Joyland

New York |

Lover Number Ninteteen

by Alina Grabowski

edited by Michelle Lyn King

Bryan - Resembled my father to a startling degree, which means, according to psychology, that I should have been attracted to him. But my father has a large scab on his scalp that recently revealed itself when he went bald, so all I could think about were the various skin ailments Bryan might be hiding under his brown hair (dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema), rather than the stunningly healthy babies we would make.

Is something wrong? Bryan asked. He said this while he peeled off one corner of his nametag, then pressed it back on—off, on, off, on went the corner of the nametag. I might have been staring too intently at his scalp. Sasha says I need to learn to control my gaze.

Do you have any rashes? I asked.

Rashes? Like poison ivy?

Like something genetic.

No. He looked down at his hands to confirm this answer. I don’t think so. Is that your thing? He wiggled his eyebrows when he said thing.

Oh, no. I’m more of an open wound kind of girl.

He glanced sadly at his own torso. I don’t have any of those, either.

That’s too bad, I said. For me, I mean.

Truth is, I don’t have a thing, at least not anymore. When I started the Partnership Process, I made every boy in my first session whistle the first five bars of Yankee Doodle as he entered the room. . I couldn’t whistle, so I figured it made sense to pair up with someone who could. What do you lack? Mrs. Davidson had asked us during the first session of our mandatory Romance Navigation Education class. What are you worst qualities, and how can your Life Partner compensate for them?

Every Friday during sixth grade, us girls rode a bus over to the Building #19 warehouse on Summer Street that the county had reclaimed as the Department of Personal Unionst. Most of us were sour over it because the class took up the beginning of our weekends. Sarah Travis kept going on about her cousin in Tennessee, where there was no state-mandated partnership training, just a plunge into interviews on your thirteenth birthday. Massachusetts was very strict about the whole process because there had been a recent drop in women committing to their Life Partners before menopause. My Aunt Lottie was one of those women, and I’d heard my mother on the phone with their sister Karen, talking about how Lottie used the resources of the system without having anything to show for it.

I want you to think long and hard about your flaws, Mrs. Davidson instructed us. That’s what should inform your decisions, not your fetishes. She stared us all down with her bugged eyes, daring us to laugh.

Hardly anyone listened to her, of course. Has anyone ever listened to their Romantic Counselor? My mother first chose my father—her nineteenth lover—because he had a small birthmark in the shape of a Coke bottle below his left eye. And I threw the whole whistling thing out the window after the first five interviews. A boy came in with eyes like sea glass, foamy blue and bright. He couldn’t whistle, but I was sunk.

I like thick eyebrows, Bryan offered.

Of course, it didn’t matter what Bryan liked.

Oh. I patted the table, as they’ve recently started taking the no touching rule very seriously. I don’t.

Gregory - Looked so much like an older version of my third lover that I pretended to use my phone’s camera to adjust my lipstick when really I was texting a picture to Sasha. I’ve heard stories of women getting matched with ex-lovers’ brothers due to a systems glitch.

Do you have siblings? I asked, because I thought immediate family was still an approved interview topic after the Anti-Stalking Act passed, but apparently it wasn’t, because he just smiled and said nothing. Three was a rule follower, as well. He refused to hop the fence of my neighbors’ pool one night. He watched from the lawn while I floated blissfully on their inflatable flamingo.

I have a dog, Gregory said. He’s a two-year old Shih Tzu named Plantain. He then launched into a detailed explanation of Plantain’s oral hygiene routine, which involved brushing with peanut butter flavored toothpaste every night.

Three was MUCH hotter , Sasha texted back.

He was only fourteen.

Yeah, but imagine how hot he is now . Sasha always chooses her lovers based on looks. Her first lover was the most beautiful kid in the world. I remember being fascinated by the symmetry of his face. You could chop it down the middle and have two identical halves, like a bisected papaya.

I interrupted Gregory to ask if he would ever hop a neighbor’s fence to use their pool. His eyes popped in horror. Without explicit permission? He shuddered as though I were forcing him over the chain links at that very moment. Never.

Sasha – After Gregory left I pressed the blue Pause Session button on the table’s right corner and called Sasha from the handicapped stall of the women’s restroom. All of these boys are going to be duds, I told her. I feel it.

You’re being too judgy. I could hear laughter in the background, and I pictured her lounging in the park near the apartment we shared, her portable hammock strung between two oak trees. Lower your standards, she said. It’s just six months.

