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Tutelar / K Hank Jost



artwork credit "Bubble Bath" by Eric Wallis



Couldn’t bother searching out another towel from the dirty pile, so Hana’s hair lays wet—flat, cold, and dull—on her shoulders, down her back. Skin raised prickling. Days now and the hollow ache’s yet to subside, side-effects of the antibiotics to soften.

           

The bed is still warm where David’d been laying. A sour flower in her belly at the lingering odor of boy—grime-greened jeans, callused socks, flatulated briefs, cigarettes.

           

Perched on a pillow, his laptop sits open. Screen gray-black. A break in the curtains and Hana’s silvery there, ghost and lump.

           

The room was still. Hana was shivering—bother bubbling within.

           

And so, with a curious thumb on the space bar, the screen livens:

 

Frozen in soft crucifixion. A hard-lined play icon over her chest as the heart that gouts the bleachy blood covering her. Muddy-diamond nipples and her face strained ruby for more—the girl looks like a little boy trying to look like a little girl—

           

Hana’d been curled at the bottom of the shower. Fetal as a curse, amniotic in the scum-filmed basin. Singing waters pounding her skin to cherry, filling her ears, gathering at her crooked knees and elbows. A gasp straightened her knot after he knocked too loud, barged in, and flipped on the sink.

           

“Sorry hon!” David’d said, “In a rush. Supposed to be there in like a fucking half-hour.”

           

The running tap set a chill in the water.

           

Hana gurgled, “I love you…”

           

“You too. You too.” And the bathroom door slammed. The apartment door slammed. Stomping all the flights down.

           

Would have loved to imagine the building door’s slam birthing him bright into autumn. To imagine him in full sprint. Knees high and comic. The weight of their graceless fall giving him the momentum to arrive in the nick of time, forward in his charm, a smile despite the sweat and heaving breath. Would have loved to imagine him giving a damn. But Hana knew he’d walk the five blocks to the train laboring a cigarette, get to the station and have another. Hana knew he’d take his time, ignore everyone else’s.

           

She pressed two fingers between her legs. Brought them then to her face. Even in the fog and downpour, jellied black-red remained—

           

And now she’s biting her nails again. Towel on the floor and pacing. Little pains pinging her smoke-soft teeth.

           

The girl writhes in the periphery, semen like lotion over her abdomen. Speakers sound the sop and moan. Hana’d not looked long enough to really see.

           

The bed’s chilled and Hana’s fingering the cursor, opening individual tabs. Every page of David’s profile. Feed, subscription archive, purchase records, chat logs. History. Flicks through to stop the girl in her curdling tracks.

 

He’s had the account for eight months—dating back to dead winter, freshly moved in, both of them broke for brokerage, first-and-lasts, and new furniture.

           

Angry sweat stickies her to the sheets, but a pucker below rings again emergency.

           

The air in the bathroom is still thick and humid. Mirror hazed.

           

Laptop propped on her knees, one of which is shaking, her fingers tingle and her chest thrums.

           

She scrolls through his purchase receipts. Her guts collapse, purging acid flotsam and rancid string. A rough, hateful calculation. It burns like she ought to be bleeding, but it only comes out floating and green. He’s spent somewhere near $700 since opening the account. Splashes on bare skin, up from the bowl. This girl, Jen, is the only one he pays for. Sounds so solid for so much grease. Lots of one-on-ones. And for a moment Hana feels true and empty, nothing wrong for nothing living. In the chat logs he talks to her like he doesn’t care what she looks like when she’s naked.

           

The air is fat and wretched with the smell of innards.

 

***

 

“You made at me?” David’s asking this a lot lately. Hana can’t help it. Her pain-tightened face speaks for her words she’d leave unuttered for the sake of their consequence. Can’t hardly look him in the eye anymore.

           

“No. Why?”

           

“Cuz you’re sitting there fucking texting or whatever. I’m trying to tell you—”

           

Can tell he’s drunk and wants the fight. Shoving pretzel sticks in his mouth, breaking them over his tongue. The crumbs fall to dust the laces of the boots he’s wearing inside. He lit a cigarette the minute he walked in the door. Didn’t bother to open the window first or climb out onto the fire escape. It’s not even that cold outside. Can tell he’s drunk because he’s always fucking drunk.

           

She’d heard him arrive. The lopping stomp up the stairs, phlegm-chested. Her hands set to quiver at the sound of him. Glassy little phone slick in her palms—

           

Jen’d been sweet enough to offer a free video for Hana’s subscription. Credit transaction cleared and dinging into Hana’s chat inbox: Hey there, @H_Laska! Thanks for joying me on my journey of self-discovery and exploration of personal pleasure! Glad to have you. Here’s a free vid on the house!... Also, here’s my price list for customs. Everything is on a sliding scale, so don’t be shy!

