fiction by Kylie Ayn Yockey
Under the romantically dimmed glow of the bare-bulb dining light fixture, Benito pinches the steely clamp on blood-orange crustacean, snapping its leg open. Filmy juice squirts on his black sweater, and he groans about the cashmere.
Shae breaks his crab with his fists. If they had eaten at the restaurant instead of ordering the seafood to go, his husband would’ve walked out rather than dine with such savagery. He smears the exposed meat in the crystal butter dish before sucking it between his teeth.
Ccccrack…crackcrackcrack. He opens a new leg from several joints, the shell splintering, sharp and slipping around the plate. “Do you want—”
“You don’t even know—”
“I don’t want more wine.” Crack.
“Oh. Yeah, okay.” He sips what blanc he still has. There’s a dust strand floating in it, a lightless line. He pushes the glass farther from him on the table and huffs at it. “Listen, Ben—”
Benito cuts him off with the clink of his thin engagement ring dropping into his still half-full glass. Tiny bubbles skirt up the metal, crowding and popping on the liquid’s surface.
Shae decides he just won’t look up from the butter anymore. The slickness of the sauce makes his teeth gnashing just as silent as his husband, however, and goddamnit he’s been abiding quiet and disquiet for four goddamn years already. At least one of his body parts must be trying to get Benito’s attention. He spritzes more lemon juice on his dinner, then whips the wedge at his plate. It bounces off the emptied exoskeletons and across the sterile hardwood floor. “What do you want me—”
Benito glowers at his crab-cracker. “I want a divorce.” Crack.
“What about what I want?”
Lips grimaced, Benito yanks off his wedding band and plunks it in his butter dish, then digs it in with the butt of his crab leg. He slurps hard at the severed limb, dragging the meat out by his teeth, slow and showy. Even one year ago the act would’ve been provocative, flirty and met with his husband crawling onto his lap.
Now, however, Shae stands and retrieves the lost lemon. He nearly tosses the dirtied citrus in the kitchen trashcan, but surprises himself by kicking the can over instead. He really can’t look at him now that Benito said the D word out loud, to his face, instead of in months of no kiss-hellos and years of fewer and fewer kiss-goodbyes. So he stalks around the apartment, throwing starch-stiff pillows off the couch and swiping Benito’s briefcase off the counter, and knocking things off the walls like their sunburned Aruban honeymoon picture and the geometric tapestry they fought over at Ikea from their first apartment and the big long mirror. CRASH. The latter fissures and bleeds glass under his loafers. A hundred shards of his own reddened face weep at him.
Benito pauses between bites. His jaw hurts a little, from chewing so forcefully, but also he decides that he needs to knock over his glass. He can’t let Shae take all the credit for breaking apart their home. The garnet-encrusted ring inside slides onto the table and the Sauvignon pours over the edge. Chaos is probably like passion, he reasons; he draws X’s in the wine puddle.
“When did you stop loving me?” The millions mouths of Shae’s reflection echo in the warmth-empty room. His husband doesn’t answer for several minutes, both of their minds running through every long night at work and argument of whose family to spend holidays with and debate over adoption agencies and lingering eye contact with strangers.
He opens another shell before speaking, raising the pale meat to his dark lips in anticipation of his sentence’s end. “You know when.” Crack. He halves another leg and another of Shae’s heartstrings.
Shae can’t bear to look into his many faces anymore, so turns back around, stares at Benito’s back. “You know I didn’t mean it.” The one long night’s argument from two years ago that he refused to remember.
“I was insecure and scared and drunk, and I’ve you this a million times! Why do you refuse to believe me?”
Setting down his cracker, Benito tips over Shae’s glass too. “Because you haven’t stopped being insecure and scared ever since. I’m not interested in spineless beings.” He smirks absentmindedly at the crab on his plate. “Whether that’s more your fault or mine is moot.”
With calm and deliberate mind this time, Shae marches back and slaps Benito’s plate off the table. The hunk of the ceramic chips off and spiderweb fractures around the sides, and crab juice coats his shoes. “Is that enough spine for you?”
“You haven’t been enough for me in years.”
Tears finally fall from Shae’s eyes, and he slowly wedges of his own rings. He places them gently onto the wine-spread X next to Benito’s. “You can’t say I haven’t tried, Ben. You’re the one who gave up.” Without plan or pause, he walks away from his husband and out the door.
