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I Am Not What I Set out to Be

Story by Chelsea Harris (Read author interview) March 20, 2017

Art by Hayley McVay

He told me that he wanted to be cauterized and I said okay. We were in the pool area of a Holiday Inn outside Sacramento. I was in the hot tub and he was sitting on the edge of a patio lounge chair. He said he had everything with him, up in his room. I told him it didn’t matter where we did it. I told him I wanted to do it soon though, before my parents came back from work. I watched him skate his palms over each other, I could hear that swoosh of skin, like windbreaker pants rubbing when you walk, dead cells from his hands littering the towel on his lap. I thought maybe they would ban together and create something from themselves, a snowman, a dinosaur, something invisible but still there. He said he would pay me but all I wanted was an M&M Freezee from the Tastee Freeze next door. I wanted him to know that I was very low-maintenance. I’ve been told that’s an important quality to have.

His room and my room were exactly the same. Two double beds. Red velvet curtains. A flatscreen perched atop a dark wood cabinet that held five drawers and a mini-fridge. He said he needed to prepare in the bathroom. He said he’d prefer to do it in the bathroom if that was okay. I told him that anything goes, I told him that what he wanted, I wanted. We avoided small talk and I watched channel 7, the cooking channel. I had the channels memorized. I’d been living in a hotel room with my parents for three months now. They knew the owner, worked out a special deal. I don’t think I can fall asleep without the humming drones of my father’s snoring, the way my mother sighs as she’s drifting off. On TV, a woman was preparing a goose with some kind of berry gravy. I heard him mumbling from the bathroom but I couldn’t make it out. I scooted closer to the edge of the bed, closer to the bathroom door. Still, just groans. I asked him if he was okay. If he needed me to come in yet. When he didn’t answer I made a comment about the goose. About how it looked dead. Stripped away like peeled paint.

When it was over he kept his promise. We walked hand in hand to the Tastee Freeze next to the hotel. He had taped a washcloth around his other hand to stop the bleeding. I thought it looked like a boxing glove, the blood peeking through, blooming like a rose. He bought me a freezee and watched me eat it in the booth. I kept swishing my eyes from the cup to the smoke detector, cup to the smoke detector, I didn’t want to seem too into my ice cream, didn’t want him to think I was childish, but I also didn’t want to look him in the eyes, didn’t want to think about what might be hiding there. After a while he asked me what my deal was, what my parents did for a living. I told him those two questions weren’t related. He had his wrapped hand on the table, the whole thing soaked through, blood spread like clouds against the speckled surface. I said that my parents were traveling salesmen, that they used to be with the circus. He narrowed his eyes at me, really dug into me, and said, You’re full of shit kid.

My mom used to tell me this story about her sister. About how her sister went swimming in their aunt’s pool right after she chlorinated because she wanted to prove to everyone, to herself, that she could dive. I guess the dive was buried deep in her bones and she just had to get it out. She couldn’t wait. My mom said she got real sick after that. Her skin turned a dull pink and her throat burned all night. My mom said Listen girl, you get it, right? Don’t ever do nothing dangerous just cause you got something to prove. It ain’t worth it, you’ll end up looking like a Barbie Dreamhouse with a fire in your gut, ya hear me?

He walked me back to the hotel lobby. The sky above us was a heathered grey, stars pricking through like pins in fabric. We stopped under the streetlight just outside the door. A woman walked through the automatic doors with a carry-on suitcase and excused herself through us. He said, Okay well, his voice trailing. Both of us watching the woman put her suitcase in the car. Sometimes I like to think I can find significance in everyday things. In a suitcase. In a streetlight. In a man with an electrocauter and fetish I didn’t know existed. He cleared his throat and said, Okay yeah so thanks and everything. I think about my aunt breaking the water, millions of chlorine bits rushing at her skin, invisible, but there. I see her coming back up, her hair slick against her scalp, her eyes burning, her hands shaking. I see her face. He begins to back away and I say, I won’t forget you, my voice cracking. He gives me a half smile and nods and makes his way through the automatic doors. I watch him through the glass, watch him walk to the elevator, watch him press the button, watch him get in. Watch him disappear. The sky is black now, the stars have pushed themselves all the way through. I walk towards the pool gate and I see her face again. It is slick and it is proud.

About the Author

Chelsea Harris has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Fem, Quaint Magazine, Your Impossible Voice, pamplemousse and So to Speak, among others. She co-runs a zine and reading series in Chicago called The Antarctican and is the event coordinator at Fifth Wednesday Journal. Chelsea received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago.

About the Artist

Hayley McVay grew up in the Pacific Northwest interested in image. She is a Western Washington University graduate with an interdisciplinary concentration in film theory, video production, and creative writing. Primarily concerned with mixed media collage and digital video, her work has been featured in Jeopardy Magazine, Suffix, and The Antarctican.

This story appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-Five

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