It’s his Nana’s funeral but Jeremy can’t stop looking at all the girls. He tells himself he’s doing something wrong, but he can’t stop. He watches them drift from the hall into the viewing room in their high-heeled shoes and dark dresses. Their skin looks so light, almost underwear white, against the dark fabric. He’s not sure who he’s related to, or how closely.
He’ll be sixteen in just a few days. He wonders if his parents are getting him a car. Maybe Nana left him some money.
When he was little, just after Poppy had died, he spent the night with Nana a bunch of times. He slept in the same bed as her. He spent those nights with one of his legs thrown over one of hers, or a hand slipped flatly beneath the soft weight of her shoulder. He would wake in the night and reach out, making sure she was still there. When she wasn’t there, he would panic quietly, afraid to lift his head or call out. Eventually, the toilet would flush or a glass would clink in the kitchen and she would return.
I should be crying, he thinks.
A girl in a dark dress and stockings makes her way through the line. Jeremy’s been watching her for a dozen handshakes. Her hair is just lighter than her dress and her eyes are pale, maybe green or bluish-green. Not family, he guesses, at least not close family.
So sorry for your loss, she tells his mother, his father, both aunts, an uncle. She shakes the hands of his uncle and his father; she hugs his mother and his aunts.
So sorry for your loss, she tells him. She’s older than he is, but not by much, maybe a senior. She’s not too graceful in her heels. She leans in when she takes his hand. Her fingers are cool and soft. Freckles constellate across the bridge of her nose. Her eyes aren’t blue or green but a very pale brown, almost gold.
Jeremy breaths deeply of her scent: apple shampoo. It covers the doughy smell of funeral lilies and mold. She hugs him and he wonders if he’s met her before. Her long hair tickles his neck and chin. When they part, he stands as tall as he can. He’s proud of his new suit. It fits well, makes his shoulders look broader than they are. His collar and tie hide his Adam’s apple. Pleats hide his half-erection.
Thanks, Jeremy says. He’s strong, sad, and brave. A man. He’s been through things, is going through something now.
When the visitation ends, when they close the casket, Jeremy tries to remember Nana’s face, but all he can conjure is an empty mask of rouged skin. Her hands were folded across her stomach. Strange to see hands with makeup on them, Jeremy could just barely see her spots and veins.
After Nana’s funeral, Jeremy tries to control himself, tries to wait a respectable number of days, or at least hours, after the service. But the image of the apple-scented girl must be dealt with. When he was thirteen, he’d discovered a brown paper bag of Penthouse magazines in a wooded lot near a neon green pond. He’d kept them for over a year, fallen in love with some of the models.
He compared them to girls he knew, felt like he knew the terrible secrets of classmates who shared the models’ names. But there was something wrong about the magazines, something wrong with him for having them. He knew the affair had to end. In a fit of desperate self-determination, he stole them out from under his mattress and buried them under rotting leaves near where he’d found them.
He found himself unable to forget a woman with dark wavy hair and a pearl necklace. When he closed his eyes, he saw her spreading her thin legs wide. She pulled open bright pink flaps skin with the tips of her long red nails. A caption read: I want to fuck the world.
He eventually ran back to the woods, found the burial plot, and dug. But the bag of magazines had moved on. The pages weren’t pages anymore; the women weren’t women. It was over.
It was, he told himself, for the best.
That same afternoon, as Jeremy flipped through a comic book, his little brother told him: Don’t think of a purple monkey. Without waiting for a response from Jeremy, he said, Can’t do it! He laughed like he’d won something. Jeremy shoved him out of his room and dug frantically around under his mattress, hoping to find some forgotten torn out page. After finding nothing, he slipped a pile of comic books beneath the mattress and sprawled out on top of his covers, trying to feel the pages beneath him.
Now, just hours after Nana’s funeral, Jeremy tries to control himself. But he peels his warm sheets down to his thighs and begins to touch himself. He thinks of legs and arms mostly, of kissing and cleavage.
Nana shows up just as the apple-scented girl’s dress falls to the floor. He tries not to think of a purple monkey, but Nana remains. Her face is a soft mask of pastels over bluish veins. He rolls over, tries to do it on his side, but Nana is lying there waiting for him to extend a leg over hers or slip a small warm hand under her arm.
Jeremy closes his eyes. He finishes and wipes himself on a tee shirt that he tosses into a corner. Nana shakes her head.
Weeks pass and it’s like this every time. Her ghost watches him cast his seed into laundry. He closes his eyes and thinks of apple-scented hairs tickling his neck, of pearl necklaces, of dark dresses, of underwear-white skin. He hears voices: I’m so sorry for your loss. I want to fuck the world.
Jeremy’s first time with a girl is not quite a year after the service. She’s tall and experienced, but younger than he is. She’s aggressive in a way that reminds him of the magazines and he can’t help thinking that she is somehow bad for him. Still, the thought of stopping never occurs to him. He tries to mimic the things he sees when he closes his eyes, but he isn’t used to managing anyone’s body but his own. There are too many knees and elbows. He worries about foot odor and wonders what to think about while doing the thing he always thinks about. She sucks him a little then straddles him. Does this feel okay, she asks. It does. Warmer and wetter than he imagined. Gripping, slippery. He pushes her up off of him and shudders. He comes and she sits in it.