Benito reasons that that’s fair. Perhaps if he’d insisted seen that marriage counselor his sister recommended, or finished the paperwork to apply for a child, or opened their relationship, they could’ve gone the distance. But once his trust was broken that one night, he didn’t see the point in going the extra mile anymore. He reaches across the table and pulls Shae’s leftovers to him, continuing his meal in a different kind of silence.
Shae returns hours later, after Benito’s gone to bed and left the place a mess for Shae to clean up. Too drunk to do much more than pass out on the couch, the pieces of mirror and plate and crustacean stay spilt all over the apartment until morning. When new day’s sunlight splinters through the blinds onto his still-puffy face, Shae wakes in a daze. Like the abrupt snaps of dinner last night, he feels cold air where his rings should be. He wipes crust from his eyelashes with his right hand so that he doesn’t have to witness the absence.
He finds that his husband had already left for work, briefcase missing from the floor and body from the bed. He nearly cleans the house, broom and dust pan in hand, but he just stares, stock still in the middle of the room. Why should he do this? Wouldn’t that just be docile of him? So instead, he lets his supplies clatter to the floor, effectively adding to the clutter.
When Benito arrives home from work that evening, Shae isn’t there but the physical remnants of their argument still is. He smirks at it all before changing into something more casual to meet his sister for dinner. Just before he exits, though, he pushes the loose-change bowl from the console table. Coins and an errant cufflink roll around and under their hard leather couch.
His husband doesn’t come home that night, and Benito wonders idly, before falling into his regular hard sleep, if it’s on purpose. After his alarm gets him up in the morning and he goes into the kitchen to put a pot of coffee on, he finds the carafe broken in the sink. Some time in the early hours of the morning, Shae must’ve returned just to break it and leave again. In retaliation, Benito takes all of Shae’s suede items in the closet and puts them out on the balcony where the eastern winds will push the forecasted torrential rain.
For three weeks the two men dance around each other and the increasing wreckage of their apartment. Pillows get slashed open, the CD player and VCR both stuffed with toothpaste, photo album ripped apart, silverware tossed around the floor, TV screen painted over, bathroom drawer ripped from cabinet, books drowned. Only when the air grows putrid with the smell of festering shellfish does Benito clean up the food part of the mess. Every day they rotate through the home, pulling it apart piece by piece.
Finally, they misstep their schedule-tag. Benito is midway through dismantling the dishwasher when Shae enters with a baseball bat intended for the very same appliance. Both freeze when they meet eyes, size each other up.
Shae’s face reddens as his brain catches up with his eyes, and his gaze snaps to the dishwasher then back to Benito. “You’re a fucking asshole.”
“And you’re still a coward.” Benito counters, pupils dilating.
From across the room, Shae can’t see this. As he advances, however, still clutching the bat in his ringless left hand, he notices. For a moment, he can’t decide if he wants to hit him or kiss him. His grip tightens on the bat.
CRACK! He swings it over their heads and crashes it down on the open dishwasher door. A chunk of the plastic dents inward, and his husband jumps backward. Benito watches in increasing interest as Shae then takes the bat to the pantry door, then the sink faucet, then the overhead light, then the microwave, then the drywall pillar at the end of the counter, then the dining room table legs. After that swing, they both pause at the dings of their wine-sticky rings hitting the hardwood.
Shae lifts his eyes from the floor to his husband, who’s practically undressing him with his eyes. He can’t even remember the last time Benito looked at him like that. Part of him prickles with appreciation, but the rest of him just feels angry. Breaking their eye contact, he whips his eyes around what’s left of their apartment. Suddenly, he can’t remember why he participated in this destruction.
“Okay,” he says. He turns back to Benito, who’d sidled closer while he wasn’t paying attention. He meets his stare head-on, unwavering against the want there. “You can have your divorce. This isn’t what I want either.”
Benito loses his desire immediately, and steps back. Like Shae moments before, he breaks their gaze and looks around. A small smile pulls at his lips; no, he thinks, chaos and passion are definitely not the same. He nods, and locks eyes with Shae again. In silence, they begin to pick up and piece their home back together again.
Stages / Stages
fiction by Kylie Ayn Yockey
Stages / Stages
Dillan spends the first month alone in radical cleanliness.
She scrubs and washes every inch of the apartment, throws out all the cakes and cookies and tarts Stevie had left in the cupboards, and alphabetizes the DVR watchlist after deleting all of Stevie’s rom-coms. No one there to toss laundry on the floor, or leave the cap off the toothpaste, or drink from the juice carton. No blonde strands disrupting the couch’s white leather or the black of the bedsheets.