           

“Don’t mind me, hon” Hana says without looking up from the phone.

           

“Alright… Whatever… Don’t listen, then…”

           

“I am listening!” Hissed and toothy and he’s leaning there lighting another cigarette, pretzel fragments all around.

           

“Jesus, okay. Don’t yell at me, just—”

           

“Would you mind opening the fucking window or something? Someone’s going to call the landlord and—”

           

“Okay, okay.” And the window screeches up. The hard edges of an autumn night pour in. “Are you gonna listen to me or…?”

           

ARE YOU GONNA ANSWER ME BITCH?!?!? Typed furious, autocorrect barely able to keep up. The message joins the other seven she’d sent rapid fire, all lumped under the same timestamp. There’s no reason to listen to David. Can piece the whole story together herself. Hana knows how he’ll tell it too, the arc he’ll craft—an apology for his failures generally speaking, then the blame will shift to other parties involved; what follows next will be one of two things, either a steadily fractalizing explication of how it was never going to work in the first place, how the whole of it all is rigged against people like him, or he’ll unravel an epic picaresque of the last few hours, himself heroic in his efforts to seek employment, fraught with dragons and characters she really should have met; the finale is always the same, a plea and thanks for her continued faith… And she’s left on ‘read.’ So, Jen’s still looking at them, hasn’t given up yet. FUKKIN WHORE! JENNIFER YOU DYKE SLUT ANSWER ME!! DON’T TALK TO MYFUCKING BOY FRIEND!

           

“Yeah, babe. I’m listening. I’m listening.”

           

“…I’m sorry, hon… I’m sorry. Everything’s gotten so fucked and I know that like,” looking across the kitchen, eyes already glassing up, “it’s all on me, right? I’m the one that couldn’t hold things down, couldn’t keep it all together. The move, I guess, just fucked me up… But I’m trying, you know that… I know you know that, but there’s like, I don’t know… No one fucking cares. Like you care, I know, but no one else does and I mean, we’ve been through a lot recently and I want to try and explain that to people but they just don’t get it or whatever. They’ve got their own shit, you know? But they won’t, like, give me a shot, it’s like I just, I just don’t know what to do here—”

           

The summer’d only recently broken, shattered into earlier evenings and late-night cold. They’d been crying all day. Separately. She’d swallowed most of it by the end, figured out appointment shit on her own, laid in bed most of the afternoon. Slept and wept.

           

Hana woke to the sound of the kitchen window opening and climbed through to join him.

           

“Careful! Careful!” He’s said, standing on the rickety iron to put his hand on her back as she emerged doubled over into golden hour.

           

“I’m not near that far along, David. Christ…” Air heavy for summer’s last humid hours, “The things a fucking gummy bear right now. A jelly bean…” Crass and cruel.

           

“I know… I know… sorry…” And David sat back cross-legged the way he always complains makes his feet go numb

           

“It’s fine, David.”

           

He produced a cigarette from the pack in his sweatpants pocket. Held it out for Hana to take.

           

“No, no. I’m okay for now…”

           

Crass and cruel: Gonna scoop the fucker to filth before too long, should let it rest while it can. Little thing clinging.

           

“Sorry… I just don’t know what do here,” and the smoke ambitions to rise to the ceiling before the crack in the window unspools it, tendril by tendril, “I mean, look, I got there a little late, but they should’ve just sat down with me anyway, you know? Takes fucking fifteen minutes and it wasn’t even happy hour yet, they had the time. Bullshit. But, like, so, I go out and bop around, ask everyone behind every bar if the place is fucking hiring and every one of them, I don’t know where they’re getting these kids these days, morons all of them, but they all go like ‘Oh, I don’t know, man…’ and look at me like I’m some vagrant or something and—”

           

Jen’d played along initially. Even made a gesture adjacent to apology: Look, H. I’m not trying to fuck up anyone’s relationship. I do this for me :) This is all a part of my journey. By then Hana’s venom’d already boiled to spilling. Responded with every curse and slur she could muster, attacks on Jen’s character, and, eventually, threats of violence she’d never be able to make good on…

           

“—and I just want to like, I don’t know, grab these fucking people by the throat, you know? Like scream at them ‘Help me! Help me! Help me!’ but I’m so alone in all this and…”

           

Jen’s not online anymore. That little green dot by her profile picture has disappeared. Now her face is unobstructed in the circle. Mouth open, lips a smeared red, eyes crossed.

           

Hana thumbs the refresh icon at the bottom of the screen. The page reloads: This Account Has Been Blocked by Creator @ Jen_In_Her_Face

 

***

 

Post-procedure, Hana’s insides have been waking her. Tearing her from the bed against her protests. A searing in her empty middle, she’ll cross her knees, roll onto her other side. Grits her teeth until the leak becomes inevitable. The drugs’ve got her guts sloughing, nothing survives.