Nana looks up from her crocheting and shakes her head. He closes his eyes.
That was fast, says the girl.
You got me too excited with your mouth, he says, but he is not excited. He pulls his eyes from her white skin, looks at his wall. Between posters of Led Zeppelin and Spider-Man is a map of the solar system, one he’s had since he was little. Pluto is still a planet. He remembers believing, when Poppy died, that Pluto was close to Heaven because it was the farthest out. He imagines Nana and Poppy are there now, on Pluto with their great grandbabies. The poster is embarrassing now. He thinks maybe he’ll take it down as soon as she leaves. He thinks maybe this will make next time better.
She keeps sitting on him, her skin cool and slippery. His dick is ready to go again. Warmer, wetter. Two more times in three positions, he lasts longer, pumps and pumps. Then she has to go to work.
It’s hard to process. Jeremy realizes something has changed; he’s different now, but he is unmoved. When he thinks about it later, when he is alone, he alters the experience. Within weeks, he has no idea which memories are real. When she moves on to the next boy, he misses the imaginary version of her more than the real one.
It happens again and again, with new girls; but it’s different each time. Years pass; he graduates high school and then college. He grows older, his forebrain finishes itself, and some things become easier to process. He is with his fifth, Ava, a girl with dark hair and pale brown eyes. His type, he tells himself. They like the same TV shows and he cooks for her sometimes.
They’re in her bed, skin cooling, their legs tangled and his hand tucked beneath the small of her back. The light in her bathroom, left on so he can see her, flickers out. A moment later it relights. A drop of something rolls down his side, tickling him.
Your bulb is loose, he says.
Ava shakes her head and smiles towards the bathroom. Hi, Halmuni, she says. She turns to him. Korean for grandmother. She likes you.
I’m glad, he says. He’s never told her about Nana. He leans into her and kisses her shoulder.
Later, half asleep, he catches a glimpse of something near the bathroom door. It’s not Nana; it’s not anyone he knows. He shuts his eyes tight and slips a hand under the curve of Ava’s back. Eventually he sleeps.
Years pass and they are married. Sleeping together turns into sleeping together.
Some nights Ava cries out while she sleeps. She moans and coughs as if choking. She sits up and then throws herself back down; but she almost never remembers anything, not even having dreams. She says that when she was a child things tried to steal her from her bed.
From myself, she says. They tried to pull my soul from my body.
Jeremy tells her it might be a mild dissociative disorder.
Mohammed said that he never received prophecy without feeling like his soul was being torn from his body, she says.
Does it feel like that?
She shrugs. It doesn’t happen as much any more, Ava tells him.
But it grows more frequent as the months pass. By their third anniversary, she cries out almost every night. Nana and Halmuni hover, cool hands on her hair and face. When Jeremy wakes before she does, he watches Ava sleep. He slips an arm under her shoulder and waits. Eventually her eyes open. Her soul is safe.
They talk casually about babies and another year passes. They waste time. They buy books they never read. At bookstores Ava heads for nonfiction, Jeremy for fiction. He makes a lap through the magazine section, but doesn’t stop to read any of them, just glances from cover to cover, face to face.
Another year passes and they talk less casually about babies. They decide to try.
Months pass. Ava becomes pregnant and, soon after, she becomes ill. Jeremy empties a room, the one they called an office but never worked in. He spends long hours sitting on the bare floor at night, in the dark, deciding what belongs on the walls. Murals are too busy, but nothing is somehow sad. When he hears Ava calling out in the darkness, he returns to her side. She’s nauseous and not eating; he’s nervous and not sleeping; he worries about what the baby’s not doing.
Eleven weeks in she crumples to the floor. She’s folded in half, rolling around on the carpet. She makes animal sounds, numinous noises, like a shaman muttering to the spirit world. Blood pours from her like paint from a tipped can.
At the hospital, a nurse palpates his wife’s belly. The nurse’s nails are long and her hands are cracked and dry. She pulls a speculum from a drawer. Cold, she says. She leans down and pries open his wife’s pink flesh.
Nothing helps. Something they never get to see is incinerated with the cysts and biopsies of strangers. A poem is given to Jeremy as they are discharged. It’s part of a packet of educational materials. It mentions nothing of souls being stolen from sleeping women, of prophecy, or of crying out beneath the cooling hands of one’s halmuni. It invokes the word angel again and again; it describes Heaven. Jeremy isn’t sure he believes in Heaven, but he thinks of a purple monkey.
Weeks later, when they sleep together again, Jeremy slips out of Ava just before he finishes. He mops her stomach with a tee shirt that he throws into the corner. Nana lowers her eyes and shakes her head. The bathroom light, left off, remains off.
His wife falls asleep quickly and does not cry out; the creature that assaults her sleep is resting tonight.
He thinks of the empty room down the hall, the office with bare walls. He thinks of the map of the solar system hanging in his bedroom when he was a kid. He thinks of all the souls on Pluto. Sad it’s no longer a planet, sad all those souls just sitting on nothing in the middle of nowhere.
Jeremy rises and walks into the empty room, shuts the door behind him and lies down on the floor. He closes his eyes, takes slow deep breaths, and waits for a line of hands to shake, for dark dresses, and for the tickle of apple-scented hair.