“I need to exist in the world on my own for a while, I’m sorry,” Stevie had wept in their starched living room. She said she would stare at her reflection, in a mirror framed by bare walls, beige like pictureless book pages, and felt like she didn’t look at home in them. When she had moved in with Dillan the previous year, after dating for two right out of college, they knew it would be an adjustment—Stevie was creative, a wild spirit, and Dillan reserved, structural. But they made a commitment, bought pink-platinum rings, and Dillan thought Stevie was happy here, with her. “It just doesn’t seem like I live here. Like you won’t let me.” They both cried, arms crossed, at opposite ends of the square coffee table. Their nightly tea grew cold and the mint candles burned to the wicks, and Stevie left.
The only place Dillan doesn’t dust is the bedside table by the window, where Stevie ever kept a bedazzled vase of forget-me-nots. Her pink-platinum ring rests just below the limping petals.
The second month, Dillan buys herself a confetti birthday cake and eats it all alone. Which is fine, she nods to no one on the hard dining bench, because no frosting will end up on the counter with just her at it. Or in her hair. Or on her clothes. Or on the floor. Or in the sheets.
Before taking to her lonely bed again, Dillan pulls the blue ribbon from her neck, then her red rose earrings, then her pink-platinum ring. The accessories may be new—pops of color to fill in where Stevie’s glittering personality had shone through before—but still she wore the same ring. The apartment’s same biegeness now taunts her every night though, and the bedside flowers wither to a crisp. She’ll have to buy new ones if Stevie comes home. When Stevie comes home. She had to believe she will. Laying back against the cool pillows, she doesn’t bother to shimmy under the sheets. Since Stevie left, Dillan has slept over them, so they stay tucked prim.
A day later, she plucks her favorite books from her wall-to-wall shelves—the only wall in the apartment not shaded in neutrals—and takes them to the hardware store. She matches them to paint swatches then purchases the respective buckets. When she gets home, she strips the black bedding and uses them as floor and furniture covers, splattering them with blues, golds, and pinks as the home transforms. She breaks her stubborn rule and texts Stevie: please come back home.
Finally, after another month goes by and the smell of fresh paint has long cleared, a key slides into the front door. Like an out-of-body experience, Dillan watches as she and Stevie face each other for a beat before rushing to embrace. Prepared to spew apologies and regrets, Stevie’s lips can only form an O when she notices the décor. Dillan lets her partner’s eyes and feet wander, take in the rainbow sequined throw pillows and mismatched dining chairs. “Do you want to see the best part?” She leads her to the bedroom.
Stevie gasps, making Dillan smile for the first time in months. A rainbow array of vases holds fresh flowers—roses, violets, daisies, lilies, snapdragons, wildflowers. Their scents kiss her nose so strongly she can taste it. She walks the room’s perimeter, running fingers along the emerald walls. The tendrilled frame of their bed bleeds indistinguishably into the tree painted on the wall, branches fingering out into vines around the window and closet door and the mirror now fixed to the ceiling above the bed. Pink petals drift on a phantom wind around the mirror’s thin gold frame, against a gentle blue sky. Stevie’s pink-platinum ring rests on the nightstand next to fresh forget-me-nots. Dillan crawls on her knees across the mattress, crumpling the lavender sheets, to slip it on Stevie’s hand where it belongs.
“I’m sorry I didn’t let you in my world. I missed you.” Dillan hugs her and pulls her onto the garden bed. There, they lie together under the downy covers, arms entwined, looking up at themselves and each other, until they fall asleep.
And just like falling in a dream, Dillan falls back into her body, woken with a start, and she’s still staring at the front door. Stevie doesn’t smile at her, barely even O’s at the apartment’s makeover. Instead, she squares her frame, sweeps her now-red hair over her shoulder. “You changed the Netflix password.”
“I changed everything.” Why wouldn’t Stevie say anything about the walls, the furniture? About them? “I’ve changed.”
Her ex’s eyes fixate on her, on the blue ribbon at her throat and her pearly mint nails and her candy-patterned socks, and doesn’t look impressed. “I haven’t changed my mind. The world is bigger than you and me, even if your world isn’t. I’m won’t apologize for needing more than cheap accessories…for being more than an accessory.”
The redhead stalks past her to the bedroom, where she does not gasp, and collects the last of her belongings. She leaves her housekey next to the pink-platinum ring on the nightstand, hidden from its ceiling-mirror reflection by the forget-me-nots. Then she leaves, again. Dillan hasn’t moved an inch and can’t seem to leave her body as she watches the door shut.