I’m always lowering my standards! I could hear my voice rising but was defenseless against its growing volume. I am the Standard Lowerer of the Eastern Seaboard!

You sound hysterical.

I’m twenty-two. Time is ticking.

Her exhale crackled through the receiver. Listen, she said with authority. My dad was my mom’s thirty-seventh lover. No one our age is going to find their Life Partner before Twenty. That’s absurd.

My parents did, I said. Before I’d left earlier that day for interviews, my mom had called. A startling occurrence, because she’d only called me once since I’d left home, when our schnauzer Daisy had run in front of a school bus. I prepared to learn of Grandma Mae’s death but all Mom said when I picked up was, Break a leg, sweet pea! Dad and I are rooting for you—magic Nineteen!

They’re the exception, Sasha said. Not the rule.

What exactly, I wondered, was the rule? On the eve of my first set of interviews I had asked my mother how she knew to pick my father.

Well, she said. It was less about him, and more about me.

What do you mean? I asked.

We were sitting at the kitchen table sharing a bowl of vanilla bean ice cream. She tapped her spoon against pursed lips. I was tired, she finally said. It gets depressing, after a while.

Being uncommitted? I asked.

No. Selling yourself over and over. She spooned a melty chunk of ice cream into her mouth. The beginning of a relationship is nothing more than an extended marketing campaign. She smiled across the table at me. And not all of us have the energy for endless self-promotion.

I ran my finger over a scratched patch of graffiti on the stall wall. I’m going to deactivate and live in Florida, I told Sasha.

Jesus, she groaned. I spun the toilet paper roll beside me so that the tissue it fluttered towards the floor. I could hear distant, happy shouts on her end of the line. It was a beautiful day outside, though you wouldn’t know it from inside the DPU. If you ever pack your bags, she said, you better make sure I’m in the car sitting next to you

Samson - You have a hot voice, he told me. Like you’ve seen some shit.

Oh, I’ve seen some shit. I purred, trying to be sexy, but it sounded more like I was gargling Listerine. I felt light-headed, like I’d just snapped my head up after a backbend. My blood sugar always dips a few interviews in, , and I’d forgotten to pack a granola bar. Which meant that I was about to, in my mother’s words, get fresh.

My best friend was run over right in front of me, I told him. She stepped off the sidewalk a second before I did.

Oh, fuck. He grabbed the collar of his shirt. For real?

I wasn’t sure if it was the fluorescent lighting or my plummeting blood sugar or what, but I thought I saw a tear in his eye.I wished I could reel in my words like fishing line. Why is it so easy to say the thoughtless shit, nothing more than a clumsy firing of neurons, and so difficult to say something deliberate--the thought that spins inside you day and night, that plugs your throat like cotton, that might actually serve as a key if you were to ever want someone to see you, really see?

Just kidding! I told him. Just playing!

Samson looked at me for a long moment. That’s not funny. He peeled off a large chunk of dead skin from his upper lip. Not funny at all.

I opened my mouth to speak, but quickly closed it.

He was right.

Raymond - Brought me a cranberry-orange scone he’d baked, which technically qualifies as a bribe but Tammy doesn’t have to know. I could sense deep sadness lurking beneath his laugh—childhood loss of parent? Cancer-stricken sibling? Failing sports team?

Or maybe just love for previous lover.

Everyone has their One Who Got Away. The culmination of our Romantic Navigation Education came in the form of the Lovers Manual, which we all received at a graduation ceremony held beneath the basketball hoop of our middle school gymnasium. That summer before we turned thirteen, Sasha and I spent every sleepover reading and rereading the OWGA chapter in the manual. It is best not to regret the loss of your OWGA, but rather to treasure the special moments you did share. 78% of women experience Romantic Remorse during the Partnership Process. Sasha’s older sister, Mindy, was one of them. She released her fifth lover and spent every day afterwards regretting it--we knew this because she had a habit of entering Sasha’s room at night and lying down on the floor so she could talk about him. She’d written a number of Partner Amendment requests, but the DPU rejected her each time. They always cited Reason 372: Youth. Mindy was still in high school at the time, and because the brain doesn’t mature until age 25, it’s rare for any rejection repeals to be granted until that age. Sasha thinks that the DPU doesn’t grant any at all, and that the form only exists to give us a false sense of control.

But we don’t need to worry about that, Sasha promised one night after Mindy had spent two hours curled up on Sasha’s carpet, describing the way Five had once bottle-fed a kitten. Mindy’s soft, s’all.

