of beard oil, floss, and a bottle of aftershave, but Essy fumbled as she did with everything in life and dropped all but the floss. She let out a reflexive yelp as the bottles hit the tiles with a crack and clattered across the floor.

“You all right in there?” came Roger’s voice from the bedroom. He was alive. Less French, but alive.

“Yeah,” Essy called back, holding herself still for a moment before spinning around to check the door was locked, saying fuck, fuck and biting her lip, then, “It’s my contacts. I shouldn’t have slept in them. One of them has shifted in back of my eye.” She stood before the mirror, pulled open her eye to make it more real, the distraction of searching for something way back there, the voice as her head leaned back, “I don’t suppose you have any drops do you? It’s floating around somewhere in my brain right now. Oh well, never mind, I guess it will find its way out. Or just hang out back there. Happens all the time, there must be a dozen of them in here.” Essy told herself to shut the fuck up, and mouthed dumb bitch at herself in the mirror. Her mouth, which was large, her thin lips lacking any hint of a cupid’s bow, was plain, even androgynous. She sat on the edge of the bath and pretended not to hear Roger’s suggestion. He wanted to go for breakfast—in a public place, sitting up, in a diner. Essy wanted to lie still on her couch, smoke homemade wax, eat Nutella with a spoon, where the sound of traffic and sirens and the faint cry of children's voices from the playground drifted in and let her be part of the city, but at the edge, where people can fall apart without being seen. 

There was about four inches of discolored water in the bath. Beneath an upturned milk crate covered in wire mesh, Essy saw something move. It reminded her of how the Vietcong kept prisoners in The Deer Hunter. People imprisoned that way found out something about themselves. There was something creepy about someone that had a contraption like this in his bath and at the same time something compelling about it. She lifted the milk crate. A tan colored frog with rectangular brown patches was perched on top of a stack of three red bricks. Its gleaming eyes, as still and round as black pearls, staring up at her.

“Hey, you know there is a frog in your bathtub?”
 
“Yeah,” Roger said, “don’t let it escape.”
 
“So what? It’s like a pet?”
 
“No,” he said quickly, then, “kind of…not really.”
 
“What, you’re fattening it up for dinner? So you really are French?”
 
Essy put her fingers into the water and wiggled them. “Hey little froggy,” she said, and as the frog swam away she reached in and scooped it out in her hands. “Hello, little froggy,” and she ran the tip of her finger between its bulging eyes. It didn’t seem to like that. “Oh, don’t be scared,” she said, “I wouldn’t hurt you. Would I, little froggy, would I hurt you? No, no, no. Tell me, did the bad man hurt you?” 
 
“What’s going on in there?” Roger called, “Are you talking to her?” 
 
Essy let the frog slip from her hands into the tub. Her, what was this? Some kind of weird sex object. Gerbilling, whatever—a frog covered in coke in your rectum—how weird would that be? Essy knelt at the bath and watched the frog swim and attempt to climb up the side of the tub and slide back down. It did this over and over again. The water was murky, like the water in her dreams, filthy stagnant. She decided to screw Roger before she left. She’d feel less guilty that way.
 
“So how did you get into science?” Roger was trying to make conversation, “Blowing that bucket of ping pong balls up in the air like that was pretty cool.” 
 
“You were pretty good on the cello too,” Essy said and came into the bedroom. Roger was dressed and sitting on the edge of the bed. He had taken Essy’s olive green dress from the floor and spread it over the bed. She pulled it towards her, balling the pattern of golden roses in her lap. “Hey, what’s with the frog? Seriously.” 
 
“Listen,” Roger said, sighing the way people do when they are about to tell you something they don’t believe themselves. The front of his head was a better shape, his eyebrows and mustache—about as big as a raccoon—made him look less sick. “I know this might sound weird,” he said, “but I think the frog is my sister.” 
 
“Oh, I see,” Essy laughed, “So, the prince kissed you?” Roger didn’t find that funny. He didn’t even crack a smile. 
 