She spends the next week alone in radical chaos. The couch finds itself upturned, books are thrown off the shelves, the kitchen counter reeks of tequila, all the flowers scatter across the floor. When Stevie’s birthday passes over the weekend, Dillan buys a birthday cake and beats it with their framed engagement photo.
Taking to her lonely bed again, alcohol-addled and smearing frosting on the sheets, she curses herself for fixing a mirror to the ceiling. For a moment, she hopes she’d screwed up, screwed it in shoddily, so it might fall on her in her sleep. The moment passes though, and fresh tears drip down her reflection’s face. Watching her mirror-body, she slides off her pink-platinum ring. She lets it fall in the chasm between the bed and the nightstand.
A day later, she cleans. She scrubs and washes every inch of the apartment, picks up the laundry on the floor and caps the toothpaste and rights the sofa. Books find their homes on the shelf; shy-petaled sunflowers peek over a plain glass vase. She builds a cardboard box and puts the bedazzled vase in it, along with the lavender bedding and sequin pillows and sweet-scented candles and Stevie’s ring, and tucks the box into the back of the closet.
At first, she doesn’t paint over the walls. For a month she comes home every day to a cornflower blue living room, carnation pink bathroom, and the garden bed. The colors start to close in on her, like they were saying that they weren’t hers, that it’s not her who’s supposed to live here. She looks up at her body framed in black sheets night after night, framed in gold and floating petals, and finally understands. Breaking her heart-hurt rule, she texts Stevie: you were right. i’m sorry. i hope you find everything you’re looking for.
Finally, after another month goes by and the smell of fresh paint has long cleared, Dillan slides her key into the front door. She lets Elizabennet, her newly adopted spaniel, sniff around the legs of the mismatched dining chairs and square coffee table. Thankfully, Dillan catches her before she sinks her sharp puppy teeth into the maroon corduroy throw pillows.
The two snuggle on the couch, binging crime shows Netflix, framed by coral walls. Dillan kept the dining room painted gold, but when she invites Elizabennet into her bed that night, they fall asleep surrounded by navy blue and under white-dotted constellations. When she wakes first in the morning, she posts a picture on Instagram of her new baby snoring soundly on her chest.
Notifications roll in all day, people liking and commenting on the photo. She “hearts” and replies to all of them – the most interaction she’s had with friends and acquaintances since Stevie left. Really, since she and Stevie put on those pink platinum rings. As soon as she and Elizabennet return from their before-bedtime walk, Dillan sends a flurry of texts: hey! sorry been so MIA. please can we get coffee or drinks?
She spends the next month getting acquainted with her dog and reacquainted with long-lost friends. Some days don’t work out—Elizabennet pees on a book, she goes on a stale date with her college girlfriend, one of her rose earrings gets lost, she lets her flowers-of-the-week die. But most days, Dillan wakes up feeling more and more at home in the world.
One day, she crawls for the squeaky bone she’d thrown off-aim across the bedroom, and reaches under the bed by the nightstand. Instead of neon rubber, her fingers fetch metal. Pulling her hand back to her eyes, she finds her pink-platinum ring in her palm. Like an out-of-body experience, she feels hollow of organs and breath. She doesn’t fall back into her body until just before bed, after she’d set the ring on the nightstand and retrieved Elizabennet’s toy and texted Stevie asking to get coffee or drinks. Her heartbeat thumps heavy in her chest at the notification dinging on her phone: Yeah, I’d like that. I’m overseas until next month, but let’s meet up when I’m back.
So, they go out for drinks after the next month rolls over. And it’s not stale, and Stevie adores Elizabennet who adores her back, and compliments Dillan’s new décor, and pulls the black ribbon from Dillan’s neck with her teeth, and gets frosting in the sheets. In the morning over tea, sitting on the floor opposite each other across the coffee table, with Elizabennet snoring soundly in Stevie’s lap, the again-blonde says, “You’ve changed.”
“I hope so.”
“The last time I saw you…I don’t know, it was so performative and radical. But this, this feels real. It feels so much more welcoming here. You feel like you.”
“Thank you. I think I needed to exist outside my own world for a while, too.”
“It’s not only my world.”
Stevie strokes Elizabennet’s velvet ear, fixating her eyes on her ex. “I saw that you changed the Netflix password back.” Dillan’s eyes widen to O’s; she hadn’t thought she’d notice that. “You know…I think I’m ready to come home. If you’ll have me. And if you put that mirror back up in the bedroom.”