           

Voiding herself before the morning’s dose of horse-pill antibiotics, the newly inserted IUD twists its copper screw.

           

After wiping shit and blood and water she rises to reclaim what rest has evaded her. By the time Hana returns to bed, David’s limbs have spread. Sticky and large and half-hard. Snoring his tongue down his throat. Hair plastered to his forehead, breath rank. Re-entering the room brings to her nose that fact that he farts the air oily all night.

           

Usually, she’d crawl to reclaim what little space there is to curl in and, unwaking, his arms’ll wrap and press her to the swamp of himself. She’ll try to sleep, usually can’t, and waits bleery-eyed holding her breath until he jolts to life in panic, hangover taking hold.

           

But, the morning after Hana’d given Jennifer the wrath of her thumbs, she returns to the bedroom to find David aglow and glistening in the laptop’s light:

           

“Morning.” She said, finding her portion of the bed.

           

“Morning.”

           

“Up early?”

           

“Yeah… Hard time sleeping…”

           

“Mmm…” And she brought her knees to her chest. “What’s going on in internet-land?”

           

“Oh, nothing… Just nothing…”

           

“You okay?” She asked without turning toward him. A small flicker in her chest, some hopeful bloom.

           

“Yeah, fine. Just… Just hungover. Can’t sleep and hungover…” His voice sounded wet, choked. Keeping something muffled mute.

           

So, she closes her eyes and imagines him. Better than turning to see what no doubt would in reality be a disappointment. Men hide it all the ways they know how to search it out in someone else. Weakness, distress, feeling. They keep it off their face, out of their posture. Flatten their speech and blunt their tongues. But, by-and-large, they’re ignorant of the fine indicators, tone deaf to the truth. His grief is revealed by the waiver and gravel in his throat. His wakefulness is that of a mourner, sitting bed-side of the deceased, waiting to bury the corpse only after it starts to bloat and stink. Hana can see him in the tittering dark of her mind: Eyes welling, lip aquiver, a crystalline dribble creeping out his nostril, catching in the scruff above his lip to booger and dry, sniffing it up a dead giveaway.

           

“You hungry, baby?” She coos.

           

“No. I can’t stand to even think of food right now…”

           

And with that, she rises. Into the kitchen. Dry-edged but still palatable bacon finds its pan. Hot, hot, hot to the point of smoking. Fills the whole apartment. To a crisp and a plate clattering loud on the counter. The last of the eggs, fried in the fat.

           

Not an ounce of sour in her stomach as she gobbles it down. Forgot to make coffee, and there’s barely enough grounds. Let the machine run it thin then!

           

While the coffee churns, she crawls out the window onto the fire escape. David’d left his pack of cigarettes on counter. She sparks up and inhales dizzy nicotine.

 

The morning is a perfect split, splintered sun slicing through autumn’s cool reluctance. The cigarette brings her nearly nauseated, in a way that’s pleasant, like she’s filling with concrete. Thoughts collide into each other and fall to rubble and nothing can move her and the smoke is chocolaty.

 

“Hey, sugar.” She says and smiles once back in the bedroom, mug burning her hands. “Do you want some coffee?”

 

“No, I can’t—” He mumbles into the pillow. Even in the dark his face is red. Puffy from the hangover. Puffy from the grief.

 

“Oh, honey,” coming so sweetly now, “what’s the matter?” running her fingers through his crusty ringlets, “What’s got you so bothered now?” Slurps a sip. Singes her tongue. Hana relishes the pain in a new place.

 

“It’s nothing, babe. I just don’t feel good…”

And she puts the mug down on the ground. Hovers over him, “Is there any way I can help?”

 

“No, babe, just…”

 

“Are you sure?” Whispering it behind his ear.

 

There’s no waiting for a reply. She’s already rolling him over. Find his lips and, yes, they’re salty.

 

“Babe,” he breaks, “we can’t yet. You’re still, like—”

 

“We can do some stuff,” and she likes the way her lips feel against her teeth as she smiles.

 

Ignores the turned-over odor as she descends the stocky length of him, the rancid salinity on her lips with every obligatory kiss. He’s fallen flaccid at the day’s break, blood slow and dense curd in his veins. Can’t rise but half-way. She works him to bursting none the less. A piddling, over-jerked dollop of seawater aspic over her tongue. Listens to his guts burble as his pitiful blubbering settles him soft against her cheek.