“Look, last year my sister died. Drowned. Two men on a tugboat found her in the East River. We don’t know what happened.” Roger, picked up a dirty white basketball shoe with red plastic trim and turned it over inspecting the sole. He ran his thumb over the smoothed part of the heel. There was a worn patch on the ball of the foot and the heel had worn unevenly like how Essy wore her shoes to the outside. “I was in a really bad place after she died,” Roger went on, “and one day I was sitting on a bench at the lake in Prospect Park and I decided to talk to my sister. I just talked, imagining her, like when you overhear half of someone’s phone conversation. I said, ‘It's so good to hear from you, what happened to you, where are you’ and ‘how do you like it there,’ and I listened. I listened for hours and let her answer, through nature. I know it sounds far out but I listened and let her speak through the sounds around me, the wind, the birds, and this little frog. This frog hopped right up to me, and it was looking at me, like, ‘Hey bro, get me the fuck out of here. Take me home with you.’ So I did, I took her home.” 

“And you keep her in your bath underneath a wire cage? At least change the water.”

“Have you seen what the Haitians do with frogs in Prospect Park? They run a hook through them and use them for live bait.” He bent the sole of the shoe back on itself. Essy saw she’d touched a nerve. 
 
“Sorry,” she said, “I had no idea.” 
 
“No, you’re right, it’s no place for a frog. I’m going to drive her over to Lake Lackawanna in New Jersey. We used to go out there on Sunday’s when we were kids. We had good memories there.” 
 
When he looked up from the sole of his shoe, his eyes were moist and small with pain. “She was my twin. We were like that,” Roger said, and he held up two interweaved fingers. Essy felt a pang of jealousy, as she always did when people cried for each other. She wished she was one of those fingers, not necessarily that finger, but a finger in someone’s story. Right now she was a finger in a story, like hey I met this chick at a kid’s birthday party and she stuck her finger in my ass and wow. That’s what she was, a finger in someone’s ass. She sat beside Roger and took his hand in her lap where it rested, limp between her thighs. Essy was not good with these situations, she had no real experience with death, other than her father’s, but not grief, she had never mourned anyone. Roger talked about his sister and camping trips—stuff families do. Essy felt she should listen in case she ever had a friend, and that friend committed suicide or overdosed. Those were the type of friends she imagined having. But she was in her underwear and it seemed ridiculous to be moved by the death of some girl she didn’t know. She folded Roger’s fingers one at a time, the tops of which were eaten raw of fingernails. There was something more tragic in that, more relatable, a man gnawing away at himself. Roger took back his hand to reach a photo of his sister from the bookshelf.
 
“What was her name?” Essy asked.
 
She didn’t look like Roger. Her name was Mary Lou and she had hair. In the picture she was standing at a lighthouse with her arms outstretched leaning into the wind, screaming with joy at its ferocity. It would be difficult to mourn someone who’d had enough good memories to have captured some on camera. Essy brought the photo close to her face. She could hear the girl scream, feel the wind that held her up, lifted her hair like a tattered flag, and shaped her cheeks, while the landscape around her was still, the light house, the rocks—the grass that grew between them, and the grey sky. Essy placed the photo back on the bookshelf and took an orange plastic bottle of pills from her bag, handed two tablets to Roger, “Hangover cure,” she said as she went into the kitchen to fill a glass of water. She cupped three pills into her mouth and washed them down. “They work,” she said, and they each took another. 
 
“When I was three and my brother was two,” Essy said, “my brother climbed into the dryer and, well, I closed the door and switched it on.” She wasn’t sure why she told Roger that. Her brother had survived. 
 