But Sasha was wrong.

Whenever I release a lover I spend the next week convinced he was meant to be my Life Partner, despite obsessions with craft beer or fly-fishing. But then Sasha will call me up and say it’s that time, isn’t it? Which means time to drive to Chili’s and get drunk on Sno-Jitos and Tropitinis. Time to aim straw wrapper spitballs at each other and wipe the resulting dribble off our cheeks. Time to talk about crop tops, moonshine, shiba inus—anything but lovers. Time to fashion our wet napkins into flipbooks. Time to talk about fears. We’re those kind of drunks.

We’re scared that our hearts are stunted. When we were thirteen we saw a boy get run over crossing the street, hit-and-run. We were walking down the sidewalk to get an ice pop at Smith’s and a truck came out of nowhere, doing fifty when all the roads in town are twenty-five. Rolled right over the kid. It was a hot July day and we were the only ones out, us and the fenced dogs. He must have screamed, but if he did I chose not to hear it. I do remember that a golden retriever in the yard behind us let out a howl like I’ve never heard before, like she was being torn in two. I couldn’t move. Sasha ran to the nearest house and screamed at the woman who lived there to call 9-1-1, then sprinted back and spun me around so I wasn’t facing the street. We stood like that until the police came, staring at the empty porch of that woman’s house.

At his funeral neither of us cried. It turned out that his name was Michael Redman. Mikey R., his friends called him. He was ten and played Pee Wee ice hockey. His team showed up in their uniforms and presented his parents with a bronze hockey stick. I felt bad for his mother, because the thing was so heavy. The cluster of boys gave it to her after the service, and her husband had to help drag it down the church stairs, where it rang flatly whenever it hit a step, like a broken bell.

Whenever Sasha and I think about him, we don’t feel anything. Sometimes I get an impersonal ache in my stomach, like even my body knows something’s supposed to change. Not long after the funeral Sasha and I tried punching each other in the chest, like all the sadness was dammed up in there and we just needed to knock it loose. When that didn’t work, Sasha said maybe we just needed time to process. Our chests were bright pink for weeks. At soccer practice Lucy Flannery snapped the neck of my tank top and asked if I had a rash, and if so, was it contagious.

Also, neither of us have ever been in love. There’s that, too.

Tammy – At the check-in point Tammy entered with her usual enthusiastic kick of the door. I feel good about this batch, she said, drumming her tomato-red fingernails on the table. The noise echoed in the small room like the sound of raindrops on a roof. I think you have options. But of course—she held up one sun-spotted hand—we can always do another day if you’re not satisfied.

I do not envy Tammy’s job. I once took a career quiz that said I should work at the DPU and shredded the results immediately. I’ve come in and heard boys wailing in Tammy’s office, crying why didn’t she pick me, her parents sent me cupcakes for my birthday and her brother called me bro! She’s very good at comforting them. Usually she offers peppermint tea and shortbread.

I’m sure I’ll be satisfied.

Tammy leaned in as close as the wide table would allow, careful not to brush the red emergency button in the center. We had a woman yesterday, hated every single potential lover. Wanted brains and brawn, you know? But not you, Lydia. She patted me on the shoulder. You understand boys aren’t designed for your personal fantasies.

Earl - Wanted to show me a story he had coming out in a journal called The Buckshot Review. This is a contributor copy, he whispered before sliding it across the table, looking over his shoulder like he was passing me a stolen copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

I touched the cover, which was stamped with a golden bullet below the journal’s name. It felt like cheap leather. What is this made of? I asked.

Deerskin. He leaned forward to rub a corner between two fingers. Every cover is skinned by one of the authors. Last issue was made from Dale’s rabbit hide.

I pictured a pack of skinny jeaned men sprinting after a cottontail with ballpoint pens tucked behind their ears. Interesting, I said.

Luckily it didn’t matter what I said, because Earl flipped to his story, “Bleacher Sex,” and started jabbing his finger at a series of adverbs, smudging the page with his grease. I only had to tilt my chin to provide enough encouragement to keep him talking. He reminded me of my ninth lover,back when I was seventeen and writing poems about dead birds while I smoked pot out of tampon applicators.

All me and Nine did was drink black coffee and discuss the book he was writing. I’m writing a character based on you, he said one day while he tried to take my photograph with a film camera he couldn’t operate. Her name’s Yolanda. She’s a real spitfire.

