Conjugation

by Jen Michalski Read author interview December 22, 2010

Things changed. Verbs, for instance. je croîs, tu croîs, il croît, ns croissons, vs croissez, ils croissant. Her textbook, Mes Amies, spine broken, rested against the table, along with her penciland copybook and coffee. She had recently started drinking it, at fifteen, when she entered the college track that year at school.

Je crus, tu crus, il crût, ns crûmes, vs crûtes, ils current. Alex didn’t like the taste of coffee at first. It reminded her of her parents, the acrid ghost of suburban death that lingered. But it helped her to study that extra hour, to make honors. She had bought her own mug from a novelty store in the mall. It had a picture of Snoopy on it, and when she wasn’t drinking from it, she stored her change and loose bills.

She measured another two cups of coffee into the filter. Someone tapped on the patio door. When she turned off the light in the kitchen, she could see Matt hunched like a bat, the pool behind him alight. Last summer he had been tall, a gangly spider, but now, October, he had stretched, filled out like a circus balloon, twisted every which way and the muscles in his arms, back, and neck pressed against his shirt.

Nolan’s not here, she said as he slid open the glass. Nolan was always out, and he slipped back home between the darkness and the dawn, a smear, red eyed and stale, smelling of alcohol.

S’okay. What are you doing? He stepped into the dining room, shoes in his hands. She poured the water and flicked the switched and the coffee pot gurgled to life.

What does it look like?

Fuck French. You want to get high? He had cut his hair and she could see his eyes for the first time, green and flecked with some other color. His big chin sprouted hair, an inverted, grassy mountain.

I’m studying. She dipped her spoon in the bag of sugar and angled it toward the empty mug.

Come on. The basement doorway was dark, and steps creaked as he disappeared down them. She cupped her mug, hot, in her hands.

He could reach the little window by the washer and dryer without stretching. He pushed it open, and the crickets chirped outside and inside. He fished the little glass bowl, blue and swirled, like a translucent bowling ball, out of his pocket and the zip lock bag and put the green crumbly pieces in delicately.

She’d never smoked before although she assumed everyone thought she did because she was Nolan’s sister. The pipe glowed as Matt inhaled and he held his breath, cheeks flat, eyes moving back and forth as he handed it to her.

No, down your throat, not in your cheeks, he instructed after her cheeks grew fat, like a blowfish. He held the bowl by its bulb for her, like it would help, but she didn’t object. She studied his fingers as she drew the smoke in, a little at first, then enough to make her feel like she was floating away from herself fast but going nowhere.

You feel it? He laughed as she grabbed the washer by its sides. Come on.

Outside they walked around the edge of the pool. Matt put his finger to his lips as he peeled off his clothes, in the cool, in the dark, and he stepped into the water in his boxers, arms flailing as he tried not to cry out, his eyes big, face red and smiley. She could see his hair plastered to his armpits, his goosebumps, as he parted the water with his arms.

He lay on his back in the water and followed her with his eyes. Je veux peux dois, tu veux peux dois, il veut peut doit, nous voulons pouvons devons, vous voulez pouvez devez, ils veulent. The new language, she realized, would not be conjugated: quick stab breaths, pool water waving, freeway cars faraway, tree whisper secrets, whatever happened next.

About the Author:

Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press), The Summer She Was Under Water (Queens Ferry Press), a couplet of novellas Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc), and two collections of fiction. She's editor in chief of jmww Journal and host of Starts Here! reading series.

About the Artist:

More of Chris Nichols' photography can be seen on Flickr.