“My brother and I were never close,” she said, “he spent some time in jail, short stints mostly, for dumb shit. He knocked a guy’s eye out once with a tire-iron for cutting him off in the parking lot at Buffalo Wild Wings. Turned out that the guy had a gun in his car. He shot at my brother five times and missed him every time. One of the guy’s eyes was hanging out so I guess his vision was screwed up. Anyway, my brother was really affected by this—the notion that someone was watching out for him. He says he was born again in that moment. Now, he drives a truck across country with John 3:3 written in big black letters across the front of his tractor. Nicodemus is his CB handle. I think that If my brother died he’d come back as a Rottweiler. A real bad ass. I can see him bouncing off a wire fence, barking and growling, scaring the shit out of people. My point is, I think it’s nice your sister came back as a frog. Frogs are cool. I like the way their eyes kind of twitch.” Essy talked now to fill up space, it was easier than listening, and it was a relief to see Roger was rolling a joint. She’d stay a bit longer if they could smoke and talk about things that didn’t really matter.
 
“That has been a lifelong dream of mine,” Roger said.
 
“Which fucking part? There’s a lot in there.” It was not Essy's intention to inspire Roger to share his dreams. Of course Roger wanted to drive his motorcycle across country, to relive Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, hoping to find his own philosophy. It was not a dream Essy shared, she had no interest in traveling or quality, although having a dream was something she aspired to.

“What’s stopping you?” she asked, as if the idea of an unfulfilled dream offended her.
 
“I’m not sure,” Roger said, “I’m afraid it will be a disappointment. It seems like everywhere is the same now: Starbucks, Holiday Inn, McDonald’s, TGI Friday’s, one town is the same as the next. Just follow your GPS, you can’t get lost anymore.” 
 
“Come on, is it really that bad?” Essy found herself saying, “do you to want take a trip out to Lake What’s-it-called right now. Let’s do it. Let’s take a road trip. Take Mary Lou to frog paradise.” She regretted these words as they were leaving her mouth. This was also a habit of Essy’s, getting high and then excited about things that really meant nothing to her. 
 
“Okay, but let’s get breakfast first,” Roger said, “I’m kind of messed up.”
 
“Sure,” Essy said, already trying to think of an excuse to change her mind. “Know where we can get Bloody Mary’s?” she said. “OxyContin works a lot better with alcohol.”

***

Riding across the Brooklyn Bridge that afternoon on the back of Roger’s motorcycle, Essy felt the grated sun on her bare legs. Mary Lou was in Roger’s backpack in a Planters twelve ounce salted peanuts can—dampened for frog comfort, air holes punctured in the plastic top. Roger turned and touched Essy’s leg as if to check she was real. She had legs that turned heads. Men slept with her just for her legs, she knew this. On her left ankle she had a compass with the needle pointed north tattooed in black ink on her sallow skin. An anchor and a ship-wheel on the other. She tucked her thighs close to Roger. When Roger accelerated the air rushed into Essy’s helmet and gave her the feeling of being lifted like a kite. The helmet belonged to Roger’s ex-girlfriend, and although Essy was not yet at the stage where she was jealous of his ex’s, it was nice to know she would not have to feel inferior to the ex with the melon head.
 
There was a sense that she was looking at the city through a lens. From inside the motorcycle helmet, New York was a faded postcard, a model city in a store window—the skyscrapers bent like poplar trees in the wind, bugs speckled its image with blood. The city became silent, opened up and curved around them. Essy felt naked as the air rushed inside Roger’s leather jacket. He insisted she wear it—Hasta La Victoria Siempre written in cracked red and blue letters across the back. Hasta La Victoria Siempre, she had read with a fist in the air, mocking Roger when he handed her the jacket, and she saw the boyish way he dismissed it. She held Roger around the waist when he throttled the bike and rode up on his back when he braked hard. Crossing Manhattan, oncoming cars honked and flashed lights and taxi drivers shouted: asshole, as Roger weaved in and out of lanes. Who knew there was so much fun in speed. As they entered the Holland Tunnel, Essy crouched with Roger and watched white tiles and fluorescent bulbs blur, drift, and melt into the roar of the motorcycle’s engine. Lean with me, Roger had said, and she did. She pulled herself close and relaxed. The appeal of traveling across country was beginning to make sense to her.
 
As a child, Essy had learned that all good things were ruined by taking pleasure in them. She felt that dumb smirk on her face, ‘retard face’ her brother called it, whenever he caught her off guard enjoying something. 
 
