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SmokeLong Quarterly

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in the belly of a whale

Story by jj peña (Read author interview) September 18, 2023

Art by Ammar Sabaa

we live in salt now, you say, & then lick my cheek. once, twice, three times doggish. you smack your lips while i wipe my wet-glossed skin with my shoulder.

you taste like summer. what about me? you bend down so i can reach your neck. i stand on my tipi-toes & take a taste: your skin rolling under my tongue & then falling into my throat. after a few seconds, my answer: like celery.

you shake your head & walk to my dad’s suburban. pop open the trunk & rest your butt on the ledge. i’m better than that, you say. come on. you tap the empty metal space next to you.

i climb up & take a seat, our hips touching. we both look down at our feet: yours touch the ground & mine hover in the air. you’re the size of chapstick, you laugh, leaning & resting some of your weight on me.

before i can say anything, my dad’s yelling from above. IF YOU GUYS DON’T HURRY UP, I’M GONNA GRAB THE BELT.

we hear stomping overhead & feet herding. you take your weight back & scoot away.

in a flash, my four siblings start filling into the garage & piling into the truck, one after the other, each one’s weight swaying the suburban. tía sulema, her husband lupe, & my dad come right after. they three come up to us, tía sulema asking you, mijo, are you gonna be okay back here?

you tell her yes. we pull our whole bodies inside the trunk & scoot until our backs hit the passenger seats, both of our legs extended all the way out, still with enough room to swim. my dad quickly glances at me & then speaks to you. make sure jesus stays down. he was jumping around like a monkey last week & almost got me pulled over.

you nod & then my dad shuts the trunk, yelling at me after the door closes, listen to your uncle. be like him.

seconds later, the suburban’s alive & we’re serenaded with a grito & salsa music. we take off & everyone’s inside in their own world—i know jose has his gameboy in hand, janice’s & stacey’s ears have music inside, pj’s head is resting against the window, trying to fall asleep, & dad, tía sulema, & lupe are chatting.

i look over at you & your eyes are shut. face silent, you tell me, when my mom used to make me ride in the trunk of our car, i used to pretend i was in the belly of a whale, like jonah. you search for my hand, patting around blindly, find mine after a few misses, & interlock our fingers. close your eyes & try.

i push the world & color from my lids, & i can almost imagine being carried through the sea: the world dark, doodled with large enameled stars. but, the streets outside are too full of ground songs to let me float away. so are my dad’s & tía’s voices.

she asks, how are you doing without her here? do you think she’ll come back?

my dad: i’m fine. we’re fine. i don’t need her to raise my kids.

you squeeze my hand slightly, what do you see?

i squash my eyelids tighter & say the only thing that comes to mind, darkness. you?

what the water gives us. you pause for a second, breathe. you ever think about the world out there being so big? you will when you’re older. you let go of my hand, & i wonder if that’s true. why would i want to think about what’s out in the universe, when everything in this car feels heavier.

from the front of the car, my tía’s voice, i don’t know how you’re watching all of your kids. i barely keep track of mine & i have help.

you ask for my other hand & i raise my broken, papier-mâchéd arm. you hold it, read some of the scribbles etched, & ask, does it still hurt?

not really, i say, only when i bang it hard. that’s when my bones tingle, that’s when i feel like i’m falling from the sky all over again.

i’ll make it heal faster. you kiss my cast, & i can see sweat forming on your forehead. i ask, are all bellies this hot?

i don’t know, you say, let me check. you put your hands under my shirt & on my tummy. yep, you murmur, warm.

i lift up your shirt slightly & feel your toasty, hairy stomach. you move my hand away & yell, can someone turn the air up? it’s roasting.

the air cranks up & blows, drowning out most sounds in the car. you move your face to me & whisper, i want to play with your moons again. turn around. i do—& i can hear jose smashing buttons on his game, pj snoring, stacey & janice shuffling their legs, the radio talking, my father & tía suelma & lupe laughing, the air tornadoing, & i can hear the meeting of our bodies: small ocean waves clapping,  which i know won’t stop until you go static & moan relief, which is what I think jonah waited for in the belly of a whale, just to be free, spat back into the world clean.

About the Author

jj peña (pronouns he/they) is a queer, burrito-blooded writer living in el paso, tx. jj’s one of 92NY Discovery Contest winners (2023) & has won a few creative non-fiction flash/hybrid contests. jj’s work is included in the Best Microfiction 2020 anthology & Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions (2020). jj’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Washington Square Review, Cincinnati Review, Massachusetts Review, & elsewhere. jj serves as a flash fiction reader for SplitLip Magazine.

About the Artist

Ammar Sabaa is a photographer based in California.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-One of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-One
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