Does she spit fire? I asked. I was lying on my bed, where Nine yanked one of my legs so it dangled off the mattress. As part of his vision he’d dressed me in an XXL men’s dress shirt and scattered letters across my stomach. But they weren’t real letters--neither of us wrote letters. He’d made me scribble hamburger hamburger hamburger over various pieces of notebook paper, filling every line, then ball the sheets between my hands to make the paper look wrinkled and read. No, he said. It’s an expression. A strip of film spit out of the camera like a plastic tongue. He tried to shove it back in but only managed to cut himself on one of the corners. He swore under his breath and sucked his thumb.

She should spit fire, I suggested. It’d be more interesting.

Are you saying the novel is boring? His tone was chillingly even.

I didn’t say that. He pressed the shutter button but there wasn’t any noise, so I held my pose. The new chapter could be much different from the others.

Yolanda’s defining characteristic turned out to be that her lips were always red from eating an excessive amount of cinnamon candy canes. Nine started planting candy canes in my belongings, so I would find them looking for Chapstick in my purse or searching for a pen in my backpack.

I don’t even like candy canes, I told him over and over.

But Yolanda loves them, he always replied.

Earl waved a hand in front of my face: Earth to Lydia! I blinked but he didn’t move the hand. Would you like to see some of my other work? he asked. He gestured to a weathered messenger bag he’d placed on the table. I do poetry, too.

Um, I said.

He unlatched the bag and produced a folder stamped with snarling lions. Are you familiar with free verse?

Cam – His first words: you look like Elizabeth Taylor. This was so ridiculous that I burst out laughing. The words most often used to describe my features are shark-like or unconventionally arresting.

What’s so funny? he asked.

Just you. You’re hilarious.

He stared at me. I’m extremely serious. That’s something I want you to know about me. He did not break eye contact as he said this.

I did not break eye contact, either. Just out of curiosity, what qualifies one as extremely serious versus normally serious?

For example, he said, pointing at my chest. If you found a lump in your breast, I would schedule your mammogram.

Aren’t I too young for lumps? I prodded my left breast with my fingers. It felt smooth to me, but then again, I was wearing a bra. Do I look lumpy?

Cam paled and scooted his chair back with impressive speed. I’m an engineer, not a doctor.

I felt a little bad for him. He’d backed into the door, and his legs kept scrabbling up and down even though there was nowhere left to go. I gently pressed the End Session button on the underside of the table. Everyone says it’s not a productive thought, but I can’t help wondering how many of them really want to be here. If I were them, I wouldn’t do it. Not if I didn’t have to.

Nate - Sasha texted asking if I was done yet, and if so, would I like her to order burritos? I was so busy trying to find the burrito emoji that I didn’t see Nate come in. He sat down and said nothing. When I looked up and saw his freckled face I shrieked, which was embarrassing. And out of character, according to my ex-lovers. The word they most frequently used to describe me was ‘chill.’ You’re not like other girls, my eleventh lover told me. You actually know how to go with the flow.

I didn’t mean to scare you, he said.

I slipped my phone back into my pocket. You didn’t scare me. You startled me.

Well, I’m sorry for startling you.

That’s okay.

I’m sorry, he said again. He nose twitched like a cornered rabbit.

For what? I asked.

For saying sorry.

Oh boy, I thought, but I only said: I apologized to a trash can I walked into yesterday.

His eyebrows shot up like twin dormers. I apologize to my dining room table every morning! Drove my last lover up the wall.

My last lover hated Robert Downey Jr., I told him. So at the end of the six months I would leave Iron Man playing on the television whenever he came over.

He laughed in an easy way that surprised me. It was that bad?

He was on the Paleo diet, so he threw away all of my cereals. I leaned forward and lowered my voice. He wouldn’t even let me keep the Raisin Bran. He said dried fruit was worse for you than candy.

Nate murmured in sympathy. My last lover called me the human equivalent of an armadillo.

. An armadillo?

He looked up at the ceiling, where there’s a laminated sheet of paper that reads SMILE! . She said her cat was more emotionally available than I was. Something flickered across his face that I recognized--the fear of oversharing. The only time armadillos see other armadillos is to fuck or stay warm, he quickly added. .

Sounds like an ideal arrangement to me, I said.

There was a moment of silence and Nate started jiggling his legs so intensely that the table rocked. The fan wobbled above us, batting warm air into our faces. Did you know that only one species of armadillo can roll into a ball? I asked.