The first sneeze came as they exited the tunnel into the New Jersey pollen. Essy was one of those violent sneezing types that do a little dance or stamp a foot—war cry style—before folding in two. Essy’s head thrust forward and her helmet banged against Roger’s. Her foot slipped from the peg and her leg brushed against the blue hot muffler, the shock of which almost caused her to slip off the bike. Roger managed to keep the bike straight. He pulled onto an exit and slowed to about a hundred miles per hour when Essy sneezed five more times, rapidly, each time knocking Roger’s helmet with hers. She attempted to wipe the snot from her face but smacked her hand against the visor. It was then that something crumbled inside Essy and she screamed, “Stop. Stop,” until the words were swallowed in a deep howling breath. She let what was left of herself fall against a man she had just met and fucked and gotten high with, and who was taking his dead sister, reincarnated as a frog, someplace. She should be at home. 
 
Roger made his way to a gas station and stopped the motorcycle next to the curb. Essy threw off the heavy leather jacket and let Roger undo her helmet, she had given up on the chin strap herself and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she didn’t look at Roger. She was glad he didn’t try to console her or touch her. A junkie came over and asked for six dollars, he needed to catch a bus to his mother’s funeral. 
 
Essy stood up quickly and confronted the guy, leaning towards him, “Your fucking mother didn’t die, you asshole.” His eyes were gray and lifeless, his face full of pity for himself. He took a step back from Essy and she saw how beat down he was. She went towards the convenience store. 
 
The restroom was locked and a skinny kid interrupted his phone conversation, switching to English, to tell her, “Bring back the key.” The key was attached to a piece of red plastic so big Essy could have peed behind it. She cleaned the snot from her face and this time she did hover over the toilet. When she returned to the bike, Roger asked if she was all right, she nodded, and he went to the store. That was it. It seemed to Essy like a moment married couples might share. Essy took the can from Roger’s backpack and tipped the frog into her hand. Enough with the hanging out and road trips and frogs. The frog was dry and lifeless. Only its eyes moved. “I’m sorry,” Essy whispered, “I hate to do this but I’ve better things to do.” She didn’t, but what did the frog know. There was a used car lot next to the gas station and tall weeds grew high against a wire fence. Essy threw the frog into the weeds. It didn’t move at first, just sat on the dry grass. As Essy reached in and flicked the frog with her toe, Roger came to the door of the store waving two Paydays in the air saying, “You’re not allergic to nuts, are you?” Essy didn’t answer.
 
Roger came to where she was standing, “What’s going on?” 
 
“I’m sorry,” Essy said. 
 
The attendant was at the gas station door, bluetooth flashing in his ear, and called to Roger, “You have not paid for your chocolate bars,” then seeing Essy added, “and Miss, you are not bringing back my key.” 
 
“Get fucked,” Roger shouted back.
 
“Very fine, I am calling the police.” 

“You let my sister loose in a gas station,” Roger said turning to Essy, “in New fucking Jersey, and now we are going to get arrested.”
 
“It was a frog, Roger, a little sick frog, not your sister.”
 
Roger chewed on his thumbnail, avoiding her eyes. “I just want her to be safe,” he said, “I want her to be in a good place.”
 
The attendant came to the door again, “Everything is on camera,” he said.
 
Roger turned first to the attendant and gave him the finger, then to the camera. Essy looked back to the frog and saw it move into the cover of the yellow grass and weeds. She felt she should say something to Roger, but what was there to say.

On the way back to New York, the asphalt slid beneath the bike. The air had cooled and Essy made herself small behind Roger. She stared into the truck wheels as they sped along beside them. She thought of her brother, driving one of those big rigs in the open country. Just the road out in front of him. And how it’s a different thing to see those rubber tires up close and watch them mold into the blacktop. She found it hard not to imagine herself crushed beneath them.

Enda Carty is an Irish-born poet and short story author. His poetry has recently been published in RHINO. He lives and works in New York and is currently working on his first novel.