 

Raises her gaze. David’s face, flushed bloodless, nearly blue. Scarlet rimmed eyes set in the drooping give of their purple bags. Wet. Like to stream. Apt to break. Near as he was when she told him about the test he’d not known she’d taken, and collapsed soundless, balled against the wall, head to his knees and arms over his fallen crown, everything muttered moist:

 

“I can’t, Jesus, David… I can’t understand you…” She’d been stifling a shout all that morning. Alone in the kitchen, pacing in her socks to keep from waking him. He’d been sleeping later and later after being fired and nothing looked good anymore. “David. Can you pull it together for like two seconds and, and, and…” What? Hold her? Tell her it’s all gonna be okay and everything’ll be fine because they’ve got each other? Kiss her until she can let herself cry it all out? What? What? Pull it together and tell her—

 

“You know we can’t fucking do this, right?” His visage transluced to the bone beneath. Gritted teeth brought the flesh back to raging life in the quiet following his question. Which he filled all the more, standing sudden and stamping a bare foot: “You know that, right?!? You know we can’t—"

 

“Of course, I fucking know we can’t!” The lie ricocheted off the apartment’s bare walls. Slapped her heart still of a moment. That small unspoken hope, shattered:

 

Only poor people have to get abortions. And they weren’t poor! Only struggling for chrissake! If their life was a mess, then it was the wreck of a whole—but the whole is evidenced in its pieced away parts! It’s still there! Inert alone, but they could put in the energy it’d lost! It couldn’t be that hard. Sure, David’d been canned, but that only means that he’d had a job to begin with, that he had been declared fit enough for a position of some responsibility! He could get another on that alone! Had a job then, needs another now. It can’t be that hard!

 

Hell, she, Hana herself had a job! Has a job. Is it the best? No. Never is! Remote Executive Assistant for some Conglomerated Firms, Inc., making sure the reservations get made, plane tickets bought, reply’s never all’d, and superiors BCC’d. Sixty-some K a year and they should’ve been fine! Together, a team. Hana and David nested normal and moving forward not a hitch in the hike! Should be. Should’ve been! Would be!

 

Only poor people have to get abortions. And they’re not, couldn’t possibly be, poor…

 

And the taste of him then is heavy. Salt and sand. Clot on her molars and tongue thick in her cheeks. His face and the fact that she’ll always have to be. His pained little joy. Falling hot in her hand, he’s smiling through his grime. His grin is plaque and slime. Hana’s tummy takes a vile turn. The back of her throat burns.

 

***

 

Did he tell you yet?

 

Tell me what, babes?

 

About the job. He got a new job!!

 

Oh! Well congratulations to him then!

 

Hana’s cigarette is going out with the sun. David’s off on his third first-day, still training and learning the ropes. Hana’s alone. Jen’s always online though, so no mind. Doesn’t know what time zone she’s in, could be just down the block—but she’s always online, always free, always ready.

 

She’s a sweety, too, really. Took easily to forgiveness. Understood. Seemed to. Said the apology was hardly necessary. Not the first time, couldn’t possibly be the last, and at bottom glad that Hana reached back out. Happy to help.

 

We’ve all got to stick together in this, you know? Completely get why you’d be so upset, truly. Things are never what they look like, though and—if we can be honest with each other—it’s a little unrealistic to think that we can give someone everything that they need. Hell, there’s billions of us and not much of the world left. It’s been parsed out in ways that will never make sense and we’re all just scrounging for the little bit that’s closest to us. But now we’re lucky, you know? Now we can connect and reach across the globe and grab at what’s not immediately in front of us, get a touch of what’s far away and it’s all so safe, or can be! It’s a beautiful thing! Plus, David can be a bit demanding, you know? Even I know that. It’s got to be too much for one person to suffer, to provide. That’s how they all are. That’s how we all are. So complicated, you know? It’s all about managing our desires, not pushing them away. You’d go crazy if you weren’t allowed to want. There’s nothing wrong with wanting. I’m here to help people explore what they’re lives won’t allow. We all deserve to feel good.

 

And it’ll be a quiet night. Hana will finish this cigarette and take a shower. The bleeding’s stopped for the most part and even the daggering in her womb’s dulled. Due for a check-up tomorrow, doctor’ll probably say she’s fine and strong.

 

She’ll shower standing up. Maybe eat something. Be asleep before he gets home, faithful that he won’t wake her…

 

Plz send him something special. On me of course. Just send the charge.

 

How special?

 

Idk—you know what he likes…



/


K HANK JOST is a writer of fiction, poet, and editor born in Texas and raised in Georgia. He is the author of the novel-in-stories Deselections, the novel MadStone, and is editor-in-chief of the literary quarterly A Common Well Journal--produced and published by Whiskey Tit Books. His fiction and poetry have been recently featured in Vol.1 Brooklyn and The Burning Palace, with new fiction forthcoming in Hobart. He is currently seeking representation for his newest novel, Aquarium, while he works on his fourth book. He has led fiction workshops at the Brooklyn Center for Theatre Research and writes event reviews for the New Haven Independent. Residing in Brooklyn with his partner, he reads as much as he can, writes as much as he can, and works as much as he must. 

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