His face suddenly brightened, like the sun moving out out from behind a cloud. The table stopped shaking and he tilted forward, holding up his hands like an armadillo was perched on his palms. The rest just dig a hole in the ground so all you can see is their spikes, he said. He pointed to his stomach. They need to protect their bellies.

I found his use of the word ‘belly’ extremely endearing. The most tender part, I said.

Exactly. The table started rocking again. Exactly. He smiled, revealing two rows of straight teeth, lightly stained--a good sign. I was wary of white teeth. My seventh lover’s were so white that they bordered on blue, and he insisted I wear red lipstick to increase the contrast between my face and my teeth. Happy birthday, he told me three weeks before my birthday, placing a box of Crest Whitestripes on my pillow.

Nate yawned and I could see all the way back to his molars thanks to the room’s fluorescent lighting. Are you tired? I asked.

No! He lurched a little as he said it. I liked how everything I asked made him nervous, like he was hooked up to a polygraph machine.

Really? I teased

Really! I’ve never been more awake. He dropped his hands to the table with a dramatic thud, as though this proved something. I watched his fingers inch slowly forward, forward, forward—then dart bravely in my direction, brushing my own.

We’re not allowed to touch, I said.

His hands grazed my knuckles. We didn’t.

Tammy - After Nate left Tammy’s voice came booming through the intercom on the wall behind me. So what’s the verdict, sweetheart?

I want the last one, I told the wall. Has anyone else chosen him? When I was picking my previous lover I chose the same boy as five other women and lost the lottery to a ginger named Agatha. My second pick, Drew, turned out to be an endearingly insecure boy who smelled of A.1. sauce but he stole all of my mugs so I had to report him.

You’re in luck. This is Nate’s final session of the day and he’se got zero conflicts. She cleared her throat, which meant that the Verbal Contract was coming. Do you give me permission to release your information to Lover Number Nineteen?

I do.

And do you understand that the Department of Personal Unions is not responsible for any emotional distress and or property damage caused by said lover, though we do encourage you to report such incidents?

I do.

Congratulations, Lydia. She cleared her throat again, a moist, phlegmy sound. Your new lover will soon be in touch.

Sasha - I lit a cigarette in the parking lot and watched the smoke ribbon through the warm air. Smoking was something my fifth lover got me into. We were only fifteen but he had an older brother who bought him Marlboros. My eighth lover was very dedicated to helping me break the habit, and kept enrolling me in anti-smoking studies and buying boxes of Nicotine patches off of Amazon Prime. But then my thirteenth lover smoked clove cigarettes religiously, which I found sexy at the time. You’re too easily influenced, Sasha said. Next thing I know you’ll be a Scientologist.

I watched the boys weave out the heavy metal door of the back exit. This Department of Personal Unions was once a Sleepy’s warehouse, and the potential lovers enter and exit through the loading dock where they used to deliver the mattresses. The ones who’d been chosen came out in a clump, clapping each other on the back, while the rest attempted to weave ahead, squeezing past huddled shoulders. I considered offering the rest of my cigarettes to the Omitted, but I know few people who appreciate being acknowledged after rejection. Instead I dialed Sasha.

She picked up immediately, her voice cutting off the first ring. Tell all about him! she said. Actually, no—one sentence, like a teaser trailer. I want the rest in person.

The cigarette tasted stale in my mouth. He’s like…an armadillo.

A pause. His guts are plastered on the side of I-95?

He reminds me of myself. .

Hey! She whistled and the noise burst in my ear. That’s great! Now hurry up and get over here. I miss you so much my stomach hurts.

You’re just hungry.

And you’re rude, yeah?

The stale taste turned sour and I spit onto the ground. I’m just kidding. Love you.

Don’t play with my heart. Sasha sighed. You’re the kind of girl my mother warned me about.

Oh, don’t flatter me, darling.

Sasha laughed and we both repeated the word like old film stars— dahling, dahhhling, dahhhhhhling—until it turned to something else on our tongues, warped and private, a code to join our language of jokes and secrets.

I hung up and crouched down to stub out my Newport on the asphalt. The singed paper crumpled like an accordion. Maybe Nineteen would be different. But it didn’t matter much. I practiced saying what I’d told my eighteen other lovers, and would say to this new one soon enough: I love you. The words came easy and flat, like the lyrics to a song I’d once been obsessed with, but couldn’t remember why.