Checking her face in the mirror, she feels him move behind her, his attention absorbing the space between them. “What?” she says. He doesn’t answer, turns to the mirror and yawns, right earbud in his ear, left one dangling at his shoulder.

Later, at the gas station, a woman’s glance slides up her calves to the back of her skirt. She wants to say something, but the woman turns away, enters the shop and talks to a man whose chin drops low, moving close to her face. They both turn to the parking lot, to her at the gas pump, where she presses rhythmically on the handle for a few last drops. The man whispers something…they both laugh.

In class, it happens again. She lectures. A student in the back laughs. He thinks she can’t see him, the way that something funny hits him in the chest with a jolt. With his elbow, he nudges someone who is cradling a phone under the desk. The boy talks to the other softly, lips stretched wide, teeth showing. She can hear the boy’s voice but not what he says.

What? What is it? Is her nose bleeding? Did she spit? Is it her accent?

Out loud: Something funny you want to share? There is a steel-edge to the question, even through her smile, her voice like a gloved hand seizing a throat.

The class becomes quiet and alert, cats smelling a kill. The boy: a casual shake of the head, a “nah” slipping out like a sigh. But it happens again, later. The one with the cell phone looks up suddenly, face slack, as if he’s just coming out of sleep. His mouth forms an “oh” he breathes out, not quite like a laugh, like the beginning of a laugh. The boys turn to each other, share a grin: it slides from one’s mouth to the other’s, telegraphed, wired.

She’s a surface of splinters and edges. She’s shards of glass glued on cardboard with spit.

In the bathroom, she checks her makeup, her clothes. Looks up her nose. Checks her teeth. Maybe her breath?

In the parking lot, a colleague waves, says, “You all right?”

“Why?”

“Just asking.”

At dinner, her husband keeps his eyes on his plate, then notices her and folds his hands under his chin. He asks if she’s all right, if something’s happened.

“Students stare at me. People look at me like there’s something wrong with me.”

His hand reaches out to hers, pats her knuckles once, twice. “No one’s looking at you,” he says.

That night, in a dream, she walks through the narrow halls of a funhouse, her feet sinking into foam. Her body stretches in the warped space of mirrors, her belly blowing out, a helium pregnancy. Her neck is a string of molten silver that stretches thin as she moves and snaps into two teardrops that kiss and shrink away.

 

© Laura Valeri
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Laura’s interview]